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Civil Rights Movement

Rapid expansion of civil liberties and rights in America occurred during the last half of the 20th century. So much so that one could say the birth of a new nation came as a result of the many protests held during that time and the legislation passed.

The Fifties

Numerous Supreme Court rulings, in particular Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, led the nation through the next 20 years of civil unrest and tremendous gains.

Martin Luther King Jr. Born to a prominent Southern minister in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. led many of the most significant civil rights protests of the Fifties and Sixties until his death on April 3, 1968. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to win that honor. King will be most remembered for the massive demonstration he helped organize in Washington, D.C., where a crowd of 200,000 stood on the Capitol Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.

Rosa Parks. Known throughout the world as the “Mother of the civil rights movement,” Rosa Parks changed the course of African-American history when she refused to give up her seat to a white male on December 1, 1955. Dr. King organized a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that lasted for 382 days, with 90 percent participation of blacks. The courts finally ruled that segregation of city bus services was unconstitutional (text). The success of that boycott sparked years of nonviolent civil-rights demonstrations, first in the South and later, all over the country.

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. In a landmark case regarding segregation of schools, the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools violated rights established in the 14th Amendment. The case involved an eight-year-old girl named Linda Brown who had to cross Topeka, Kansas, to go to school, while her white friends attended a public school nearby. Even while the two schools were apparently equal, Brown’s parents argued that the schools were inherently unequal and that segregation has deleterious effects on children based on “intangible” factors. Thurgood Marshall, who worked for the NAACP and later became the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967, worked with James Nabrit Jr. and George E.C. Hayes on the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case, which overturned the Court’s previous Plessy vs. Ferguson case ruling of “separate but equal.”

One of the Little Rock 9 Central High School. The foregoing ruling was met by huge resistance in the states, and implementation of integration crawled at a snail’s pace. History was made in Little Rock, Arkansas, where federal troops were brought in to escort nine black students into Central High School in 1957. As a direct result of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the city received a federal court order to desegregate its public schools. In an attempt to thwart that order, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the “Little Rock Nine” from entering the Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower put the National Guard under federal control and sent in 1000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to enforce the ruling. Governor Faubus closed all Little Rock schools for nearly a year before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them to be re-opened in August 1959.

Civil Rights Act of 1957. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was established in December 1957 as a result of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Headed by the Assistant Attorney General, it is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws passed by Congress. Given the assignment of voting rights enforcement and criminal civil rights violations, the division began with fewer than 10 attorneys and, as of 2002, had grown to 350. Since its inception, many of the most important court cases have been brought through the Civil Rights Division.


Civil rights activism raged on through the Sixties. During that time, the most advanced civil rights laws were passed and opposition toward the Vietnam War kept the country in a tumultuous state.

Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in. At the lunch counter located in the Greensboro’s Woolworth’s store, four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down and ordered coffee on February 1, 1960. The waitress refused to serve them unless they drank it while standing because the counter only served white customers. The following day they returned with more students, and sat in peaceful protest until the counter closed for the day, after never having been served. Thus began the “sit-in” style of peaceful protest by students, which took place in more than 100 cities across the country in 1960.

Freedom Riders. In an attempt to desegregate public accommodations (hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and concert halls), the first group of 13 Freedom Riders boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., on their way to New Orleans, Louisiana. Although the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate buses in 1946, blacks were still sitting in the back of the bus in the South and not permitted to use “whites only” restrooms in southern terminals. In 1961, riders on the first bus were attacked by an angry mob in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. Outside of Anniston, the second bus was firebombed after its tires had been slashed. Such violence prompted President John F. Kennedy to provide federal protection to ensure the riders’ safety on their journey to Jackson, Mississippi. Under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination in those places became prohibited.

Similar sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and other protests to end discrimination occurred in such public facilities as jails and courthouses. Article III of the act later prohibited discrimination in the use of public facilities.

