While the Civil Rights movement began soon after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments it would gain momentum in the 1950s with the key Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education overturning segregation. Even with the landmark Supreme Court decision, segregation did not end in a timely fashion. For the next years, both violent and anti-violent incidents characterized the movement. Eventually, the civil rights movement would eventually see gains for African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and women.


Hugo Black was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. He is noted for his “strict constructionist” reading of the Constitution. Strict constructionism confines the interpretation of law to the words and phrases it contains, without drawing upon other sources or inferences. Black took the position (which has never been adopted by the Supreme Court as a whole) that the Fourteenth Amendment required the incorporation of all the Bill of Rights protections to state governments. This theory is known as “total incorporation.”

Black wrote many well-known majority opinions, as well as famous dissents. His reading of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech led him to argue that the government cannot ban “obscene” speech. He also held in New York Times v. United States (1971) that national security did not allow the government to prevent the publication of sensitive information. He upheld strict separation of church and state in Engel v. Vitale (1962) referencing Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists.

His strict constructionist reading of the Constitution also informed his dissent in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) where he asserted that wearing armbands was “conduct” and not “speech.” He also dissented in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) rejecting the idea that the Constitution protected a right to privacy.

Cesar Chavez was born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona. His parents lost their farm in the Great Depression, and the family moved from place to place, working the fields. His father had been injured in a car accident, so after eighth grade, young Chavez took responsibility for his family and became a farm worker.

In 1962, Chavez exercised his First Amendment freedom of assembly and founded the National Farm Workers Association, later called the United Farm Workers. This union fought for contracts, safe conditions, higher wages, and job security for union members. He led a nationwide boycott of grapes to increase support for the United Farm Workers.

Though his critics point out that unionized farm labor resulted in great numbers of willing workers being turned away from jobs, Cesar Chavez’s perseverance brought the experiences of migrant workers to national attention.

Orval Faubus, born in 1910, served as the Democratic Governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967, longer than any other governor in Arkansas history. He gained national attention in 1957 when he ordered the Arkansas National Guard to stop nine young African Americans from integrating Little Rock Central High School. He defended his actions by saying that he was seeking to maintain order and the status quo. Some believe that he supported segregation for political reasons. Segregationists were making a strong showing in the polls, indicating that moderates would not be successful in winning office. President Eisenhower eventually sent U. S. Army troops to Little Rock to enforce court directed integration and to protect the nine African-American students. Faubus died in 1994.
Betty Friedan, a writer and activist born in 1921, was instrumental in creating the National Organization for Women and is given credit for the modern women’s movement. In 1963 her book, The Feminine Mystique was published. It detailed the plight of women and their lack of personal fulfillment. She attributed this to the fact that women were judged on the successes of their husbands and children and not on their own merits. Later, she was a key leader in the struggle for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and after it failed she lobbied the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to support laws that prohibited sex discrimination in the workplace.
Hector P. Garcia moved to Texas as a young man when his family fled the Mexican Revolution. He attended the University of Texas and earned his medical degree in Galveston, Texas. He served in the Medical Corps during World War II where he was stationed in the European theater. The discrimination against Mexican Americans that he witnessed during the war led him to found the American GI Forum. It’s original focus was to increase veterans’ benefits for Mexican Americans but later broadened its focus to include education, public housing, and other policy areas. For this community service and activism, Mr. Garcia was awarded the American Medal of Freedom in 1984. He was the first Mexican American to receive this honor.
Barry Goldwater, born in 1909, served as a U.S. Senator from Arizona from 1953-1965 and 1969-1987. He was the Republican candidate for President in 1964 who was defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson in one of the biggest landslides in U. S. history. He was seen by some as an extremist candidate when he appeared to advocate nuclear warfare and ending social welfare. Many consider him to be the founder of the modern conservative movement within the Republican Party. Senator Goldwater felt that government was not the way to solve societal problems. Over time, he changed what some thought were his extremist positions, and in the 1980s he broke from the New Right within the party when they wanted to pass legislation that would have curtailed the power of the courts following controversial rulings on prayer in school and flag burning. He felt that this would have been a violation of the constitutional separation of powers. Mr. Goldwater died in 1998.
Dolores Huerta, born in 1930, left her job as a teacher to become a leading civil rights activist. She had witnessed the poverty and hunger of youngsters and felt that she could do more by organizing movements that would help provide more rights for migrant workers. She cofounded the United Farm Workers of America in 1962 along with César Chavez. Three years later she directed the national grape boycott that resulted in the California grape industry agreeing to the collective bargaining rights of workers. In 1972 she chaired the Democratic National Convention.
Lyndon Johnson was born in Texas where he worked as a teacher. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937 after campaigning on the New Deal Programs of President Franklin Roosevelt. During World War II, while serving as a U.S. Congressman, LBJ was called to active duty and served in the military as a Navy lieutenant commander. He eventually served six terms in the House before being elected to the Senate.

