The NAACP (1909–1940s)

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. Energetic and talented lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall (later the first African American Supreme Court justice) began fighting racial segregation and discrimination via the courts.

Brown v. Board of Education and Desegregation (1950s)

Encouraged by the NAACP, several black families around the country challenged school segregation laws by demanding that their children be allowed to attend white schools. These cases eventually reached the Supreme Court, where they were then consolidated into a few cases. In 1954, the Court issued a landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson by stating that the separate but equal doctrine was unconstitutional and that segregation in public schools was illegal.

In 1955, the Court issued another ruling (sometimes called Brown 2) that ordered lower courts to enforce integration “with all deliberate speed.” The phrase was intentionally vague, however. Brown 2 was an attempt to force an end to segregation without creating mass unrest. Many white southerners angrily protested the Brown decision, and many schools remained segregated. Although the courts ended de jure segregation (segregation imposed by law), de facto segregation (segregation due to residential patterns and economic factors) persisted.

The Bus Boycott (1955–1956)

In 1955, an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the colored section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of civil disobedience set off a yearlong boycott of the Montgomery bus system led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1956, a federal court ordered the end of segregation of the Montgomery bus system.

King and Nonviolence (1957–1960s)

In 1957, King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize campaigns to end segregation and discrimination. King advocated nonviolent tactics and encouraged peaceful marches, protests, and other acts of civil disobedience to achieve his goals. King’s peaceful approach had a tremendous impact on the nation because it contrasted so strongly with white southerners’ violent responses to his campaigns. In 1963, for example, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, ordered that his officers attack black protesters with dogs, fire hoses, and cattle prods. Many Americans saw this on television and were horrified by southern police brutality. King’s civil rights campaign culminated in the 1963 March on Washington. Speaking to several hundred thousand people on the national mall—and millions more watching on television—King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for a color-blind society and an end to discrimination.

Civil Rights Legislation (1960s)

In the mid-1960s, Congress passed several laws in an attempt to end discrimination:

Popular pages: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights