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The early success of the Civil Rights Movement was because some people chose to do what was right, even though it was often hard to do so. Presidents, business leaders, judges, and then students chose to be fair instead of being prejudiced. They made decisions that were not popular, and sometimes even dangerous. The days of the great marches led by famous people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were still to come.

What made these people do what they did? Why did they decide to put their lives on the line and make other people angry with them in order to make change happen? Why did they look at injustice and decide that it was up to them to make change?

How was it that a few Americans, sometimes only children, helped beat back years and years of unfair laws and discrimination? What was special about them that made their goals work out in the end?

How did these people push the Civil Rights Movement forward?


The Civil Rights Movement of marches, boycotts, and great speeches by leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., that many Americans may be familiar with, did not suddenly happen. In fact, African Americans had been working to get the same rights that White Americans had for many years.

As amazing as it may seem, slavery has been present in the United States longer than it has not. The first slaves were brought to the Virginia Colony in 1619, and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution did not end slavery until after the Civil War in 1865. That’s a total of 246 years. Slavery has been in America 100 years more than it has not. It would be wrong to think that the control of millions of people because of their skin color did not leave a deep mark on our nation.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, three amendments to the Constitution were approved ending slavery, giving citizenship to Americans of all races, and giving the right to vote to all men. Together, these three major changes could have been the start of a totally new way of life in the South. However, after years of war, and another ten years of occupation of the states that lost the Civil War, people in the northern states grew tired of the project of Reconstruction. In 1877 the soldiers of the North returned home and gave up the project of creating a new South that was not segregated by race. White leaders in the South took power back and created a system of rules and laws which put them back in control.

The social order of the Old South returned. African Americans were at the bottom of society. They lived in the worst areas of town and had the worst jobs, or lived as hired farmers, living on the farm and always having to pay rent to the White person who owned of the land. African Americans could not eat in the same restaurant as White people, swim in the same swimming pools, drink from the same water fountain, or go to the same schools. They could not vote, run for office, and could not change their position in life. The treatment of African Americans as second-class people was total. It was everywhere, in jobs, schools, government, and even language. For example, White people were used to calling all African American men “boy,” no matter how old they were. This new system became known as Jim Crow.

At first, well-known African American leaders tried to improve the lives of their people through education. Booker T. Washington, for example opened the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but he was fearful that fighting openly for equality would lead to violence and more oppression.

It was not until the 1900s that African American leaders began calling for equal rights in public. Among the most famous was W. E. B. Du Bois and the other leaders of the Niagara Movement. In the 1920s the Great Migration brought thousands of African Americans to the cities of the North. Through the work of Du Bois and great writers like Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance led to the the idea of the New Negro, and the real fight for equality was born. With a new feeling of pride and knowing what needed to be done, African American leaders created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the early 1900s to fight for their rights in court.

During World War II, another important leader fought for equal rights. A. Philip Randolph, the head of the union of railroad porters, convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to make discrimination in businesses that did work for the US government illegal.

A lot of good things had been done, but there was still much more to do.


After World War II, America tried to show the world that countries with free democratic governments were better than countries with dictators. But our segregation system let the world see that, even though we said that we were free, millions of Americans were not allowed to have basic rights. In fact, the leaders of the Soviet Union and communist China threw this in our face every time American politicians said that the Soviet Union and China did not let their people have human rights.

One of the first changes to take place came in the world of sports. In 1947, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team decided to put Jackie Robinson on the field and broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Until then, the many talented African American baseball players had to play in the Negro Leagues. As African American fans rushed to see the Dodgers play, other baseball teams followed suit and let African Americans join their own teams.

Another bold move in the early post-war era, was the full integration of the armed services. In 1948 President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ended segregation in the armed services. No longer would there be Whites-Only or Blacks-Only units in the US military.

Primary Source: Newspaper

President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 was an important step toward integration in the country. Because he was Commander in Chief of the armed forces, he did not need Congress or the White people of the US to say that this was okay to do.

