Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Non-Violent Demonstrations

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Fragment from 'Still I Rise' by Maya Angelou

There comes a time when a people will no longer be held down. Historians have speculated as to the confluence of circumstances that led to the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Some say it was a response to the similarities between what was happening to blacks in the South and what we had fought against in WWII - how could we allow one and be against the other? Others say the advent of television, and the ability to see people being hosed by police on the nightly news, made it somehow more real than it had previously been. This argument has been brought back out in our own time with the repeated cell phone videos of black men being shot by cops. In truth, all of these factors and more contributed to the climate and ensured that a change was going to occur. Blacks were no longer going to accept separate and unequal. And while many in the South were reluctant to see their way of life change, there were those who were ready to see a change - whether they came in via bus from other parts of the country or sat bravely with friends at the lunch counter, or marched with others and faced arrest - there were people who stood up to authorities and defended what they knew was right.

Lives were lost in the fight for civil rights. Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 while visiting relatives in Mississippi because he reportedly flirted with a white woman - he was 14 years old. His killers walked away, having been acquitted and then admitted in a magazine interview that they killed him. Medgar Evers was shot in his own driveway - it took almost 30 years for a jury to convict his killer. Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four people died while involved in the Selma marches.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Non-violent demonstrations don't always end in non-violent results. And sometimes the victims of protests have nothing to do with the protesters themselves. Change doesn't come easily and it doesn't come without a cost.

As time went on, civil rights groups found themselves splintering into different factions over how to handle the issues they faced. Some wanted to take bolder stances and a more proactive approach. And even when a bolder approach was taken, there were still losses - Malcolm X and Fred Hampton both stand out as significant losses to the cause. Others continued to follow King's methods even after he was gone. In-fighting within an ideology or political party isn't a new concept but we can learn from the obstacles that civil rights groups faced in the 1960s.

Notable Supreme Court Cases:

  • United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968) - this decision ruled that a criminal prohibition against burning a draft card was not a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
  • Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288 (1984) - this case held that the regulations of the National Park Service which prohibited a group from overnight sleeping in conjunction with a demonstration on the National Mall and other federal grounds were not in violation of the First Amendment.
  • Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) - this case invalidated prohibitions on desecrating the American flag enforced in 48 of the 50 states. Burning the flag in this instance was considered protected speech under the First Amendment, as the flag was burned as part of a political protest.

Library Resources:

  • Claybourne Carson, et al., eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., E185.97.K5 A2 1992
  • Claybourne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, E185.92 .C37 1995 (Also available online)
  • Robert Justin Goldstein, Flag Burning and Free Speech: The Case of Texas v. Johnson, KF224.J64 G65 2000
  • Donald P. Krommers et al., American Constitutional Law: Essays, Cases, and Comparative Notes, KF4550 .K65 2010
  • Rufus Burrow, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Theology of Resistance, available online
  • Taylor Branch, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, E185.61 .B7913 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lunch Counter Sit-Ins

Freedom Riders

The Marches in Selma