“At the end of the Second World War, those of us who had participated in that conflict were under the impression that if we were triumphant over fascism and the Nazis, that the men and women who returned from that conflict would be celebrated and honored by our nation. Many of us went off to that war and didn’t have the right to vote. Many of us went off to that war and didn’t have the right to participate in the American Dream. We didn’t really think about this thing as a dream until Dr. King articulated it.
As a kid, there was not much I could aspire to, because the achievement of black people in spaces of power and rule and governance was not that evident, and therefore we were diminished in the way we thought we could access power and be part of the American fabric. So we who came back from this war having expectations and finding that there were none to be harvested were put upon to make a decision. We could accept the status quo as it was beginning to reveal itself with these oppressive laws still in place. Or, as had begun to appear on the horizon, stimulated by something Mahatma Gandhi of India had done, we could start this quest for social change by confronting the state a little differently. Let’s do it nonviolently, let’s use passive thinking applied to aggressive ideas, and perhaps we could overthrow the oppression by making it morally unacceptable.”
"Separate, but equal" drinking fountains in North Carolina, photographed by Elliott Erwitt in 1950.
“When I first met Dr. King, I was 16, and he came to speak at our high school gathering. They have kids from all over the country come as representatives of their part of the country. So there were a couple hundred of us, and we would meet in groups and discuss politics, and we were discussing nonviolence because it was a Quaker-based group. And then Dr. King came and spoke, and I was just stunned, because this man was doing what we had talked about. They had just started the more publicly seen and known boycotts in Montgomery, and I just wept through the whole thing, because it made something real to me. It was real, but I hadn’t seen an example of it in my daily life, and there it was.”
On the first day of December 1955, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress (and secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., chapter of the NAACP) named Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. She was arrested and fined $10. The bus boycott that grew from Parks' simple, resounding no lasted 381 days, from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 26, 1956; thrust 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. to the forefront of the civil rights movement; and put an end to segregation on Montgomery's public buses.
In the summer of 1955, two white men abducted a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till from his great-uncle's house in Money, Miss. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam beat Till almost to death, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and then dumped his body—weighted by a cotton-gin fan tied with barbed wire—in the Tallahatchie River. Their motive: Till, visiting from his native Chicago, had reportedly spoken "disrespectfully" to Bryant's wife a few days before. When an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of kidnapping and murder in September, the verdict shocked the nation and the world. And when, mere months later, the men admitted to Look magazine that they had, in fact, murdered Till, the outcry was so intense that it helped ignite the modern civil rights movement.
Organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin—the two men who six years later would successfully helm the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—the May 17, 1957, Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was the largest civil rights demonstration the U.S. had ever witnessed. In front of 25,000 people, activists and performers including Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Mahalia Jackson spoke and sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for three hours. In his speech that day—afterward known as the "Give Us the Ballot" speech—King urged President Eisenhower and Congress to protect the most basic rights of democracy for all citizens. "The civil rights issue is not an ephemeral, evanescent domestic issue that can be kicked about by reactionary guardians of the status quo," King said. "It is rather an eternal moral issue which may well determine the destiny of our nation. The hour is late."
In the landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional. But it wasn’t until three years later that nine black teenagers made history at Little Rock Central High School. On Sept. 4, 1957—the first day of school—15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, the first of the nine to arrive, was waved off school grounds by armed Arkansas National Guardsmen sent by Governor Orval Faubus under the pretense of preventing bloodshed. Interrupting his vacation, President Dwight Eisenhower met with Faubus, and shortly afterward the Arkansas National Guard was removed from the school grounds. Eisenhower ordered paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students in—the first steps on the long road toward integration.
Few civil-disobedience tactics of the late 1950s and early '60s were as simple and effective as the sit-ins that took place in towns from Texas and Oklahoma to North Carolina and Tennessee. The pictures in this gallery, documenting protests in Petersburg, Va., in May 1960, provide a view of the sit-in phenomenon, as well as some of the unusual training methods devised to help protesters prepare for the challenge of keeping their seats. LIFE told its readers in 1960 that "the key to the sit-in is non-violence, but it takes a tough inner fiber neither to flinch nor retaliate when, occasionally, hooligans pick on the sitters-in ... The high school and college students of Petersburg studied at a unique but punishing extracurricular school before they attempted sitting-in [where they were] subjected to a full repertory of humiliation and minor abuse. These include smoke-blowing, hair-pulling, chair-jostling, coffee-spilling, hitting with wadded newspaper, along with such epithets as 'dirty nigger' and 'black bitch.' Anyone who gets mad flunks."
The protesters known as freedom riders traveled by bus throughout the South during the early 1960s, facing threats of arrest, mob beatings and even firebombings. Riding primarily to challenge the noncompliance in many Southern states with Supreme Court decisions that ruled segregated public buses unconstitutional, these mostly young men and women — black and white — became the face of the civil rights movement at its most bracing moment.
In May 1961, LIFE photographer Paul Schutzer, who had covered the landmark Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington four years earlier, traveled with a group of freedom riders as they made their way from Alabama to Mississippi. Schutzer's photographs show the emotional extremes of the movement’s participants — exhilarated and exhausted, thrilled and terrified — during those heady, uncertain days.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, TIME presents a special commemorative issue—featuring Jon Meacham on King as a Founding Father of the 21st century; Richard Norton Smith on how King's words changed the nature of presidential persuasion; Michele Norris on the state of the dream today; plus Maya Angelou, Malala Yousafzai, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, Shonda Rhimes, Marco Rubio, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and more on what "I have a dream" means to them. Join TIME.com to read the full issue
“The sit-in is an interesting technique. What it simply says is, I’m going to sit at this place where you don’t want me to sit, and if you really don’t want me to sit and you call the police and take me away, I’ll get somebody else to take my place. And when that person is taken away, I’ll get somebody to take their place. And I’ll sit there as if I belong there because I believe I belong there, and I’m going to keep coming back and coming back and coming back until finally you give in and say, O.K., you can sit there. The sit-in most people know about is the Greensboro sit-in that began on Feb. 1, 1960, and spread all across the South. It meant that in Jackson, Miss., and Atlanta, Georgia, and towns in South Carolina, North Carolina—all across the South—young people were going down to lunch counters, sitting at the counters, often getting arrested and often coming back again and again and again. And the pressure began to mount, and these lunch counters initially began to give in: ‘O.K., you can sit here. We’ll make changes. We’ll change our racial policies.’ ”
In June 1963, a Klan member named Byron De La Beckwith shot civil rights activist Medgar Evers in the back as the 37-year-old Evers stood in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home. Three days after the murder, on June 15, John Loengard made this photograph—one of the most moving pictures of the civil rights era—showing a deeply grieving Myrlie Evers comforting her weeping son Darrell Kenyatta at Medgar’s funeral. The photograph appeared on the cover of an issue of LIFE in which Myrlie paid tribute to her husband: "We all knew the danger was increasing," she wrote. "Threats came daily ... against us and the children. But we had lived with this hatred for years, and we did not let it corrode us." Myrlie fought for justice for her husband for more than 30 years, and when, in 1994, eight black and four white jurors found the 74-year-old De La Beckwith guilty of first-degree murder, her words upon hearing the verdict were, “Yes, Medgar!”
When Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a series of nonviolent actions in Birmingham in 1963, the brutal response—especially the attack-dog and fire-hose tactics of Eugene "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's commissioner of public safety—galvanized the civil rights movement. LIFE's May 17, 1963, issue, featuring Charles Moore's photos of those chaotic, frightening days, showed the world the violence of anti-integration forces in the South.