University of Mississippi. At the University of Mississippi in January 1961, James Meredith had been denied admission because of his race. The black applicant filed a suit against the court, but it was not until the Supreme Court ruled on Sunday, September 10, 1962, that Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi. Twenty days after the ruling, federal marshals and Civil Rights Division attorneys escorted Meredith on campus. Federal marshals, U.S. Border Patrol officers and 97 federal prison guards were attacked within an hour by a mob that grew to 2000. Federal troops, totaling 16,000, were sent in to end the violence, but not before two persons were killed, 28 marshals were shot, and 160 persons were injured. Later passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public schools because of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.

La Causa. In California, Cesar Chavez organized a migrant farm worker strike and a 250-mile march in 1962 in an effort to bring about improvements in working conditions and pay for Hispanic farm workers. In the state where corporate farms had influential lobbies, Chavez was successful in improving working and housing conditions and raising the standard pay for migrant farm workers.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The civil rights spotlight fell on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when three black girls were killed in a bombing by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. None of the instigators of the bombing was prosecuted until 2002, when 71-year-old Bobby Cherry was convicted of murder.

Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March. Elsewhere in Alabama, Dallas County civil rights activists attempted unsuccessfully to register blacks to vote at the county courthouse in 1963 and '64. Protests began in early 1965 in Selma, Alabama, to bring national attention to voters’ rights issues, but were met with violence by Sheriff James Clark and his deputies. A small civil rights march ended with demonstrator Jimmy Lee Jackson dying from wounds inflicted during the march. A memorial march was held from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7 that also ended in violence.

Approximately 600 protesters were prevented from continuing a march on the outskirts of Selma by 200 state troopers who used tear gas, nightsticks, and bull whips while on horseback. Forced to return to Selma, 17 marchers were hospitalized, and a federal lawsuit requesting the procession's continuance was filed by King and his supporters. While protected by federal troops, the march proceeded on March 21 and ended with four Ku Klux Klan members shot and the death of Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white civil rights volunteer from Detroit. In response, President Lyndon Johnson said, “Mrs. Liuzzo went to Alabama to serve the struggle for justice. She was murdered by the enemies of justice who for decades have used the rope and the gun and the tar and the feather to terrorize their neighbors.”

Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965 and is considered to be the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by Congress. It states that no person could be denied the right to vote on account of race or color. Making great strides in voters’ rights, the act abolished literacy tests and poll taxes imposed soon after the 15th Amendment of 1870 was ratified, granting blacks the vote.

March on Washington. After King’s Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March, he visited Chicago, Illinois, at the time the most segregated city in the country, where he launched a program to rehabilitate slums and provide housing for blacks. While in the North, King witnessed angry black youths who were disenchanted with peaceful attempts at integration. Upon this viewing, he shifted his focus to the Vietnam War and began to explore the possibility of a coalition between peace and civil rights movement participants.

With his attention on the domestic issue of poverty, King began to call for a guaranteed family income, threatening with national boycotts and disrupting entire cities with “camp-ins.” These actions drew criticism from the NAACP and the Urban League, who believed that such behavior would spread the civil rights forces too thin, but King’s sense of timing was perfect. Students, teachers, intellectuals, clergymen and reformers rushed into the movement. King organized the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place on August 28, 1963. With 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his now-famous I Have a Dream speech.

Malcolm X. At one time a minister for the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm X used a more-militant style to achieve rights for blacks that he called “human rights,” not just civil ones. Following the March on Washington, Malcolm said that, in terms of the excitement and degree of good feelings gained, he couldn’t understand why blacks were so excited about a demonstration “run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn't like us when he was alive.” Malcolm delivered his most influential speech to date, "A Message to the Grassroots," at the Northern Grassroots Leadership Conference in Detroit, Michigan, in 1963.

Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, while addressing an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan. A telegram sent by Dr. King to Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, told of King’s sadness over

“...the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race.”

