The Civil Rights Movement in the United States has been a long, primarily nonviolent struggle to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans. It has been made up of many movements, though it is often used to refer to the struggles between 1945 and 1970 to end discrimination against African-Americans and to end racial segregation, especially in the U.S. South. Some of the other struggles, often but not always working together, include the women's liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, the disabled rights movement, and many socioeconomic class-based movements. The civil rights movement has had a tremendous and lasting impact on United States society, both in its tactics and in increased social and legal acceptance of civil rights.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Post World War II responses


Throughout the history of the United States, African Americans have resisted, first against the institution of slavery and later second-class citizenship and racial segregation. Opposition took many forms, from the passive resistance of slaves who performed poor work for their masters, to slave revolts, to slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad, to African Americans' participation in the Abolitionist movement and fighting against the pro-slavery Confederacy in the Civil War.

Following the Civil War, the federal government moved to extend legal equality to African Americans with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865) which outlawed slavery, the 14th Amendment (1868) which made citizens of all persons born in this country and afforded equal protection of the laws to all citizens, and the 15th Amendment (1870) which provided the right to vote to all citizens, regardless of race. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), Northern troops occupied the South and enforced these new constitutional amendments. Many blacks took prominent positions in society, including elected office.

However, Reconstruction ended following the Compromise of 1877 between Northern white elites and Southern white elites. The compromise called for the withdrawal of Northern troops from the South (giving Southern whites a free hand to reinstitute discriminatory practices) in exchange for deciding the contentious Presidential election in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, supported by Northern states, over his opponent, Samuel J. Tilden.

Following the compromise, many states adopted restrictive laws which enforced segregation of the races and the second-class status of African Americans. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases 163 US 3 1883, effectively destroying many of the radical-Republican-driven reforms. Later Supreme Court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 1896 further eroded black people's civil rights.

In many cities and towns, African Americans were not allowed to share a taxi with whites or enter a building through the same entrance. They had to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms, attend separate schools, and even swear on separate Bibles and be buried in separate cemeteries. They were excluded from restaurants and public libraries. Many parks barred them with signs that read "Negroes and dogs not allowed." One municipal zoo went so far as to list separate visiting hours.

African Americans were expected to step aside to let a white person pass, and black men dared not look any white woman in the eye. Black men and women were addressed as "Tom" or "Jane" but rarely as "Mr." or "Miss" or "Mrs." A black man was referred to as "boy" and a black woman as "girl"; both often were called by labels such as "nigger" or "colored."

Voting rights discrimination was widespread. In Tennessee, as the Justice Department's John Doar discovered on a self-appointed tour of rural Haywood County in the early 1960s, black sharecroppers were being evicted by white farmers for trying to vote. In Mississippi, names of new voter applicants had to be published in local newspapers for two weeks before acceptance, and voters had the right to object to an applicant's "moral character." Black applicants, many of whom were illiterate or poorly educated, were also required to pass literacy tests and to interpret sections of the state constitution to the satisfaction of the registrars. These tests were not applied to illiterate whites. In Alabama, many registration centers were only open two days a month; voting registrars often arrived late and took long lunch hours. In 1957 the town of Tuskegee gerrymandered black residents outside the city limits to make them ineligible to vote. In nearby Macon County, voter registration boards used discriminatory practices such as these to limit the number of eligible black voters:

  • holding black applicants to a higher standard of accuracy than whites;
  • allowing white applicants to register in their cars and in their homes;
  • processing black applicants last, even when they were first in line;
  • establishing separate registration offices in different parts of the courthouse;
  • offering assistance only to white applicants in completing the registration form;
  • refusing to notify black applicants about the status of their applications.

Some counties in the Deep South resorted to harsher means of preventing local blacks from voting. They jailed black applicants and firebombed places where voter education classes had been conducted, such as Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Georgia. They threatened, beat, and in some cases, murdered black applicants.

