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Civil Rights Movement: Desegregation Introduction

In A Nutshell

The Civil Rights Movement is sometimes defined as a struggle against racial segregation that began in 1955 when Rosa Parks, the "seamstress with tired feet," refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Alabama. Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that attacked the notion of "separate but equal," has also been identified as the catalyst for this extraordinary period of organized boycotts, student protests, and mass marches.

These legendary events, however, did not cause the modern Civil Rights Movement, but were instead important moments in a campaign of direct action that began two decades before the first sit-in demonstration.


Why Should I Care?

The story of the American Civil Rights Movement is one of those tales that is told again and again and again, often with a few protagonists, a couple of key events, and one dramatic conclusion. We bet you know the gist of it: it all started when one unusually brave, and terribly exhausted woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus, to a section designated for "colored" people. Her heroism was the first of its kind, a bold and dangerous act that inspired thousands of people, most famously Martin Luther King, Jr., to march, protest, demonstrate, and speak out against segregation. Within just a couple of years, African-Americans had destroyed the barriers that existed between whites and blacks by banding together to boycott busses, sit in at lunch counters, and peacefully resist racist white citizens who sought to harm them. King and the movement won the support of the nation, and in August 1963, the world watched as hundreds of thousands of people—white and black—came together in peace to help grant King his dream of racial equality. Incredible! A century of racial segregation destroyed, and equal rights won, and in just under a decade!


Well, not really.

Rosa Parks was in no way the first, and certainly not the last, black citizen to resist "Jim Crow" laws in the South. In fact, her act had been inspired in many ways by the dozens—or, more likely hundreds—of people who had used their words and their bodies to fight treatment they found to be unjust in the decades leading up to that fateful day in December 1955. Parks, a member of the black rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was just one in a long line of brave and exhausted individuals. Yet, she happened to be the one chosen by black leaders to serve as a representative for a community oppressed by southern white injustice. A very strategic and effective move! Wait... Strategy? Now, if there had been a strategy, then surely there had been a "movement" prior to Parks' famous act.



So, when did that movement emerge and how? You may be thinking, "The Brown v. Board case—you know, the one that ended school segregation. That definitely came before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. That was pretty major, right?" Yes, it was undoubtedly major. Why? Well, the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling rocked the white South. In one righteous fell swoop, the Supreme Court ended school segregation in the South for good. Black children finally had access to equal education in the United States. And it is that revolutionary change that set the whole Civil Rights Movement into motion.



Although a monumental case that set a profoundly important legal precedent, Brown v. Board took many years to have much of an effect on southern schools. The dramatic pictures of national guardsmen escorting black students into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957—a full three years after the Brown ruling—is perhaps the most dramatic example of how difficult it was to enforce school desegregation in the South. In fact, even ten years after the ruling, only a handful of southern schools had been fully integrated and most school districts in the South continued to practice some kind of educational segregation. Still, as you, dear reader, pointed out earlier, Brown was "pretty major," and we shouldn't dismiss its importance. But, think about this: how did such a huge case, one that attacked the very foundation upon which the entire American South—since the Civil War—had rested, come to be? There has to be a story behind this story too.


Without a doubt!

And there are lots of other stories, often deeply personal ones, that lay beneath each of the most familiar symbols, moments, and heroes of this spectacular moment in American history. We have a few of them here, and think you might just be inspired to seek out more when you've finished reading!

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