The movement's origins may be traced to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. The members of the NAACP, including W. E. B. Du Bois, envisioned African Americans taking a full and equal place in U.S. society—a radical position at a time when Jim Crow laws had erected a wall of legal segregation in the South, and when even in the North, black people were widely treated as inferior to white people.
The NAACP led legal challenges to segregation laws until, in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the doctrine of separate but equal in the field of public education. The NAACP continued its vigilance in the courts and soon won a series of decisions that outlawed segregation in other areas of American life, from public parks to prisons. Those legal victories provided the foundation for the modern civil rights movement, which strove to put the courts' decisions into practice despite the resistance of the white power structure in the South.
The first desegregation effort to capture national attention grew out of an incident in 1955, when an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a crowded Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man. When she was arrested, the African American community of Montgomery launched a boycott of the city bus system, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by a young, African American minister named Martin Luther King Jr., the protest eventually succeeded in the integration of the city's buses.
Civil rights activists of the early 1960s experimented with a variety of nonviolent tactics, from acts of individual defiance to mass marches and demonstrations. One of the most effective, the sit-in, was first put into practice in 1960 by four African American college students who refused to move from a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, unless they were served. In 1961, members of the Congress of Racial Equality carried out another peaceful protest. Called the Freedom Riders, the group set out in two buses to integrate bus stations from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.
The summer of 1963 witnessed major milestones for the civil rights movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by King and other ministers, targeted Birmingham, Alabama, for a major desegregation march dubbed Project C, for confrontation. The police responded by attacking the peaceful protesters with batons, fire hoses, and dogs. Television and newsreel footage of the brutal assault shocked viewers across the country and aroused a great deal of sympathy for the movement. That sympathy heightened on August 28, 1963, when King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to 200,000 people following the massive March on Washington.
The following year, during the Freedom Summer of 1964, large numbers of courageous young people from virtually all the major civil rights organizations traveled to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote. The civil rights workers remained determined in the face of threats and actual violence.
The political high point of the civil rights movement came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregated public accommodations and banned racial discrimination in hiring, union membership, and projects receiving federal funds. Other important civil rights legislation followed, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.
Even as those major legislative goals were being met, the civil rights movement was fragmenting. It had come to rely primarily on the energy of young activists, many of whom began to drift away in the mid-1960s. In addition, some militants, including Stokely Carmichael and other leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had become increasingly disenchanted with white participation in the movement and began organizing themselves around the concept of Black Power. The assassination of King in 1968 dealt a final blow to the movement. Nevertheless, the work of civil rights activists had succeeded in transforming American politics, reshaping American society, and improving the lives of millions of African Americans.
Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Penguin-Plume, 1990; Harris, Jacqueline L. History and Achievement of the NAACP. New York: F. Watts, 1992; King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969; Lewis, John. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.