Southern blacks who resisted segregation, particularly those in rural areas, lived in constant fear--fear of their employers, who vowed to fire them; fear of white "citizens' councils," who adopted policies of economic reprisal against demonstrators; and fear of white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, who exerted an often-unchecked reign of terror across the South, where lynching of African Americans was a common occurrence and rarely prosecuted. Nearly 4,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and the early 1950s.

Early African-American Responses

African Americans responded in a variety of ways. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the early 20th century's leading advocate of black education, stressed industrial schooling for African Americans and gradual social adjustment rather than political and civil rights. The charismatic reformer Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) called for racial separatism and a "Back-to-Africa" colonization program. But it was a different path, one that emphasized that African Americans were in this country to stay and would fight for their freedom and political equality, that led to the modern civil rights movement.

Post World War II responses

Although they had white supporters and sympathizers, the modern civil rights movement was designed, led, organized, and manned by African Americans, who placed themselves and their families on the front lines in the struggle for freedom. Their heroism was brought home to every American through newspaper, and later, television reports as their peaceful marches and demonstrations were violently attacked by law enforcement. Officers used batons, bullwhips, fire hoses, police dogs, and mass arrests to intimidate the protestors. The second characteristic of the movement is that it was not monolithic, led by one or two men. Rather it was a dispersed, grass-roots campaign that attacked segregation in many different places using many different tactics.

Southern resistance

Resistance to racial equality in the Deep South came not only from extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and white "citizens' councils." It occurred at all levels of government and society--from federal judges to state governors to county sheriffs to local citizens serving on juries.

Governor Orval Eugene Faubus of Arkansas used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent school integration at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, and Governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama physically blocked school doorways at their respective states' universities. E.H. Hurst, a Mississippi state representative, stalked and killed a black farmer for attending voter registration classes. Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia's police chief, thwarted student efforts to integrate public places in the city. Birmingham's public safety commissioner Eugene T. "Bull" Connor advocated violence against freedom riders and ordered fire hoses and police dogs turned on demonstrators. Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Alabama loosed his deputies on "Bloody Sunday" marchers and personally menaced other protestors. Police all across the South arrested civil rights activists on trumped-up charges. All-white juries in several states acquitted known killers of local African Americans.

Black churches

The leadership role of black churches in the movement was a natural extension of their structure and function. They offered members an opportunity to exercise roles denied them in society. Throughout history, the black church served not only as a place of worship but also as a community "bulletin board," a credit union, a "people's court" to solve disputes, a support group, and a center of political activism. These and other functions enhanced the importance of the minister. The most prominent clergyman in the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, Jr Time magazine's 1964 "Man of the Year" was a man of the people. He joined as well as led protest demonstrations and, as comedian Dick Gregory put it, "he gave as many fingerprints as autographs." King's powerful oratory and persistent call for racial justice inspired sharecroppers and intellectuals alike. His tireless personal commitment to and strong leadership role in the black freedom struggle won him worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Other notable minister-activists included Ralph Abernathy, King's closest associate; Bernard Lee, veteran demonstrator and frequent travel companion of King; Fred Shuttlesworth, who defied Bull Connor and who created a safe path for a colleague through a white mob in Montgomery by commanding "Out of the way!"; and C.T. Vivian, who debated Sheriff Clark on his conduct and the Constitution.


Students and seminarians in both the South and the North played key roles in every phase of the civil rights movement--from bus boycotts to sit-ins to freedom rides to social movements. The student movement involved such celebrated figures as John Lewis, the single-minded activist who "kept on" despite many beatings and harassments; James Lawson, the revered "guru" of nonviolent theory and tactics; Diane Nash, an articulate and intrepid public champion of justice; Bob Moses, pioneer of voting registration in the most rural--and most dangerous--part of the South; and James Bevel, a fiery preacher and charismatic organizer and facilitator. Other prominent student activists included Charles McDew, Bernard Lafayette, Charles Jones, Lonnie King, Julian Bond (associated with Atlanta University), Hosea Williams (associated with Brown Chapel), and Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Toure.

