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In the early 1940s, a public opinion survey revealed that the vast majority of white Americans believed Blacks were content with their social and economic conditions.
Uh, they were quite wrong.
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.
As legendary as these events are, however, they didn't 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.
Although the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 brought an end to the institution of slavery in the United States, Black Americans had learned again and again, year after year, that the definition of "freedom" depended upon many things: the goals of those in political power, the national economy, international pressures, the mood of the nation, and the strength of the Black masses and their leaders to influence all of the above.
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.
Right? 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.
But 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.
Right? Without a doubt.
And there are plenty 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. And of course we've got a few of 'em here just waiting for you.
Daisy Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir (2007)
In her memoir, Daisy Bates reveals the story behind the events that took place in Little Rock, Arkansas in September 1957. She recounts her own personal struggles as a young Black woman growing up in the South, and her path to becoming one of the leading figures in the moral, physical, and legal battle for school desegregation.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988)
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the Civil Rights Movement, historian Taylor Branch offers an extraordinarily detailed account of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the political, social, and cultural environment within which he worked.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
Historian John Dittmer narrates the stories of the lesser-known, regular people who provided structure, spirit, and strength for the movement. These working folk sheltered SNCC activists, staged boycotts of local white merchants, waited hour upon hour to register to vote, distributed food when federal programs failed to provide relief for the poor, and braved verbal and physical violence upon attempting to integrate movie theaters, parks, and swimming pools.
Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents (1998)
Historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr. provides a succinct account of the origins and the legal details of the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision illustrated by a variety of primary source documents, including political cartoons, editorials from national and local publications, and a White Citizens' Council handbill imploring whites to boycott N**** records.
Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)
In this intimately personal autobiography, Anne Moody describes life as a young Black girl growing up in the rural South. She offers vivid descriptions of a turbulent childhood, trials with discrimination, bigotry, and heartache, and memories of her participation in the fight against segregation.
Studs Terkel, Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992)
In Race, Studs Terkel interviews several dozen people from every walk of life. A police officer, a preacher, a nurse, a welfare recipient, a college student, a high school teacher, a housepainter, a civil rights worker, and a Ku Klux Klansman, to list a few. His subjects speak candidly about their perceptions of Black-white relations in America and the ways in which they feel these issues have affected their lives. Race is just one of the many oral narrative collections that Terkel has produced in an effort to reveal the complexity of the American experience.
Mavis Staples, We'll Never Turn Back (2007)
This album is a forceful reflection on the early years of the civil rights struggle, complete with pounding beats, chilling guitar rifts, and Staples' thunderous voice. In the emotion-filled "My Own Eyes," Staples recounts the night she spent in an Arkansas jail and sings of the profound affect the experience had upon her. "Down in Mississippi" and "99 and 1/2" are stand-outs, and the grinding Blues track "Turn Me Around" will have you singing along.
Various Artists, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Songs of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (1994)
This is a collection of folk songs from and about the Civil Rights Movement compiled by the Cultural Center for Social Change. Many of the tracks are original recordings by movement activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and the SNCC Freedom Singers.
Ray Charles, The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Recordings, 1952-1959 (1991)
With ballads, blues, and bravado, this is the most comprehensive collection of the early work of the sophisticated Ray Charles.
James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1962)
This is a powerful live recording and one that captures the interplay between Brown and his audience. It Includes the tracks "I'll Go Crazy," "Try Me," "I Don't Mind," "Think," "Please, Please, Please," "Strange Things Happen," and "Night Train."
Etta James, At Last! (1961)
This is the first full-length album from singer Etta James. You'll hear a sampling of her earlier R&B crooning, lots of cool Soul, and a bit of Blues. Includes the famous title track "At Last," as well as "All I Could Do Was Cry," "Tough Mary," "Sunday Kind of Love," and "Trust In Me."
The Murder of Emmett Till
The bold cover of a 1954 issue of Jet, and three photographs published in Jet's September 15th, 1955 issue. Mamie Mobley and her son Emmett, the mutilated corpse of 14-year-old Emmett Till, and Mamie Mobley standing before the body of her murdered son.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the cover of Time magazine, February 18th, 1957.
Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine
Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP and the Little Rock Nine who in September of 1957 desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Seated left to right: Gloria Ray, Elizabeth Eckford, Minniejean Brown, Thelma Mothershed. Standing left to right: Jefferson Thomas, Daisy Bates, Carlotta Walls, Terrance Roberts, Melba Pattilo, Ernest Green.
