United States civil rights movement facts for kids

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During the United States civil rights movement, many different groups fought to be treated equally by the law and in everyday life. Most of the events in the movement happened between 1865 and 1980. Many times, the movement used civil disobedience and non-violent forms of protest. In some situations, riots and armed rebellion happened. The process was long, uneven, and included many different groups and people, with many different opinions.

Throughout history, in the United States, many groups have not been treated equally. This is called discrimination. These groups have included African-Americans, immigrants, Jews, Catholics, women, Native Americans, and other minority groups. People from some of these groups fought for equal rights during the civil rights movement.

The movement became famous around the United States between 1954 and 1968, especially in the South. The goals of the civil rights movement grew beyond legal rights to include human dignity, economic equality, social equality, political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by prejudiced people.

During the period 1955–1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced tense relationships between activists and government authorities. Forms of protest and/or civil disobedience included boycotts; "sit-ins"; marches; occupations such as Alcatraz Island (1969); and a wide range of other nonviolent activities. The results were actions by the federal government to outlaw discrimination and a change in public attitude toward discrimination.

The movement united people from many different backgrounds to help a wide variety of groups gain civil rights.

Racial and ethnic equality


Immediately after the Civil War, federal troops tried to enforce the civil rights of freed slaves in the South. The goal was to bring blacks and whites together into a single American society. However, after 1890, African-Americans lost the citizenship rights they had gained, especially in the South. Many white people still treated black people like they were not as good as whites. Also:

  • Southern governments made laws that required racial segregation (keeping blacks and whites apart). Black and white people could not go to the same schools, restaurants, or hospitals. They could not use the same bathrooms or water fountains. Everything was kept separate. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court agreed that segregation was legal in a case called Plessy v. Ferguson.
  • Southern states took away black people's right to vote (this is called disfranchisement).
  • Racist people were allowed to be violent to black people and immigrants, without ever getting in trouble. Lynching is an example of group violence against minority groups.

These racist laws became known as "Jim Crow laws."

At this time, discrimination was widely accepted throughout the United States. Discrimination against immigrants and religious minorities, as well as blacks, was normal in the country. Women could not vote and had limited educational and job opportunities.

Before 1955, people tried to change the Jim Crow laws by challenging them in court and by working for small changes in laws. However, by 1955, many blacks became frustrated by the government's slow ways of ending segregation. They also became frustrated with many white people's refusal to accept the end of segregation.

Civil rights leaders decided to use civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. Some of the different forms of protests and/or civil disobedience employed included:

Jesse Jackson, half-length portrait of Jackson seated at a table, July 1, 1983 edit
Jesse Jackson has fought for civil rights as his life's work.

These protests made many people around the country change their opinions about black civil rights and the civil rights movement.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the best-known protest. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Many compromises were made in order to unite the followers of so many different causes into one protest. The leaders of the march, informally named the Big Six, were A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer, and John Lewis. Although they had different political opinions, these leaders were intent on the peacefulness of the march, which even had its own marshal to make sure the event would be peaceful and respectful of the law. Later, the march was criticized for not featuring women and their issues in an important role.

Noted achievements of the civil rights movement in this area include:

  • The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that schools needed to be integrated (not segregated)
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 being passed. It made it illegal to discriminate in employment practices (like hiring) and in places open to the public (like restaurants, theaters, and parks)
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 being passed. This law protected the voting rights of people who were not white.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1968 being passed. It made it illegal to discriminate in selling or renting housing.

Black Power

By 1965, the growth of the Black Power movement (1966–1975) began to overpower the original "integrated power" aims of the civil rights movement that had been pushed by Martin Luther King, Jr. Supporters of Black Power wanted black self-determination. They said that integration made black people more like whites. They thought this took away Africans' of their common heritage and dignity.

At the 1968 Olympics, two black athletes did a Black Power salute.

Chicano Movement

The Chicano Movement was also known as the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement, and El Movimiento (which means "the Movement" in Spanish). Its goals were for Mexican-Americans to be more included in American society, and to have more political power. The Chicano movement blossomed in the 1960s and was active through the late 1970s in various regions of the United States. The movement grew partly out of the civil rights struggles that had come before it.

When the movement dealt with practical problems in the 1960s, most activists focused on the most immediate issues confronting Mexican-Americans. These were unequal educational and job opportunities; political disfranchisement; and police brutality. In the late 1960s, the Chicano movement used protest actions that were mostly unplanned. Examples included students walking out of their high schools in Denver and East Los Angeles in 1968, and the Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles in 1970.

The movement was especially strong among college students. College activists formed MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, which promoted Chicano Studies college programs.

American Indian Movement

Flag of the American Indian Movement
Flag of the American Indian Movement

At a time when peaceful sit-ins were a common protest tactic, the American Indian Movement (AIM) takeovers in their early days were noticeably violent. Some appeared to be unplanned results of protests. However, in others, activists used weapons to take over public places. For example, in the Wounded Knee incident,

AIM had not yet been formed in 1969 when activists occupied Alcatraz Island. However, the occupation encouraged activists to create AIM.