Riots in other areas the country. The Civil Rights ideology began to spread to other parts of the country. Shortly after the Voting Rights Act was passed, riots broke out in Watts, a low-income area of Los Angeles, California, when accusations of police brutality against a black motorist were lodged. A riot at an after-hours drinking club in a black Detroit neighborhood in 1967 broke out as a result of a police raid there. The Detroit Police Department had a long history of harassment and brutality. It ended with the National Guard and the U.S. Army being brought in to restore order after weeklong riots that cost the lives of 43 people and $45 million in property damage.


As apathy began to creep into the consciousness of many former protestors, the Seventies ushered in a mixture of results for the Civil Rights movement.

Affirmative Action. Through Affirmative Action, attempts were made in the 1970s to equalize the educational, employment, and contracting opportunities for minority members and women, with opportunities enjoyed by their white, male counterparts. Supreme Court rulings on Affirmative Action were based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. One of the most significant Supreme Court rulings on Affirmative action came in Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke. The case involved Alan Bakke, who had been denied admission to the University of California at Davis Medical School in 1979. The high court ruled that explicit quotas violated the Equal Protection Clause, but found that using race as one of many other factors in determining admissions to universities and informal targets for minority admissions rather than strict quotas was constitutionally (narrative) sound. Other cases involving the private and public sector made progress in the equalization of opportunities for minorities and women, while opponents labeled Affirmative action policies to be "reverse discrimination" against white males.

Equal Rights Amendment. While improvements were made in civil rights for women and minorities during the Seventies, other windows of opportunity for improvements closed. Among them, the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972, was passed by Congress but failed to obtain the necessary state ratifications before the deadline of June 1982. Of the 38 states necessary, 35 ratified it. The Supreme Court ruled that laws treating men and women differently were "constitutionally suspect." (The Civil Rights Act of 1991 did extend the access of women to job-bias lawsuits that could be filed to sue an employer for monetary damages. The act also established a commission to investigate the so-called “glass ceiling” of employment opportunities that prevented women and other minorities from achieving top-level management positions.)

Roe v. Wade. In the 1972 landmark Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade, the rights of women were once again furthered when a woman’s “right to privacy” won out over the fetal “right to life.” That ruling struck down state laws outlawing abortion and allowed abortions in the first trimester, or three months, of pregnancy. After the first trimester, abortions were allowed to safeguard a woman's health. Also defined in the ruling was the word “Person” in the Constitution, stating that the term “does not include the unborn.” Further, after the first trimester, the state still had an interest in protecting the health of the mother. Protests and the organization of Right to Life groups sprang up all over the country. States began to pass laws limiting access to abortions.


While the expansion of rights for African Americans and women advanced slowly during the 1980s, rights for such other minorities as the disabled, homosexuals, and Native Americans were broadened.

Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Protecting the rights of disabled persons in institutions, the elderly in government-run nursing homes, and prisoners, were granted when the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act was passed in 1980. A group of parents, volunteer organizations, and individual residents filed a federal lawsuit against Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded in March 1972 owing to unhealthy and hazardous living conditions at the institution. As the largest such institution in America, Willowbrook housed 5,700 patients in 43 buildings. After the Civil Rights Division intervened on behalf of the plaintiffs, it took three years of court actions before a settlement was reached and several years afterwards before all the conditions were rectified.

Affirmative Action Backlash. Educational and economic opportunities given to women and minorities through Affirmative Action began to erode. President Ronald Reagan cut funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. As a result, court cases filed by the EEOC dropped by 60 percent in 1984. Cases prepared by the Justice Department regarding segregation in schools and housing virtually disappeared.

