Kids Fight for Civil Rights

African-American third graders attending Atlanta ‘s C.W.Hill school,1954.

Editor’s Note: Children and teenagers played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. The following excerpt highlights young peoples’ roles in two key school desegregation struggles. This can be used as a read-aloud with younger students or as part of reading or social studies for older elementary, middle, or high school students. Teaching ideas follow on page 39.


Fifty years ago, all across the United States, black people and white people were segregated. Their homes, schools, churches, and social lives were completely separated from one another. Where there were large numbers of Mexican Americans or American Indians, they were also segregated from white people.

In the southern United States, segregation was actually the law. Throughout the South, the law forbade black people from eating in the same restaurants as white people. Black men and women taking the bus to work had to sit in the back. White people sat in the front. Even before they started school, black children learned that they were not allowed to use “white” drinking fountains or “white” bathrooms in gas stations. Black teens could not swim in public swimming pools or at public beaches reserved for whites. Even in old age, segregation separated senior citizens. The law made it a crime for an old black man and an old white man to play checkers together in the park.

In the northern United States, the laws usually did not require segregation. Even without such laws, people’s lives were segregated. People of color were not allowed to buy or rent homes in the same neighborhoods as white people. Because they lived in segregated neighborhoods, children attended mostly white or mostly black schools.

In the North as well as in the South, employers used color as a reason for hiring or not hiring people. For example, most northern police forces and fire departments refused to hire any people of color.

Young people went to strictly segregated dances and social events. Friendships between black and white teens were forbidden by their elders. In many states, the law itself forbade marriage between black people and white people.

In the South, children attended strictly segregated schools from kindergarten on. Black schools got far less money than white schools. They had fewer books and worse buildings and playgrounds, if they had playgrounds at all. Teachers in black schools were paid less than teachers in white schools. The same school boards—made up of white men—ruled over black and white schools in each county.

Black parents and children protested against this inequality. They knew that segregation was legal. The Supreme Court, which makes the final judgment on whether laws passed by Congress or the states are constitutional, had said that segregation was legal as long as the segregated facilities were “separate but equal.”

Black parents and children knew that their schools were anything but equal. They also knew it was dangerous to challenge the white people who ran the government. In South Carolina, Rev. J. A. DeLaine tried to get better education for black children. Because of this he and his wife and two sisters and a niece were all fired from their jobs. His house was burned to the ground while the fire department watched. His church was stoned. He was threatened with death and survived shotguns fired at him in the night. Finally, he had to flee the town where he had lived his whole life.

Other black people who challenged white power were lynched. When a mob kills someone without the due process of law, it is called lynching. Black soldiers, returned from fighting for freedom and democracy during World War II, sometimes objected to being second-class citizens at home. Many were lynched by white mobs. During three weeks of the summer of 1946, six black war veterans were lynched in Georgia.

Despite the danger, some black and white people joined together to work for civil rights for black people. They formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the United States. The NAACP was organized in 1909, after rioting whites in Atlanta, Ga., killed nearly 50 black people in three days in 1906.

The NAACP’s website (www.naacp. org) states the organization’s purpose:

The principle objective of the NAACP is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of the United States.

The NAACP is committed to achievement through non-violence and relies upon the press, the petition, the ballot, and the courts, and is persistent in the use of legal and moral persuasion even in the face of overt and violent racial hostility.

Many southerners hated the NAACP and considered it a “subversive” or “communist” organization. Many times, NAACP members in the South were threatened or beaten. Despite the danger, the NAACP continued its activities. During the late 1940s, NAACP lawyers filed lawsuits challenging segregated, unequal education in the South. One of these lawsuits began in 1947, in Prince Edward County, Va.

Barbara Johns Speaks Out

In 1947, black students attended Moton High School in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County, Va. Moton did not have enough room for its black students. The county government built three tar-paper shacks and temporary classrooms. The shacks had no real walls, only wooden structures covered by a heavy, black paper.

Moton’s history teacher had to drive the school bus, too. His other duties included building wood fires in the tar-paper shacks to heat them. The wood fires didn’t keep students warm. All winter, they studied wearing their coats.

Moton High School had no cafeteria and no lockers. Its science classes did not have even a single microscope. The buses that brought students to school were hand-me-downs given to Moton by the white high school when it got new buses. Black parents asked for new schools. The county promised the black principal a new school, but it never kept this promise.

In the spring of 1951, Barbara Johns was a 16-year-old junior in high school. Johns was a student council member, as was her brother John. Johns had had enough of hand-me-down buses and ramshackle schools. She talked to her brother, to the student council president Carrie Stokes, and to a few other students. Johns knew that action was difficult and dangerous. She and her friends met in secret. They gathered support slowly and did not tell any adults of their plans.

Johns said that since their elders had not been able to get a decent school, it was time for teens to take action. She told her friends that they would not get a new school for themselves because it would take a long time. Maybe, Johns said, they could get a decent school for their little brothers and sisters.

On April 23, Johns and her classmates set their plans in action. They faked an emergency telephone call to the principal. He left the building to attend to the “emergency.” Then they delivered notes “from the principal” calling all classes to a general assembly.