Institutional frameworks

Church and student-led movements developed their own organizational and sustaining structures. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC), founded in 1957, coordinated and raised funds, mostly from northern sources, for local protests and for the training of black leaders. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, founded in 1957, developed the "jail-no-bail" strategy. SNCC's role was to develop and link sit-in campaigns and to help organize freedom rides, voter registration drives, and other protest activities. Bob Moses of SNCC created the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to coordinate the work of the SCLC, SNCC, and various other national and independent civil rights groups.

These three new groups often joined forces with existing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, and the National Urban League. The NAACP and its Director, Roy Wilkins, provided legal counsel for jailed demonstrators, helped raise bail, and continued to test segregation and discrimination in the courts as it had been doing for half a century. CORE initiated the 1961 Freedom Rides which involved many SNCC members, and CORE's leader James L. Farmer later became executive secretary of SNCC. The National Urban League, founded in 1911 and headed by Whitney M. Young, Jr., helped open up job opportunities for African Americans. Labor was represented by A. Philip Randolph, vice-president of the American Federation of Labor, and his chief assistant and organizer, Bayard Rustin.

Federal involvement

All branches of the federal government impacted the civil rights movement. President John Kennedy supported enforcement of desegregation in schools and public facilities. Attorney General Robert Kennedy brought more than 50 lawsuits in four states to secure black Americans' right to vote. President Lyndon Johnson was personally committed to achieving civil rights goals. Congress passed and President Johnson signed the century's two most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation--the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson advocated civil rights even though he knew it would cost the Democratic Party the South in the next presidential election, and for the foreseeable future. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned about possible Communist influence in the civil rights movement and personally antagonistic to Martin Luther King, Jr., used the FBI to investigate King and other civil rights leaders. U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., ruled against segregation and voting rights discrimination in Alabama and made the Selma-to-Montgomery March possible.

The Strategy

In the early days of the civil rights movement, litigation and lobbying were the focus of integration efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 1954, Powell v. Alabama 287 US 45 1932, Smith v. Allwright 321 US 649 1944, Shelley v. Kraemer 334 US 1 1948, Sweatt v. Painter 339 US 629 1950, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents 339 US 637 1950 led to a shift in tactics, and from 1955 to 1965, "direct action" was the strategy--primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and social movements.

In part this was the unintended result of the local authorities’ attempt to outlaw and harass the mainstream civil rights organizations throughout the Deep South. The State of Alabama had effectively barred the NAACP from operating in Alabama by requiring it to give the state a list of its members. In the South of the 1950s, that would have exposed every member of the NAACP to retaliation, from being fired to being firebombed. While the United States Supreme Court ultimately reversed the order, for a few years in the mid 1950s the NAACP was unable to operate above-ground in Alabama.

Churches and local grassroots organizations stepped in to fill the gap, and brought with them a much more energetic and broad-based style than the more legalistic approach of groups such as the NAACP. Locally initiated boycotts of segregated buses, especially the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, united and mobilized black communities on commonly-shared concerns. Protestors refused to ride on the buses, opting instead to walk or carpool. The nearly one year-long boycott ended bus segregation in Montgomery and triggered other bus boycotts such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida boycott of 1956-1957.

Student-organized sit-ins like the February 1960 protest at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, offered young men and women with no special skills or resources an opportunity to display their discontent and raise white awareness. Protestors were encouraged to dress up, sit quietly, and occupy every other stool so potential white sympathizers could join in. The success of the Greensboro sit-in led to a rash of student campaigns all across the South. By the end of 1960 the sit-ins had spread to every southern and border state and even to Nevada, Illinois, and Ohio. Demonstrators focused not only on lunch counters but on parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public places. When they were arrested, student demonstrators made "jail-no-bail" pledges to call attention to their cause and to reverse the cost of protest (putting the financial burden of jail space and food on the "jailors").

The 1961 Freedom Rides on public buses tested compliance with court orders to desegregate interstate transportation terminals. The trips enabled students from both the South and the North to protest away from campus and to form a tightly-knit community of activists, many of whom would participate in the last protest phase, which began in 1961. National civil rights leaders launched these efforts to involve poor blacks and other blacks who had been uninvolved until then. The movements included door-to-door voter education projects in rural Mississippi, "The Birmingham Campaign" to desegregate public accommodations in the city, and "Freedom Summer," to try to unseat the regular delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention and to publicize the disenfranchisement of southern blacks.

While some groups and individuals within the civil rights movement advocated Black Power, black separatism, or even armed resistance, the majority of participants remained committed to the principles of nonviolence -- a deliberate decision by an oppressed minority to abstain from violence for political gain. This commitment to nonviolence gave the civil rights movement great moral authority.

Nonviolent resistance became a particularly potent tool in the early days of the television era. Civil rights activists took advantage of emerging national network-news reporting, especially television, to capture national attention and the attention of Congress and the White House. It has been speculated that the Civil Rights Movement benefited from good timing in respects to television. The medium in the US during the last 1950s and early 1960s was shaken by the Quiz show scandals and FCC chairman Newton Minow's condemnation of the medium as being a vast wasteland in his famous speech. The industry was looking for something to restore the medium's respectability using their journalism department and the Civil Rights Movement suited their needs well. The topic of civil rights for an oppressed minority was a suitably important topic to cover, the protests and the violent reaction to them made for attractively compelling and dramatic footage and the fact that the protesters were predominately black and the authorities were exclusively white made for a simple dichotomy for the viewer to follow.

The media was critical, in any event, in exposing Southern realities to the nation at large, including many in the South who preferred to ignore them. In 1955, journalists covered the Mississippi trial of two men accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago, Illinois. The cover of Jet magazine featured a photo of the boy's mutilated face. A few years later, Americans watched the live footage of violent unrest at Little Rock Central High School as whites rioted to prevent nine black students from entering the school. Radio, television, and print journalism exhaustively covered such 1960s events as police dogs attacking children in Birmingham, former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer describing her jail beatings to delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and a mounted posse charging "Bloody Sunday" demonstrators in Selma, Alabama.

The Cost

Freedom carried an expensive price tag.

In 1963 the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing killed four girls in a church (decades later a jury in Birmingham, Alabama convicted former Ku Klux Klan member Bobby Frank Cherry on May 22, 2002 of the murders).

Southern blacks who tried to register to vote--and those who supported them--were typically jeered and harassed, and sometimes beaten or killed. In 1963, the NAACP's Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his wife and children in Jackson, Mississippi. Reverend George Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi, was murdered when he refused to remove his name from a list of registered voters, and farmer Herbert Lee of Liberty, Mississippi, was killed for having attended voter education classes. Three "Freedom Summer" field-workers--Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman--were shot down for their part in helping Mississippi blacks register and organize. Michael Schwerner a social worker from Manhattan's Lower East Side, James Chaney, a local plasterer's apprentice, and Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology student, disappeared while inspecting the recent burning of a black church in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964. They had earlier been arrested by the Neshoba County sheriff and deputies, who released Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, then caught up with the three workers later and murdered them. Their bodies were discovered on August 4 in an earthen dam outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman had been shot once; Chaney, the lone African American, had been savagely beaten and shot three times.

When violence failed to stop voter registration efforts, whites used economic pressure. In Mississippi's LeFlore and Sunflower Counties--two of the poorest counties in the nation--state authorities cut off federal food relief, resulting in a near-famine in the region. Many black registrants throughout the South were also fired from their jobs or refused credit at local banks and stores. In one town, a black grocer was forced out of business when local whites stopped his store delivery trucks on the highway outside town and made them turn around.

Like voter registrants, freedom riders paid a heavy price for racial justice. When the interracial groups of riders stepped off Greyhound or Trailways buses in segregated terminals, local police were usually absent. Angry mobs were waiting, however, armed with baseball bats, lead pipes, and bicycle chains.

