The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was a decades-long struggle by African Americans and their allies to end legalized racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and segregation in the United States. This movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and involved nonviolent protests, marches, boycotts, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience and activism.
Several iconic colors came to represent different aspects of this movement. In this article, we will explore the history behind the main colors associated with civil rights activism and what they symbolized for the movement. Understanding the meaning behind these colors provides insight into the spirit, motivations and vision behind this pivotal era in American history.
The color most commonly associated with the Civil Rights Movement is black. This is because “black” was the term preferred by activists to describe African Americans, as opposed to terms that were considered more derogatory and racist, like “negro” and “colored.”
Black became a symbol of pride, power and solidarity within the African American community during the movement. Activists embraced the word “black” to emphasize racial pride and a sense of unity. Wearing black clothes and accessories was a way to visibly project these ideals.
In addition, the founders of the Black Power movement within the civil rights era also wore black clothing and promoted black identity and empowerment. Groups like the Black Panthers utilized black attire as part of their image of strength, authority and confrontation of injustice.
Overall, the prominence of the color black during the civil rights struggles represented African Americans boldly asserting their identity, demanding their rights, and presenting a unified front in the face of rampant discrimination in society.
The color green makes a more subtle appearance in the iconography of the civil rights movement. It is associated with the lunch counter sit-ins that took place from 1960 to 1964 to protest segregation in public spaces.
In many cities where sit-ins occurred, protestors wore green armbands as they sat at whites-only lunch counters asking to be served. Examples include green armbands worn by members of the Nashville Student Movement during sit-ins in Nashville, TN in 1960.
The color green helped identify and unify protestors as they staged bold acts of resistance through sit-ins. It signaled their solidarity and commitment to facing arrest and mistreatment in order to desegregate public spaces.
Interestingly, green was likely chosen because it held no racial or political symbolism. This neutrality meant sit-in participants were making their point through their actions alone, not through militant color choices. The green armbands simply served to unite them in their coordinated efforts.
White clothing played a subtler role during the civil rights movement as well. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently wore a white shirt with a black suit and tie during public appearances, marches and speeches.
This style represented dignity, spiritual purity, and innocence in the face of violent opposition. His composed, clerical style visually reinforced his commitment to nonviolent resistance. White clothes complemented his calm but resolute demeanor.
In addition, other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and clergy who participated in civil rights demonstrations also often wore white shirts and light-colored clothing. This projected them as upstanding, virtuous and pious, highlighting the moral righteousness of their cause.
Red, Black and Green
The most vivid symbolic colors of the movement appeared together – red, black and green. This tricolor combination was first adopted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s. Then it reemerged during the 1960s civil rights struggles as a symbol of black nationalism and empowerment.
The red, black and green flag became the iconic emblem of the Black Power movement. The Black Panther Party incorporated black, dark blue and light blue colors into their look as well, complementing the message of black self-determination.
The meaning behind this color trio was:
|The blood shed by African ancestors through centuries of oppression
|The color of the African diaspora globally
|The abundant natural wealth of Africa
This symbolism captures the trauma, roots and strengths of black identity that activists were reclaiming. The bold display of this color scheme continues to represent Black Power and liberation movements to this day.
The Rainbow Coalition was an effort initiated in 1969 by activist Fred Hampton to unify various civil rights organizations like the Black Panthers, Young Lords and Young Patriots.
The rainbow symbolized the diversity of ethnic groups coming together around shared revolutionary goals. The name “rainbow” highlighted unity in the face of racial and class divisions that white power structures wanted to maintain.
While not as widespread or lasting of a symbol as the black, green or red/black/green color schemes, the Rainbow Coalition introduced the idea of uniting across racial barriers that trickled into ongoing efforts for change post-1960s.
The color yellow makes an appearance in the Civil Rights Movement as well. In the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights in 1965, participants wore yellow armbands as an alternative if they could not wear black.
Yellow was chosen because it also had no political or racial associations and it stood out against dark coat sleeves. This was a creative way for allies not wearing black to still visibly declare their presence and participation. The vibrant yellow color helped unify and energize crowds of thousands alongside the more prominent black attire.
Blue has a more ominous association with civil rights struggles because of its affiliation with police and jail uniforms. However, it also carried positive resonance related to denim clothing.
Many younger activists embraced blue jeans and denim jackets as the daily uniform of their demonstrations and grassroots organizing. Denim projected a sense of youthful rebellion and informality that complimented the spontaneous, lively energy of marches and sit-ins. This “blue-jean nation” of students and young organizers took inspiration from their denim-clad fashion.
The Civil Rights Movement brought together Americans from many different backgrounds who used visual symbols like color strategically to unite, energize and publicize their efforts.
The most prominent colors like black, white, green, and red/black/green carried layered meanings that connected to heritage, principles and political outlooks. Other hues like yellow, rainbow and blue conveyed inclusivity, youth and vibrancy.
The powerful resonance of these colors transformed them into iconic symbols of the struggles and spirit that defined an era. They visually encapsulated the energy and purpose behind the activists that bravely resisted segregation and discrimination during the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Their symbolic colors amplified the voices that spoke out and continue to inspire today.