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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 who 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.


BIG IDEA: The Civil Rights Movement had its greatest successes in the early 1960s with mass demonstrations, marches and when Congress passed laws that ended Jim Crow segregation and voting restrictions.

African Americans in the city of Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the city bus system for over a year to protest segregated seating on the busses. The boycott started when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Martin Luther King, Jr. became famous as the leader of the boycott. Eventually they won and the city ended segregation on the busses.

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in nonviolence and civil disobedience. He founded SCLC to organize other protests. Other groups such as SNCC and CORE also were created and used nonviolence and civil disobedience.

Students staged sit-ins at lunch counters to protest Jim Crow laws that prevented them from eating at restaurants with Whites.

Freedom riders rode busses through the South to protest segregated waiting rooms at bus stations. They were attacked in Alabama and the KKK bombed their bus. However, their protest convinced President Kennedy to call for a law to protect civil rights.

Martin Luther King, Jr. led a campaign in Albany, Georgia to desegregate the city. Large numbers of people marched and were arrested. Their effort failed, but they learned new strategies.

In Birmingham, Alabama, the White police chief ordered dogs and fire hoses to be used against civil rights marchers. Images of police brutality convinced many Americans that segregation was wrong and that they should support the civil rights marchers.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech during a march in Washington, DC. He described a future for the United States when segregation and racism had been eliminated. He used the famous phrase “I have a dream.” The march convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.

In 1964, activists tried to register many African Americans in Mississippi to vote. Their activities were called Freedom Summer, but they faced extreme violence from Whites. When the KKK killed White supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, President Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate.

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march from the city of Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery to protest for voting rights. Police officers attacked the marchers. Finally, President Johnson ordered the National Guard to protect the marchers and the protest convinced Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.


BIG IDEA: In the later 1960s African Americans grew impatient with the slow pace of change and riots and violent confrontations became more common. With the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 the Civil Rights Movement lost much of its energy. Events in the 1980s and 1990s showed just how much work was still left undone.

African Americans in northern and western cities had suffered for decades. Their neighborhoods were poor and they had few job opportunities. Although they did not live in the South, their children attended poor schools and they faced discrimination when looking for jobs. Frustration boiled over in the 1960s and there were riots in cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, and Newark.

A government commission studied the riots to understand what caused them and to make recommendations to prevent future riots. In the end, however, elected leaders did not implement the commission’s recommendations.

Malcolm X was a leader of the Nation of Islam, an organization of African American Muslims. He believed that African Americans and Whites could not live together and that the best way to improve their lives was to become self-reliant. After he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and left the Nation of Islam, he began preaching a more inclusive message, but was killed by members of the Nation of Islam.

Some African Americans started to advocate Black Power in the later 1960s. They wanted African Americans to become self-reliant and to be proud. Some rejected nonviolence. One group, the Black Panthers, carried guns and promised to defend their neighborhoods from White police officers. The Black Power movement scared many Whites.

In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Riots broke out in many cities as the news spread. King is remembered as one of America’s greatest leaders.

President Richard Nixon won election in 1968 by promising Whites in the South that he would not use the power of the federal government to promote civil rights. This was different from Democrats Kennedy and Johnson who had promoted new civil rights laws and had used the courts and National Guard to enforce civil rights. Nixon was not totally opposed to civil rights. He opposed bussing but promoted affirmative action.

In the 1980s, drug use increased and politicians promised to crack down.  They passed strict laws and people arrested for selling and possessing drugs ended up in jail with long sentences.  These laws affected African American neighborhoods much more so than Whites.

In 1991, Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police when he was arrested. The attack was captured on video, however, the police officers were acquitted when they were put on trial. When the verdict was announced, a long riot broke out.

In 1995, football star OJ Simpson was put on trial in Los Angeles for murder. He was also acquitted. The OJ Trial was a media obsession. Many African Americans celebrated the outcome even though they believed he was guilty since is seemed like the first time one of their own could win in the justice system that had been biased toward Whites for so long.


BIG IDEA: Other groups were inspired by the African Civil Rights Movement and worked to improve their own standing in society. Hispanics, disabled and LGBTQ Americans all worked successfully to advance their rights. While these movements were mostly peaceful, the American Indian Movement included violent confrontations with government.

Hispanic Americans had won important victories in the court system in the 1940s and 1950s similar to victories won by African Americans. However, the biggest victories were because of the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California. They led a strike and boycott against grape growers and eventually won using nonviolence.

The Chicano Movement was a broader nationwide effort to promote Hispanic rights, identity and pride. It included organizing political groups, fighting for rights in the courts, and new music and art.

Native American activists formed AIM in 1968 to campaign for their rights. AIM occupied Alcatraz Island, led a march to Washington, DC where they occupied the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and also led a standoff at Wounded Knee. In each of these cases, their movement was more violent than the African American and Hispanic efforts. However, laws were passed that gave Native American tribes more control over their land and finances, and the movement led to an increased sense of pride.

Disability rights activists worked to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They succeeded in 1990 and now business and organizations have to ensure that their buildings and services are accessible to people with disabilities. There is still some opposition to the law from groups who believe the requirements (such as installing elevators) are too expensive.

The gay rights movement stated in 1968 when police raided a gay bar in New York City and the customers fought back. The movement gained momentum due to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s when the disease first spread among gay men.

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, a law was passed to prohibit homosexuals from working for the government. In the 1990s, President Clinton implemented “don’t ask, don’t tell” which allowed homosexual Americans to serve in the military so long as they did not reveal their sexual orientation. This policy did not end until 2011. Today homosexual Americans can serve openly in the military and government.

Also during the 1990s, Americans started to debate gay marriage. Some states began allowing gay marriage while others banned it. A federal law allowed states to ignore gay marriages passed in other states. Eventually in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was a constitutional right.