Notable Moments in Civil Rights History

Read about important events throughout the history of the civil rights movement.
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Sit-ins & freedom rides

The Sit-Ins Begin

What would turn out to be a major, and highly effective, civil rights tactic made its debut on February 1, 1960, when four African-American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth's Five and Dime and placed their orders. In so doing, they were breaking the law.

A crowd of white teenagers poured drinks on their heads and shouted obscenities. However, the students hung in. The New York Times covered the incident, which drew national attention.

Over the next few days, the four were joined by other students, white as well as African-American. Soon there were similar nonviolent protests all over the South.

“The United States was not going to continue like it was …”

We did Woolworth's, McLellan's, Kress's, W.T. Grant. The theory was, “If you're going to live on us, you're going to be fair with us.” Pretty quickly, Kress's goes out of business ... Other stores began to change. Hudson Belk had the Capital Room Restaurant, which desegregated. K&W Cafeteria downtown changed …. (Eventually,) there was total agreement that the United States was not going to continue like it was on the race issue. Either they were going to be prepared to kill us all or something had to give. That time had come.

—The Reverend David Forbes of Raleigh, North Carolina, recalling his activity in the sit-in campaigns of the 1960s; quoted in the Southern Oral History Program (

The Freedom Rides

In the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set out to test the implementation of laws requiring the integration of interstate public transportation. Gathering groups of student volunteers and clergy, they sent them on bus trips through the south. Bigoted Alabamans set one bus on fire.

However, by September, over a thousand “freedom riders” had participated in the effort, which was widely covered by the media.

James Meredith and Ole Miss

Although Brown v. Board of Education had been tested at the high school level, a successful challenge at the collegiate level had not yet been made in 1962. James Meredith took that challenge on when he tried to register at the University of Mississippi in Oxford in 1962.

President John F. Kennedy ordered him protected by federal marshals. The marshals safeguarded Meredith but could not control a huge riot that broke out, resulting in the deaths of two students. It took the National Guard to restore order and see Meredith enrolled.

On the March

Stokely Carmichael was one of the most important African-American activists of the 1960s. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which drew support from a younger, and eventually more militant, group of activists than were found in Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Carmichael, who had long maintained a close relationship with Dr. King, nevertheless insisted on SNCC's independence, and eventually differed with him on fundamental issues (such as alliances with white liberals). Carmichael's emphasis on “Black Power,” and his insistence that nonviolence need not be the guiding philosophy of the movement led to a rift with King. Carmichael eventually served as an official within the Black Panther Party and later advocated an international program of African liberation.

Medgar Evers Murdered

One of the darkest days in the civil rights movement's history occurred when one Byron De La Beckwith, a white racist, gunned down Medgar Evers, Mississippi's NAACP field secretary, on the doorstep of his Jackson, Mississippi, home. The charismatic 37-year-old leader died in his wife's arms as his children looked on and De La Beckwith sped away.

It took three trials and 30 years to put De La Beckwith in prison.

Excerpted from

The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
Melba J. Duncan
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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