The civil rights movement is widely seen as dating from 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
However, early equal rights organizations emerged in the late 1800s and the still-active NAACP and National Urban League were established in the early 1900s.
Black World War I veterans returned from abroad with a newfound sense of their rights and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s built black solidarity and self-respect. But African-Americans gained few civil rights in the first half of the 20th century.
School desegregation proceeded at a snail’s pace after Brown vs. Board of Education. Then, civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955 sparked a chain of protests throughout the South, as well as legislation outlawing segregated public transportation.
In August 1963, more than a quarter of a million people participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In one of the most important and wide-ranging legislative gains since Reconstruction, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, outlawing discrimination of many kinds based on race, color, religion or national origin.
For the next two years, the movement was dominated by efforts to obtain voting rights for citizens in the South where literacy tests and poll taxes had been used to disenfranchise African-Americans and other nonwhites. On Aug. 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, ending those practices, although other obstacles such as voter ID laws continue to serve the same purpose, according to civil rights groups.
Days later, riots broke out in Watts, an impoverished African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles. An official investigation “found that the riot was a result of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and growing discontentment with high unemployment rates, substandard housing, and inadequate schools,” according to the Civil Rights Digital Library. The Watts riots “jolted (Dr. King) awake to the struggles faced by urban blacks outside the South,” wrote Chicago Magazine.
In 1966, King brought his civil rights campaign north to Chicago, where he led a series of open housing protests in white neighborhoods.
During “the long, hot summer” of 1967, urban uprisings occurred in 159 U.S. cities.