In 1970, AIM occupied abandoned property at the Naval Air Station near Minneapolis, Minnesota. When activists took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs Headquarters in Washington D.C. in November 1972, they destroyed the building, and 24 people were arrested.

Activists occupied the Custer County, South Dakota Courthouse in 1973. After a riot happened, police ended the occupation.

In 1973, in the Wounded Knee incident, about 200 AIM members took over the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The standoff between activists and military forces lasted 71 days, and two men died in the violence.

Later, AIM led the "Longest Walk 2." This 8,200-mile (13,200 km) walk had started from the San Francisco Bay area, and ended in Washington, D.C. in July 2008. More than 100 American Indian nations, and other indigenous participants (like Māori) participated. The walk also had non-indigenous supporters. The walk's goals were to show the need for:

Gender equality

The feminist movement is often split into two categories. The earliest part of the feminist movement is called first-wave feminism. It focused on basic legal rights, like women's right to vote and own property. This movement helped get women the right to vote in the early 20th century.

second-wave feminism lasted from about 1963 to 1982. It had a much bigger set of goals. These goals included:

  • Changing social attitudes
  • Being able to have the same job opportunities as men
  • Being paid the same as men for doing the same work
  • Having the same educational opportunities as men
  • Having access to birth control and safe, legal abortion
  • Being able to decide whether to have a career as well as having children
  • Being able to decide not to have children
  • Improving the rights of female minorities
  • Having the same political power as men, including having female government leaders

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was a suggested amendment to the United States Constitution. It would guarantee equal rights to women. Alice Paul first wrote the ERA. In 1923, it was introduced into Congress for the first time. In 1972, it passed both houses of Congress. However, Congress also said that a certain number of states had to agree to the ERA by June 30, 1982. The ERA died when less than 38 states agreed. Twenty-one states have a version of the ERA in their state constitutions.

LGBT rights and gay liberation

Since the mid-19th century in Germany, activists have argued that civil rights include equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Most LGBT movements have called LGBT people a minority group. In the United States, the homophile movement of the 1940s, '50s, and early '60s agreed with these ideas.

In the 1960s, many things led to a new form of activism called gay liberation. The West was becoming more secular (less religious). There was the 1960s counterculture, where different kinds of people were more accepted, and where people were more open about their sexuality. There were also many new social movements happening at the same time. The Gay Liberation movement formed, and focused on building community and activism.

The "Gay Liberation" movement took its name from "Women's Liberation." ("Liberation" means "becoming free.") The Gay Liberation Front took its name from the "National Liberation Fronts" of Vietnam and Algeria. The slogan "Gay Power" was inspired by "Black Power" and "Chicano Power."

Gay Liberationists tried to change common ideas about gender and the family (for example, the idea that a family can only be made of a man and a woman). They used consciousness raising (educating people) and direct action (like protests). Gay Liberationists preferred the word "gay" to older words like "homosexual" or "homophile." They encouraged lesbians and gays to "come out" and tell their family, friends and co-workers that they were gay. They saw this as a form of activism, and a way to fight shame with gay pride.

In 1970, a group of lesbian feminists formed a group called Lavender Menace. They formed the group because other Gay Liberation Groups were made mostly of men, and because lesbian issues were not addressed in the Women's Movement. They encouraged people to see lesbianism as a feminist choice for women. lesbian separatism began to form.

By the late 1970s, Gay Liberation shifted to a more formal movement that became known as the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement. By the start of the 21st century, the movement focused on equal rights, including same-sex marriage.

Prison reform

At the beginning of the twentieth century, policy makers adopted psychiatric interpretations of social deviance. By 1926, 67 prisons employed psychiatrists and 45 had psychologists. The language of medicine was used. A goal of prisons became to "cure" offenders of their criminality. In fact, little was known about the causes of their behaviour and prescriptions were not much different from the earlier reform methods. A system of probation began, but often used simply as an alternative to suspended sentences, and the probation officers appointed had little training. Each officer had to watch several hundred people making assistance or surveillance practically impossible. Yet, a probation officer could revoke a client's probation status without going through another trial or other fair process.

In 1913, Thomas Mott Osborne became chairman of a commission for the reform of the New York prison system and introduced a Mutual Welfare League at Auburn Prison with a committee of 49 prisoners appointed by secret ballot from the 1400 inmates. He also removed the striped dress uniform at Sing Sing Prison and introduced recreation and movies. Progressive reform resulted in the "Big House" by the late twenties - prisons averaging 2,500 men with professional management designed to eliminate the abusive forms of corporal punishment and prison labor used at the time.

