Last Updated 31 Mar 2020

U.S. Civil Rights Milestones of the Early Twentieth Century

Category Civil Rights
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It would be almost impossible to discuss the issue of civil rights in the U.S. without mentioning Martin Luther King. He was the undeniable leader and hero of the American Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century. He is widely recognized for his valiant efforts to advance civil rights for African Americans in the U.S. in the late 1950's and 60's. Countless streets and buildings carry his name and the country celebrates a national holiday on his birthday in January.

He was the founder and first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC organized non-violent protests throughout the South. However, many people in the U.S. are not aware of any of the events in the Civil Rights Movement that took place before Dr. King's leadership. The three major milestones that set the stage for Martin Luther King and the SCLC to advance the cause of U.S. civil rights were the integration of the military, the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The first noteworthy event of the twentieth century that advanced the cause of civil rights was executive order 9981. President Truman became enlightened about the plight of African Americans when he met with civil rights activists in the White House in 1946. After establishing a committee to recommend preventive measures to fight discrimination, Truman signed executive order 9981 that called for the integration of the military (Executive Order 9981).

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However, it was not fully enforced until the U.S. became involved in the Korean War.

A legal decision that had a lasting impact on civil rights was the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education handed down in 1955. It established that public schools should not be segregated. Though it was challenged by several southern states for many years, all the states eventually followed it (Brown v. Board of Education).The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a protest orchestrated by Dr. King. Most people remember Rosa Parks as the brave woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

Her arrest led to a boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama for over a year. The protest was successful and led to Martin Luther King's presidency of the SCLC. As the president of the SCLC, he led many protests and marches and gave countless memorable speeches to champion civil rights (Montgomery Bus Boycott).

Before MLK assumed a leadership role in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement through his presidency of the SCLC, other key events took place to pave the way for the fight for equality. Truman's Executive Order 9981 in 1948 eventually led to complete racial integration in the military. Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education legally ended public school segregation, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott resulted in the end of illegal desegregation on public transportation. These historic events preceded Dr. King's numerous achievements and helped energize the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

Works Cited

  • "Brown v. Board of Education.", A&E Television Networks, 2009,
  • "Executive Order 9981.",, 2016,
  • "Montgomery Bus Boycott." Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2018,

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