ALT: Lyndon Baines Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Images)
During the early 20th century in the American South, racial segregation was the norm, and blacks had limited opportunities. But the 1950s brought forces to bear that would launch a powerful civil rights campaign. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a gifted orator who had been influenced by India’s Mahatma Gandhi in his belief in nonviolent protest, rose quickly to lead the movement. It was a movement of children and adults, preachers and lawyers, sharecroppers and presidents. Those in the movement felt a sense of urgency, a sense that, no matter what, they could not turn back.
ALT: U.S. marshals escorting Ruby Bridges (AP Images)
U.S. deputy marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in November 1960. The first grader was the only black child enrolled in the school. Six years earlier, in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the U.S. Supreme Court ended legal school segregation. Brown put the law on the side of those who fought to integrate the public schools. However, as Southern states and counties resisted integrating schools, enforcement would absorb federal resources.
ALT: Police officer fingerprinting Rosa Parks (Library of Congress)
Rosa Parks is fingerprinted at a police station after her arrest in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Parks, a seamstress, boarded a bus headed for home. When a white man boarded, four black passengers were asked to stand in back. Parks refused. She was arrested for breaking Alabama’s segregation laws. A yearlong boycott of the Montgomery bus system, in response to Parks’ arrest, ended only after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional.
ALT: Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy at table with microphones (AP Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. (left), Fred Shuttlesworth (center) and Ralph Abernathy, pivotal leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, hold a press conference in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. All were Baptist ministers who led churches in Alabama. In the United States, black churches provided leadership to their communities; church leaders headed the civil rights movement as well.
ALT: Student walking past angry protestors (National Park Service)
September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford — one of nine black students attempting to attend Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas — is met with jeers. The Arkansas governor, defying a federal order, has National Guard troops stop the black students. Eventually, the U.S. Army, dispatched to Little Rock by President Eisenhower, safeguarded the entry of the “Little Rock Nine.” Still, the black students suffered a yearlong ordeal marked by mistreatment by white students, says historian Taylor Branch.
ALT: Students sitting at restaurant counter (Library of Congress)
Members of the North Carolina Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, shown at the Tottle House lunch counter in Atlanta in 1960, sparked sit-ins across the South. Sometimes the students would sing, talk and “let people know why we were there,” said Charles Neblett (right foreground). At other times, the students would be locked out and protest on the sidewalk. Sometimes, Neblett said, “We’d go inside, and thugs would put out cigarettes on us,” or pour hot coffee or condiments on them.
ALT: Bus with people holding posters out of windows (Library of Congress)
“Freedom Riders” hang anti-segregation signs from bus windows. In the early 1960s, the Congress of Racial Equality, an integrated group that promoted nonviolent methods to achieve racial equality, sent members to ride on public buses and trains to protest segregation of transportation networks. Freedom riders were beaten in Birmingham, Alabama; firebombed near Anniston, Alabama; and mobbed and handcuffed in Jackson, Mississippi.
ALT: James Meredith being escorted by federal officials (Library of Congress)
James Meredith, accompanied by federal officials, enrolls on October, 1, 1962, at the University of Mississippi. In September 1962, a federal court ordered the school to accept Meredith, a 28-year-old, black Air Force veteran. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett said he would not allow the school to be integrated. After white students rioted, President John Kennedy sent 10,000 soldiers to ensure Meredith’s safety on his first day of classes. Because he had earned college credits elsewhere, Meredith graduated a year later.
ALT: Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in jail cell (National Archives)
Martin Luther King Jr. looks through the bars of a Birmingham, Alabama, cell in April 1963. Civil rights leaders had been campaigning for desegregation in Birmingham. King was jailed for holding marches without a permit. While in jail, he responded to a published letter from moderate white preachers criticizing the campaign with his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” King said in the letter, which was written on scraps of paper and smuggled out in installments.
ALT: Martin Luther King Jr. waving to crowd on National Mall (AP Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington. King spoke to a gathering of more than 200,000 people who had come to Washington to demand legislation to ensure black people be given the same civil rights as whites. His “I Have a Dream” speech brought the crowd to life, with its simple images and repeated phrases; King said his people would not be satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
ALT: Coffin being carried through crowd (AP Images)
Mourners attend the funeral of one of four young girls killed in the September 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “We thought it would have been a safe place, but the racists didn’t think so,” said Wyatt Tee Walker, Martin Luther King’s chief of staff. In 1963, thousands of children came to the church for protest marches. Some were jailed; others were dispersed by police dogs and high-powered hoses. Photographs of such mistreatment brought the civil rights movement new worldwide support.
ALT: Lyndon Baines Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Images)
President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after presenting him with one of the pens used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law banned discrimination in public places and in employment, and provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities. In a television address after signing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson said of segregation: “It cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
ALT: Police beating demonstrators (Library of Congress)
John Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is beaten by a state trooper March 7, 1965, as he attempts to march with 600 others from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in a right-to-vote demonstration. Protestors walked into a force of state troopers and civilians who attacked them. Brutal television images of the attacks — known as “Bloody Sunday” — shocked the nation. Two more marches were attempted; the final one was successful. Five months later President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
ALT: People sitting at table to register to vote (AP Images)
Volunteers assist with voter registration in Americus, Georgia, on August 9, 1965. Although blacks held the legal right to vote, racists in the South had discouraged black registration through unfair testing or threats of violence. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the federal government authority over the registration process in six southern states. After 1965, black voter registration rose significantly in the South. In Mississippi, blacks were 7 percent of registered voters in 1965, but 70 percent in 1969.
ALT: Lyndon Baines Johnson and Thurgood Marshall (AP Images)
President Johnson, left, stands with Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall in Washington on June 13, 1967, following Johnson’s nomination of Marshall to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court, where Marshall had argued 32 cases. In 1954, Marshall won the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which declared unconstitutional state statutes that required the segregation of public schools by race. States no longer could condone segregated schools as being “separate but equal.”
ALT: Martin Luther King Jr. and others standing on motel balcony (AP Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders (from left, Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King and Ralph Abernathy) on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968. King was in Memphis to lead a peaceful march in support of garbage workers. His aides have said, looking back, that death was on his mind. At the end of his speech in Memphis, he said, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” King, while standing on the same motel balcony, was shot to death April 4, 1968.