In December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a black woman named Rosa Parks insisted on sitting in the front of a bus.
The segregation laws in America’s deep south reserved the front section of public buses for whites, although most bus passengers in Montgomery were blacks and the front section was often almost empty.
Rosa Parks was arrested and jailed, which led to mass protests and a boycott of the buses, led by local black minister Martin Luther King.
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation was unconstitutional in 1954, Alabama’s white officials avoided integrating schools until 1963.
In September 1957 Governor Faubus of Arkansas used National Guardsmen to prevent nine black schoolchildren from entering the high school in Little Rock. President Eisenhower sent more than 1,000 Federal troops to escort the children to the school.
A group of anti-racist campaigners calling themselves the “freedom riders” toured the southern United States travelling on bus services to test whether Federal orders to integrate public transport were being obeyed.
The group met with violent opposition, with some of the ugliest scenes taking place in the town of Montgomery, capital of Alabama, where white segregationists (who included members of the notorious Ku Klux Klan) tried to burn and block the path of buses, and attacked freedom riders with clubs.
Attorney-General Robert Kennedy sent Federal marshals to Montgomery, where the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King had pledged to continue the struggle for equal rights. Dr King insisted that “passive resistance and the weapons of love” were the most effective means of fighting bigotry and racism.
In 1962, Federal troops were called out again, this time to escort James H Meredith when he became the first black student to enrol at the University of Mississippi. Meredith’s entrance was blocked by State Troopers who were sent by Governor Ross Barnett. President John F Kennedy, however, ordered the Federal marshals to escort Meredith safely to class.
Two men were killed and 50 people were injured in the ensuing riots as angry whites, stirred up by Barnett’s actions, stormed the university in protest against Meredith’s admission. 3,000 Federal soldiers were eventually used to quell the riots.
On 28 August 1963, over 250,000 people walked the streets of Washington and gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the biggest civil rights march to date.
President John F Kennedy said that Dr Luther King’s actions and that of other activists had speeded up the “cause of 20 million Negroes”, and henceforth undertook a great deal of work towards civil rights reform, and following his assassination in 1963, his work was continued by Lyndon B Johnson who worked hard to ensure Congress did not dilute the proposed reforms.
On July 2 1964 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most radical civil rights law in US history. The Act prohibited racial discrimination in employment, public facilities, places of public accommodation, union membership and Federal funded programs.
Black nationalist leader Malcolm X was shot dead at a rally for the OAAU (Organization of Afro-American Unity) in New York City on 21 February 1965. The gunmen, one of whom was caught, were connected with a group called the Black Muslims – the sect in which Malcolm X was formerly a leading figure.
Some black Americans began to seek new solutions to continuing injustice and poverty. In Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded a new political organisation, the Black Panthers. The Panthers aimed to protect the ghetto community from racist police, but also hoped to organise clinics, community centres and free breakfast schemes. Their violent language disturbed many of the older campaigners for black rights, but it reflected a new attitude among young black Americans.
The Black Panthers were part of the growing “Black Power” movement – a phrase originally coined by black leader Stokely Carmichael. Instead of trying hard to be accepted by white American society, Black Power supporters wanted revolutionary change in the USA. The growing fashion for natural afro hairstyles was an indication of the popularity of the new militancy.
On 4 April 1968, revered Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Across the United States, black Americans took to the streets in grief and rage, while riots broke out in167 cities and on innumerable campuses.
Later that year, black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the Olympic Games in Mexico City to protest about racism in the USA. As they received their medals for the 200 meter sprint, gold medallist Smith and bronze medallist Carlos raised their black-gloved clenched fists high above their heads in a salute identified with Black Power (pictured at left).