But baseball and the military were pretty easy to integrate compared to what most people experienced every day in the South. Nothing showed how dangerous the fight for civil rights was than the murder of Emmitt Till. Till was born and raised in Chicago, and he understood racism, but Emmitt did not grow up learning the harsh racial codes of the Jim Crow South. While visiting family in Mississippi in August 1955, he spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the White owner of a small grocery store. Exactly what happened at the store is not known, but Whites in the area believed that Till had been flirting with Bryant. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother went to the house where Till was staying and took the boy. They severely beat him and tore his body apart before shooting him in the head and throwing him in the Tallahatchie River.

Three days later, Till’s body was found and returned to Chicago where his mother insisted on a public funeral with an open casket so the world would know what had been done to her son. Photographs of Till’s beaten body were published in magazines and newspapers. This led to even more support for civil rights. The men who murdered Till were found innocent by an all-White jury. Everyone could see how White power was still a big part of the society of the South, kept alive with violence and fear.

Primary Source: Photograph

Emmitt Till was only a boy when he was killed. His murder brought attention to the Jim Crow system that used violence to keep Blacks separate from Whites.


One of the first areas of success for Civil Rights activists was in the courts. In 1896 the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision said that segregated schools were legal, so long as they were equal. But there was not equal spending in any schools in any state where there were racial education laws. Teachers in White schools were paid more, school buildings for White students were in better shape, and more money for teaching supplies was given to White schools. States normally spent 10 to 20 times as much money on the education of White students as they spent on African American students.

In the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by lawyer Thurgood Marshall, brought charges against public schools across the South, saying that the “separate but equal” law had not been followed. In 1954, in the famous Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, the Supreme Court said that “Separate facilities are inherently unequal.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the Court’s decision, and all nine members of the Supreme Court agreed. The Supreme Court had sent a clear message that schools had to integrate.

School leaders in the North followed the Court’s decision, but Whites in the South were angry. The Court had stopped short of demanding integration right away, instead asking local governments to follow the decision “with all deliberate speed.” Ten years after Brown, fewer than 10% of southern public schools had integrated. Rather than opening their schools to African Americans, many White leaders simply closed their schools. In one county in Virginia, for example, the White county government stopped sending money to schools. Instead, they provided money for students to attend private schools. Then they closed the public schools and turned them into private schools that took only White students. So, despite the Supreme Court’s decision, it took the work of many brave Americans to make integrated schools a reality.

Primary Source: Photographs

Many White Southerners were angered by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court.


Three years after the Supreme Court declared race-based segregation against the law, a face-off took place in Little Rock, Arkansas. On September 3, 1957, nine African American students tried to attend the all-White Central High School. When it was clear that White mobs were likely to violently stop the students, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called up the Arkansas National Guard to stop the students, known as the Little Rock Nine, from entering the school. After a federal judge declared the action illegal, Faubus removed the National Guard soldiers. When the students tried to enter again on September 24, they were taken into the school through a back door. Word of this spread throughout the town, and a thousand angry White people charged the school yard. As the police tried to keep the crowd under control, other worried people rushed the students to safety.

Amazed Americans watched on television as violent, White Southerners harassing polite African American children trying to get an education. Television began to influence public opinion, and President Eisenhower was forced to act. Eisenhower did not really support civil rights, but he was afraid that the Brown decision could lead to a stand-off between the US government and the states. Eisenhower did not believe the individual states had the right to go against the Supreme Court. On September 25, he ordered the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock and took control of the Arkansas National Guard in order to keep the Guard soldiers from carrying out Fabus’s order. It was the first time federal soldiers were sent to the South since Reconstruction. For the next few months, the African American students attended school with guards carrying guns to keep them safe.

The following year, Little Rock officials closed the schools to keep integration from happening. But in 1959, the schools were open again. This time both African American and White children attended school together.