In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, forcing its passengers to flee for their lives. In Birmingham, where an FBI informant reported that Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor had encouraged the Ku Klux Klan to attack an incoming group of freedom riders "until it looked like a bulldog had got a hold of them," the riders were severely beaten. In eerily-quiet Montgomery, a mob charged another bus load of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life photographer Don Urbrock in the face with his own camera. A dozen men surrounded Jim Zwerg, a white student from Fisk University, and beat him in the face with a suitcase, knocking out his teeth.

The freedom riders did not fare much better in jail. There, they were crammed into tiny, filthy cells and sporadically beaten. In Jackson, Mississippi, some male prisoners were forced to do hard labor in 100-degree heat. Others were transferred to Parchman Penitentiary, where their food was deliberately oversalted and their mattresses were removed. Sometimes the men were suspended by "wrist breakers" from the walls. Typically, the windows of their cells were shut tight on hot days, making it hard for them to breathe.

Out of jail, the freedom riders joined mass demonstrations where the violent response of local police shocked the world. In Birmingham, police loosed attack dogs into a peaceful crowd of demonstrators, and the German shepherds bit three teenagers. In Birmingham and Orangeburg, South Carolina, firemen blasted protestors with hoses set at a pressure to remove bark from trees and mortar from brick.

On "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama, police and troopers on horseback charged into a group of marchers, beating them and firing tear gas. Several weeks later the marchers trekked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery without incident, but afterwards four Klansmen murdered Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life for the movement, struck down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968.

When white supremacists could not halt the civil rights movement, they tried to demoralize its supporters through terrorism. They bombed churches and other meeting places. They set high bail and paced trials slowly, forcing civil rights organizations to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. At a Nashville lunch counter sit-in, the store manager locked the door and turned on the insect fumigator. In St. Augustine, Florida, city officials who had promised to meet with black demonstrators at City Hall offered them an empty table and a tape recorder instead. In Selma, Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies forced 165 students into a three-mile run, poking them with cattle prods as they ran.

Random violence accompanied calculated acts. The Klan bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 killed four black girls. On the campus of the University of Mississippi, a stray bullet struck a local jukebox-repairman in a riot of white students protesting the desegregation of the university in 1962; violence from students and white supremacists attracted to the scene killed one reporter and wounded more than 150 federal marshals. In Marion, Alabama, 26-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson was gunned down while trying to protect his mother and grandfather from State Police. Not far away in Selma, a white Boston minister who had lost his way was clubbed to death by white vigilantes.

The more violent southern whites became, the more their actions were publicized and denounced across the nation. Increasing violence in the South's streets, jails, and public places failed to break the spirits of the freedom fighters. Indeed, it emboldened them and fostered sympathy and support with the general public.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required equal access to public places and outlawed discrimination in employment, was a major victory of the black freedom struggle, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was its crowning achievement. The 1965 Act suspended literacy tests and other voter tests and authorized federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used. African Americans who had been barred from registering to vote finally had an alternative to the courts. If voting discrimination occurred, the 1965 Act authorized the attorney general to send federal examiners to replace local registrars.

The Act had an immediate impact. Within months of its passage on August 6, 1965, one quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one third by federal examiners. Within four years, voter registration in the South had more than doubled. In 1965, Mississippi had the highest black voter turnout--74%--and led the nation in the number of black leaders elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.

Winning the right to vote changed the political landscape of the South. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, barely 100 African Americans held elective office in the U.S.; by 1989 there were more than 7,200, including more than 4,800 in the South. Nearly every Black Belt county in Alabama had a black sheriff, and southern blacks held top positions within city, county, and state governments. Atlanta boasted a black mayor, Andrew Young, as did Jackson, Mississippi--Harvey Johnson, and New Orleans, with Ernest Morial. Black politicians on the national level included Barbara Jordan, who represented Texas in Congress, and former mayor Young, who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter Administration. Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1965, although political reaction to his public opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam prevented him from taking his seat until 1967. John Lewis currently represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987. Lewis sits on the House Ways and Means and Health committees.

The enormous gains of the civil rights movement stand to last a long time. Yet the full effect of these gains is yet to be felt. "Equal rights" struggles now involve multiple races, as well as the issues of rights based upon gender and sexual orientation.