After World War II, African Americans and other civil rights supporters challenged segregation in the United States. Their efforts were strongly opposed by Southern segregationists. Eventually, the federal government began to take a firmer stand for civil rights.

The Origins of the Movement

What techniques did the civil rights movement use to challenge segregation?

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks left her job as a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, and boarded a bus to go home. In 1955, buses in Montgomery reserved seats in the front for whites and seats in the rear for African Americans. Seats in the middle were available to African Americans only if there were few whites on the bus. Parks took a seat just behind the white section, and soon all of the seats on the bus were filled. When the driver noticed a white man standing, he told Parks and three other African Americans in her row to get up so the white man could sit down. When Parks did not move, the driver called the police. 

News of Parks’s arrest reached the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which asked Parks whether her case could be used to challenge segregation. Parks replied, “If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good, I’ll be happy to go along with it.”

Parks’s decision would spark a new era in the civil rights movement. The struggle would not be easy. In 1896 the Supreme Court had declared segregation to be constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal doctrine. Laws that segregated African Americans were permitted as long as equal facilities were provided. The facilities provided for African Americans, however, were usually of poorer quality than those provided for whites. Areas without laws requiring segregation often had de facto segregation—segregation by custom and tradition.

Court Challenges Begin

The civil rights movement had been building for a long time. Since 1909, the NAACP had supported court cases aimed at overturning segregation. Over the years, the NAACP had achieved some victories. In 1935, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in Norris v. Alabama that exclusion of African Americans from juries violated their rights to equal protection under the law.

New Political Power

African Americans also enjoyed increased political power. Northern politicians increasingly sought their votes and listened to their concerns. During the 1930s, many African Americans benefited from New Deal programs and began supporting the Democratic Party. This gave the party new strength in the North. The northern wing of the party was now able to counter Southern Democrats, who often supported segregation.

The Push for Desegregation

During World War II, African American leaders began to use their political power to help end discrimination in wartime factories. They also increased opportunities for African Americans in the military.

In 1942 James Farmer and George Houser founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago. CORE began using sit-ins, a form of protest popularized by union workers in the 1930s, to desegregate restaurants that refused to serve African Americans. Using the sit-in strategy, members of CORE went to segregated restaurants. They sat down and refused to leave. The sit-ins were intended to shame managers into integrating their restaurants. CORE successfully integrated many public facilities in Northern cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Denver, and Syracuse.

Brown v. Board of Education

After World War II, the NAACP continued to challenge segregation in the courts. From 1939 to 1961, the NAACP’s chief counsel and director of its Legal Defense and Educational Fund was African American attorney Thurgood Marshall. After the war, Marshall focused his efforts on ending segregation in public schools.

In 1954 the Supreme Court decided to combine several cases and issue a general ruling on segregation in schools. One of the cases involved a young African American girl named Linda Brown, who was denied admission to her neighborhood school in Topeka, Kansas, because of her race. She was told to attend an all-black school across town. With the help of the NAACP, her parents sued the Topeka school board. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Southern Resistance

The Brown decision marked a dramatic reversal of the precedent established in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. Brown v. Board of Education applied only to public schools, but the ruling threatened the entire system of segregation. Although it convinced many African Americans that the time had come to challenge segregation, it also angered many white Southerners. Some became even more determined to defend segregation, regardless of what the Supreme Court ruled.

Although some school districts in the Upper South integrated their schools, anger and opposition was a far more common reaction. Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia called on Southerners to adopt “massive resistance” against the ruling. Across the South, hundreds of thousands of white Americans joined citizens’ councils to pressure their local governments and school boards into defying the Supreme Court. Many states adopted pupil assignment laws, which established elaborate requirements other than race that schools could use to prevent African Americans from attending white schools.

The Supreme Court inadvertently encouraged white resistance when it followed up its decision in Brown v. Board of Education a year later. The Court ordered school districts to proceed “with all deliberate speed” to end school segregation. The wording was vague enough that many districts were able to keep their schools segregated for many more years.

Massive resistance also appeared in Congress. In 1956 a group of 101 Southern members of Congress signed the “Southern Manifesto.” It denounced the Supreme Court’s ruling as “a clear abuse of judicial power” and pledged to use “all lawful means” to reverse the decision. Not until 1969 did the Supreme Court order all school systems to desegregate “at once” and operate integrated schools “now and hereafter.”

 The Civil Rights Movement Begins

Why was the Montgomery bus boycott successful?

In the midst of the uproar over the Brown v. Board of Education case, Rosa Parks made her decision to challenge segregation of public transportation. Jo Ann Robinson, head of a local group called the Women’s Political Council, called on African Americans to boycott Montgomery’s buses on the day Rosa Parks appeared in court. The boycott marked the start of a new era of the civil rights movement among African Americans.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Montgomery bus boycott had a successful outcome. Several African American leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to run the boycott and to negotiate with city leaders. They elected a 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead them.

