The post-war era marked a period of unprecedented energy against the second class citizenship accorded to African Americans in many parts of the nation. Resistance to racial segregation and discrimination with strategies such as civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance, marches, protests, boycotts, “freedom rides,” and rallies received national attention as newspaper, radio, and television reporters and cameramen documented the struggle to end racial inequality. There were also continuing efforts to legally challenge segregation through the courts.

Success crowned these efforts: the Brown decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 helped bring about the demise of the entangling web of legislation that bound blacks to second class citizenship. One hundred years after the Civil War, blacks and their white allies still pursued the battle for equal rights in every area of American life. While there is more to achieve in ending discrimination, major milestones in civil rights laws are on the books for the purpose of regulating equal access to public accommodations, equal justice before the law, and equal employment, education, and housing opportunities. African Americans have had unprecedented openings in many fields of learning and in the arts. The black struggle for civil rights also inspired other liberation and rights movements, including those of Native Americans, Latinos, and women, and African Americans have lent their support to liberation struggles in Africa.

Few other institutions can present the African American mosaic of life and culture as completely as the Library of Congress. The Library's photographs, film footage, newspapers, magazines, manuscripts, and music holdings chronicle this period better than any other collection in existence. In addition to the NAACP and NUL papers, the Library also holds papers of civil rights activists such as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Patricia Roberts Harris, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Mary Church Terrell, Robert Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and others. Although the quest may not be fully realized, the Library's collections document the relentless and significant process of pursuing full equality.


President Harry Truman Wipes Out Military Segregation

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued two executive orders. One instituted fair employment practices in the civilian agencies of the federal government; the other provided for “equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion,or national origin.”

This was a major victory for civil rights advocates in the quest for full citizenship.

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  • Press release for Executive Order No. 9981, establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces. July 26, 1948. Typescript document. NAACP Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (9–1)
    Courtesy of NAACP

  • “By Executive Order—President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces.” Chicago Defender, July 31, 1948. Copyprint from microfilm. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (9–2)
    Courtesy of the Chicago Daily Defender, Chicago, Illinois

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Land Where Our Fathers Died

Oliver W. Harrington (1912–1995) knew he wanted to become a cartoonist during grade school, when drawing caricatures made him feel better about disturbing situations. Harrington received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Yale University. In 1951, he left the United States, but continued to provide cartoon strips for American newspapers. His images address the social and political injustices of capitalism and racism. Harrington's Dark Laughter strip first appeared in The Amsterdam News in May 1935.

Oliver W. Harrington. Dark Laughter. “My Daddy said they didn't seem to mind servin' him on the Anzio beach head. . .” Published in the Pittsburgh Courier, April 2, 1960. Crayon, ink, blue pencil, and pencil on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (9–28)
Courtesy of Dr. Helma Harrington

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Psychological Effects of Racism

In the “doll test,” popularized by social psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, children were given a black doll and a white doll and asked which one they preferred. Most black children preferred the white doll, to which they also attributed the most positive characteristics. During court trials relating to segregated schools, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund enlisted Kenneth Clark's services as an expert witness on the detrimental effects of racial exclusion and discrimination. The Defense Fund lawyers also submitted a report that explained the test results to the Supreme Court as evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In a unanimous ruling in 1954, the court found that separate schools were inherently unequal and specifically cited the Clark report.

Kenneth B. Clark. The Genesis of Racial Identification and Preferences in Negro Children, 1940. K. B. Clark Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (9–15)

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Thurgood Marshall on “Saving the Race”

Thurgood Marshall was the first African American to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court. His legal career began with the NAACP. Many of the NAACP's records reveal Marshall's grueling traveling and meeting schedule, as well as his acute sense of humor, even in the face of threats from whites and distrust by African Americans. After the inauspicious beginning of a case challenging the Texas primary, Marshall wrote this memo.

Thurgood Marshall to the NAACP, Tuskegee Institute, Research Department. November 17, 1941. NAACP Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (8-16)
Courtesy of the NAACP

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Brown Decision—Separate Is Inherently Illegal

Beginning in 1950, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys worked on a school desegregation case originating in Charleston, S.C. In 1952 the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, whose members decided to hear it with cases from Delaware, Virginia, Kansas, and the District of Columbia under the collective title Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers argued the case and won. Brown marked a landmark victory in the fight for full citizenship, offering hope that the system of segregation was not unassailable.

George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit, congratulating each other, following Supreme Court decision declaring segregation unconstitutional, 1954. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram and Sun Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-111236 (9–11)
Courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos

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Daisy Bates and The Little Rock Nine

Arkansas-born Daisy Bates worked as a crusading newspaper owner-journalist, becoming president of the Arkansas NAACP. After the 1954 Brown school-desegregation decision, Little Rock school board officials decided to begin desegregation of Central High School in September 1957.

Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to preserve order, a euphemism for keeping the nine prospective African American students out. However, on September 25, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed paratroopers to carry out the desegregation orders of the federal courts. Bates supported the students throughout the year and with them received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1958.

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The Montgomery Bus Boycott

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, and was arrested in December 1955, she set off a train of events that generated a momentum the civil rights movement had never before experienced. Local civil rights leaders were hoping for such an opportunity to test the city's segregation laws. Deciding to boycott the buses, the African American community soon formed a new organization to supervise the boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was chosen as the first MIA leader. The boycott, more successful than anyone hoped, led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregated buses.

"5,000 at Meeting Outline Boycott; Bullet Clips Bus." Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott. Montgomery Advertiser, December 6, 1955. Copyprint from microfilm. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (9–3)
Courtesy of the Montgomery Advertiser

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James Meredith and Ole Miss

In September 1962, a federal court ordered the University of Mississippi to accept James Meredith, a twenty-eight-year-old Air Force Veteran, much to the consternation of segregationists. Governor Ross Barnett said he would never allow the school to be integrated. After days of violence and rioting by whites, Meredith, accompanied by federal officials, enrolled on October 1, 1962. Because he had earned college credits elsewhere, Meredith graduated the following August without incident.

In 1966 Meredith began a 220-mile “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. He hoped to demonstrate a positive change in the racial climate, but he was shot soon after he commenced the march. Civil rights leaders rallied to the cause and came to continue the march from the point at which Meredith fell.

Marion S. Trikosko. James Meredith, Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram and Sun Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-U9-8556-24 (9–8)

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Civil Rights in the Arena and on the Stage

Gospel Singer Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans in 1911, and from childhood sang in church. She resisted the lure to secular music saying, “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what's wrong. But when you are through with the blues, you've got nothing to rest on.” She first sang in church store-fronts, but as her recognition grew, she began giving church concerts, making records, and touring the U.S. and abroad. She also sang on radio and television. Jackson became involved with the civil rights movement at the urging of Martin Luther King, Jr. In this photograph she is singing at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial—a civil rights rally, held on the third anniversary of the Brown decision. Jackson also sang just before King's “I have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.

Mahalia Jackson at the May 17, 1957, Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom in Washington, D.C. Silver gelatin print. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6177/LC-USZ62-119977 (9–16)
Courtesy of the NAACP

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Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement

Jazz performers responded to the force of the civil rights movement by recording and performing their music. The most ambitious response was the Freedom Now Suite of Max Roach, recorded in August and September 1960, and involving such major performers as Coleman Hawkins, Abbey Lincoln, and Nigerian drummer Olatunji. The Freedom Now Suite was issued on the small label Candid Records rather than on Max Roach's regular label, Mercury.

Max Roach. We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. New York: Candid Records, 1960. Record jacket. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (9–6)
Courtesy of Candid Production, LTD

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Two Baseball Greats

Born in 1921 in Philadelphia, Roy Campanella was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. Willie Howard Mays, Jr. (“Say Hey”), born in 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, was inducted ten years later. Both Campanella, who was a catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers for most of his professional years, and Mays, the third African American player in the 1951 Giants outfield, began their careers in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Although Jackie Robinson was the first black player in the major leagues, these other players also faced difficulties and sometimes even danger from hostile players and fans.

William C. Green. [Willie Mays, standing, with his arm around Roy Campanella], 1961. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (9–25)

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Record Breaking Hank Aaron

By hitting his 715th home run in 1974, Henry Louis Aaron, born in Alabama in 1934, broke Babe Ruth's famous home run record at the age of 40. Some whites resented an African American taking this coveted record and sent thousands of hate letters and threatened Aaron's life and family as he was nearing the record. Before he retired from the Atlanta Braves, Aaron increased the record to 755 runs and held twelve other major league records, including most at bats, most total bases, and most runs batted in. In 1969 the Atlanta Braves fans named “Hank” Aaron the greatest player ever. In 1982, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Richard Scott Rennert. Hank Aaron. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1993. General Collections, Library of Congress (9–26)
Courtesy of Chelsea House

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Sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and Demonstrations

Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-in

In 1960 four freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro strolled into the F. W. Woolworth store and quietly sat down at the lunch counter. They were not served, but they stayed until closing time. The next morning they came with twenty-five more students. Two weeks later similar demonstrations had spread to several cities, within a year similar peaceful demonstrations took place in over a hundred cities North and South. At Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, the students formed their own organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”). The students' bravery in the face of verbal and physical abuse led to integration in many stores even before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ronald Martin, Robert Patterson, and Mark Martin stage sit-down strike after being refused service at an F.W. Woolworth luncheon counter, Greensboro, N.C. 1960. Copyprint. New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-114749 (9–9)
Courtesy of CORBIS

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Freedom Riders Seek to Integrate Southern Transportation

The Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), rode through the South seeking integration of the bus, rail, and airport terminals. This Associated Press release, authored by Sid Moody, includes a map and an exceptionally descriptive text that illustrates the routes taken and the history behind the freedom rides. Together, the map and text record the individual cities visited, when and where violence occurred, and how many Freedom Riders were arrested. The text also describes some disturbances resulting from the staged sit-ins and forced recognition of CORE's causes and issues. Looking at the map and reading the text, one can perceive the struggles that these Freedom Riders endured in their quest for full citizenship in 1961.

Background Map: 1961 Freedom Rides. [New York]: Associated Press Newsfeature, [1962]. Printed map and text. Page 1 - Page 2. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (9–4)

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Movement Strategist Bayard Rustin

Although the chairperson of the 1963 March on Washington was the venerable labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the man who coordinated the staff, finances, travel arrangements, accommodations, publicity, and logistics was Randolph's close associate, Bayard Taylor Rustin. Rustin had served as a key strategist of the non-violent protest movement since the 1940s. In 1963, he wrote in his socialist magazine, Liberation:

What counted most at the Lincoln Memorial was not the speeches, eloquent as they were, but the pledge of a quarter million Americans, black and white, to carry the civil rights revolution into the streets. Our task is now to fulfill this pledge through nonviolent uprisings in hundreds of cities.

Warren K. Leffler. Bayard Rustin, n.d. Copyprint. U.S. News and World Report Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-U9-10332-9 (9–5)

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1963 March On Washington

The August 28, 1963, March on Washington riveted the nation's attention. Rather than the anticipated hundred thousand marchers, more than twice that number appeared, astonishing even its organizers.

Blacks and whites, side by side, called on President John F. Kennedy and the Congress to provide equal access to public facilities, quality education, adequate employment, and decent housing for African Americans. During the assembly at the Lincoln Memorial, the young preacher who had led the successful Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a stirring message with the refrain, “I Have a Dream.”

March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Copyprint. U.S. News and World Report Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-U9-10360-23 (9–13)

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The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The 1965 Voting Rights Act created a significant change in the status of African Americans throughout the South. The Voting Rights Act prohibited the states from using literacy tests, interpreting the Constitution, and other methods of excluding Afric an Americans from voting. Prior to this, only an estimated twenty-three percent of voting-age blacks were registered nationally, but by 1969 the number had jumped to sixty-one percent.

In the Southern states, the numbers were more dramatic. During this same period in Mississippi, for example, African American registration jumped from 6.7 to 66.5 percent. This increase in registration led to the election of African Americans to federal, state, and local offices.

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Enforcing Civil Rights for All Americans

Dating from just after the Civil War, a series of constitutional amendments were passed to protect African Americans. Without enforcement by the federal government, however, African Americans, especially those in the South, were gradually denied almost every right of citizenship. The twentieth century brought passage of the weak Civil Rights Act of 1957, the more forceful Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This photograph shows President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Title VIII, also known as the Fair Housing Act. Together these acts reinstated and reinvigorated the African Americans' right to full citizenship.

Warren K. Leffler. Signing of the Civil Rights Act, April 11, 1968. Copyprint. U.S. News and World Report Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-95480 (9–12)

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We Shall Overcome

“We Shall Overcome” seems to have first been sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1945. In the 1960s the song became the all-but-official anthem of the civil rights movement.

Its first separate publication, on exhibit here, gives credit of authorship to, among others, Silphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School, who learned the song from the tobacco workers, and Pete Seeger, who helped to popularize the song and gentrified its title from “We Will Overcome.”

President Lyndon Johnson stunned many of his listeners when during a speech urging the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he closed with the words, “And we shall overcome.”

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  • Silphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger. “We Shall Overcome.” New York: Ludlow Music, Inc., 1963. Music Division, Library of Congress (9–19)
    Courtesy of Ludlow Music, Inc., 11 West 19th Street New York, NY 10011

  • Brumsic Brandon. “The Weary Picket,” 1977. Ink and tonal film overlay over pencil on paper. Gift of Brumsic Brandon, Jr. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6172 (9–22)
    Courtesy of Mr. Brumsic Brandon, Jr.

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