For more than a month, the news has been filled with stories about protesters seeking racial justice and equality. Demonstrators, many carrying signs that say “Black Lives Matter,” have been marching in cities across the nation, including Washington.

Similar demonstrations are taking place in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Racial injustice binds many countries. In ours, its roots stretch back to pre-colonial times.

“Protest is patriotic and has been a part of our nation since the beginning,” Lonnie Bunch, who heads the Smithsonian Institution, told KidsPost.

Indeed, anger among 18th-century colonists about their treatment by Great Britain led to the American Revolution. Although founded on the idea that “all men are created equal,” the United States has struggled to achieve that reality, including ending the enslavement of black people, one of the key issues that led to the Civil War. A century later, the civil rights movement for African Americans led to new laws calling for equal rights in education, housing and voting.

Protests played a big role.

Civil rights protests pushed the government to act

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Rosa Parks is fingerprinted February 22, 1956, after her arrest in connection with a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. She inspired the boycott when she refused to give up her bus seat two months earlier for a white man. The boycott, which lasted 380 days, was one of the first protests used to change laws that allowed cities or states to treat people differently based on the color of their skin. (Gene Herrick/AP)

Rosa Parks’s refusal in 1955 to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, sparked black people’s year-long refusal to ride the city’s buses. It was the nation’s first major demonstration against racial segregation. One of its leaders was a young pastor named Martin Luther King Junior. The boycott ended after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated busing was illegal.

In 1960, four black college students quietly sat down at the “whites-only” lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They weren’t served, but they didn’t budge. The next day they returned with more students. Soon they numbered in the hundreds, and sit-in protests sprang up in a dozen states. A few months later, Woolworth’s led the way in opening its lunch counter to everyone.

The Smithsonian’s Bunch, who as a boy was refused service at a similar dining spot, has called these sit-ins “one of the most important moments in the 20th century.” A section of the Greensboro lunch counter is displayed at the Smithsonian.

In August 1963, thousands of people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That’s where King give his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech. The march pressured the federal government to move forward on historic civil rights bills.

Not all protests were peaceful. At a 1965 voting rights march in Alabama, state troopers and others attacked marchers with clubs, tear gas and snarling dogs in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Two weeks later, federal troops protected the marchers on their 54-mile walk to the state capital. Their protest led to the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Today, new activists carry the torch for racial justice. Bunch said he is “hopeful, seeing millions of young people all over the world seizing the moment.” Earlier civil rights protesters “made the world better,” he said, “and I have no doubt that the new generation is doing the same.”

U.S. civil rights movement key dates (1948 to 1968)

July 1948 President Harry Truman ends racial segregation in the military.

May 1954 Supreme Court outlaws segregation in public schools.

December 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama.

January 1957 Southern Christian Leadership Conference is formed, with the aim of ending legalized segregation and securing voting rights for black people.

February 1960 Black students hold sit-in at “whites-only” lunch counter in North Carolina.

September 1962 Troops stop rioting at University of Mississippi as James Meredith becomes first black person to enroll.

August 1963 Thousands rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The Reverend Martin Luther King Junior delivers “I Have a Dream” speech.

September 1963 Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, kills four black girls and injures at least 14 people. Two black teenage boys are killed in rioting that follows.

July 1964 The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination in the workplace and public places and gives added support to school integration and voting rights.

March 1965 Voter registration march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, subjected to violence on “Bloody Sunday.”

August 1965 The Voting Rights Act of 1965 curbs the ability of states and cities to stop people from voting. The act is expanded several times before Supreme Court cuts it back in 2013.

April 1968 King is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

April 1968 The Civil Rights Act of 1968 makes hate crimes a federal offense, protects Native Americans’ civil rights and prohibits housing discrimination.

Learn more

To download a Civil Rights Activity Book for kids, ask an adult to sign on to splcenter.org/sites/default/files/splc_civil_rights_activity_book_online.pdf.