Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

Civil Rights in the United States, A Brief History

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.


Desegregation did not happen overnight. In fact, it took years for some states to get on board, and some had to be brought on kicking and screaming. But before the Court ever got involved with school integration, the desegregation wheels were put into motion by another branch of the government - the president himself. In 1948, Harry Truman issued an executive order to integrate the armed forces after WWII. Even though it took three years for the army to fully act on the order, once it did, the military found that the earth still rotated and weapons still worked.

Schools are what we tend to think of when we hear the word segregation. And it was schools that the Court spent a fair amount of time discussing in its opinions on desegregation. But the Court had time to issue opinions on other matters as well. For instance, the Court defended Congress in its ability to draft legislation that would allow blacks to integrate with whites in the area of employment. The Court also supported Congress in preventing racial discrimination in facilities like restaurants. And the Court even went so far as to integrate love, holding that states could no longer prohibit interracial relationships. The importance of the Supreme Court's willingness to uphold civil rights for blacks cannot be denied; this is not the same court that decided Plessy v. Ferguson some 70 years before.

Notable Supreme Court Cases:

Library Resources:

  • George W. Noblit, ed., School Desegregation: Oral Histories Toward Understanding the Effects of White Domination, available online
  • Richard C. Cortner, Civil Rights and Public Accommodations: The Heart of Atlanta Motel and McClung Cases, KF224.H43 C67 2001
  • Kevin Stainback and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Documenting Desegregation: Racial and Gender Segregation in Private Sector Employment since the Civil Rights Act, HD4903.5.U58 S69 2012
  • Peter Wallenstein, Race, Sex, and the Freedom to Marry: Loving v. Virginia, KF224.L68 W35 2014
  • Rebeka L. Maples, The Legacy of Desegregation: The Struggle for Equality in Higher Education, LC212.72 .M37 2014

School Desegregation

Mildred and Richard Loving