Yet another challenge was made by a little girl. Ruby Bridges went to a segregated kindergarten in 1959. In early 1960, Bridges was one of six African American children in New Orleans who passed the test that determined whether they could go to the all-White William Frantz Elementary School. In the end, only Bridges chose to attend, and US Marshalls took her to class to protect her.

Bridges later said, “Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we were all very, very proud of her.”

Primary Source: Painting

Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” showed how innocent African American students who integrated the schools of the South were, plus the hate and the fight for power between Whites in the South and the US government.

As soon as Bridges entered the school, White parents pulled their own children out. All the teachers except for one refused to teach while an African American child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Ruby, and that was Barbara Henry from Boston, Massachusetts. For over a year Henry taught her alone.

The Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her to William Frantz Elementary. Her father lost his job at the gas station where he worked. The grocery store the family went to would no longer let them shop there. Her grandparents, who were sharecrop farmers in Mississippi, were forced off of their land.

Ruby remembers that many others in the community, both African American and White, showed support in many ways. Some White families continued to send their children to Frantz. A neighbor gave her father a new job, and local people helped to take care of the kids, watched their house to keep it safe, and walked behind the federal marshals’ car on the trips to school.

Bridges still lives in New Orleans with her husband, Malcolm Hall, and their four sons. After graduating from high school with both African American and White students, she worked as a travel agent. She now heads the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she started in 1999 to further “the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.”


In 1961 James Meredith applied to the University of Mississippi. He insisted that it was his civil right to attend the state-funded university. Despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the fact that the university was supported by all the people who paid taxes, it still had not admitted a single African American student.

In his application, Meredith wrote, “Nobody handpicked me… I believed, and believe now, that I have a Divine Responsibility… I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way to a degree from the University of Mississippi.”

His application was turned down two times. With the help of Medgar Evers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Meredith said that they had turned him down only because he was an African American, as he had a very successful record of military service and academic courses. After many lower court cases, the Supreme Court said that their Brown decision was correct, and that Meredith had the right to be admitted to the University.

The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, insisted that “no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor,” and the state’s law makers passed a new law that kept any person from being admitted to the University “who has a crime of moral turpitude against him,” or who had been convicted of any felony crime, or not given a pardon. The same day that it became law, Meredith was accused and found guilty of “false voter registration.”

President John F. Kennedy decided to step in, and with the help of his younger brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, ordered US marshals and army soldiers to go with Meredith on his way to school. When the marshals arrived with Meredith, a mob of angry Whites came to the campus and a riot broke out. During the course of a day, over 100 US soldiers and marshals were injured, and three people who were not soldiers or marshals were killed. The so-called Battle of Oxford ended the next day. The army and marshals never fired a shot.

Many of the University students made Meredith’s life very difficult in lots of cruel ways. But despite that, and always being isolated from other students, he kept on to graduate with a degree in political science.


The same year Meredith graduated, three African American students became the first to attend the University of Alabama. Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood had all been turned down only because they were African American. But a US district judge ordered that they be admitted.

Alabama’s Governor George Wallace had made a name for himself as a leader who strongly believed in segregation, promising, “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever.” When President Kennedy ordered the US Marshals to escort the students to school, Wallace made a show of standing in front of the door to keep them out. Kennedy then gave the order to federalize the Alabama National Guard. Four hours later, General Henry Graham ordered Wallace to step away from the door, saying, “Sir, it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States.” Wallace went on to give a speech pushing his racist ideas, but he finally moved, and the students were able to enroll in the university. It is one of the most remembered standoffs in the fight to let African American students enter the schools and universities of the South.

Primary Source: Photograph

The stand made by Alabama Governor George Wallace (on the left) at the door at the University of Alabama in 1963 is remembered as an important moment as White Southerners tried to hold on to the segregated school system of the Jim Crow era.