Amendments to the Fair Housing Act. Although originally passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 under Title VIII, the Fair Housing Act did not go far enough to ensure the prohibition of discrimination in the sale, financing, or rental of housing based on race, color, religion, gender, handicap, familial status or national origin. In 1988, Congress amended the Fair Housing Act, giving enforcement of the law to the Departments of Justice, and Housing and Urban Development. The Justice Department litigates cases in court while the Housing and Urban Development Department investigates and attempts to resolve complaints of housing discrimination. Title VIII also prohibits the "blockbusting" scare tactic, which works as follows: Real estate agents tell prospective sellers that African Americans are moving into their neighborhood, thus decreasing the value of their homes. Then the scared, white homeowners sell their homes at low prices. Then real estate agents sell them to minorities at highly inflated prices, pocketing the difference. Redlining, when a bank refuses to give a loan in a mostly minority neighborhood, also was outlawed by Title VIII.


Civil unrest continued on a quieter note during the 1990s as educated African Americans were matriculated into the middle class, although riots, as a result of “racial profiling,” occurred in areas where police officers used that tactic to determine the likelihood of crimes being committed by blacks and whites.

African-American matriculation. As more African Americans moved out of colleges and universities and into higher social classes, some were accused by others of that race of forgetting their heritage, or of abandoning the cause for civil rights. Matriculated African Americans were often called “Uncle Toms," a reference to the Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The main character was seen by African Americans as passive, simpleminded, and accepting of his enslavement and subservience to whites. An "Uncle Tom" also was seen as an African American who is eager to win approval from whites and one who does not contest white supremacist ideals. Those accused of “tomming” include former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Many African Americans who found success worked diligently for expanded rights for African Americans and other minorities, in concert with the Urban League, NAACP, and other civil-rights organizations.

Americans with Disabilities Act. With the passage of the ADA in 1990, discrimination against a person with a disability was prohibited in employment, public accommodations — including parks, recreation and transportation — and in all state and federal government activities. With more than 43 million Americans experiencing physical or mental disabilities, the ADA brought about the installation of wheelchair ramps, the Telephone Device for the Deaf (TTD), and other devices to give them easier access to daily activities.

1992 Los Angeles riots. Race riots broke out in south-central Los Angeles after officers were acquitted of police brutality charges in connection with motorist Glen “Rodney” King. Captured on videotape, Rodney King was beaten repeatedly for resisting arrest. With King possibly under the influence of mind-altering drugs and thought to be dangerous, police officers averred that the beating was justified, and the original jury agreed. In reaction to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and other smaller riots around the country, charges were brought by the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney General for violating King’s civil rights. Prior to the officers’ conviction, King pleaded before the television media to rioting mobs, “Can’t we get along here? Can’t we all just get along?”

Church burnings. As a result of a series of church burnings, most notably Black churches, President Bill Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force in 1996, combining Civil Rights Division attorneys, the BATF, and FBI agents. In a report filed in June 1997, 110 people had been convicted in connection with 77 church fires.

Navajo Mountain Reservation. Long having been violated, American Indians' civil rights were guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution that stated: “Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” In the case of those Indians living in a remote community of Navajo Mountain, the Civil Rights Division brought its first ever lawsuit involving American Indians, to enforce the education statutes of its residents. Navajo and Paiute high-school students living in Navajo Mountain, which straddles the border of the Navajo Indian Reservation between Utah and Arizona, had to live in boarding schools 90 miles from their home to attend school. The school district had refused to provide a nearby school because those students lived on an Indian reservation. Following a settlement, a temporary high school program began in September 1997 until a permanent facility was built on the country's largest Indian reservation.

Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X Conclusion

The pursuit of civil rights and liberties has been a common theme throughout American history. From the colonial period through the new millennium, key figures in American history have fought, sometimes with their lives, for those “inalienable” rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The tide of change and accomplishment goes in and out on civil-rights issues. Congressional and Supreme Court decisions continue to wax and wane on those issues.

For civil rights history during the Colonial Period through the Industrial Revolution, see History of Civil Rights in America - Part 1 of 3.
For civil rights history from the Civil War through the end of World War II, see History of Civil Rights in America - Part 2 of 3.
For a sample listing of blacks who have contributed to the fiber of American culture, see Important and Famous African Americans.