Civil Rights Movement

To live freely and participate in society is a right many take for granted. Acquiring and maintaining civil rights have been a struggle for different groups throughout U.S. history. Civil rights are personal rights guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and federal laws enacted by Congress. These personal rights and laws include protection from unlawful discrimination.

In the 1883 landmark civil rights cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not have the power to prohibit discrimination in the private sector. This ruling stripped the Civil Rights Act of 1875 of much of its ability to protect civil rights. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the legal justification for voiding the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was part of a larger trend by members of the Supreme Court to invalidate most government regulations of the private sector. An exception was made for laws and regulations designed to protect public morality. 

In the 1930s, during the New Deal, most of the Supreme Court justices shifted their legal theory to allow for greater government regulation of the private sector under the commerce clause. This change paved the way for the federal government to enact civil rights laws prohibiting both public and private sector discrimination based on the commerce clause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the nation’s premier civil rights legislation. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; required equal access to employment and public places; and enforced school desegregation and the right to vote. The law did not end discrimination, but it did open the door to further progress.

Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments outlawed slavery, provided for equal protection under the law, guaranteed citizenship and protected the right to vote, individual states continued to allow unfair treatment of minorities and passed Jim Crow laws allowing segregation of public facilities. These were upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1895), which found state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities that were “separate but equal” to be constitutional. This finding helped continue legalized discrimination well into the 20th century.

Following World War II, pressures to recognize, challenge and change inequalities for minorities grew. One of the most notable challenges to the status quo was the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which questioned the notion of “separate but equal” in public education. The Supreme Court found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and they violate the 14th Amendment. This decision polarized Americans, fostered debate and served as a catalyst to encourage federal action to protect civil rights. [Sources: nps.gov, en.wikipedia.org, and hhs.gov.]

Legacy Stories from the Americans All Heritage Honor Roll

We are pleased to host and share these legacy stories created by honorees’ family, friends and associates. They, like us, appreciate that heritage and culture are an integral part of our nation's social fabric and want to help students participate effectively in our nation's economy, workforce and democracy.

Language
State
Last Name of Individual
First Name of Individual
Group name

Rev. James William Charles Pennington New York (c.1807 - October 22, 1870) African-American, Presbyterian, Writer, Minister, Abolitionist, Civil War

Born into slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1807, James William Charles Pennington escaped from slavery in 1828 and settled for a time in New York and later became the first black student admitted to Yale, although he was not officially enrolled, and is reported to only have limited use of the library. Although ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, he later served Presbyterian Churches in many states.

Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson New York (January 31, 1919 - October 24, 1972) African-American, Baseball Player, Baseball Hall of Fame, Businessman, Color Line

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” This, more than his on-the-field statistics, can be viewed as his enduring legacy. He was born in Cairo, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers, the youngest of five children, and his mother moved the family to Pasadena, California, the following year. He grew up in relative poverty and the prejudice the family encountered . . .

Bayard Rustin New Jersey (March 17, 1912 - August 24, 1987) Activist, African American, Athlete, Black, Civil Rights, Desegregation, Economic Justice, Freedom Ride, Gay, Globalist, Jim Crow, March on Washington, Musician, Nonviolence, Pacifist, Prejudice, Quaker, Radical, Socialist, Strategist, Voting Rights

For more than 50 years, Bayard Rustin was a nonviolent activist and leading strategist in the struggle for human rights and economic justice. As a gay man with radical politics, he was often marginalized despite his major contributions to the struggle for African-American civil rights and his work for peace and disarmament. He was born in West Chester, PA . . . 

Chief Standing Bear Nebraska (c.1829 - c.1908) Native-American, Chief, Ponca Tribe, Standing Bear

Chief Standing Bear, head of the Ponca Native American Tribe, successfully argued in 1879 in the U.S. District Court in Omaha that Native Americans are "persons within the meaning of the law" and have the right of habeas corpus.

Sojourner Truth Michigan (c.1797 - November 26, 1883) African-American, Methodist, Abolitionist, Author, Women’s Rights Activist, Civil War, Detroit Housing Project

Sojourner Truth was born c. 1797 as “Isabella Baumfree” to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, slaves on a Dutch settlement owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbaugh, in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York. One of 12 children, she spent her early years serving various masters and never learned to read and write. slave, Thomas, owned by the Dumonts.

Harriet "Minty" Tubman Maryland (c.1822 - June 14, 1914) African American, Underground Railroad, conductor, abolitionist, Union spy, civil war, slavery, suffrage, scout, nurse, civil rights

Born, c.1822, into slavery on a slave-breeding plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, she was named Araminta “Minty” Ross by her enslaved parents, Ben Ross, and Harriet (“Rit”) Green. Rit’s mother was owned by Mary Pattison Brodess, whose inherited Harriet when Mary’s mother, Atthow Pattison, died in 1797. Rit was a house cook on the plantation and her father . . . 

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo California (c.1808 - January 18, 1890) Hispanic, Mexican-American, Veteran, Politician, Rancher

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (c.1808–January 18, 1890) was a leader in the struggle for statehood for California. During his lifetime, he witnessed three nations rule California. Born to a wealthy family in Monterey, California, the eighth of 13 children, he entered military service at age 16.

Gustavus Vassa Pennsylvania (c.1745 - March 31, 1797) African, Nigeria, England, Abolitionist, Author, Gauger, Seaman, Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was born in West Africa in 1745, in an area of modern-day Nigeria. The son of a local chief, he was kidnapped with his sister when he was about 11 years of age and brought to a Virginia plantation, via the slave market in Barbados.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931) African American, author, civil rights advocate, feminist, journalist, leader of the anti-lynching crusade

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an African American woman of striking courage and conviction. A civil rights advocate, journalist and feminist, she achieved nationwide attention as a leader of the anti-lynching crusade. She was born a slave on the Bolling Farm near Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16,1862, the oldest daughter of James Madison and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wells (Warrenton). James had been taken by his father . . . 

Sarah Winnemucca Nevada (c.1884 - c.1891) Native-American, Author, Activist, Paiute

Sarah Winnemucca was the daughter of Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute People and granddaughter of Chief Truckee who guided John C. Fremont during his 1843 to 1845 expedition across the Great Basin to California.