Dr. King encouraged the people to continue their protest, but cautioned that the protest had to be peaceful:

"Now let us say that we are not here advocating violence. . . . The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. . . . If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic nation—we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime—we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right!"

—quoted in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1989


Martin Luther King, Jr., "Address to the Montgomery Improvement Association," December 5, 1955, reprinted in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 3, ed. Clayborne Carson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 72. Reprinted by arrangement with The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY. Copyright 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; copyright renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King

King had earned a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University. He believed that the only moral way to end segregation and racism was through nonviolent passive resistance. African Americans, he urged, must say to racists, “[W]e will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

King’s powerful words stirred African Americans in Montgomery to continue their boycott for over a year. In November 1956, the Supreme Court declared Alabama’s laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional. After the Court’s ruling, the Montgomery boycott was ended. Many other cities in the South, however, successfully resisted integrating their public transportation systems for years.

African American Churches

Martin Luther King, Jr., was not the only local minister in the bus boycott. Many of the other leaders were African American ministers. African American churches served as forums for protests and planning meetings and mobilized volunteers.

The Montgomery bus boycott had demonstrated that nonviolent protest could be successful. Dr. King, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Alabama, and other African American ministers and civil rights activists established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The SCLC set out to eliminate segregation and to encourage African Americans to register to vote. Dr. King served as the SCLC’s first president. The organization challenged segregation at voting booths and in public transportation, housing, and accommodations.

Martin Luther King, Jr., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000) Pg 341. Reprinted by arrangement with The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY. Copyright 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; copyright renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King.

Eisenhower Responds


How did President Eisenhower respond to the civil rights movement?

President Eisenhower sympathized with the civil rights movement, yet he feared the possible effect of a court ruling overturning segregation. Following the precedent set by President Truman, he ordered navy shipyards and veterans’ hospitals to desegregate. At the same time, Eisenhower disagreed with using protests and court rulings. He believed segregation and racism would end gradually, as values changed. With the nation in the midst of the Cold War, he worried that challenging white Southerners might divide the nation. Publicly, he refused to endorse the Brown v. Board of Education decision, remarking, “I don’t believe you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions.” Regardless, Eisenhower knew he had to uphold the authority of the federal government. As a result, he became the first president since Reconstruction to send troops into the South to protect the rights of African Americans.

Crisis in Little Rock

In September 1957, the school board in Little Rock, Arkansas, was under a federal court order requiring that nine African American students be admitted to Central High. The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, was determined to win reelection. He began to campaign as a defender of white supremacy. He ordered troops from the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the nine students from entering the school. As the National Guard troops surrounded the school, an angry white mob gathered to intimidate students.

Faubus had used the armed forces of a state to oppose the federal government—the first such challenge to the Constitution since the Civil War. Eisenhower knew that he could not allow Faubus to defy the federal government. After a conference between Eisenhower and Faubus proved fruitless, the district court ordered the governor to remove the troops. Instead of ending the crisis, however, Faubus simply left the school to the mob. After the African American students entered the building, angry whites beat at least two African American reporters and broke many windows.

The violence finally convinced President Eisenhower that he had to act. Federal authority had to be upheld. He immediately ordered the U.S. Army to send troops to Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. By nightfall, more than 1,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division had arrived. By 5:00 A.M., the troops had encircled the school, bayonets ready. A few hours later, the nine African American students arrived in an army station wagon and walked into the high school. Federal authority had been upheld, but the troops had to stay in Little Rock for the rest of the school year.

New Civil Rights Legislation

In the same year that the Little Rock crisis began, Congress passed the first civil rights law since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was intended to protect the right of African Americans to vote. Eisenhower believed firmly in the right to vote, and he viewed it as his responsibility to protect voting rights. He also knew that if he sent a civil rights bill to Congress, conservative Southern Democrats would try to block the legislation. In 1956 he did send the bill to Congress, hoping not only to split the Democratic Party but also to convince more African Americans to vote Republican.

Several Southern senators did try to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Senate majority leader Democrat Lyndon Johnson, however, put together a compromise that enabled the act to pass. Although its final form was much weaker than originally intended, the act still brought the power of the federal government into the civil rights debate. It created a Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice and gave it the authority to seek court injunctions against anyone interfering with the right to vote. It also created the United States Commission on Civil Rights to investigate any denial of voting rights. After the bill passed, the SCLC announced a campaign to register 2 million new African American voters.

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Reviewing Vocabulary



Using Your Notes

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