In 1960 Johnson was elected Vice President under President John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Johnson assumed the presidency. He urged Congress to adopt the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After being reelected in 1964, Johnson urged the nation to “build a great society.” Congress approved Johnson’s unprecedented series of social programs, which became known as the “Great Society.” The Social Security Act was amended to include Medicare for the elderly. The Voting Rights Act addressed discrimination in voting. Welfare programs were implemented to combat poverty and crime. Despite these programs, however, crime and poverty persisted, and race riots plagued the nation.

Johnson also exercised his power as Commander in Chief of the military during the Vietnam War. In 1964 he asked Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving him expanded war power to fight communism in Vietnam. In 1968, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection due to the growing unrest in the country over the Vietnam War. In response to questions about the president’s role as Commander in Chief, and the separation of powers under the Constitution during the administrations of Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973.

In 1971, the printing of classified documents pertaining in part to Johnson’s conduct during the Vietnam War were at the center of the Supreme Court case New York Times v. United States (1971).

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Georgia. He became a minister in 1947 and became pastor of an Alabama Baptist church in 1954. He believed segregation to be a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and led a boycott of segregated bus lines in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, which led to their integration the next year. Calling for non-violent resistance, he organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to fight for civil rights.

In 1963 King spoke at the March on Washington. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King electrified the crowd of 250,000 with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He referred to the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality.

While imprisoned for marching in April 1963, King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which is regarded as a manifesto of the civil rights movement. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King also led civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. Television cameras captured police brutality on peaceful marchers exercising their rights to assemble freely.

Throughout his life, King spoke to crowds who had assembled freely, in order to promote and expand freedom for Americans.

Lester Maddox, born in Georgia in 1915, grew up in a working class family. Experiencing poverty during his childhood, he quit high school and went into the domestic workforce during World War II. He became upset about what he saw as inefficiency and waste in the workforce. He opened his own restaurant, the Pickrick Cafeteria. As the owner of the Pickrick Cafeteria in Georgia, Maddox challenged the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by refusing to desegregate. When he lost his challenge in court, he chose to close his restaurant rather than desegregate. Media coverage of his defiance of the act provided him with publicity. Always interested in politics, Mr. Maddox ran as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1966. Once elected, many feared that his segregationist ideas might negatively influence the state. As it turned out, some of the policies of his administration benefited many African Americans. One of the most controversial events of his term was his decision not to lower the flags to half staff following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. His rationale for this was that he feared riots in his state.
Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of working-class parents and the great-grandson of a slave. Denied entry to his home state’s university school of law because he was black, Marshall instead went to Howard University Law School. He graduated first in his class, and soon after became a lawyer for the NAACP, working on a litigation campaign to end segregation and racial discrimination. His first civil rights case, Murray v. Pearson (1935), successfully challenged the University of Maryland segregation policy. He said that segregation cases transcended individual rights, but rather were about “the moral commitment stated in our country’s creed.” In his most famous case, he argued and won the Supreme Court case that ended segregation in public schools, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The University of Maryland later named its law library after Marshall.

In 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court. Through his career on the bench of the highest Court, Marshall expressed his commitment to the Constitution and principles of equality, individual rights and liberty, authoring opinions in cases including Regents of California v. Bakke (1978). Sometimes known as the “Great Dissenter,” he often broke from majority opinions. He believed capital punishment to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment in all circumstances, and dissented from all rulings that applied the death penalty.

Rosa Parks is best known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Rosa was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. As a child, she and her family lived on her grandparents’ farm. Rosa grew up in a time when African Americans were treated with disrespect just because of their race. She entered the first grade in a segregated school with over 50 children in her class and one teacher. The school went up to sixth grade and was open for only five months of the year rather than nine. In 1955 it was a law in Alabama that African Americans had to sit at the back of the bus if there were Anglo passengers needing seats. Encouraged by the NAACP, Rosa Parks agreed to make a stand against the law. One day Rosa was taking the bus home from work. She was sitting in the middle section of the bus when a white man boarded the bus. The driver told Rosa to move to the back, but she refused and was arrested. Angry African Americans began a boycott and refused to use public transportation, forcing the bus company out of business. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the beginning of the civil rights movement which led to the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960’s.
George Wallace, born in 1919, served as Governor of Alabama during the civil rights movement of the 60's and 70's. When he was elected Governor in 1962 as a Democrat, he ran on a pro-segregation, states’ rights platform. In his inaugural speech, he proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” In June, 1963, he stood in the door of the University of Alabama to block the admission of two African American students. By the time he ran for his last term as governor in 1982, he had undergone a political turnaround – from segregationist to winning support among African Americans. During his last term, he appointed a record number of African Americans to government positions. Wallace ran unsuccessfully for President of the U. S. four times. In 1968, as a candidate of the American Independent Party, he won 46 electoral votes from five southern states and 13.5% of the nationwide popular vote. This performance by a third party candidate had an impact on Hubert H. Humphrey’s defeat. Wallace remains the only third party presidential candidate since 1948 to have won electoral votes. In 1972, while campaigning in Maryland, a would-be assassin shot Wallace. He survived but was permanently paralyzed. Wallace died in 1998.
The Black Panthers (originally named the Black Panther Party for Self Defense) was a radical group in the 1960’s that advocated armed self-defense and a revolutionary agenda to immediately end black oppression. The more radical approach of the Black Panthers was dramatically different from the nonviolent approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. The founder, Huey Newton, chose the panther as part of the group’s name because of its powerful image. While the Black Panthers did advocate a more militant approach than did Dr. King, they also advocated self-sufficiency for African Americans including employment and decent housing. Some of their activities were designed to better their communities by providing daycare centers, medical clinics, and other services.
Documents/Supreme Court Cases
The first sentence of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment added to the U. S. Constitution in 1868 provides that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” This granted African Americans U. S. citizenship. However, Native Americans (American Indians) on their tribal reservations were thought to be excluded. It would be over one-half a century until passage of the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 before a large number of Native Americans would be granted U. S. citizenship. Prior to passage of the 1924 law, earlier laws such as the Dawes Act of 1887 had granted land to Native Americans under the belief that if they were landowners, they would pay taxes on the land and thus become productive members of society. In the 20th century, this idea that land ownership was directly tied to the grant of citizenship would be abandoned in favor of a more direct path to citizenship for Native Americans. Before 1924, some Native Americans were already citizens of their states by virtue of state government action. In addition, some had already acquired U. S. citizenship by marrying white men or through military service or special treaties or statutes. However when the American Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, it is estimated almost one-third of Native Americans in the U. S. were not considered citizens. President Calvin Coolidge signed the act into law. The law’s supporters acknowledged that it was passed partially in recognition of the service of thousands of Native Americans in World War I. The caption of the law read: “That all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided that the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.” The law did not include those Native Americans born before the law’s effective date nor did it include those born outside the U. S. It was not until later years that all those Native Americans born on U. S. soil were declared to be citizens. Some Native Americans given citizenship by the law did not acquire full citizenship rights until later because some states, which still controlled voting rights to a large extent, denied them voting rights. It is important to note that the Native Americans granted citizenship by the law did not surrender their tribal citizenship. Such dual citizenship for Native Americans was allowed. Native Americans themselves did not do much lobbying for the law. Rather, the law was largely shaped by Anglo individuals and groups. Some of the law’s supporters did so because of the “guardianship” status they felt the U. S. government should take to protect Native Americans whom they believed were being taken advantage of by non-indigenous Americans who wanted Native American land. They argued that the U. S. had an obligation to supervise and protect Native Americans. Some Native Americans who opposed the 1924 law were concerned about tribal sovereignty and citizenship, and simply did not trust the U. S. government. They argued that “U. S. citizenship was just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. How could these Europeans come over and tell us we were citizens in our own country? We had our own citizenship.” By its {the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924} provisions all Indians were automatically made U. S. citizens whether they wanted to be or not. Native Americans felt this was a violation of their sovereignty.
In 1954 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that racial segregation by law in public schools violated the equal protection of the law clause of the U. S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. Public schools were thus under court order to admit African American students to formerly all-white public schools. Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas at the time, opposed racial integration of the state’s public schools and called out the state’s National Guard to prevent nine African American students from entering Little Rock Central High School.

