Civil Rights Legislation and Supreme Court Cases

Key Civil Rights Moments of the 1950s and 1960s

Black and white photo of the March on Washington in 1963.
GPA Photo Archive / Flickr / Public Domain

During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of important civil rights activities occurred that helped position the civil rights movement for greater recognition. They also led either directly or indirectly to the passage of key legislation. Following is an overview of the major legislation, Supreme Court cases, and activities that occurred in the civil rights movement at the time.

Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)

This began with Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus. The boycott's goal was to protest segregation in public buses. It lasted more than a year. It also led to the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the foremost leader of the civil rights movement.

Forced Desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas (1957)

After the court case Brown v. Board of Education ordered that schools be desegregated, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus would not enforce this ruling. He called out the Arkansas National Guard to stop African-Americans from attending all-white schools. President Dwight Eisenhower took control of the National Guard and forced the admission of the students.


Throughout the south, groups of individuals would request services that were denied to them because of their race. Sit-ins were a popular form of protest. One of the first and most famous occurred at Greensboro, North Carolina, where a group of college students, both white and Black, asked to be served at a Woolworth's lunch counter that was supposed to be segregated.

Freedom Rides (1961)

Groups of college students would ride on interstate carriers in protest to segregation on interstate buses. President John F. Kennedy actually provided federal marshals to help protect the freedom riders in the south.

March on Washington (1963)

On August 28, 1963, 250,000 individuals, both Black and white, gathered together at the Lincoln Memorial to protest segregation. It was here that King delivered his famous and stirring "I Have a Dream" speech.

Freedom Summer (1964)

This was a combination of drives to help get Blacks registered to vote. Many areas of the south were denying African-Americans the basic right to vote by not allowing them to register. They used various means, including literacy tests, and more overt means (like intimidation by groups like the Ku Klux Klan). Three volunteers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, were murdered. Seven KKK members were convicted of their murder.

Selma, Alabama (1965)

Selma was the beginning point of three marches intended to go to the capital of Alabama, Montgomery, in protest of discrimination in voter registration. Two times the marchers were turned back, the first with a lot of violence and the second at the request of King. The third march had its intended effect and helped with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Congress.

Important Civil Rights Legislation

  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): This landmark decision allowed for the desegregation of schools.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963): This ruling allowed for any accused individual to have the right to an attorney. Before this case, an attorney would only be provided by the state if the result of the case could be the death penalty.
  • Heart of Atlanta v. United States (1964): Any business that was participating in interstate commerce would be required to follow all rules of the federal civil rights legislation. In this case, a motel that wanted to continue segregation was denied because they did business with people from other states.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: This was an important piece of legislation that stopped segregation and discrimination in public accommodations. Further, the U.S. Attorney General would be able to help victims of discrimination. It also forbids employers to discriminate against minorities.
  • 24th Amendment (1964): No poll taxes would be allowed in any states. In other words, a state could not charge people to vote.
  • Voting Rights Act (1965): Probably the most successful congressional civil rights legislation. This truly guaranteed what had been promised in the 15th amendment: that no one would be denied the right to vote based on race. It ended literacy tests and gave the U.S. Attorney General the right to intervene on behalf of those who had been discriminated against.

He Had a Dream

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was the most prominent civil rights leader of the '50s and '60s. He was the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Through his leadership and example, he led peaceful demonstrations and marches to protest discrimination. Many of his ideas on nonviolence were fashioned on the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi in India. In 1968, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray. It is known that Ray was against racial integration, but the exact motivation for the murder has never been determined.

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Kelly, Martin. "Civil Rights Legislation and Supreme Court Cases." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Civil Rights Legislation and Supreme Court Cases. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Civil Rights Legislation and Supreme Court Cases." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).