Module 4. Our Story: African Americans


The Cold War era is the period that further inspired African Americans to mobilize against issues of racial segregation and demand racial equality. The end of WWII left the U.S. promising to promote self-determination of politically weak nations and the protections of humanitarian rights throughout the world. But if Americans could uphold these commitments for foreigners, what about the inequities at home? African Americans and other racially minoritized groups were asking these questions, which led to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

There were many hallmarks of the African American civil rights movement, and here are just a few significant events. The first hurdle to cross for the movement was to undo the years of segregation laws that prevented African Americans from exercising their fundamental rights as citizens of this country. The monumental court case to overturn racial segregation began with children attending schools, specifically Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda. She had to walk six blocks to catch a bus to attend an all-Black school; however, a White school was located much closer to their residence. Brown and other parents formed a class action lawsuit against the Board of Education to challenge segregation in schools. This case made it to the U.S. Supreme court, and the result was monumental. Brown v. Board of Education both gave momentum to the civil rights movement and took a great step forward in the fight for racial equality. In a single opinion statement given by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court overturned the “separate but equal” clause of 1890, ending racial segregation in schools. Read the monumental decision below.

Other strides were made to challenge segregation laws in Jim Crow states. To challenge segregation in public transportation, individuals like the infamous Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, and Sarah Keyes either refused to give up their seats, or remained sitting in ‘White’ sections of the bus until they were arrested. The consequential Montgomery Bus Boycott left buses in Alabama vacant for months, until racial segregation on buses was declared a violation of civil rights under the law. Later, the Freedom Riders, both Black and White members of the Congress of Racial Equity, or CORE, continued this work by checking the compliance of desegregation on buses.  The activists that defied long held racial norms were met with strong opposition, often turning brutally violent. Eventually, the Interstate Commerce Commission complied with desegregation laws.

Beginning in 1960, more young organizers staged sit-in protests in restaurants and diners.  Again, the sit-ins were meant to challenge segregation laws in these businesses that separated White and Black customers. Sit-in protesters would sit in ‘Whites only’ sections, attempting to be served. Again, the sit-in activists were subject to taunts, food thrown at them, and even beatings by Whites who wanted to maintain the dominant power structure. These protests began in North Carolina and later spread to other major cities.

Regarding racial protests and organizing, there were no other famous figures of the Black civil rights movements other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was key to grassroots organizing in this era, forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the SCLC. King and his supporters committed to non-violent protests – civil disobedience. The strategy was to create social change by disrupting civil order but also rejecting violent acts of opposition. King staged many marches and protests using this strategy, including the famous March on Washington D.C. in August of 1963. The “I have a dream” speech has been made famous since, but in the moment, inspired many to support racial equality.




To understand Dr. King’s stance on social reform.


Read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Answer the following questions:

  1. How does Dr. King define a “non-violent campaign”?
  2. Why does Dr. King emphasize the concept of waiting?


Eventually, all this organizing and demonstrating would result in legislative change. Under President Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. This act outlawed all discrimination in public facilities based on color, religion, sex, and national origin. Later, after further demonstrations that unraveled into violence, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, outlawing the denial of suffrage to African Americans through literacy tests, poll taxes, or any other means of disenfranchisement. Voting rights, a touchstone of American democracy and freedom, was finally within the reach of Black voters, with legislative measures to protect their rights as American citizens.


Officers waiting for approaching protesters
“Bloody Sunday Officers Await Demonstrators” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

Despite these various strides forward in the civil rights movement, at every step participants were met with aggressive and oftentimes violent opposition. The Freedom Rider buses were attacked and firebombed. Marchers in Alabama were met with attack dogs, fire hoses, and arrests despite their commitment to non-violence and the presence of children. In a devastating bombing of the historic Black church, the 16th Street Baptist Church was attacked, resulting in numerous injuries and the tragic deaths of four young girls. During the efforts to integrate schools, children were met with organized opposition in the Massive Resistance movement. Southern White politicians, school boards, and White parents worked together to stop desegregation. In some cases, they even closed schools down to prevent schools from becoming integrated.

By the end of the decade, the movement became somewhat fragmented. With the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, and numerous other protests and domestic turmoil throughout the nation, the movement lost some focus. In the case of the Watts Riots of 1965, a traffic stop of a Black man devolved into days long riots in the Los Angeles area resulting in numerous deaths and millions in property damage. The end of the decade found conservative lawmakers characterizing the civil rights movement as part of a nationwide issue of unrest and the rise of criminal behavior. The push for law and order, as well as the rise of the conservative right brought the civil rights era to a definitive close with the election of Reagan in 1980.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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