Modern history

The Civil Rights Movement

African Americans wanted what most other Americans desired after World War II—the opportunity to make a decent living, buy a nice home, raise a healthy family, and get the best education for their children. Yet blacks faced much greater obstacles than did whites in obtaining these dreams, particularly in the South, where African Americans attended separate and unequal schools, faced discrimination if not outright exclusion from public accommodations, were not permitted to vote, and encountered vigilante violence. Determined to eliminate these injustices, black Americans mounted a campaign against white supremacy in the decades after World War II. African Americans increasingly viewed their struggle as part of an international freedom movement of black people in Africa and other nonwhites in the Middle East and Asia to obtain their freedom from Western colonial rulers.

School Segregation and the Supreme Court

Led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African Americans launched a prolonged assault on school segregation. Pursuing a strategy designed in the 1930s by its chief lawyer, Charles Hamilton Houston, the association filed lawsuits against states that excluded blacks from publicly funded law schools and universities. After victories in Missouri and Maryland, Houston’s successor, Thurgood Marshall, convinced the Supreme Court in 1950 to disband the separate law school that Texas had set up for blacks and to allow them to attend the University of Texas Law School. At the same time, the Court also eliminated separate facilities for black students at the University of Oklahoma graduate school and ruled against segregation in interstate rail transportation.

Before African Americans could attend college, they had to obtain a first-class education in public schools. All-black schools typically lacked the resources provided to white schools. The NAACP understood that without federal intervention southern officials would never live up to the “separate but equal doctrine” asserted in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). African Americans sought to integrate schools not because they wanted their children to sit next to white students in classrooms and adopt their ways, but because they believed that integration offered the best and quickest way to secure quality education.

In fighting segregated education, the NAACP drew on grassroots organizing techniques in southern communities. In the late 1940s, black families in towns throughout the South joined together to pressure white officials to provide buses to transport children to school, to raise the salaries of black teachers, and to furnish classrooms with critical supplies. Led by black activists in South Carolina and Virginia, the NAACP filed lawsuits seeking to overturn Plessy. The association added cases from Delaware and Kansas, where a measure of segregation persisted, as well as from Washington, D.C., where the federal government was responsible for maintaining segregated schools in the nation’s capital.

On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy. In a unanimous decision read by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court concluded that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This ruling undercut the legal foundation for segregation and officially placed the law on the side of those who sought racial equality. Nevertheless, the ruling did not end the controversy; in fact, it led to more battles over segregation. In 1955 the Court issued a follow-up opinion calling for implementation with “all deliberate speed.” But it left enforcement of Brown to federal district courts in the South, which consisted mainly of white southerners who espoused segregationist views. As a result, southern officials emphasized “deliberate” rather than “speed” and slowed the implementation of the Brown decision.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Brown decision encouraged African Americans to protest against other forms of racial discrimination. In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, the Women’s Political Council, a group of middle-class and professional black women, petitioned the city commission to improve bus service for black passengers. Among other things, they wanted blacks not to have to give up their seats to white passengers who boarded the bus after black passengers did. Their requests went unheeded until December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a black seamstress and an NAACP activist, refused to give up her seat to a white man. Parks’s arrest rallied civic, labor, and religious groups around her and sparked a bus boycott that involved nearly the entire black community. Instead of riding buses, black commuters walked to work or joined car pools. One elderly woman reportedly declined a ride and insisted on walking, explaining, “My feet are tired, but my soul is rested.” White officials refused to capitulate and fought back by arresting leaders of the Montgomery improvement Association, the organization that coordinated the protest. Other whites hurled insults at blacks and engaged in violence. After more than a year of conflict, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the complete desegregation of Montgomery’s buses.

Out of this landmark struggle, Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the civil rights movement’s most charismatic leader. The son of a prominent Atlanta minister, King had graduated from the historically black Morehouse College and received a doctorate in theology from Boston University. Twenty-six years old at the time of Parks’s arrest, King was a recent arrival in Montgomery and the pastor of the prestigious Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He did not seek to lead the boycott, but instead he had it thrust upon him. In Dr. King, Montgomery’s blacks had found a man whose personal courage and

power of oratory could inspire nearly all segments of the African American community. Though King was familiar with the nonviolent methods of the Indian revolutionary Mohandas Gandhi and the civil disobedience of the nineteenth-century writer Henry David Thoreau, he drew his inspiration and commitment to these principles mainly from the black church and secular leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. King understood how to convey the goals of the civil rights movement to sympathetic white Americans, but his vision and passion grew out of black communities. At the outset of the Montgomery bus boycott, King noted proudly the achievement of African Americans: “When the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say ‘There lived a great people—a Black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ ”

The Montgomery bus boycott made King a national civil rights leader, but it did not guarantee him further success. In 1957 King and a like-minded group of southern black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to spread nonviolent protest throughout the region, but except in a few cities, such as Tallahassee, Florida, bus boycott spinoffs did not take hold.

White Resistance to Desegregation

Segregationists responded forcefully to halt black efforts to eliminate Jim Crow. In 1956, 101 southern congressmen issued a manifesto declaring the 1954 Brown opinion “a clear abuse of judicial power” and pledging to resist its implementation through “lawful means.” Other southerners went beyond the law, as events in Little Rock, Arkansas, showed. In 1957 a federal court approved a plan submitted by the Little Rock School Board to integrate Central High School. However, the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, obstructed the court ruling by sending the state National Guard to keep out nine black students chosen to attend Central High. Faced with blatant state resistance to federal authority, President Eisenhower, a lukewarm supporter of school desegregation, placed the National Guard under federal control and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to restore order after a mob blocked the students from entering the school. The black students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, attended classes for the year under the protection of the National Guard but still encountered considerable harassment from white pupils inside the school. In June 1958, one of the black students, Ernest Green, graduated, but Governor Faubus and the state legislature shut down the school for a year until the Supreme Court in 1959 ordered its reopening. In defiance of the high court, other school districts, such as Prince Edward County, Virginia, chose to close their public schools rather than desegregate. By the end of the decade, public schools in the South remained mostly segregated, and only a token number of black students in a handful of states attended school with whites.

The white South used other forms of violence and intimidation to preserve segregation. The third incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) appeared after World War II to strike back at growing African American challenges to white supremacy. This terrorist group threatened, injured, and killed those blacks they considered “uppity.” Following the Brown decision, segregationists also formed the White Citizens’ Council (WCC). The WCC drew members largely from businessmen and professionals. Rather than condoning murder and violent confrontation, the WCC generally relied on intimidating blacks by threatening to fire them from jobs or denying them credit from banks. In Alabama, WCC members launched a campaign against radio stations playing the kind of rock ’n’ roll music that Alan Freed popularized in New York City because they believed that it fostered close interracial contact. Reflecting much of the sentiment in the region, an Alabama segregationist called rock ’n’ roll “the basic, heavy beat music of Negroes,” which, if left unchecked, would result in the downfall of “the entire moral structure . . . the white man has built.”

MAP 25.1

Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, February-April 1960 After starting slowly in the late 1950s, lunch counter sit-ins exploded in 1960 following a sit-in by college students in Greensboro, North Carolina. Within three months, sit-ins erupted in fifty-eight cities across the South. The participation of high school and college students revitalized the civil rights movement and led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960.

The WCC and the KKK created a racial climate in the deep South that encouraged whites to believe they could get away with murder to defend white supremacy. In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago who was visiting his great-uncle in Mississippi, was killed because he allegedly flirted with a white woman in a country store. Although the two accused killers were brought to trial, an all-white jury quickly acquitted them. Elsewhere in Mississippi that same year, an NAACP official, George Lee, was killed for organizing voter registration drives; the crime was never prosecuted.The Sit-Ins

With boycotts petering out and white violence rising, African Americans, especially high school and college students, developed new techniques to confront discrimination, including sit-ins, in which protesters seat themselves in a strategic spot and refuse to move until their demands are met or they are forcibly evicted. In 1958 the NAACP organized a sit-in against segregated lunch counters in Oklahoma City, and in 1959 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) did the same in Miami. However, mass demonstrations did not really get off the ground until February 1960, when four students at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro waged sit-ins at the whites-only lunch counters in Woolworth and Kress department stores. Their protests sparked similar efforts throughout the Southeast, expanding to more than two hundred cities within a year (Map 25.1).

A few months after the sit-ins began, a number of their participants formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization’s young members sought not only to challenge racial segregation in the South but also to create interracial communities based on economic equality and political democracy. This generation of black and white sit-in veterans came of age in the 1950s at a time when the democratic rhetoric of America’s role in the Cold War and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case raised their expectations for racial equality. Yet these young activists often saw their hopes dashed by numerous examples of southern segregationist resistance, including the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, an incident that both horrified and helped mobilize them to fight for black equality. “Emmett Till was only three years older than me and I identified with him,” recalled Cleveland Sellers, a SNCC staff member from South Carolina. “I tried to put myself in his place and imagine what he was thinking when those white men took him from his home that night. . . . I couldn’t get over the fact that the men who were accused of killing him had not been punished at all.”


• What strategies did African Americans adopt in the 1950s to fight segregation and discrimination?

• How and why did white southerners resist efforts to end segregation?

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!