Rapid expansion of civil liberties and rights in America occurred during the last half of the 20th century. So much so that one could say the birth of a new nation came as a result of the many protests held during that time and the legislation passed.
Numerous Supreme Court rulings, in particular Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, led the nation through the next 20 years of civil unrest and tremendous gains.
Martin Luther King Jr. Born to a prominent Southern minister in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. led many of the most significant civil rights protests of the Fifties and Sixties until his death on April 3, 1968. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to win that honor. King will be most remembered for the massive demonstration he helped organize in Washington, D.C., where a crowd of 200,000 stood on the Capitol Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
Rosa Parks. Known throughout the world as the “Mother of the civil rights movement," Rosa Parks changed the course of African-American history when she refused to give up her seat to a white male on December 1, 1955. Dr. King organized a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that lasted for 382 days, with 90 percent participation of blacks. The courts finally ruled that segregation of city bus services was unconstitutional (text). The success of that boycott sparked years of nonviolent civil-rights demonstrations, first in the South and later, all over the country.
Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. In a landmark case regarding segregation of schools, the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools violated rights established in the 14th Amendment. The case involved an eight-year-old girl named Linda Brown who had to cross Topeka, Kansas, to go to school, while her white friends attended a public school nearby. Even while the two schools were apparently equal, Brown’s parents argued that the schools were inherently unequal and that segregation has deleterious effects on children based on “intangible" factors. Thurgood Marshall, who worked for the NAACP and later became the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967, worked with James Nabrit Jr. and George E.C. Hayes on the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case, which overturned the Court’s previous Plessy vs. Ferguson case ruling of “separate but equal."
Central High School. The foregoing ruling was met by huge resistance in the states, and implementation of integration crawled at a snail’s pace. History was made in Little Rock, Arkansas, where federal troops were brought in to escort nine black students into Central High School in 1957. As a direct result of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the city received a federal court order to desegregate its public schools. In an attempt to thwart that order, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the “Little Rock Nine" from entering the Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower put the National Guard under federal control and sent in 1000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to enforce the ruling. Governor Faubus closed all Little Rock schools for nearly a year before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them to be re-opened in August 1959.
Civil Rights Act of 1957. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice was established in December 1957 as a result of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Headed by the Assistant Attorney General, it is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws passed by Congress. Given the assignment of voting rights enforcement and criminal civil rights violations, the division began with fewer than 10 attorneys and, as of 2002, had grown to 350. Since its inception, many of the most important court cases have been brought through the Civil Rights Division.
Civil rights activism raged on through the Sixties. During that time, the most advanced civil rights laws were passed and opposition toward the Vietnam War kept the country in a tumultuous state.
Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in. At the lunch counter located in the Greensboro’s Woolworth’s store, four black students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down and ordered coffee on February 1, 1960. The waitress refused to serve them unless they drank it while standing because the counter only served white customers. The following day they returned with more students, and sat in peaceful protest until the counter closed for the day, after never having been served. Thus began the “sit-in" style of peaceful protest by students, which took place in more than 100 cities across the country in 1960.
Freedom Riders. In an attempt to desegregate public accommodations (hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and concert halls), the first group of 13 Freedom Riders boarded two buses in Washington, D.C., on their way to New Orleans, Louisiana. Although the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate buses in 1946, blacks were still sitting in the back of the bus in the South and not permitted to use “whites only" restrooms in southern terminals. In 1961, riders on the first bus were attacked by an angry mob in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. Outside of Anniston, the second bus was firebombed after its tires had been slashed. Such violence prompted President John F. Kennedy to provide federal protection to ensure the riders’ safety on their journey to Jackson, Mississippi. Under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination in those places became prohibited.
Similar sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and other protests to end discrimination occurred in such public facilities as jails and courthouses. Article III of the act later prohibited discrimination in the use of public facilities.
University of Mississippi. At the University of Mississippi in January 1961, James Meredith had been denied admission because of his race. The black applicant filed a suit against the court, but it was not until the Supreme Court ruled on Sunday, September 10, 1962, that Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi. Twenty days after the ruling, federal marshals and Civil Rights Division attorneys escorted Meredith on campus. Federal marshals, U.S. Border Patrol officers and 97 federal prison guards were attacked within an hour by a mob that grew to 2000. Federal troops, totaling 16,000, were sent in to end the violence, but not before two persons were killed, 28 marshals were shot, and 160 persons were injured. Later passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public schools because of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.
La Causa. In California, Cesar Chavez organized a migrant farm worker strike and a 250-mile march in 1962 in an effort to bring about improvements in working conditions and pay for Hispanic farm workers. In the state where corporate farms had influential lobbies, Chavez was successful in improving working and housing conditions and raising the standard pay for migrant farm workers.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The civil rights spotlight fell on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when three black girls were killed in a bombing by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. None of the instigators of the bombing was prosecuted until 2002, when 71-year-old Bobby Cherry was convicted of murder.
Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March. Elsewhere in Alabama, Dallas County civil rights activists attempted unsuccessfully to register blacks to vote at the county courthouse in 1963 and '64. Protests began in early 1965 in Selma, Alabama, to bring national attention to voters’ rights issues, but were met with violence by Sheriff James Clark and his deputies. A small civil rights march ended with demonstrator Jimmy Lee Jackson dying from wounds inflicted during the march. A memorial march was held from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7 that also ended in violence.
