The Fight for Civil Rights

Prior to the mid-1950s, the fight for racial equality in America was largely fought in the courts and on the floor of Congress, and there was little change in the daily lives of most Americans. By the early 1960s, the fight for equality had taken to the streets. While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) continued its fight in the courts, individual activists, grassroots groups, and churches promoted a more direct response by organizing nonviolent protests, boycotts, sit-ins, and marches. Civil disobedience became the cornerstone strategy of the movement's most influential and visible leader.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King first came to prominence as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). During his tenure he directed a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. The success of the Montgomery bus strike in 1955–1956 catapulted King into the national spotlight. From there he used other marches, strikes, and rallies to draw national attention to the plight of minorities in America. His passionate speeches played to the sense of fairness and justice, prompting sympathetic whites to join the civil rights cause.


On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white rider and was convicted of disorderly conduct. King organized a thirteen-month bus boycott that reduced bus earnings by 60 percent. A federal court ordered Montgomery to desegregate its buses.

Kennedy and Civil Rights

As a senator, John F. Kennedy strove for the political middle ground on civil rights, neither embracing the movement nor disregarding it. During his run for the White House, Kennedy courted the African American vote. He pledged to support civil rights legislation if he was elected, but King remained unconvinced and declined to endorse Kennedy.

Mere weeks before the election, King was arrested for his participation in a sit-in. A judge handed down a harsh sentence of four months of hard labor; he deemed King had violated the terms of his probation for a traffic offense. Coretta Scott King, six months pregnant with the couple's third child, feared for her husband's safety. Kennedy heard of her distress and called her. His compassionate action did not go unnoticed. In addition, Jackie strongly urged Jack to work for King's release, explaining why it was philosophically important for him to do so. Her emphatic position was a factor in Kennedy's eventual intervention, which resulted in King's release. Martin Luther King Sr., who had previously endorsed Nixon, publicly declared his support for Kennedy.


“Because this man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter [-in-law]'s eyes, I've got a suitcase full of votes, and I'm going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap.”

— Martin Luther King Sr.

Martin Luther King Jr. thanked Kennedy for his help but stopped short of endorsing his candidacy. King became even more disillusioned with the Kennedy administration, which he charged did not do enough to advance civil rights. He was unmoved by the political argument that Kennedy lacked the clout to push civil rights legislation through Congress because his margin of victory had been so narrow.

In June 1963, Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation to Congress. King was instrumental in planning a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to pressure Congress to pass the civil rights legislation. Despite Kennedy's protests that the march might alienate potential congressional supporters, the event took place in August 1963. The defining moment of the day was Dr. King's moving “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Kennedy was assassinated before Congress approved the civil rights legislation, but President Johnson worked to ensure its passage, and it was approved on July 2, 1964. Dr. King's dedication to civil rights for all people, regardless of color or creed, and his insistence on doing it peacefully, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

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