The brave decision to let Jackie Robinson play on an all-White baseball team, and his courage in doing so, broke down old barriers in sports. President Truman ended hundreds of years of segregation in the military. The individual decisions of students and their families to stand up against hate and prejudice and go to an all-White school was very dangerous. Those students could have easily been killed on their way to class. Standing up for African Americans was not popular back then. Millions of White people in the South were proud to say that they were racist and wanted to keep Whites and African Americans apart. Because of that, the decisions by President Eisenhower and President Kennedy to support the students instead of the White leaders who ran those schools was brave as well.

Without these people, the later work of Dr. King, and the Civil Rights marches and protests that most Americans are familiar with, probably would not have happened.



BIG IDEA: The Civil Rights Movement began slowly after WWII with the first big successes coming when the Supreme Court and then a few brave individuals ended school segregation.

African Americans have been working for their civil rights for generations. When slavery ended after the Civil War in 1865, three amendments to the Constitution were ratified that ended slavery, granted former slaves citizenship, and guaranteed voting rights to all men. However, a new system of laws was established in the South by White leaders the blocked these rights. African Americans lived as second-class citizens with no vote.

Segregation was a way of life in the South. African Americans could not eat in restaurants, go to movie theaters, or even drink from the same drinking fountains as Whites. Their children went to segregated schools and they rode in the back of city busses. This system was nicknamed Jim Crow.

In the early 1900s, African Americans had started working against this system, especially during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Some progress was made in the 1940s after World War II. The first African Americans began playing for major league baseball teams. Also, President Truman desegregated the military and eliminated blacks-only units. However, when a young African American boy was murdered in the South, an all-White jury set his White killers free, and it was clear that segregation in the South would be hard to change.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. This undid an older ruling. Despite their decision, most White leaders in the South refused to integrate their schools.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, nine African American students tried to enroll in high school. When mobs of Whites were going to attack them, President Eisenhower ordered the national guard to escort them to school.

Ruby Bridges became the first African American girl to attend her school when she enrolled in kindergarten. Federal marshals had to escort her to school so she would not be hurt by White mobs.

James Meredith became the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi. President Kennedy ordered the National Guard to escort him to school. For three days there was rioting as Whites tried to keep him out.

At the University of Alabama, the governor tried to stand in the doorway and prevent African Americans from enrolling.



Jackie Robinson: First African American baseball player to play for a major league team.

Emmitt Till: African American teenager from Chicago who was murdered by Whites in 1955 while visiting his family in Mississippi. His murder and open casket funeral brought national attention to the issue of Jim Crow segregation and racism in the South.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): Organization dedicated to promoting African American rights through the justice system. It was established in 1909 as part of the Niagara Movement.

Thurgood Marshall: NAACP lawyer who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case and was later appointed to be the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.

Earl Warren: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the 1950s and 1960s who pushed the Court to rule favorably on numerous cases related to civil rights.

Little Rock Nine: Group of African American students who integrated the main high school in Arkansas under the protection of the National Guard.

Ruby Bridges: African American girl who was the first to integrate Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. She became the subject of Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Life With.”

James Meredith: First African American student at the University of Mississippi.

George Wallace: Governor of Alabama during the 1960s who was a champion of segregation. His most famous line was “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”


Plessy v. Ferguson: 1896 Supreme Court case in which the court declared that racially segregated schools and other public facilities were constitutional establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine. It was overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended segregated schools by overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.


Battle of Oxford: Rioting by White citizens and the efforts by US Marshals and army troops to keep the peace at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith became the first African American student to enroll there.


Jim Crow: The nickname for a system of laws that enforced segregation. For example, African Americans had separate schools, rode in the backs of busses, could not drink from White drinking fountains, and could not eat in restaurants or stay in hotels, etc.

Executive Order 9981: Executive order issued by President Truman in 1948 ending racial segregation in the military.

Separate but Equal: Legal doctrine established by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that segregated schools and other public institutions were legal so long as they were equal.

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