The Modern Civil Rights Movement can be traced back to the arrival of blacks in America as slaves in 1619, through the questions of slavery pondered (and ultimately avoided) by the Founding Fathers, into the increasing rancor of the 19th century and the abolitionist movements and the rise to prominence of such black luminaries as Frederick Douglass. The question of civil rights was obviously a profound aspect of the Civil War, and an animating aspect of Reconstruction. In the earlier twentieth century, the battle was waged by men like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, though the two differed powerfully and angrily in their ideas.
The first major event of the modern civil rights movement was the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which overturned desegregated schools across the nation. Schools, especially in the South, were slow to comply, and often attempts to register black students broke out in violence. Meanwhile, in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white man in December 1955 and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a successful protest that took over a year and ended with the Supreme-Court-ordered desegregation of Montgomery buses. The boycott also brought to fame a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the protest.
The attempts at school desegregation and the bus boycott began a flood of protest demonstrations that engulfed the country. In 1960, students pioneered the sit-in as a form of protest, and soon sit-ins sprang up all over the nation. Groups like SNCC, CORE, and SCLC organized rallies, demonstrations, and massive campaigns in cities that were famous for discrimination.
The movement benefited from massive media attention, which stirred up international sympathy through its pictures and video of protestors peacefully demonstrating for their rights only to be brutally attacked by white segregationists. Slowly, the civil rights movement achieved important goals such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile, blacks grew increasingly angry at the slow progress of desegregation and the failure of many whites to abandon racism. These blacks turned from the non-violent policies of Martin Luther King Jr. to the more militant Black Power Movement in the late 1960s.
With this amplified militancy, the Civil Rights movement lost much of its national support, and the feeling of brotherhood and outrage that had fueled the movement waned. Coupled with the assassination of its greatest leaders, from JFK in 1963 to Malcolm X in 1965 to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, the movement achieved few further legal triumphs. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular led to the dissolution of a unified civil rights movement, but not the problems of blacks in America. Many of them turned to even more powerfully militant organizations like the Black Panther Party to continue the fight, but even that marginalized movement had mostly fizzled out by the mid-1970s. The history of the United States has always been profoundly intermingled with its treatment (and mistreatment) of black Americans. The struggle to navigate and overcome those issues is one that continues to frustrate and define the country today.
Although full equality has not yet been reached, the Civil Rights Movement did put fundamental reforms in place. Legal segregation as a system of racial control was dismantled, and blacks were no longer subject to the humiliation of Jim Crow Laws. Public institutions were opened to all. Blacks achieved the right to vote and the influence that went with that right in a democracy. Those were indeed long steps toward racial equality.