In General Knowledge

Civil Rights in America: A History of Highs and Lows

To understand civil rights, especially the history of civil rights in the United States, it is important to understand the concept of human rights. According to the United Nations‘ Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, human rights “are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.”

Civil rights movements throughout the world are built on the belief that every person should be treated with dignity and respect.  The American Civil Rights Movement is no different, and while many disenfranchised groups have had to fight for civil rights, it is African Americans who have spearheaded the major civil rights movements in the United States.

America’s Early Civil Rights History

One could argue that the fight for civil rights in America, at least for African Americans, became an issue when the first slave was sold to the early settlers.  From that point, slavery, or indentured servitude as it was sometimes called, was a way of life.  And of course, not only African Americans were considered “less” than white people.  The Native Americans were forced from their land and consistently pushed west.

Unfortunately, for much of America’s history, both human and civil rights seemed to only apply to white people, and white males in particular.  The majority of racial diversity in America’s infancy was comprised of African Americans and Native Americans, but the white men ruled the new world. In fact, the judge in the 1857 United States Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford not only ” declared that all blacks — slaves as well as free — were not and could never become citizens of the United States,” but reversed the ruling of the Missouri Compromise, declaring it unconstitutional and making slavery legal in all territories of the United States.

It was not long after the famous Dred Scott decision that Abraham Lincoln was elected president.  In 1860, President Lincoln received 180 of 303 possible electoral votes and 40 percent of the popular vote to become the 16th president of the United States of America.  One month later, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana.  When the Confederates (the southern states which opposed President Lincoln and his anti-slavery stance) attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Civil War was officially underway.

The bloody history of the Civil War consists of many battles between the northern Yankees and the southern Confederates.  Battles were still being fought in 1863, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  It is important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation did not abolish slavery – a common misconception.  Instead, the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery in any Confederate state that had seceded from the Union illegal.  Southern states still part of the Union were allowed to continue to own slaves.  Slavery was not completely outlawed until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

The Civil War ended in 1865, when battle after battle forced the Confederate President Jefferson Davis to flee and the Confederate troops to surrender. The Civil War pitted brother against brother, North against South, and further separated whites and blacks.

Amendments to the Constitution

After the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln and the United States Congress needed to find a way to unite the country. As a way to start over, Congress proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution are known as the Reconstruction Amendments.  Each Amendment provides for rights for former slaves and the African American population as a whole. The Reconstruction Amendments were the building blocks for equality for all.

1.              The Thirteenth Amendment.  Unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery nation-wide, which meant it was illegal to make another person work for free (except in cases of punishment for a crime). The first Reconstruction Amendment was ratified in 1865, about seven months after the end of the Civil War. Southern states were required to ratify the 13th Amendment in order to rejoin the Union.

2.              The Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment took equality for African Americans a step further.  Adopted in 1868, this Amendment “defines all people born in the United States as citizens, requires due process of law, and requires equal protection to all people.”  Essentially, this Amendment prohibited states from treating African Americans any different from white people, at least politically.

Plessy v. Ferguson is an important Supreme Court Case where the Fourteenth Amendment played an important role.  The question decided in this case was whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Amendment made separate train cars for white and black passengers unconstitutional.  The answer, according to the judges, was that separate train cars for the two races were constitutional, as long as they were equal.  The decision in this case essentially legitimized the concept of “separate but equal.”

3.              The Fifteenth Amendment. The right to vote, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude (meaning former slaves), was the right granted under the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, although women would not be able to vote until 1920.

Obviously, the Emancipation Proclamation and the following Reconstruction Amendments did not fix all the problems between white and black American citizens.  In 1875, a third Civil Rights Act was passed in response to the common practices, especially in the south, of segregation and discrimination.  The “Whereas” clause of the Civil Rights Act states the reason for the act:

“Whereas it is essential to just government we recognize the equality of all men before the law, and hold that it is the duty of government in its dealings with the people to mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion, religious or political; and it being the appropriate object of legislation to enact great fundamental principles into law.”

On paper, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 seemed like good legislation, however the Act was “rarely enforced and was eventually overturned.”  In the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the Act could not be constitutionally applied to private business, and was therefore null and void.  A new Civil Rights Act would not be passed until 1964.

Jim Crow

Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism.” Named for a minstrel show character, Jim Crow laws were developed as a way of undermining the Reconstruction Amendments, restricting the freedom of African Americans, and supporting the notion that whites were the superior race.  In fact, even many Christin ministers in the southern states preached that white people were God’s chosen people, while African Americans, Mexicans, and other minority groups were seen as lesser and even evil.

According to the Jim Crow Museum, some of the laws enforced under the Jim Crow Laws included:

  • A black man and a white man could not shake hands since it implied social equality.
  • Every effort should be made to separate whites and blacks when eating or traveling, but if whites and black were forced to be together, whites should always be shown preference.  For example, if whites and black were eating together, the white people would always be served first.
  • Black people could not show affection for one another in public.  And of course, a black person could never be seen showing any type of physical relationship with a white person.

The punishment for a black person violating Jim Crow Laws could be severe.  Black people could be beaten by white people with no repercussions, as anyone prosecuting the white person would be a white person, too.  Lynchings were alarmingly common, as were burning crosses and kidnappings.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

The NAACP, according to, is “the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely recognized grass-roots based civil rights organization.

After the end of the Civil War, the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments, and the short life of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, racism, segregation and lynching were rampant.  In 1909, a group of both white and black Americans met to discuss what could be done to bring legitimacy to the Reconstruction Amendments. The NAACP was born.

The primary objective of the NAACP, then and now, is “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of the United States and eliminate race prejudice.”

Below is a brief timeline of the NAACP:

  1. 1909 – The NAACP is founded by a group of white and black individuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois.
  2. 1913 – Branch offices were established in major cities, including Boston, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Detroit, Michigan.
  3. 1917 – The largest civil rights protest in United States’ history took place in New York City, and consisted of 10,000 silent marchers holding signs.
  4. 1919 – “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1898-1918,” a pamphlet, is published.
  5. 1930s – The “Scottsboro Boys Trials” took place from 1931 to 1937, and the NAACP helped provide legal representation. The “Scottsboro Boys” were a group of nine black teenagers accused of gang-raping two white girls, and the NAACP helped bring attention to the case and the overarching mistreatment of blacks in the legal system.
  6. 1948 – President Harry Truman is the first president to formally address the NAACP.  President Truman also worked with the organization to generate ideas to improve the lives of African Americans in the U.S.

The NAACP remains a very active organization committed to addressing the civil rights of African Americans in the U.S.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954

The Supreme Court Decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, overturned the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and ended the practice of “separate but equal.” Brown V. Board of Education was not the only court case dealing with desegregation in schools, but it may be one of the most important cases in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.  As a quick summary, Brown v. Board of Education was about black parents who sued so that their daughter could attend an all-white school in their neighborhood.  The case meant much more than one little girl attending school, however.

The decision in Brown paved the way for school integration, but it was not a quick fix.  The decision only ruled that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but did not regulate how desegregation should be implemented in America.  The Supreme Court judges asked for desegregation plans from public school systems, but it took some time before schools were fully integrated.

Still, the Supreme Court Decision was a huge victory for the Civil Rights Movement.

Other Important Events in Leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964

  • Chicago resident Emmett Till, age 14, was kidnapped by two white men while visiting his cousins.  The two men were upset because they saw Till flirting with a white woman.  The men beat Till to death and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.  The men who killed Till, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, went on trial but, after just an hour of jury deliberation, were pronounced “not guilty.”
  • Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was arrested and the Montgomery black community proceeded to boycott the bus system for over a year.  The buses were desegregated on December 21, 1956.
  • Related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) was established. The boycott was led by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), of which Martin Luther King., Jr. was the president. After the success of the boycott, Dr. King and other black leaders in the south formed the SCLC to help organize the Civil Rights Movement.
  • The integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was a central event of 1957.  The “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be known, were nine black high school students who were barred admission to the high school despite the Brown decision.  The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, resisted integration, going so far as to dispatch the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance to the school.  Dwight Eisenhower was the President, and he responded to the Arkansas governor’s action by deploying federal troops to protect the nine black students.  This was important because the action showed America that its President was willing to go to great lengths to enforce the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Sit-ins became a form of non-violent protest in the 1960s after four black students were refused service at an F.W. Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter.
  • On June 12, 1963, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was murdered.  Evers’ killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was tried twice in 1964 but not convicted until 1994.
  • The March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial took place on August 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King., Jr. delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • A car driving past 16th Street Baptist Church hurled a bomb, killing four African American girls.  Violence erupted afterwards, and two more black kids, boys ages 13 and 15, were shot and killed by police.
  • The Twenty Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1964, abolishing the poll tax (or any other voting tax) and making it easier for black people to vote.
  • The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, according to, was a project to “carry out a unified voter registration program in the state of Mississippi.” Young black students were sent throughout the south promoting desegregation and registered African Americans to vote.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

We know that the Reconstruction Amendments: 1. Made slavery illegal; 2. Gave African Americans equal rights under the law; and 3. Gave African Americans, including former slaves, the right to vote.  But, none of these Amendments had much force of law.  There was still segregation in schools, violence against African Americans, and the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists groups were rampant.

In a speech on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to “enact legislation protecting all Americans’ voting rights, legal standing, educational opportunities, and access to public facilities.”  The speech followed a particularly violent series of protests, including what is often referred to as the Children’s Crusade.  The Children’s Crusade was an effective effort by Civil Rights leaders to train young people in non-violent protest.  Thousands of children, in an effort to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama and other areas in the southern United States, demonstrated peacefully but were still subjected to police brutality, including being sprayed with fire hoses, receiving beatings with police batons, and attacks by police dogs.

John F. Kennedy pushed his civil rights bill through Congress, but the bill, and the rest of America, came to a halt with Kenney’s assassination on November 22, 1963. When Kennedy died, the Civil Rights Movement lost a great supporter.

Fortunately, Lyndon Johnson, who became the President of the United States upon Kennedy’s death, realized the importance of the bill and worked to get it passed quickly, despite a filibuster in Congress from the bill’s detractors.

The major themes of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to integrate the black and white populations and included the following:

  • Barred unequal voter registration requirements.  In the past, it was harder for African Americans to vote because they needed to pass literacy tests, show land ownership, or pay expensive poll taxes.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made voting easier.
  • Outlawed discrimination in public places like hotels, restaurants, and theaters involved in interstate commerce.
  • States, cities, and government institutions were banned from discriminating based on race or sex.
  • Authorized the United States Attorney General to enforce the desegregation of schools.
  • Made it easier to move civil rights cases from courts with segregationist judges – giving African Americans a chance for a more fair trial.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not perfect, and like the Amendments and Civil Rights Acts before it, it was too often ignored, especially in southern states where people questioned its constitutionality.  But, the 1964 Act paved the way for more effective legislation in the future, and gave legitimacy and momentum to the Civil Rights Movement in America.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Was Not a Cure-All

The majority of Americans were happy that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, and Johnson was re-elected to another term as President.  However, schools did not instantly desegregate, the Jim Crow laws of the past were still practiced with impunity in some southern states, and violence still erupted.  Events, both good and bad, which took place after the Act was signed into law include:

  • The bodies of three civil rights workers were found in Mississippi after they had been missing for weeks.  Two of the workers were white and one was black.  The three young men (the oldest was 24) were arrested for speeding and, during the night, handed over to the Ku Klux Klan.  After a series of trials, only seven members of the Ku Klux Klan indicted served any prison time.
  • February 1, 1965 – Malcolm X is assassinated.  The history of Malcolm X as a civil rights leader is long.  He famously called for black freedom by any means, and in contrast to the non-violent protests popular with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., considered using violence as a means to an end.  Malcolm X was killed in Manhattan on the first day of National Brotherhood Week.
  • Bloody Sunday is “considered a catalyst for pushing through the Voting Rights Act” because of the attention the horrific event brought to the Civil Rights Movement.  On March 7, 1965, protestors demonstrating against the resistance to African American voting rights organized a march from Selma to Montgomery.  When the marchers reached a bridge, their way was blocked by Alabama State Troopers who ordered the marchers to turn around.  When they refused, the police officers beat the group with billy clubs and showered them with tear gas.
  • Bloody Sunday led to another march from Selma to Montgomery, this time under National Guard protection.  The United States passed the Voting Rights Act shortly thereafter, a sweeping piece of legislation that, among other things, banned the use of literacy tests and authorized the United States Attorney General to investigate how poll taxes were being used, which could still be used at the state level.
  • The Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia declares the law prohibiting interracial marriage to be unconstitutional in 1967.
  • Also in 1967, Thurgood Marshall is appointed as the first African American justice of the Supreme Court.
  • On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot outside his hotel room, which incited violence across the country.
  • Another Civil Rights Act is passed, this time in 1968, which prohibits discrimination based on race in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.  This act is also called the Fair Housing Act.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1968

The list above ends in with the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but that does not mean that the fight for civil rights was finally resolved.  Protests, some peaceful, some violent, still took place in response to racism around the country.  However, steps toward more equal civil rights for all Americans, like those with disabilities, women and non-English speaking students, were taken and those successes can be attributed to the efforts of the African American Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, black people still struggled to be treated equally, however it seemed as though the segregation and discrimination of the past had at least abated.  This period of time is sometimes referred to as the Post-Civil Rights Era, but there were some notable events.

  • In 1970, another important Supreme Court case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, was decided.  This case held that busing could be used as a way of fully integrating schools.  It meant that even if a school district’s area had a mostly white population, black students could be bussed in from farther away to achieve integration.
  • Black History Month was founded in 1976.
  • The first African American went to space under NASA’s space program.  His name was Guion Bluford.
  • The Cosby Show went on air in 1984, and while African American families had been featured in sitcoms before, The Cosby Show was the first sitcom that portrayed an upper-class family in that light.  It is now considered one of the defining sitcoms in television’s history.


A significant event on the Civil Rights Movement timeline occurred next in 1991.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Can’t we all just get along?” was voiced by Rodney King, an African American man from Los Angeles, California.  Mr. King was brutally beaten by four white Los Angeles Police Department officers, while many more watched, and the entire event was caught on tape.  Mr. King suffered 11 fractures, among other injuries.

In the weeks that followed, a grand jury refused to indict the 17 officers that stood by and let the beating happen without intervening.  One year later, the four officers who are shown beating King were acquitted of all charges.  This marks the beginning of the Los Angeles Riots.  Despite pleas from many groups for peace, including Rodney King when he famously asked why we couldn’t just get along, violent riots broke out in California.

The L.A. riots occurred over four days in 1992 and involved looting, fires, violence and the citywide shutdown of Los Angeles.  Curfews were enforced and both black and white leaders called for peace, but the National Guard was eventually brought in to enforce calm.  The fiasco’s disappointing result was that two of the officers who beat Mr. King were only convicted of violating his civil rights and served less than three years in jail.

Civil Rights Today

It is a new millennium.  We have smart phones, electric cars, and an African American president.  One would think that the dreams of the abolitionists, early civil rights leaders, and non-violent protesters would be realized by now. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems as though America’s history is too mired in white versus black to fully shake off its troubled past.

Barak Obama was elected in 2008 as the first black President of the United States.  This landmark event was a great triumph for the Civil Rights Movement, but President Obama had a lot of adversity to overcome.  Then, on February 26, 2012, a young black man named Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Florida.  This event was not the first apparently senseless act of violence against a black person, but it was especially shocking because Martin was a 17-year-old, unarmed kid who was not doing anything illegal. Zimmerman asserted that he shot Martin in self-defense, and was not convicted.

