Skip to Main Content

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Non-Violent Demonstrations

This guide focuses on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States.


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 1950’s and 1960’s.  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 resurfaced in our own time with continuous cell phone footage  of black men being shot by police officers. 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 and 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 in 1968. Non-violent demonstrations don't always end in non-violent outcomes.  Change doesn't come easily and it doesn't come without a cost. 

As time went on, civil rights groups splintered into different factions based on differing views on how to handle the issues they faced. Even after the death of Dr. King, other activists continued to follow his methods. Some wanted to take bolder stances and a more proactive approach. 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. While in-fighting within an ideology or political party isn't a new concept we can learn from the obstacles that civil rights groups faced in the 1960’s.



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.


Selected Library Resources: