Summary | MLK | Malcolm X  
Non-Mainstream Heroes | Unknown Hero
Civil Unrest
The 1960s: A Time of Civil Unrest
Feb 1960

First sit-in, Nashville Woolworth Counter

May 1961 Freedom Rides begin in the South
Sept 1962 James Meredith first black enrolled at Ole Miss
Jan 1963

George Wallace gives "Segregation Forever" speech

Feb 1965 Malcolm X assassinated
Mar 1965 Selma March across Edmond Pettus Bridge
Oct 1966 Black Panthers formed in Oakland, California
Nov 1967 Carl Stokes first black mayor of a major U.S. city
Apr 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated


What started out with a tiny, black woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama wound up changing the very fabric of this country. The movement Rosa Parks unwittingly sparked because her feet were tired also spawned two of the greatest leaders this country has ever known. Ironically, they only met one time despite years of waging the same battle - yet neither could have existed without the other.

When four young men walked into a Memphis Woolworth's, sat down at the lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served, the Civil Rights movement as we know it today was born. A wave of protests quickly sprang up throughout the South, led primarily by the black southern church leadership. Because of his charisma and eloquence, Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the voice of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

While King organized and mobilized students, sharecroppers and ordinary citizens to rally to the cause of racial harmony, other anxious organizers began to move away from King's message of non-violence. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) quickly stepped up pressure on the SCLC. While King kept the protest and marches non-violent -- at least on his end -- whites and blacks alike were beginning to lose patience with the constant barrage of protests that seemed to net no actual gains.

In the north, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam began to offer a different voice. With a message diametrically opposed to King's, Malcolm's catch phrase of equality, "By any means necessary" soon became a rallying cry for those disenchanted with King.

Malcolm's populist rhetoric that blacks and whites could never live in the same country together quickly drew a large national following. Soon the Nation boasted the largest minority religion in America.

After Malcolm was assassinated in New York City, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale picked up on Malcolm's ideas and moved the civil rights movement to California with their formation of the Black Panthers.

While neither man lived to see the fruits of his labor, the effects of their efforts still reverberate today.

  • "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important." (Wall Street Journal, November 13, 1962)

  • "A good many observers have remarked that if equality could come at once the Negro would not be ready for it. I submit that the white American is even more unprepared." (Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967)

  • "If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live." (speech, Detroit, Michigan, June 23, 1963)

  • "To be a Negro in America is to hope against hope." (Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967)

  • "Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them." (speech, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, August 16, 1967)
  • Martin Luther King (1929-1968)

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia with deep roots in the Southern Baptist Church tradition, a tradition that would eventually lead him down the road to becoming one of the most eloquent spokesmen and activists for social justice and change.

    From a very early age, King was a rebel. Although he admired and loved his father, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, he questioned literal translations of scripture. Instead, he saw the Church as a social force, a way to transform the lives of African-Americans.

    Most of King's great success in the Civil Rights movement came in the waning years of the fifties with the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But it was the sixties sit-in protests throughout the South and the Freedom rides that truly brought King to an increasingly sympathetic national audience.

    After a falling out with more militant students involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, King and his top aides retreated. When they reemerged on the national scene, they brought together 250,000 protesters to the steps of the federal government where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. While lasting only a few minutes, the speech has become the defining moment in time when the country -- threatening to be torn apart by social and political upheaval -- took a collective deep breath from the chaos that was sweeping the land.

    Slowly, Congress began passing legislation that would in theory allow African-Americans the basic right to live and vote with their white neighbors. But after the March on Washington in 1963, King began to fall out of favor with both the white liberals and the more aggressive African-American youths who would no longer stand for slow change. On April 4, 1968, King was gunned down in Memphis while attempting to help organize a garbage workers strike.

  • "You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom." ("Prospects for Freedom in 1965," speech, 7 Jan. 1965, New York City)

  • "If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country." (speech, Nov. 1963, New York City)

  • "I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men, but I don't believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn't want brotherhood with me. I believe in treating people right, but I'm not going to waste my time trying to treat somebody right who doesn't know how to return the treatment." (speech, 12 Dec. 1964, New York City)

  • "We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans." ("Racism: the Cancer that is Destroying America," in Egyptian Gazette (25 Aug. 1964)

  • "It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep." ("Message to the Grass Roots," speech, Nov. 1963, Detroit)
  • Malcolm X (1925-1965)  (return to top)

    One of the most enigmatic characters to ever emerge from this country was Malcolm X. Reviled as a white-hating, black separatist during his stint in the Nation of Islam, he eventually became a respected member of the Civil Rights debate after leaving the Nation.

    Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was exposed to the teaching of Marcus Garvey by his father, Earl. Six years after he was born, Earl moved his family up to Lansing, Michigan hoping to find a better life for his family. Instead, he was taken from his house one evening allegedly by Ku Klux Klan members. When he was found the next day, he was dead, nearly cut in half by the rails of a trolley car.

    The years that followed were tough on Malcolm. His mother slowly deteriorated emotionally and eventually, Malcolm was sent to Roxbury to live with his aunt. He fell into a life of crime, and went to prison. In prison, he was exposed to The Nation of Islam, a sect of Islam that was started by Elijah Muhammed, the supposed prophet of Allah. When Malcolm emerged from prison, he dropped his slave name Little and took the Nation's symbolic X as his last name, signifying his loss of identity.

    He quickly rose to the forefront of the African-American organization, becoming its spokesman. His quote, "By Any Means Necessary," became the mantra for not only young, southern activists, but also for the soon-to-be-formed Black Panthers in California. After helping the Nation grow, Malcolm and Elijah split and Malcolm was ousted from group.

    He immediately set about rectifying his views with true Islam and to that end, he took a trip to Mecca where he transformed his public image to accommodate the wider audience -- including whites -- that he now spoke to. His tenure didn't last long. In 1965, less than two years after leaving the Nation and forming the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm was gunned down while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Though Malcolm was killed as he entered a new phase in his public life, the legacy of his words has long outlived those who condemned him while he lived.

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