US Stories

THE US CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

The civil rights movement was made up of many, often divided, organisations and arose from hundreds of years of resistance to slavery, oppression, savage violence, humiliation and attempts by white people to dehumanise African Americans. There are many well-known people who contributed to the movement, but each and every person who took part was vital to its victories.

We have chosen just some of the less well-known stories of people who were part of the US civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, in the hope they will inspire you to take action against injustice and for the causes you care about. What can we learn from their successes and failures?

Emmett Till

Led by Black Americans and building on resistance that began with slavery, the civil rights movement was made up of thousands of people, sometimes divided in their methods but united in their aim: to fight against the oppression, savage violence and attacks on black people that had persisted for hundreds of years.

Portrait of Emmet wearing a hat
Emmett Till in a photograph taken by his mother on Christmas Day, 1954 ©Alamy

Some say the postwar civil rights movement began with the murder of Emmett Till.

In August 1955, 14-year-old Till came from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. Supposedly, he whistled at Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman in a store, saying ‘Bye, baby’ as he left’. She later claimed he had flirted with and offended her, but there were no witnesses to verify this.
Her husband and brother-in-law went to where Till was staying and took him away. They beat him, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, tied him to a fan with barbed wire and threw him into the river. Despite admitting their crime they were found ‘not guilty’ by an all-white jury.

Media coverage caused outrage across America after Till’s mother Mamie insisted on an open casket funeral to show the world the brutality of his murder. For many, this was the tipping point: Mamie travelled across the USA telling her story and raising funds which were later used to pay legal fees during the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks said Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to give up her seat.

In 2008, Donham, the store keeper, finally admitted that much of her original testimony against Till had not been true.

Mamie Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, pauses at her son's casket at a Chicago funeral home. She is crying.
Mamie Till Mobley insisted on an open casket for Emmett, to show the world the brutality of his murder. ©AP/Shutterstock

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust

Your eyes are filled with dead man’s dirt, and your mind is filled with dust

Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow

For you’ve let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man….

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

– Bob Dylan, The Ballad of Emmett Till

There may be ways we can work for change.
We don’t have to do dramatic things or devote our entire lives to it.
We can lead normal lives but at the same time try hard not to be bystanders

Helen Bamber

Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement in America

1955

Murder of Emmett Till, Money, Mississippi

1955-56

Montgomery Bus Boycott, Montgomery, Alabama

1957

‘Little Rock Nine’ campaign of massive resistance, Little Rock, Arkansas

1960

Greensboro sit-ins, Greensboro, North Carolina

November 1960

Ruby Bridges/Barbara Henry, integration of New Orleans schools, William Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans, Louisiana

1962

James Meredith’s admittance to University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi

1963

March on Washington, Washington DC

1963

Martin Luther King and ‘The Letter from Birmingham Jail’, Birmingham, Alabama

April-May 1963

Janice Wesley and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, Birmingham, Alabama

1963

Murder of Medgar Evers, Jackson, Mississippi

April 1964

Malcolm X ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ speech, formerly advocating use of self-defence and Black Nationalism, Cleveland, Ohio

1964

Mississippi Freedom Summer, voter registration project, Mississippi, USA

1964

Marcia Saunders, voter registration, Fayette County, Tennessee

June 1964

Murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner & James Chaney (during Mississippi Freedom Summer, above), Neshoba County, Mississippi

1964

Civil Rights Act signed, Washington DC

1964

Harlem race riot, Harlem, New York City

February 1965

Assassination of Malcolm X, Audobon Ballroom, New York City

1965

Watts riots, Los Angeles

1965

Selma to Montgomery Marches leading to 1965 Voting Rights Act, Selma/Montgomery, Alabama

1967

Dr. King’s ‘Time to Break Silence’ speech, Riverside Church, New York City, NY

1967

Lowndes County Freedom Organisation (LCFO) formed (inspiration for Black Panther Party), Lowndes County, Mississippi

1968

Cornelia Crenshaw & Elmore/Peggy Nickleberry, Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee

April 1968

The assassination of Martin Luther King (super ceded by signing of Civil Rights Act (Fair Housing) 1968), Lorraine Hotel, Memphis, Tennessee

1968

Poor People’s Campaign & Jean Stallings, aimed to take activists to Washington DC

Thanks to The Film Space for their help

Resistance to slavery, racism and brutality against Black people did not begin in 1955

It was led by hundreds of phenomenal women and men long before the modern organised movement, including: