Civil rights movements and the sit-ins

Although the Civil War brought an official end to slavery in the United States, it did not abolish the social barriers. The United States operated for long time under an apartheid-like system of real white supremacy. Legal equality did not bring economic equality and social acceptance. Only in the 1950s a peaceful equality movement began under the unofficial leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A wave of marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides swept the American South and parts of the North, but there was no greater unity in the movement.

Right in the beginning of the 1960s, a new tactic was added to the peaceful activists' strategy. In 1960, four African American college students walked up to a whites-only lunch counter at the local Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked for coffee. When service was refused, the students sat patiently. Despite threats and intimidation, the students sat quietly and waited to be served. The civil rights sit-in was born.

The instructions were simple: sit quietly and wait to be served. Often the participants would be threatened by local customers. Sometimes they would be pelted with food or ketchup. Angry onlookers tried to provoke fights that never came. In the event of a physical attack, the student would curl up into a ball on the floor and take the punishment. Sit-in organizers believed that if the violence were only on the part of the white community, the world would see the righteousness of their cause. Before the end of the school year, over 1500 black demonstrators were arrested. But their sacrifice brought results. Slowly, but surely, restaurants throughout the South began to abandon their policies of segregation. The initial sit-ins were a start to future sit-ins at lunch counters, wade-ins at segregated swimming pools, and pray-ins at white-only churches. African American leaders set a new, ambitious goal: a federal law banning racial discrimination in all public accommodations and in employment.

In the summer of 1963, President Kennedy indicated he would support such a measure, and thousands marched on Washington to support the bill. Blacks and whites sang We Shall Overcome and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his I Have a Dream speech. However, attention had to be paid to vote system as well. Many African Americans had been robbed of the right to vote since southern states enacted discriminatory poll taxes and literacy tests. The 24th Amendment banned the Poll Tax in 1964 and the Voting Rights.

Act of 1965 banned the literacy test. However, as the 1960s progressed, a radical wing of the movement grew stronger. The Black Power movement rejected the policy of nonviolence at all costs. Race-related violence began to spread across the country. Beginning in 1964, a series of long, hot summers of rioting plagued urban centers. As youths of the counterculture celebrated the famed Summer of Love in 1967, serious racial upheaval took place in more than 150 American cities. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 touched off a wave of violence in 125 more urban centers.

Hope and optimism gave way to alienation and despair as the 1970s began. Many realized that although changing racist laws was actually relatively simple, changing racist attitudes was a much more difficult task.

One of the milestone documents was the Supreme Court decision in the civil rights case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (17 May, 1954), saying that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional. It signaled the end of legalized racial segregation in schools, overruling the separate but equal principle set forth in the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson case.