In his capacity as Commander in Chief, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730 in September,1957, bringing the Arkansas National Guard under federal control to assist in the racial integration of Little Rock Central High School. At the same time, Eisenhower also directed U. S. Army troops from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, to go to Little Rock to protect the young African Americans and guarantee that court orders would be executed.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law in September of that year, it was the first federal civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. President Truman laid the foundation for this law when he established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946 – a response to growing pressure from the African American community following World War II. Newly returned African American veterans were demanding the most basic of rights – the right to vote – that was being denied them in southern states. The Committee’s assignment was to assess whether government at all levels in the U. S. was adequately safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans and to recommend remedial measures to correct any problems detected. In 1947, the Committee issued a report to the President with the title, To Secure These Rights. The Committee concluded that African Americans were not the only minorities being denied civil rights in the U. S. and made several recommendations: (1) the creation of a permanent Commission on Civil Rights in the executive branch; (2) the creation of a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice headed by an Assistant Attorney General; and (3) the creation of a congressional Joint Standing Committee on Civil Rights. Because of roadblocks it took ten years to secure these modest recommendations with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Truman proposed legislation to abolish the poll tax, protect the right to vote for all citizens in federal elections, desegregate the armed forces, withhold federal funds from those who discriminate, outlaw discrimination in interstate transportation, make lynching a federal criminal offense, and eliminate segregation in the nation’s capital. He also recommended creation of a Civil Rights Commission in the executive branch, a Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Fair Employment Practices Commission, but Congress did not pass any of Truman’s proposals. Not to be completely outdone by Congress’ inaction, Truman accomplished some of the Committee’s recommendations through Executive Orders: (1) in 1948, an Executive Order desegregating the armed forces; and (2) in 1951, an Executive Order creating a Committee on Government Contract Compliance to make certain that those entering into contracts with the U. S. government comply with nondiscrimination requirements. Most observers at the time did not expect the election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower as President in 1952 to result in vigorous engagement in civil rights issues. However, events in the nation as a whole soon left the President, and eventually Congress, no choice but to engage themselves with civil rights issues. One such event was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) gradually chipping away at racial segregation in higher education through victories before the Supreme Court in cases such as Sweatt v Painter. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the famous case, Brown v Board of Education. Rosa Parks and the Alabama Bus Boycott in 1955 was still another crucial event in the growing civil rights movement. In 1956, in his State of the Union message, Eisenhower asked Congress to create a Civil Rights Commission to investigate charges that African Americans were being denied the right to vote. Later that year, he submitted proposed legislation to implement several recommendations made by Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. Eisenhower’s proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. After he was re-elected in 1956, he resubmitted his proposals to Congress. Just as Congress was considering what became the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance of nine young African Americans into Little Rock Central High School. Eisenhower sent U. S. Army troops to Little Rock to enforce the law. The House of Representatives passed Eisenhower’s proposed legislation, but in the Senate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina spoke non-stop for over 24 hours in a filibuster to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act. His effort finally failed, and the legislation passed with most southern senators voting “No.” At the time the Civil Rights Act of 1957 did not in reality do all that much in ending racial discrimination in the nation other than creating a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail in April, 1963 after he was arrested for participating in a civil rights march. It was an open letter meant to be read by all but was written to specifically address eight clergymen who had opposed his protests against racial segregation and his views on civil rights. King defended his exercise of First Amendment freedoms and explained what motivated his actions.

He wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He explained his struggle for natural rights, including those protected by the U. S. Constitution: “[W]e have not made a single gain [in] civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights.”

