Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks; Bull Connor and George Wallace — the names have become part of the nation's collective memory, as have the events that brought them to prominence. The 1954 Supreme Court decision, which famously declared segregation in education to be "inherently unequal"; the determination of the residents of Montgomery, who chose to walk rather than ride on Jim Crow buses in December 1955; the gathering on a peaceful August afternoon in 1963 when thousands came together in the nation's capital; and the shocking murder of four little girls in Birmingham that same year-the story of the struggle is etched in the minds of Americans, whether they lived through the events themselves or viewed them on the film clips that have become a staple part of the diet of American schoolchildren.
While many recognize the significance of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, few recall that the struggle began not in those years but decades earlier. Emerging late in the nineteenth century, the modern quest for racial justice was peopled by extraordinary figures, many of whom are now remembered only dimly or not at all. Black and white freedom fighters worked tirelessly and often at great personal risk to extract justice from the heart of a nation that had long proclaimed itself the source of freedom and democracy in the world. That the United States was unwilling to provide either to all its citizens was one of the supreme ironies of the struggle, a campaign that unfolded slowly but inexorably over the first half of the twentieth century.
To have believed early in the last century that schools would one day be integrated and legal racial discrimination ended would have seemed a case of hope vanquishing reality. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, it would begin to happen, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented the culmination of years of work. With its passage, and the enactment the following year of the Voting Rights Act, the legal wall that had stood for so long between African Americans and full citizenship came tumbling down.
The history of the struggle has been told many times before, often as the story of courageous African Americans whose collective actions forced a reluctant federal government to defend and protect the rights of all Americans against a system that had long denied justice to blacks. And that is as it should be told, for what finally compelled the federal government to act were the assiduous efforts of black Americans who were determined to end legal discrimination.