In its wider context, the American civil rights movement stretches back centuries, from the first enslaved Africans and their descendants, to the Civil War and emancipation, and the granting of basic civil rights to newly freed citizens. The struggle, however, didn’t end there. Jim Crow laws continued to enforce racial segregation in the Southern United States, and racial discrimination and violence against Black Americans were widespread across the nation.
In the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement reached a turning point. A campaign of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience swept across the U.S., with the aim of finally abolishing discrimination, disenfranchisement, and institutional racial segregation. Inspired by those who had fought before them, men and women such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as symbols and leaders of the movement. For years, people marched and protested, held sit-ins and boycotts, often risking their lives for the cause.
By the end of the 1960s, the movement had brought about major changes in civil rights legislation, including the end of segregation laws. The struggle for equality was far from over, but progress had been made, paving the way for a more hopeful future. Here are some quotes from prominent figures in America’s long fight for civil rights — voices that have served as an inspiration from the 19th century to the present day.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
— Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1817 or 1818. He escaped 20 years later, became a licensed preacher, and began to attend abolitionist meetings. Over the following decades, Douglass became a prominent activist, orator, and author, best known for his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. As well as being an active campaigner for the rights of freed enslaved people and a supporter of women's suffrage, Douglass was also the first Black U.S. marshal.
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
— Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells was born to enslaved parents in 1862. Through her bold writing and investigative journalism, she became an early leader in the civil rights movement. In the 1890s, she began to document cases of lynching in the United States, shining a light on these tragic acts of violence. Wells later became a co-founder of the NAACP.
The greatest evil in our country today is not racism, but ignorance. I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.
— Septima Poinsette Clark
Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1898. Clark was not one of the most famous names in the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King Jr. commonly referred to her as the “Mother of the Movement.” Her activism was centered on education: She played a pivotal role in the development of literacy and citizenship workshops that were vital in the fight for voting rights for Black Americans.
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
— Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks rose to prominence following her famous act of defiance in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. This helped inspire the Montgomery bus boycott, and Parks became a symbol of the civil rights movement.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
— Martin Luther King Jr.
From the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was the most prominent spokesman and leader of the civil rights movement. As a Baptist minister and church leader, he promoted a path of nonviolence and civil disobedience in the fight for equality, and inspired the movement with his passionate speeches. In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism. The following year, he helped organize the influential Selma protests, a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.
— Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer and civil rights activist who rose to the position of associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, which he held from 1967 until 1991. He was the Supreme Court’s first Black American justice. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black American Vice President, used Marshall's Bible during her inauguration in 2021.
You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.
— Malcolm X
Malcolm X was a controversial figure during his lifetime, often accused of inciting violence and promoting black supremacy (a position he later renounced). Despite his criticisms of Martin Luther King Jr. and mainstream activism, he became a prominent figure during the civil rights movement, and one who gave a powerful voice to Black Americans. Today, many consider him one of the most influential Black leaders in history.
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
— John Lewis
John Lewis’ involvement in the civil rights movement began at an early age. He met Rosa Parks when he was 17 and Martin Luther King Jr. a year later. At 23, he helped organize the March on Washington, and two years later led the first of the three Selma marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later in life, he was elected to Congress and served in the United States House of Representatives from 1987 until his death in 2020, at the age of 80.
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