Finally, he urged nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of securing justice. He wrote: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws… Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”

King’s letter was published in newspapers across the country and helped to gain broader support for the civil rights movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in August,1963, when a quarter of a million people exercised their constitutional right of peaceable assembly to protest racial segregation and discrimination. King discussed the liberty and equality guaranteed in the Founding documents of the U. S. and how America was committed to the principle of extending those promises to all Americans, including African Americans. He said he and his fellow Americans stood in the “symbolic shadow” of Abraham Lincoln and referenced the Emancipation Proclamation, issued a century earlier, and its promise of freedom for slaves. “But,” he noted, “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” He continued: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” But, he pointed out, the country had defaulted on the promissory note, and freedom and equality were not yet a reality. Again referencing the Declaration of Independence, King proclaimed: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
In the early 1960s, several important events involving civil rights, and particularly racial discrimination, persuaded many citizens and political leaders that the time had come to act. In June,1963, President John F. Kennedy sent Congress a major civil rights bill, the heart of which was a proposal to forbid racial discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants and end employer discrimination. In August,1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and over 200,000 others participated in the March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In the fall of 1963, two events occurred which finally led to the passage of civil rights legislation. First, a bomb exploded in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young African American girls. Later in November in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson of Texas became President. Two days after Kennedy’s burial, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress in which he said that the greatest way to honor Kennedy’s memory would be to pass what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the U. S. Senate, the key to the success of the legislation was the Republican Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, and some other moderate Republicans, since it was known that many Democratic senators from the South would oppose the legislation. Congress based its constitutional authority to pass the law not on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection of the laws clause but rather on the power given Congress by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has several major provisions: (1) a ban on discrimination because of race, color, religion, or national origin in public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, etc.; (2) a declaration that any government agency receiving federal funds could lose those funds if engaged in unlawful discrimination; and (3) a declaration making it unlawful for employers, employment agencies, labor unions, or training programs to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in hiring, discharging, or conditions of employment.

When the law’s constitutionality was challenged before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1964 in Heart of Atlanta Motel v U. S. and Katzenbach v McClung, the Court unanimously upheld its constitutionality. As one historian has written, “it remains the broadest, most effective, and most important civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction.”

By the early 20th Century, denial of African Americans’ right to vote throughout the South was extensive and remained almost unchanged for the next sixty years. In December, 1964, returning from Europe after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King, Jr. met with President Lyndon Johnson and urged him to propose a voting rights bill to Congress. In early 1965, Johnson met several times with King and other leaders of the civil rights movement. In March, 1965, “Bloody Sunday” occurred in Selma, Alabama. To the horror of Americans watching on television, civil rights marchers were brutally attacked by Alabama law enforcement officers. On March 15, 1965, Johnson appeared before a joint session of Congress to propose a voting rights bill. Johnson began his address with these words: “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” He continued: “It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.” Finally, he concluded: “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Using the enforcement clause of the Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment, both chambers of Congress passed the Voting Rights Act by overwhelming votes, and Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965. Among the law’s major provisions are the following: (1) prohibits nationwide denial of the right to vote based on literacy tests; (2) certain state and local areas where less than 50% of eligible voters had voted in 1964 came under federal supervision and could only escape from such by demonstrating to the U. S. Attorney General that the area had not used any test or device that interfered with voting in the past five years; (3) state or local governments covered by the law considering any change in their voting or election procedures had to submit the proposed change for “pre-clearance” by the U. S. Department of Justice or the U. S. District Court in the District of Columbia; and (4) the U. S. Attorney General could send poll watchers and federal examiners to any of the covered areas to register voters and supervise elections. In 1966, in South Carolina v Katzenbach, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Congress reauthorized and extended the legislation several times in later years, including extending it to “language minorities” and requiring bilingual ballots. The law resulted in dramatic increases in the number of African American voters. However, the usefulness of the law has been called into question by a 2013 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, Alabama v Holder where the Court declared the “coverage formula” of the law unconstitutional.

Heman Sweatt was a 33 year old African-American from Houston, Texas, who wanted to be a lawyer. He applied for and was denied admission to the University of Texas Law School because he was an African-American. He sought and received assistance of the NAACP and its chief legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall (a future Supreme Court justice). At this time, the Supreme Court’s decision in 1896 in Plessy v Ferguson allowing states to segregate by race as long as the separate facilities were equal was still the law of the land. The problem in Texas was that the state had no law school for African-Americans. In 1947, the Texas legislature authorized the University of Texas to establish a law school for African-Americans in four rooms at a building in Austin. Sweatt declined to accept the offer, arguing that while this law school for African-Americans was certainly separate, it was not equal to the University of Texas Law School. After losing his argument in Texas courts, Sweatt appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the state of Texas and in favor of Heman Sweatt and declared that “the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that petitioner be admitted to the University of Texas Law School.” The Court found that in terms of volumes in the library, reputation of faculty, offering of courses, and available scholarships, the University of Texas Law School was far superior. Even in terms of intangibles like the ability to interact with his colleagues in the legal profession and the reputation of the University, the new law school for African-Americans was lacking. The Court thus held that Texas had not met the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” requirement.

