Protest against injustice is deeply rooted in the African American experience. The origins of the civil rights movement date much further back than the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka which said, "separate but equal" schools violated the Constitution. From the earliest slave revolts in this country over 400 years ago, African Americans strove to gain full participation in every aspect of political, economic and social life in the United States.
Segregation was an attempt by white Southerners to separate the races in every sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often called the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830s that was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. Segregation became common in the Southern states following the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
The system of segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement. Between 1890 and 1910 all Southern states passed laws imposing requirements for voting that were used to prevent blacks from voting, in spite of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which had been designed to protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability to read and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and paying a toll tax, which was too great a burden on most Southern Blacks, who were very poor. Because blacks could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating all aspects of Southern life.
Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800s, blacks sued in courts to stop separate seating in railroad cars, states' disfranchisement of voters, and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that "separate but equal" accommodations were constitutional. However, in 1952, the Supreme Court heard a number of school-segregation cases, including Brown v. Board of Topeka, Kansas. It decided unanimously in 1954 that segregation was unconstitutional, overthrowing the 1869 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that had set the "separate but equal" precedent.
As desegregation progresses, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew. The KKK used violence or threats against anyone who was suspected of favoring desegregation or black civil rights. Klan terror, including intimidation and murder, was widespread in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, though Klan activities were not always reported in the media. One terrorist act that did receive national attention was the murder of Emmit Till, 14-year-old black boy slain in Mississippi by whites who believed he had flirted with a white woman. The trial and acquittal of the men accuse of...