Approximately 600 protesters were prevented from continuing a march on the outskirts of Selma by 200 state troopers who used tear gas, nightsticks, and bull whips while on horseback. Forced to return to Selma, 17 marchers were hospitalized, and a federal lawsuit requesting the procession's continuance was filed by King and his supporters. While protected by federal troops, the march proceeded on March 21 and ended with four Ku Klux Klan members shot and the death of Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white civil rights volunteer from Detroit. In response, President Lyndon Johnson said, “Mrs. Liuzzo went to Alabama to serve the struggle for justice. She was murdered by the enemies of justice who for decades have used the rope and the gun and the tar and the feather to terrorize their neighbors."
Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965 and is considered to be the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by Congress. It states that no person could be denied the right to vote on account of race or color. Making great strides in voters’ rights, the act abolished literacy tests and poll taxes imposed soon after the 15th Amendment of 1870 was ratified, granting blacks the vote.
March on Washington. After King’s Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March, he visited Chicago, Illinois, at the time the most segregated city in the country, where he launched a program to rehabilitate slums and provide housing for blacks. While in the North, King witnessed angry black youths who were disenchanted with peaceful attempts at integration. Upon this viewing, he shifted his focus to the Vietnam War and began to explore the possibility of a coalition between peace and civil rights movement participants.
With his attention on the domestic issue of poverty, King began to call for a guaranteed family income, threatening with national boycotts and disrupting entire cities with “camp-ins." These actions drew criticism from the NAACP and the Urban League, who believed that such behavior would spread the civil rights forces too thin, but King’s sense of timing was perfect. Students, teachers, intellectuals, clergymen and reformers rushed into the movement. King organized the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place on August 28, 1963. With 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his now-famous I Have a Dream speech.
Malcolm X. At one time a minister for the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm X used a more-militant style to achieve rights for blacks that he called “human rights," not just civil ones. Following the March on Washington, Malcolm said that, in terms of the excitement and degree of good feelings gained, he couldn’t understand why blacks were so excited about a demonstration “run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn't like us when he was alive." Malcolm delivered his most influential speech to date, "A Message to the Grassroots," at the Northern Grassroots Leadership Conference in Detroit, Michigan, in 1963.
Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, while addressing an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan. A telegram sent by Dr. King to Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, told of King’s sadness over
“...the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race."
Riots in other areas the country. The Civil Rights ideology began to spread to other parts of the country. Shortly after the Voting Rights Act was passed, riots broke out in Watts, a low-income area of Los Angeles, California, when accusations of police brutality against a black motorist were lodged. A riot at an after-hours drinking club in a black Detroit neighborhood in 1967 broke out as a result of a police raid there. The Detroit Police Department had a long history of harassment and brutality. It ended with the National Guard and the U.S. Army being brought in to restore order after weeklong riots that cost the lives of 43 people and $45 million in property damage.
As apathy began to creep into the consciousness of many former protestors, the Seventies ushered in a mixture of results for the Civil Rights movement.
This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:United States history
Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.
Understands individual and institutional influences on the civil rights movement (e.g., the origins of the postwar civil rights movement; the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on segregation; the leadership and ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; the effects of the constitutional steps taken in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government; the shift from de jure to de facto segregation; important milestones in the civil rights movement between 1954 and 1965; Eisenhower’s reasons for dispatching federal troops to Little Rock in 1957).
Understands how diverse groups united during the civil rights movement (e.g., the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest; issues that led to the development of the Asian Civil Rights Movement and the Native American Civil Rights Movement; the issues and goals of the farm labor movement and La Raza Unida).
Understands significant influences on the civil rights movement (e.g., the social and constitutional issues involved in thePlessy v. Ferguson(1896) andBrown v. Board of Education(1954) court cases; the connection between legislative acts, Supreme Court decisions, and the civil rights movement; the role of women in the civil rights movement and in shaping the struggle for civil rights).
Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:United States history
Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.
Understands how different groups attempted to achieve their goals (e.g., the grievances of racial and ethnic minorities and their reference to the nation’s charter documents to rectify past injustices; local community efforts to adapt facilities for the disabled.
Understands major contemporary social issues and the groups involved (e.g., the current debate over affirmative action and to what degree affirmative action policies have reached their goals; the evolution of government support for the rights of the disabled; the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement and civil rights of gay Americans; continuing debates over multiculturalism, bilingual education, and group identity and rights vs. individual rights and identity; successes and failures of the modern feminist movement).
Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society.
Knows major conflicts in American society that have arisen from diversity (e.g., North/South conflict; conflict about land, suffrage, and other rights of Native Americans; Catholic/Protestant conflicts in the 19th century; conflict about civil rights of minorities and women; present day ethnic conflict in urban settings).
Knows examples of conflicts stemming from diversity, and understands how some conflicts have been managed and why some of them have not yet been successfully resolved.
Knows how the racial, religious, socioeconomic, regional, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of American society has influenced American politics through time.
Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.
Knows some of the efforts that have been put forth to reduce discrepancies between ideals and the reality of American public life (e.g., abolition, suffrage, civil rights, environmental protection movements).
Knows historical and contemporary efforts to reduce discrepancies between ideals and reality in American public life (e.g., union movements, government programs such as Head Start, civil rights legislation and enforcement).