How the Civil Rights Movement Worked

Between 200,000 and 500,000 demonstrators march down Constitution Avenue during the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Barack Obama became president of the U.S. in 2008, many people hailed it as the culmination of the civil rights movement. As late as the 1960s, African-Americans in many parts of the U.S. could not vote. Now, some 50 years on, a black man was president of America. But Obama's election was not a sign that equal rights for people of all races had been achieved. However, it certainly would not have been possible without the advances from the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement is the term given to the strategies and activities undertaken in the U.S. to end racial segregation and discrimination against blacks in America and to secure legal recognition of the rights that were already promised to them in the U.S. Constitution. Most of the activities took place between 1954 and 1968 and involved people of all races.

Despite hundreds of years of oppressive laws and violence against blacks, a single generation was able to influence important legislation and adjust entire attitudes of a prejudiced culture — and they didn't have the Internet, social media or any of the modern tools of communication.

How did they do it? Who were some of the people involved? Keep reading to learn about the civil rights movement, an era that changed the course of American history.

Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow Laws
Men stand by the segregated Rex Theatre in Leland, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

On July 9, 1868, a little more than two years after General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army surrendered to the Union at Appomattox, Va., the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted. The amendment read in part that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of laws." In the aftermath of the American Civil War, its writers designed the 14th Amendment to give citizenship to recently freed slaves from the South and protect their civil liberties.

Most Southern states refused to ratify the amendment, and a series of Reconstruction Acts put the former Confederacy under military rule for a short time. The acts split the South into five districts and required the military to oversee elections and make sure the states upheld universal male suffrage (the right for every man to vote). Soon after the South returned to the Union in 1870, however, the broad definition of citizenship drawn out in the 14th Amendment was largely ignored.

From the 1870s to the end of the 19th century, southern states reinforced a system of white supremacy by legally segregating blacks from whites using legislation. These laws became known as Jim Crow laws. They imposed mainly three things:

  • The separation of races in public places, including public schools, parks, accommodations and transportation
  • The disenfranchisement (taking away the right to vote) of adult black males through polling taxes, literacy tests and other tricks
  • The banning of miscegenation, or interracial marriage

On top of this, a culture of brutality and terrorism further separated blacks from whites. Vicious, ritual mob violence known as lynching was carried out against southern blacks well into the 20th century, usually by organized white supremacist movements like the Ku Klux Klan. All-white juries regularly acquitted anyone accused of committing such a crime.

Several court decisions made sure these segregation laws stayed in place or gave states a chance to enforce new ones. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional in 1883, for instance, and said that the 14th Amendment didn't protect blacks from discrimination by businesses and individuals. One of the most famous cases, Plessy v. Ferguson, helped to cement this logic in 1896. By 1890, Louisiana law had officially forced blacks to ride in segregated railcars. To test out whether or not the government would protect blacks under the 14th Amendment, a light-skinned African-American named Homer Plessy boarded a car designated for whites on the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy, one-eighth black, was promptly arrested. After a local judge decided Plessy was guilty, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision, declaring that "separate but equal" accommodations in something like a railcar didn't infringe on a person's 14th-Amendment rights.

This essentially gave states the right to enforce harsh Jim Crow laws. The view of blacks as "separate but equal" was deeply ingrained into both southern and northern cultures by the early 20th century, and the unequal treatment blacks experienced would eventually set the civil rights movement into motion.

Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education
Nathaniel Steward integrates the Saint-Dominique school in Washington, D.C. May 1954. STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

Every day in 1951, Linda Brown, an 8-year-old girl from Topeka, Kansas, would take a bus 5 miles (8 kilometers) to Monroe Elementary School for African-Americans, a racially segregated public school. Only several blocks from her home was Sumner Elementary School, an all-white public school. It would make sense for Linda to go to Sumner — not only was the school much closer to her house than Monroe, it was also newer, cleaner and better staffed. All around, it offered her a better education and experience. But when her father, the Reverend Oliver Brown, attempted to enroll Linda into Sumner, the school's principal wouldn't allow him to do so because of the color of her skin.

Instead of accepting the rejection, Brown went to McKinley Burnett, the head of Topeka's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Along with several other black families, they took the school to court and sued the board of education in what would be the monumental Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision.

The NAACP argued to the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas that segregated schools were inherently unequal because they denied a multitude of opportunities to black children. On the other hand, the Board of Education defended its position with the logic that segregated schools simply prepared children for adulthood in a society where blacks were considered "separate but equal."

Although the judges agreed upon the "detrimental effect" segregation had on children in schools, they failed to look past the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled in favor of the Board of Education. Brown and the NAACP appealed the decision immediately. By May 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared the "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional and required the desegregation of schools across America.

Brown v. Board of Education wasn't the first to challenge Jim Crow laws and the "separate but equal" doctrine — between 1881 and 1949 there were 11 school integration cases in Kansas alone. Three recent decisions from 1950 also made progress at proving Plessy v. Ferguson obsolete. Sweatt v. Painter allowed Herman Sweatt to attend the all-white University of Texas Law School; McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education ruled segregation after enrollment unconstitutional; and Henderson v. United States made segregated railroad dining cars illegal. But Brown's case, led by Detroit attorney and head of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund Thurgood Marshall, was the first to make such broad changes.

Desegregation didn't occur immediately. The idea of even partial desegregation was still unpopular with many Southern whites, and the potential for violence led to slow progress. The first major attempt in September 1957, which took place at Little Rock High School in Arkansas, drew protests from townspeople — President Eisenhower was forced to send in 1,000 paratroopers to let a group of nine black students into the school.

Although no one was hurt, tension was still in the air. Indeed, violence was still very much a problem in the South during this era. One murder trial received national attention and shocked blacks and whites everywhere.

The Emmett Till Case

The Emmett Till Case
Mrs. Mamie Bradley, mother of Emmett Till, is near hysteria at his funeral service. Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

In August 1955, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. Although he had experienced segregation up North, he wasn't prepared for life in Mississippi, one of the most heavily segregated states in the country. On a dare from a cousin, Emmett flirted with a white woman as he was buying candy in a store — while leaving, he turned allegedly around and said "Bye, baby" to her. (Some other reports say he wolf-whistled at her; others that he said nothing to her.)

A few nights later, he was taken from his relatives' home by Roy Bryant, the woman's husband and owner of the store, and J.M. Milam. Three days after Emmett's kidnapping his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, beaten beyond recognition and with a bullet in his skull and barbed wire around his neck.

A telegram Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Bradley, sent to President Eisenhower that pleads for action.
National Archives and Records Administration

Surprisingly, Bryant and Milam were quickly arrested for kidnapping. Most locals, including whites, were shocked at the violent crime; Emmett's uncle, Moses Wright, was only able to identify his nephew's body because he had been wearing a ring with his initials engraved on it. Newspapers and officials demanded justice, and after Wright testified against Milam and Bryant, pointing them out as the kidnappers, many other blacks stepped forward to give testimony.

Although the two men were pronounced "not guilty" by an all-white jury, the effect of the Emmett Till case on the nation was profound. Emmett's mother Mamie was particularly moved by the effort to spread awareness about the brutality of racism. When her son's body was shipped back up to Chicago for the funeral, she made sure it was an open-casket funeral so people could see what had happened to Emmett.

The Emmett Till case received national attention. Many of those who heard stories on the radio or saw pictures of Emmett's body were young people — the same generation that would soon grow up and demand widespread change across America.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and Desegregation

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and Desegregation
Rosa Parks is fingerprinted by police. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

The Supreme Court had struck down the "separate but equal" precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson with their decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, making segregation illegal. But were states actually following orders?

Many people know the story of Rosa Parks. On Thursday, Dec. 1, 1955, after a long day at work as a seamstress, Mrs. Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery to go home. She sat in the fifth row with three other blacks, the farthest row forward blacks could legally occupy. As the bus filled up along the route, however, more whites entered the bus. Eventually, one white was left standing. According to Alabama law during the '50s, blacks and whites couldn't occupy the same row. When told by the bus driver to give up the row to the white man, three of the blacks left for the back of the bus, but Mrs. Parks simply refused. She was quickly arrested and sent to jail.

Rosa Parks remains one of the most iconic figures of the civil rights movement, and the steps she took changed American life. But her story isn't as improvised as it sounds. In fact, Mrs. Parks' arrest, which led to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, was planned from the beginning. Parks was an NAACP member with interest in the segregation situation, and she had completed a workshop on civil disobedience before she was arrested. After hearing of the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, Jo Ann Robinson, a black woman and professor at the all-black Alabama State College, had decided the time was right to test the law.

