In the mid-1950s, the modern civil rights movement arose out of the desire of African Americans to win the equality and freedom from discrimination that continued to elude them nearly a century after slavery was abolished in the United States.
To confront the widespread segregation, disenfranchisement and violence faced by Black people on a daily basis, activists used different types of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to win public sympathy to their cause and bring about meaningful legislative change.
From a bus boycott to Freedom Rides to the fight for fair housing, here are seven pivotal moments in the civil rights movement.
1. Nine Black Students Arrive at Central High School in Little Rock
Though the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), state and local officials in a number of Southern states continued to block integration of their schools.
In 1957, the NAACP resolved to challenge these policies, enlisted nine Black students who agreed to register at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. When the students showed up for the first day of classes on September 4, they confronted a furious mob of white students and others, as well as 250 Arkansas National Guard officers sent by Governor Orval Faubus to prevent them from entering.
After a standoff that lasted several weeks, President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order that put the state National Guard under federal authority and sent U.S. troops to enforce the federal desegregation order. Escorted by members of the 101st Airborne Division, the “Little Rock Nine'' were finally able to enter Central High, though they faced continued physical and verbal attacks during their time there.
Meanwhile, television and newspaper coverage of the events in Little Rock drew international attention to the issue of school segregation, the battle over federal and state power and the growing civil rights movement.
2. Rosa Parks Refuses to Give Up Her Seat
Black activists in Montgomery, Alabama had challenged the city’s bus segregation before, but something different happened after December 1, 1955, when seamstress and local NAACP chapter secretary Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on the bus to a white passenger. In response to Parks’ arrest, the Montgomery Improvement Association and its young president, Martin Luther King Jr. led some 90 percent of the city’s Black residents in a boycott of the city’s buses.
Despite efforts by city officials and white citizens to thwart them, the boycotters stayed firm, organizing carpools or walking miles to work every day to continue their protest.
In June 1956, a federal district court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s segregation of buses was unconstitutional; the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision in November. On December 20, King called for an end to the bus boycott after 382 days. “We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation,” he said.
The success of the Montgomery bus boycott demonstrated the effectiveness of nonviolent civil disobedience, and prompted its leaders to form a new civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with King as its president.
3. The Greensboro Four Sit at a Woolworth Lunch Counter
Another key moment in the civil rights movement began on February 1, 1960, when four Black students at the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University), sat down at a “whites-only” lunch counter inside a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, N.C. and refused to leave when they were denied service.
They stayed seated until closing time, and the following day returned with around 20 other Black students; hundreds more had joined by the end of that week.
Fueled by media coverage, word spread quickly about the events precipitated by the “Greensboro Four,” sparking a wider sit-in movement in cities across the country organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
As a result of such coordinated resistance, dining establishments throughout the South were forced to integrate, including, by July 1960, the original Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro.
Like the bus boycott in Montgomery, the sit-in movement provided an early and potent example of how nonviolent civil disobedience could effect change in the civil rights movement.
4. The Freedom Riders Travel South
After the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in interstate bus travel in 1946, activists from the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation tested the verdict with an interracial bus ride through the upper South they called the Journey of Reconciliation. In 1960, when the Court extended the ban to include bus terminals, restrooms and other facilities, CORE decided to resurrect the idea of “Freedom Rides” to ensure that states were enforcing the rulings.
On May 4, 1961, seven Black and white activists boarded two buses bound from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. As they traveled deeper into the South, the riders faced increased violence, culminating on May 14, when a mob of some 100 people met the buses upon their arrival in Anniston, Alabama. One bus was firebombed, and the riders beaten by the assembled crowd, which included members of the Ku Klux Klan who had been permitted by local authorities to attack the riders without fear of arrest.
A new band of Freedom Riders soon took up the charge. Even as hundreds of riders were arrested throughout the South, coverage of their treatment by local authorities and citizens galvanized public opinion in support of their cause. In the fall of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission bowed to pressure from the Kennedy administration, issuing regulations that enforced the Court’s bans on segregation on interstate buses, terminals and other facilities.
5. The March on Washington Showcases Support for Civil Rights
A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, first called for a march on Washington in 1941 to demand jobs for African Americans in the booming wartime economy. Plans were canceled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to issue an executive order banning discrimination by defense industries.
Flash forward two decades, with President John F. Kennedy’s proposed civil rights legislation stalled in Congress, Randolph joined a group of leaders calling for a march to speed the progress toward racial and economic equality.
On August 28, 1963, some 250,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in a show of unity and support for the civil rights bill.
In addition to speeches by Randolph and other leaders, the assembled crowd enjoyed performances by music legends Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Last to speak was King, who delivered a 16-minute speech that would become one of the most famous orations in history. After the march, King and other march organizers met with Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House to discuss the need for bipartisan support for civil rights legislation.
Though Kennedy was assassinated that November, Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction—into law less than a year after the March on Washington.
6. Police Beat Protestors in Selma on ‘Bloody Sunday’
Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected voting rights for African Americans, efforts to register Black voters in southern states continued to meet with fierce resistance after its passage.
In early 1965, King and other civil rights leaders decided to wage a voting rights campaign centered in Selma, Alabama, where only 2 percent of Black residents had been able to get on the voting rolls. After an Alabama state trooper fatally shot a young demonstrator, Jimmie Lee Jackson, civil rights leaders planned a protest march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, some 54 miles away.
On Sunday, March 7, Alabama state troopers wielding night sticks, tear gas and other weapons rushed the group of some 600 marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge, beating them back to Selma.
With images of “Bloody Sunday” broadcast across the world, the marchers drew wide public sympathy—and the support of President Johnson, who federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers along the way.
On March 21, some 3,500 marchers left Selma for Montgomery, arriving on March 25, when King delivered another iconic oration, known as his “How Long, Not Long” speech, on the steps of the state capitol. Less than five months later, Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the right to vote to all African Americans.
7. MLK Joins Marches for Fair Housing in Chicago
By the mid-1960s, despite Supreme Court decisions outlawing the exclusion of African Americans from certain areas of cities, racial discrimination in the rental and sale of housing remained widespread across the country.
Recognizing that lack of fair housing was a crucial component of racial injustice in the United States, King took a leading role in the Chicago Freedom Movement, a campaign of marches and demonstrations calling for open housing in that city beginning in 1965.
In August 1966, the movement won two important victories, when the Chicago Housing Authority agreed to build public housing in predominantly white areas and the Mortgage Bankers Association pledged to end discriminatory lending practices.
On April 4, 1968, with proposed federal fair housing legislation stalled in Congress, King was assassinated in Memphis. Just one week later, in King’s honor, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, which became the final major legislative achievement of the civil rights movement.
The law protected buyers or renters of housing from discrimination, making it unlawful for sellers, landlords and financial institutions to refuse to sell, rent or provide financing for a dwelling based on factors other than an individual’s financial resources—including race, religion or national origin.