The American prison system was shaken by a series of riots in the early 1950s triggered by deficiencies of prison facilities, lack of hygiene or medical care, poor food quality, and guard brutality. In the next decade, courts recognized that prisons had rights in all these areas. In 1954, the American Prison Association changed its name to the American Correctional Association and the rehabilitative emphasis was formalized in the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

In segregated prisons in southern states, black prisoners had very bad living conditions. Some states contracted with farms or companies to provide prisoners as laborers. In integrated correctional facilities in northern and western states, blacks represented a disproportionate number of the prisoners, in excess of their proportion of the general population. Blacks were often mistreated by white correctional officers. Blacks also represented a disproportionately high number of death row inmates. Eldridge Cleaver's book Soul on Ice was written from his experiences in the California correctional system; it contributed to black militancy.


The struggle for civil rights and for the end of discrimination in the United States started before the nation began and continues today. The American Civil War grew out of concerns for voting rights, economic exploitation by Great Britain, and religious freedom. During the first half of the 19th century, the abolistionists sought an end to slavery. Following the end of the American Civil War, the Federal government sought to incorporate freed slaves and whites into a single society under a Reconstruction policy. Several amendments were added to the Constitution to protect the rights of all citizens, including former slaves. Following the end of Reconstruction in 1876, Southern states adopted Jim Crow laws which imposed racial segregation on blacks and took away their right to vote or to hold office. The Klu Klux Klan used violence against blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants.

Women demonstrated and marched demanding the right to vote and to hold office. In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote.

In the 1940s and 1950s, civil rights leaders used lawsuits to challenge Jim Crow laws as being contrary to the Constitutional Amendments that were adopted after the Civil War. In response, local governments claimed that they were providing "separate but equal" facilities that met the Constitutional test. (In fact, the facilities and services for blacks and minorities were inferior to those for whites.) In 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas ruled that "separate but equal" could not be used to justify segregation of public schools.

In the 1960s, civil rights leaders lead boycotts, sit-in protests, marches, and other non-violent demonstrations. This resulted in the adoption of Federal Civil Rights legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, employment, voting rights, and housing. It outlawed discrimination based on an "individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;" Also, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited wage differentials based on sex. This was followed by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (Pub. L. 111-2) to provide financial remedies for past wage differences.

American Jewish community and the civil rights movement

American Jews were one of the most actively involved non-black groups in the civil rights movement. Many Jewish students worked in concert with blacks for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as full-time organizers and summer volunteers during the Civil Rights era. Jews made up roughly half of the white northern volunteers involved in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project and approximately half of the civil rights attorneys active in the South during the 1960s.

Jewish leaders were arrested while heeding a call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964, that was the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a writer, rabbi and professor of theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York was outspoken on the subject of civil rights. He marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in the 1965 March on Selma. In the Mississippi Burning murders of 1964, the two white activists killed, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were both Jewish.

Brandeis University, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college university in the world, created the Transitional Year Program (TYP) in 1968, in part response to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. The program increased minority enrollment at Brandeis.

The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, and Anti-Defamation League actively promoted civil rights.

While Jews were very active in the civil rights movement in the South, in the North, many had experienced a more strained relationship with blacks. In communities experiencing "white flight" to the suburbs, Jewish Americans were more often the last remaining whites in the inner city neighborhoods. With black militancy and the Black Power movements on the rise, Black Anti-Semitism increased leading to strained relations between blacks and Jews in Northern communities. In New York City, most notably, there was a major socio-economic class difference in the perception of blacks by Jews. Jews from better educated upper middle class backgrounds were often very supportive of black civil rights activities while the Jews in poorer urban communities that became increasingly minority were often less supportive largely in part due to more negative and violent interactions between the two groups.

See also: African-American – Jewish relations and Brownsville, Brooklyn

Documentary films

  • Freedom on My Mind, 110 minutes, 1994, Producer/Directors: Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, 1994 Academy Award Nominee, Best Documentary Feature
  • Eyes on the Prize (1987 and 1990), PBS television series; released again in 2006 and 2009.
  • Dare Not Walk Alone, about the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, Florida. Nominated in 2009 for an NAACP Image Award.
  • Crossing in St. Augustine (2010), produced by Andrew Young, who participated in the civil rights movement in St. Augustine in 1964. Information available from AndrewYoung.Org.
  • Freedom Riders (2010), 120 min. PBS, American Experience.

Key figures

  • Ralph Abernathy
  • Norris Wright Cuney (1846–1898), Galveston, Texas union organizer and chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.
  • Frederick Douglass (circa 1818–1895), prominent abolitionist before the war, an author, publisher, and diplomat afterward. Douglass is considered the first black lead of national stature.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • John Mercer Langston (1829–1897), Virginia attorney, U.S. House representative, and president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University).
  • Malcolm X, influential advocate for African-American self-defense and self-determination
  • Rosa Parks, initiator of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • A. Philip Randolph
  • Robert Smalls (1839–1915), Civil War Union hero, U.S. House representative from South Carolina and founder of the Republican Party of South Carolina.
  • Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), educator, author, and first head of the Tuskeegee Institute.

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