After the arrest, Robinson and other prominent ministers and civil rights activists, including E.D. Nixon and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gathered to discuss a boycott. Handouts were made urging blacks to stay off of buses the following Monday.

The first day of the boycott was a huge success, with empty buses rolling through the streets of Montgomery. The group met again that night and quickly formed an organization, calling themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and electing King as president. After some discussion, the MIA agreed to continue the boycott, which would last for a little more than a year.

Rosa Parks, center, one of the most famous figures from the civil rights movement, helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Don Cravens/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Whites tried every way possible to break up the boycott. First they tried nonviolent means. When black cab services began undercharging other blacks with a 10-cent fare, the city announced that any cab charging less than 45 cents would be stopped. Companies began canceling insurance polices on cars used for carpooling. Mrs. Parks was arrested for not paying her fine, and King was arrested several times, usually for minor trafficoffenses. When these tactics didn't work, whites then turned to violence. Bombs went off in black homes, King's house was shot at and the Ku Klux Klan marched around to protest.

The city was beginning to suffer financially from the boycott, and news of the case made its way to the Supreme Court, which had recently declared segregation illegal in Brown v. Board of Education. The Court ordered full integration in November 1956, and by Dec. 21 of that year, blacks ended the boycott and started riding the buses again.

The boycott marked the first important involvement of the public in the civil rights movement and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. After success in Montgomery and gaining national attention, King soon became a major leader of the movement, moving to Atlanta and starting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Sit-ins and Freedom Riders

Sit-ins and Freedom Riders
A mob of whites blocks the exit to keep the bus carrying the Freedom Riders from leaving. Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

By the beginning of the '60s, schools and universities across the country were integrated, and the success in Montgomery had sprouted civil rights organizations in cities everywhere. Not every business or school complied with the changes, though, and black students started to demonstrate the fact that inequalities still existed, staging what were called sit-ins.

On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr., sat down at the counter of a Woolworth's and asked to be served. They knew they wouldn't be, because the lunch counter at which they sat was for whites only. Still, they continued to sit and refused to get up until they were forced out when the store closed for the night. The next day, a much larger group of students showed up either to participate or witness the sit-in, and after newspapers and civil rights groups heard about the activity, sit-ins were held in several cities across the country.

These sit-ins were very simple in nature. A group of students would sit down at a lunch counter and ask to be served. If they were given food or coffee, they'd move on down to the next counter. Once they were refused service, they would remain seated until served. The key during the sit-ins was nonviolence — if participants were hit, they couldn't hit back. If they were taunted, they remained silent. Students also dressed in their Sunday best to set themselves apart from the heckling white students. They were met with the usual share of beatings and imprisonments, and by August 1961, more than 3,000 students across the country were arrested.

Another group that set out to test the judgment of the Supreme Court was the Freedom Riders. On May 4, 1961, a racially mixed group of people left Washington, D.C., on a bus and headed for New Orleans. Along the way, groups mixed up their seating — whites moved to the blacks-only section and vice versa. They knew what they were doing was perfectly legal according to recent Supreme Court cases, but they also knew they'd meet heavy opposition from the public. They simply wanted to make sure the government would respond in a moment of crisis. With rising tensions and the possibility of violence, the Freedom Riders were even prepared for death.

Almost everywhere the riders stopped along their trip, they were met with angry protesters and violence. Black and white Freedom Riders were beaten, buses were stoned and tires were slashed. More than 300 riders were arrested during the trip, which never finished its trip to New Orleans. The Freedom Riders raised civil rights awareness, however, and especially caught the attention of the young Kennedy Administration.

Birmingham and Martin Luther King Jr.

Birmingham and Martin Luther King Jr.
American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) stands at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he will deliver his 'I Have a Dream' speech, Washington DC., Aug. 28, 1963. Rowland Scherman/Getty Images

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. chose Birmingham, Alabama, as a new place of focus for his campaign. The city was notorious for its violence against blacks — 18 unsolved bombings had occurred over six years, and several Freedom Riders were hurt thanks to then-governor Bull Connor's failure to station guards at the bus stations. King felt it was time for a change in Birmingham.

