Race Relations in the USA 1955-168

Race relations in the USA 

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Jim Crow Laws

In the southern states of the USA, laws had been passed tha enforced the segregation (or seperation) of whites and African Americans, and ensured that African Americans were seen as inferior to whites.

These laws imposed segregation in every aspect of life - Housing, Education and Transport

Many Afro-Americans migrated to northern industrial cities where they could find better jobs.

Some USA states denied Afro-Americans the right to vote which they saw as very unfair as they had played an important role in both world wars.

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Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP


The organisation was originally founded in 1866 after the American Civil War. Its purpose was to make sure that Afro-Americans remained socially inferior to whites. 

They discriminated against whites, houses were bombed, people intimidated and even killed.


The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. This organisation fought for the rights of African Americans.

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Brown versus Topeka Board of Education - 1954

In 1896 - the US supreme court had decided that segregated schools were legal as long as they were equal. In most cases, they were not. Schools for whites were better funded.

  • The NAACP challanged this inequality.
  • It asked a number of parents in Topeka in Kansas to register there children at there nearest school, however all were given places at a black school.
  • They therefore took matters to the district court, the court used the "seperate equal" rule. 
  • However on 17th May 1954, the US supreme courth ruled that segregation in schools should end. However there was no deadline set so it was slow progress.
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Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-6

In December 1955, Rosa Parks, aged 42, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and fined.

African Americans encouraged by young minister, Martin Luther King, started a bus boycott.

  • The would walk to work instead
  • The boycott was very damaging to the bus company as African Americans made up about 75% of the passangers
  • African Americans remained calm and diginfied and were not violent like whites were towards them
  • In November 1956 -  the Supreme court ruled that segregation on buses was illegal
  • In December 1956 - The bus company gave in
  • Other companies were slow to change their racist policy
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Little Rock High School, 1957

Little progress towards desegregating schools had been made by 1957.

  • In 1957, nine African American students registered to atten Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas
  • The state governor, Faubus, who was against intergration, posted members of the National Guard outside the school to prevent the African American students from entering
  • National television showed the events, with an angry white mob jeering
  • Eventually the African American students entered through a back door
  • President Eisenhower was forced to send federal troops to enforce the law that entitled these students to attend
  • Inside the school, these students continued to be the subject of abuse from many white students.

The attitudes of some whites became more extreme

A civil rights movement was developing

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Freedom Rides - 1961

Long distance buses and coaches were still segregated.

  • Groups of activists rode on buses in the Birmingham, Alabama area to highlight the issue
  • They were the subject of racial abuse and violence from white groups
  • There were 60 freedom rides which involved 450 people
  • Two hundered freedom riders were arrested and put in jail
  • Eventually after pressure from President Kennedy, the Governor of Alabama acted to protect the freedom riders
  • It was made clear that the law against segregation applied to interstate buses as well as local ones
  • Through the media of television, civil rights had become a national issue
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Freedom Marches

By 1963, Martin Luther Kind and other civil rights leaders were keen to keep ip the momentum of change. 

He organised a series of freedom marches in the city of Birmingham, Alabama

  • The head of police in Birmingham was racist, and so the police instructed the marches to stop, but they refused
  • Television cameras were present as police used violent methods against peaceful marchers
  • Over 1,000 protestors were arrested
  • Nationally, people were outraged and Birmingham was forced to desegregate
  • Over the country as a whole there were many more marches and demonstrations
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The Washington March - 1963

In August 1963, the most famous demonstration organised by Martin Luther King took place. 

  • A quarter of a million people, including 60,000 whites marched through the captial, Washington D.C, to demand guaranteed civil rights for all. 
  • This was were Martin Luther King made his historic "I Have a Dream" speech 
  • The march was so carefully planned that the protest was peaceful and did not turn into a riot
  • The U.S president John F Kennedy decided to meet with the leaders of freedom marches to congratulate them. 
  • It was a huge triumph for the Civil rights movement as it showed change. It brought civil rights issues to public view again

A white backlash followed, a bomb planted by KKK killed four African American children in a Birmingham church

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Black Power - 1960's

Martin Luther King believed in non-violence and progress towards equality was being made. However it was very slow and some people thought a more violent approach would bring quicker results.

The Black-Power movement wanted to increase the awareness of African American culture.

Black Panthers - An open military Black nationalist group who believed that violence was the way forward.

Malcom X - Was in the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim Organisation. He saw the policy of non-violence as weak and wanted to use violence to attack racism by whites. His parents were killed by the KKK.

He later however changed his ideas and believed blacks should work with whites to achieve civil rights, he was then part of the Afro-American Unity.

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Black Power Protest and the Olympics

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, African American sprinters, came first and third in the 200 metres race at the Mexico Olympic Games, 1968. 

At the medal ceremony they went on the podium in black socks and no shoes. One wore a black scarf and the other black beads. 

They did a black power salute with a clenched fist in the air. At the end of the ceromony the athletes were booed. Although the act brought great pride to African Americans, their actions were criticised by many Americans for bringing American politics into the games.

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Civil Right Acts passed

1964- Introduced after the huge sucess of the Washington March and after the assassination of President Kennedy

        - It outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants and theatres, encouraged desegregation of public schools and government agencies were desegreated

1965- Introduced because blacks had to previously take impossible literacy tests in order to gain the right to vote

        - It outlawed literacy tests, rapidly after the act was passed many blacks were now registered to vote 

1968- Introduced after the assassination of Martin Luther King

        - No one could refuse to sell or rent a house on the grounds of race

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Race Riots - 1965-7

The Civil Rights act of 1964 promised much, but African Americans were becoming impatient, influenced by the Black Power movement. In 1965, Martin Luther King organised marches in areas that had the worst record for continuing racial discrimination despite rulings.

These marches were stopped by the police.

By 1965, 50% of African Americans live in the north of USA, many lived in poverty.

In August 1965,  violence erupted in an African American ghetto in LA, it was a violent riot which resulted in thirty-four deaths and hundreds injured. Unfourtunately this sparked off riots elsewhere. 

In 1966, there were riots in Chigago after Martin Luther King tried to help blacks get better treatment from the government. King was no longer able to control these situations and pursuade African- Americans to be patient and non-violent.

In 1967, there were race riots in many North American Cities

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Nobel Peace Prize and Assassination

In 1964, Martin Luther King recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent approach towards tackling racial inequality. At the time he was just 35 and the youngest to win this award.

In 1968, Martin Luther King was a controversial figure, many people thought him a hero in the civil rights struggle. However some people ceased to support him because of his slow non-violent methods.

He was assisnated in April 1968

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How important was Martin Luther King?

Important -

  • He was increasingly involved in demonstrations
  • Frequently arrested for standing up for his rights
  • A powerful speech maker
  • Drew national attentions to black problems and created publicity
  • Organised many events - sit ins, freedom rides, marches
  • Wanted to work with whites through peaceful protest
  • Carried on even though he recieved threats and was in danger

Not Important - 

  • He provoked violence and disorder, was a trouble maker
  • Slow progress was made, seemed weak when compared with Black Power
  • Many other people were inspirational, wasn't just Martin Luther King
  • Seemed to be part of the white system
  • Was a glory seeker, others didn't get enough recognition

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