We can look at the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman as a starting point, or more accurately, as a re-starting point, addressing police brutality and racial profiling in America.  Picking up where the Rodney King trial left off, there was a divide between black people and white people in terms of justice in America.  The Twitter hash tag #blacklivesmatter started trending shortly after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the Black Lives Matter movement has grown from a phrase to a call to action.

After the death of Trayvon Martin, it was as if there was an epidemic of black deaths from police officers.  In fact, the popular list site Buzz Feed made a list titled “Unarmed Black People Killed by Police Over the Past Year.”

  • Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, when he was shot to death by a white police officer.  Debates still rage about whether or not Brown was armed or resisted the instructions of the police officer.
  • In New York, Eric Garner gasped the now well-known phrase “I can’t breathe” as police officers put an illegal choke hold on him.  The officer who used the choke hold was not charged in Garner’s death.
  • Tamir Rice, at age 12, was shot and killed by two police officers when they mistook his toy gun for a real weapon. The two police officers involved were not charged.
  • Freddie Gray was arrested for allegedly possessing a switchblade.  While in the back of the police car, the police assert that Gray suffered a medical emergency.  Gray later died from a spinal cord injury, and the police officers involved have been charged.

More and more police department are instituting the mandatory wearing of body cameras to document police action.  Americans are striving to make sense of the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police, but the dynamics between police and the African American population are often strained.

As the United States continues to deal with the issues of police brutality, the high rate of incarceration in the black population, and the political unrest of the 2016 presidential election, many are reminded that despite America’s long history of civil rights victories, the work on both sides is not done.

Civil Rights in Other Minority Groups

Civil rights for African Americans is still a struggle, but the foundation laid by the African American population toward equality has helped other minority groups make great strides.  For example, gay people are allowed to legally marry, and the practice of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has been outlawed in the United States Military.

Title IX was passed in 1972, which requires gender equality for boys and girls in all education systems that receive federal funding.

In 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act is passed, which bans job discrimination against people with disabilities and requires “buildings, businesses and public transportation to be accessible.”

A civil rights issue that has been in the news lately has been one of religious freedom, particularly when it comes to medical benefits, like offering birth control coverage under a health plan, and provision of services, like refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding.

What Does the Future of Civil Rights Look Like?

As the world deals with terrorism, civil unrest, and racism, as it has done for two centuries, America will have to find a way to establish an identity as a land of opportunity open to all types of people.

The country is still reeling from the attacks of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and countless other atrocities both within U.S. borders and abroad.  Acts of horror have been perpetrated by white people, black people, Islamic extremists, Christians and people from all walks of life. Sometimes, it seems as though opposing parties have too much to fight about.  Gun control, immigration, allowing refugees into the country – all of these issues are important but also detract from the civil rights issues African Americans are still facing today.

With the milestones that civil rights movements have reached, it is important for all Americans, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or political leaning, to come together to work toward equality for all.  America is a democratic country based on the ideals of freedom and equality for all, and the Civil Rights Movement is an extension of those ideals.

For further research, below are some important terms, names, and events in the history of the African American Civil Rights Movement:

  • Affirmative Action – A general term for programs designed to overcome inequality in institutions.  For example, giving African Americans preference in college admissions.
  • Colin Powell – The first African American to be appointed Secretary of State.
  • Condoleezza Rice – The first African American woman to be appointed Secretary of State.
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – A federal agency developed to enforce equal rights for all in employment.
  • Hate Crime – A crime committed against a person in a protected class because of that person’s status in that class.  Race, religion, sexual orientation, and disability are all protected classes.
  • Nineteenth Amendment – Ratified in 1920, this Amendment gave women the right to vote.
  • Racial Profiling – The practice of law enforcement targeting minorities.  For example, if a white man and a black man are each driving at the exact same speed under the exact same circumstances, a police officer pulling the black man over because of the color of his skin, and not because of any illegal action, would be racial profiling.
  • Reverse Racism – The assertion by white people and other majority groups that practices like affirmative action programs unfairly put them at a disadvantage.
  • Undocumented Immigrant – A person living in the United States without the permission of the United States government.  Essentially, an undocumented immigrant is a non-citizen living in the United States illegally.



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