Birmingham Protests Confront Police
Birmingham police use attack dogs to remove a young protestor from the downtown business district. Other demonstrators, many soaked from the blast of firehoses, witness the attack.
The 1963 March on Washington
A view from the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963.
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (2004)
Director Keith Beauchamp utilizes archival film footage, photographs, and news clippings from the 1950s in addition to interviews with family and friends, to illustrate the context within which such a crime could occur. This documentary helps explain the impact of the murder and the trial upon the Till family, the African-American community, and the nation.
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
This HBO original movie stars Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Mystic River, and Boyz n the Hood), Malcolm-Jamal Warner (TV's “Dexter" and “The Cosby Show"), Andre Braugher (TV's “Homicide" and “The Practice"), and Cuba Gooding Jr. (American Gangster, Jerry Maguire, and Boyz n the Hood) as members of the first African-American combat pilot unit in the U.S. Army Air Force. Although it's not a documentary, the film carefully recounts the real-life struggles of these pioneering men, who served their country during World War II.
The Long Walk Home (1990)
The Long Walk Home stars Whoopi Goldberg as Odessa Cotter, an Alabama housekeeper who, like many of her friends and neighbors, chooses to walk miles to and from work each day rather than endure abuse and embarrassment on segregated buses. This historical drama chronicles both the sacrifices made by working Black Southerners during the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott as well as the risks some Southern whites took to cooperate with this protest.
Set in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962, Hairspray is one of those musicals for people who hate musicals. The town's teens defy pro-segregation parents and local leaders by integrating a local TV dance show, all while keeping every hair in place. The original version—there was also a remake in 2007—stars Debbie Harry (Blondie) and Sonny Bono (of Sonny and Cher), and features the acting debut of Ricki Lake.
Eyes on the Prize: Awakenings, 1954-1956 (1986)
Part one of the Oscar-nominated documentary about the Civil Rights Movement describes the early momentum of the struggle against segregation. The film recounts the Emmett Till murder trial, Rosa Parks' demonstration against Alabama segregation laws, and the vital role of the press in this stage of the movement.
Eyes on the Prize: Fighting Back, 1957-1962 (1986)
Part two of the Oscar-nominated documentary about the Civil Rights Movement chronicles the obstacles to the enforcement of a Supreme Court ruling against segregated public schools, including the turbulent months at Little Rock Central High School.
Eyes on the Prize: Ain't Scared of Your Jails, 1960-1961 (1986)
In part three of the Oscar-nominated documentary about the Civil Rights Movement, college students play a crucial role, staging sit-ins, boycotts, and protests throughout the South. The film also focuses on the efforts of the "Freedom Riders," an integrated group of activists who risked their lives to desegregate interstate buses and terminals.
Eyes on the Prize: No Easy Walk, 1961-1963 (1986)
Part four of the Oscar-nominated documentary on the Civil Rights Movement focuses on the goals, triumphs, and failures of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who emerges as the movement's visible leader. The episode concludes with magnificent footage of the March on Washington.
Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute enables us to explore King resources through the MLK Papers Project. This awesome resource includes biographical information, an encyclopedia of key players in the civil rights movement, and the text and audio for over a dozen sermons and speeches.
The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
This website includes biographies, press clippings, a timeline, and video interviews with many of the boycott organizers and participants.
"NPR: Emmett Till and the Impact of Images," NPR (2004)
NPR's Noah Adams reports on the publication in 1955 of photographs of the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the wide-ranging effect these photos had upon the Black community. Listen to interviews with those who remember being haunted, angered, and inspired upon seeing the pictures.
Shmoop's Historical Texts Section
For an in-depth look at the biggest historical speeches, documents, and court cases from history, head over to our Historical Texts sections. We've covered "I Have a Dream," "I've Been to the Mountaintop," "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and the Little Rock Nine executive order, just to name a few.
James Meredith to Thurgood Marshall
Letter from James H. Meredith to Thurgood Marshall regarding Meredith's application to the University of Mississippi, January 1961.
John F. Kennedy's Address on Civil Rights
Read the full text of John F. Kennedy's civil rights speech delivered on national television on June 11th, 1963.
Bob Dylan on the Death of Emmett Till
Lyrics to "The Death of Emmett Till," by Bob Dylan.