The 450 students and their teachers arrived in the auditorium. Johns stood up in front of the assembly. She announced that this was a special meeting to discuss school conditions. Teachers protested and tried to stop the meeting. Johns took her shoe off and pounded it like a gavel. She ordered teachers to leave and her friends escorted them out of the auditorium.

The students listened to Johns’s call for a decent school. They considered her explanation that it was up to them to act. They knew that they were entitled to an equal education. They knew that they should not have to go to class in tar-paper shacks. They also knew the dangers of commanding anything from the white people who ran the county government. They thought about the danger they would face if they took action and the injustice that they suffered so long as no one acted. Then all 450 students followed Johns out of school and on strike.

Johns and her group summoned lawyers from the NAACP. The lawyer thought they would be meeting with adults—they did not want to meet with children. They arrived in town in time to speak to a mass meeting attended by a thousand people. The NAACP lawyers explained that they could not help Johns and her community to get a new, but equal, segregated school. They wanted to do something even more radical than Johns had planned. The NAACP lawyers would sue for integrated schools for all the black and white children of Farmville!

Integration! Integration meant an end to segregation, the separation of people by skin color. Integration was beyond Johns’s dreams, but she and the other students and their parents agreed. The NAACP lawyers filed a lawsuit. The Moton High School case was joined with lawsuits from other towns, including one filed in Topeka, Kan.

In Topeka, a young girl named Linda Brown attended a black elementary school. She had to travel more than two miles to the segregated school. A white school was just four blocks from her home. Linda and her parents believed that she should be able to attend the school closest to her home. They agreed to become part of the NAACP’s legal challenge to segregation.

Three years later, the NAACP lawsuits finally reached the Supreme Court of the United States. By now the case was named Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution of the United States. Separate schools were inherently unequal. The highest court in the country ordered that all public schools be integrated.

What happened to Johns while the law took its slow course? A few days after the student strike, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her family’s front yard. The Klan is an organization based on hatred of black people. The Klan also hates other people of color as well as Jews and Catholics. Cross-burnings are warnings that the Klan is ready to attack. Johns’s parent hurried her out of town. They sent her to live with an uncle in Montgomery, Ala.

Did Johns’s organizing and protest win a victory? Yes, but that victory was a long time coming. Even after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Prince Edward County refused to integrate its schools. Instead, public officials closed all the public schools for five years. White children attended private schools. Black children had no schools.

Across the South, school boards and government officials delayed desegregation. Black parents and children, helped by the NAACP, kept up steady pressure. Throughout the years of struggle, brave children carried the burden of grown-up hatred.

Ruby Bridges Goes to School

Ruby Bridges, age six, was the first black child to attend a previously all-white school in New Orleans in 1960. Bridges grew up in Louisiana. She had seven brothers and sisters. In 1960, school integration overshadowed their lives.

Bridges’s father, Abon Bridges, did not want her to integrate the William Frantz Grade School. He feared for her future. Her mother, Lucille, insisted that Ruby must do it. Lucille Bridges wanted a better education for all her children.

In a conversation with a television reporter years later, Bridges remembered her first day of school.

That first morning I remember mom saying as I got dressed in my new outfit, “Now, I want you to behave yourself today, Ruby, and don’t be afraid. There might be a lot of people outside this new school, but I’ll be with you.” That conversation was the full extent of preparing me for what was to come.

Four federal marshals came to take Bridges to school that day. The federal marshals were there to enforce the law, because the local police would not. They walked Bridges through the crowds of white men and women. Grown men and women threw things and screamed insults at Bridges.

Bridges walked through the mob of people. She was not hit by any of the things they threw. Inside the school, she found herself in a classroom all alone with a teacher. All the white parents had kept their children home from school. Only one teacher, a woman who had just arrived from Boston, agreed to teach Bridges.

Every day, Bridges and the four marshals went to the school. Every day they met angry mobs. “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate,” chanted the white adults. They kept white children out of the school for more than a year.

Looking back, Bridges calls her mother a hero.

I was a six-year-old child. I’m a parent now. I’m an adult. I believe that it took more strength and courage for my mother, my parents to go through that than it did for me as a six-year-old. I was actually doing what I was told. … But for an adult to say that this is something that I will subject my six-year-old to, that takes a lot of courage and a lot of strength.

The whole family needed strength. Because Bridges was going to a white school, her father was fired from his job. Her grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived and worked for 25 years.

Bridges and her family persevered. Every day Bridges prayed for her tormentors. Eventually the angry crowds went away. White parents saw their children sitting at home and learning nothing. One by one, they decided that education was more important than segregation. Slowly, the white children came back to school. Finally, Bridges’s school room filled up with classmates instead of empty desks.

Now a grown woman with four children of her own, Bridges continues to work for education, children, and families. She tells people that, “It is now a time for us to be concerned with all children, not just our own. We must become mother and father to all children for a better world.”

A Hard-Won Victory

Schools were a very important part of the Civil Rights Movement. The legal challenges to school segregation mounted by the NAACP succeeded in overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were unequal and unconstitutional.

Adults, lawyers, and courts were important in overturning legal segregation of schools. But their actions alone were not enough. The courage and commitment of young people like Barbara Johns and Ruby Bridges were needed to make civil rights a reality in the nation’s schools.

Excerpted from The Civil Rights Movement for Kids: A History with 21 Activities (Chicago Review Press, 2000). Reprinted with permission.