After a series of sit-ins and arrests, however, King didn't know what else to do; the arrests weren't getting anything done except to fill up the already overcrowded jails. So King decided to get himself arrested on Good Friday, April 12. When placed in solitary confinement, he read an advertisement taken out by white ministers that derided his efforts in Birmingham, calling his actions "unwise and untimely." Using the margins of the newspaper and toilet paper and a pencil, King wrote the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," one of the most famous documents from the civil rights era. In it, he wrote:

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. [...] For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piecing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

After officials released King on April 20, he and the SCLC worked out a new tactic: the use of children in protests. The reason for this, according to SCLC leader James Bevel, was that "most adults have bills to pay — house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills — but the young people ... are not hooked with all those responsibilities." On May 2, black children between the ages of 6 and 18 left in waves from Kelly Ingram Park and marched downtown singing "We Shall Overcome." The children were arrested and carted over to the jails in vans and buses. Within three hours, the jails were overcrowded with 959 young blacks. The next day, more children showed up to march downtown, and Bull Connor ordered firefighters to turn high-pressure hoses on the young, nonviolent protesters. Blasts from the hoses hit the children so hard they were sent tumbling down the street. Televisioncameras were capturing it all, of course, and the nation watched in shock.

The attention led President Kennedy to propose a civil rights bill, and to demonstrate the bill's support, the March on Washington was set up. Some 250,000 people of all races gathered in Washington, D.C. — it was here Martin Luther King Jr., gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Although Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, making sure blacks were included in all public facilities. A year later Johnson also signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting illegal legislation such as literacy tests and poll taxes.

Despite gains made from the new legislation, violence and frustration were just around the corner.

Watts Riots, Black Power and MLK's Legacy

Watts Riots, Black Power and MLK's Legacy
Firefighters patrol during the 1965 Watts Riots. Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr.'s main strategy during the civil rights campaign was one of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, and it worked for most of the movement. Gathering inspiration from the writings of Henry Thoreau and the nonviolent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, King spent much of the '50s and early '60s successfully campaigning for peaceful change

But in 1965, when actions taken by civil rights leaders and organizers were still heavily protested by racists, often in the form of beatings or worse, some people had just had enough. Malcolm X, assassinated early in the year in February, was leading the Black Power movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement and encouraged blacks to assert their rights more forcefully, sometimes with violence. Marquette Frye and the citizens of Watts, a racially segregated neighborhood near Los Angeles, California, were the first to display this kind of frustration to the nation on a larger scale during the violent Watts Riots.

On Aug. 11, 1965, 21-year-old Frye and his older brother, 22-year-old Ronald, were driving near the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts around 7 p.m. when they were pulled over by California highway patrolman Lee W. Minikus. A black motorist had allegedly informed Minikus that Frye was driving recklessly, so he gave chase, pulled the car over and administered a sobriety test. Frye failed and was placed under arrest for drunk driving.

Because it was a hot night during an unusually hot summer, many people were sitting outside their homes and witnessed the event. A small crowd of about 30 people eventually grew to more than 250. On top of this, Frye's mother, Rena Price, had to come to the scene to claim the car once Frye was under arrest. Once Mrs. Price began scolding her son for drinking, a previously compliant Frye became belligerent, moving toward the crowd and shouting at the officers. When officers pursued him, Frye attempted to run off. The officers gave chase and caught him again, and the crowd became more and more aggressive.

Civil rights leader Andrew Young and others standing on balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., pointing in the direction of the assailant after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who is lying at their feet.
Joseph Louw/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

News of police brutality spread throughout Watts, and the event, combined with the uncomfortably hot weather, cramped conditions and rampant poverty, sparked several riots in the neighborhood over five days. Thirty-four people were killed, and there were 1,032 reported injuries. Of those injuries, 118 were from gunshots. Rioters also caused an estimated $40 million in damage to buildings, mostly from fires and looting. During the five-day stretch, 3,438 people were arrested. Most of the riots were televised, and a nation watched as Watts was reduced to ruins.

The event quickly changed the tone of the movement. When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Watts, people heckled him instead of welcoming him, rejecting his message of nonviolence. When King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, riots sprang up in several cities around the U.S.

King's death, along with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, reinvigorated the movement, which had begun to falter. Many events King had planned before his death, including the Poor People's March, still took place. King's death ended one chapter of the civil rights movement, but the broader struggle for civil rights still continues. In the decades since King's death, Americans have seen civil rights struggles for the rights of women, the disabled and the LGBT community. And, as many point out, though there have been many gains for African-Americans, there are still strides to be made, particularly in economic equality and police relations.

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Sources

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