A Kansas law permitted cities with more than 15,000 population to maintain separate public schools for African-American and white students. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, maintained segregated elementary schools. Linda Brown, an African-American third grader, and her family lived a few blocks from an all-white school in Topeka but was required to travel twenty-one blocks from her home to attend a school reserved for African-American children only. The NAACP chose this case to be a “test case” for several reasons. First, the case came from a northern state, not a southern state. Second, for all practical purposes Linda Brown’s school was equal to the white schools in Topeka. Linda Brown’s parents joined with parents of other African-American children and brought suit against the Topeka Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall, chief legal counsel for the NAACP and a future Supreme Court justice, represented the African-American parents. At the same time, class action suits were filed in three other states – South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware – where African-American children were also compelled by state law to attend racially segregated public schools. The Kansas case and the cases from the other three states were consolidated and appealed to the Supreme Court where they were argued and decided together. Marshall argued that the African-American and white schools were not equal in a number of ways, but more than that, he argued that segregated schools were harmful to African-American children.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the African-American parents and their children. In doing so, the Court overruled the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v Ferguson and its “separate but equal” rule. Speaking through Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court declared: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

On the same day the Court handed down its decision in Brown, the Court also ended racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia in Bolling v Sharpe.

In 1955, the Supreme Court heard reargument in Brown v Board of Education II. The Court was again unanimous, and this time, directed the public schools involved to admit “with all deliberate speed” students on a racially nondiscriminatory basis.

Pete Hernandez, a 21 year-old Mexican American, was drinking at a bar in Edna, Texas, when he became disruptive and was removed from the bar. He left, obtained a gun, returned, and shot another man in the presence of a number of eyewitnesses. He was indicted for murder by an all-white grand jury. His lawyers sought to quash the indictment and the empaneling of an all-white trial jury because persons of Mexican American descent were excluded from both panels. In the previous 25 years, in fact, no person of Mexican American descent had been selected to serve on a grand or trial jury or as a jury commissioner in Jackson County. The trial judge denied the motions, and Hernandez was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that because Mexican American citizens were classified as “white” under Texas law, no discrimination was found, and thus that court affirmed Hernandez’ conviction. The Supreme Court agreed to review that decision.

Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court which agreed with the arguments made by Hernandez’ attorneys and thus overturned his conviction. Warren wrote: “In numerous decisions, this Court has held that it is a denial of the equal protection of the laws of the Fourteenth Amendment to try a defendant of a particular race or color under an indictment issued by a grand jury, or before a petit jury, from which all persons of his race or color have, solely because of that race or color, been excluded by the state, whether acting through its legislature, its courts, or its executive or administrative officers. … Petitioner’s only claim is the right to be indicted and tried by juries from which all members of his class are not systematically excluded – juries selected from among all qualified persons regardless of national origin or descent. To this much, he is entitled by the Constitution.”


In 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, took a stand against discrimination by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger and move to the rear of a public bus. She wasn't the first person to do this. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin had previously been arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the same bus system nine months before. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus, she was also arrested. The strategic action by Rosa Parks led to a African American bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which lasted thirteen months. This non-violent stance against discrimination, drew attention to the problems of segregation, and the plight of African Americans in the South became visible across the nation. The bus boycott is considered one of the first major events associated with social changes occurring in the civil right movement.
Despite the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared segregation of “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, there was still resistance. This did not end with the second Brown Supreme Court decision, which ordered the states to end segregation with “all deliberate speed.” Governors in the Southern states argued that the federal government had no business trying to end segregation in public schools because education was a state power. Several Southern governors, including Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, resisted ending the practice. When nine African American students, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” planned to enroll in the all-white Little Rock Central High School, Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school to prevent them from entering. He argued it was necessary to keep the peace and defuse the volatile situation. President Eisenhower responded by ordering federal troops into the state to protect the students and allow them to enter the high school. This action showed Faubus and other Southern states that the federal government intended to enforce the Brown II decision.
In the early 1960s, civil rights activists conducted Freedom Rides on buses involved in interstate transportation. They rode buses through the Southern part of the United States to protest the continued practice of segregation despite two Supreme Court rulings that declared segregation in public transportation unconstitutional. In several Southern states, the KKK attacked the buses when they arrived at the bus depots, prompting the federal government to intervene. The federal government justified their interference by using the Interstate Commerce Act and claimed that once buses crossed state lines, the buses fell under the jurisdiction and protection of the federal government.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee known as SNCC was founded in 1960 and dedicated to promoting the non-violent commitment to civil rights in the United States. Under the leadership of chairman John Lewis, SNCC helped organize the March of Washington in 1963. SNCC also led bus boycotts, participated in sit-ins at lunch counters and Freedom Rides across the South. Lewis and SNCC were dedicated to the idea of ending segregation in the United States using non-violence even though they might be arrested and placed in jail for their protests.
On March 7th, 1965, a group of non-violent activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest voting restrictions placed on African Americans by the state of Alabama. State troopers and police met the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and attacked them with tear gas and nightsticks. The event known as “Bloody Sunday” was televised, which brought national attention to the movement. The outrage over the violent incident persuaded President Johnson the time was right to send a sweeping voting reform bill to Congress and resulted in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In 1963 over 250,000 people took part in a non-violent protest for jobs and freedom in the nation's capital, Washington D.C. The steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., provided a national stage for the struggle.There, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of the most powerful speeches in American history, "I Have a Dream." Media coverage of the speech showed Dr. King’s eloquence as a spokesperson and leader of the movement. It also allowed the nation to see that people of all races and religions supported the struggle for civil rights.
In 1963, members of the Birmingham Ku Klux Klan (KKK) bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. The bombing resulted in the deaths of four young girls and injured many others. The incident created outrage across the nation and again brought attention to the struggle for civil rights faced by African Americans, especially in the South. Eventually the men who bombed the church were brought to justice, although it took until 2002 for the final two to be convicted.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was part of the civil rights movement in the late 60s and early 70s. The group formed in 1968 to make the American public aware of the discrimination and mistreatment of Native Americans, despite the passage of the American Citizenship Act of 1924 and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. In 1973, two hundred Lakota Indians, who were also AIM members, seized control of Wounded Knee, a town on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Wounded Knee had been the site of the massacre of 250 men, women, and children by the U.S. cavalry in 1890. The Lakotas protested the failure of the U.S. government to fulfill promises made to American Indians in various treaties since the nation was founded. At first, the American public was sympathetic to their cause. However, the group lost support when their protest turned violent.
César Chavez successfully organized the National Farm Workers of America Union to defend Hispanic migrant workers. When his family lost their farm during the Great Depression, César traveled with his parents when they became migrant workers. His experiences with discrimination led him toward nonviolent protest as a way to help the plight of migrant workers. Chavez and Dolores Huerta organized the United Farm Workers of America. In 1965, he was instrumental in organizing a nationwide boycott of grapes after owners of the vineyards refused to work with the union.
In 1909, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was founded, by W.E.B. DuBois. At the time, the organization was dedicated to putting an end to the lynching of African Americans and securing rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. During the 1930s, the organization’s goals focused on economic justice, including fair employment practices, and outlawing job discrimination. The association’s efforts to end school segregation took center stage in the 1950s when NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued and won the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. Throughout the Civil Rights era, the NAACP supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as other laws designed to protect fair employment and housing practices. Today, most of the NAACP’s efforts involve fighting injustice in the courts and lobbying for continued reforms in Congress.
In 1955, 14-year-old African American, Emmett Till from Chicago, visited his relatives in Mississippi. While in Mississippi, he was brutally murdered by two white men after a white woman falsely accused Emmett of flirting with her. When authorities found the dead boy, Emmett's mother insisted that the body be brought back to Chicago for a public funeral, where the casket would be open for all to see his mutilated body. National newspapers carried pictures of his body in the coffin. An all-white jury acquitted the two men in a short trial and deliberation. Many in the nation were appalled at the lack of justice for this young boy. Within three months of his murder, the Montgomery bus boycott began, which signaled the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.