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Black History Month Highlights Key Moments of US Civil Rights Movement

February is National Black History Month in the United States - an annual observance of the events and people who played a role in shaping the history of African Americans. One chapter of the history includes the civil rights moment of the1950's and 60's. It was a time when the country was racially divided. Blacks and others demonstrated for freedom, equality and justice.

The civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's was led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He and thousands of Americans demonstrated across the country exposing the blight of racism, in a push for equal rights.

In mostly southern US states discriminatory laws were enforced to keep blacks and whites separated. Alabama Governor George Wallace was among those resisting change.

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever," Wallace said.

"We the negro citizens of Montgomery have been involved in a non-violent protest against the injustices which we have experienced on the buses for a number of years," civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. countered.

The movement gained momentum in 1955, when King and other blacks stopped riding city buses in Alabama's capital, Montgomery. It was a boycott spearheaded by the defiant act of Rosa Parks. She was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man and sit at the back of the bus. By 1956, Alabama's Supreme Court ruled the state's bus segregation laws unconstitutional.

"Selma is the focal point," Dr. King said. "Selma is the heart of the black belt. Selma is a symbol of the resistance to the right to vote."

By the 1960's Dr. King and other black leaders had focused their attention on Selma, Alabama, where blacks were denied the right to register to vote.

Andrew Young was one of Dr. King's top aides.

"So we went to Selma deliberately trying to find a mechanism to get our [blacks] voting rights protected by the federal government," he explained.

"The county board of registers is not in session this afternoon as you were informed beforehand. You came down to make a mockery out of this court house and we are not going to have it," Jim Clark, former Selma Alabama Sheriff informed the crowd.

Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma's top law enforcer, confronted demonstrators, often using his night stick (billy club) to keep them from entering the courthouse.

Civil rights leader CT Vivian took on Sheriff Clark with violent consequences.

"You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand but you cannot beat down justice," Vivian said. "And we will register to vote because of citizen of these United States we have the right to do it."

In other parts of the American south, peaceful demonstrations turned violent. White segregationists confronted blacks while police beat and arrested thousands of protesters. Some activists were even killed.

Sit-in demonstrations were held at segregated restaurants and stores in nine states were blacks were refused service. Demonstrators were arrested, but the widespread publicity and the loss of thousands of dollars forced many businesses to start serving blacks.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed," Dr. King said during a renowned speech. "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."

The events of the civil rights movement such as the 1963 March on Washington raised America's conscience and support for equal rights. King and other black leaders were on hand as President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, and later the Voting Rights Act. The measures outlawed racial segregation in public places and discriminatory practices that prevented blacks from voting.

The night before he was assassinated in April 1968, King and thousands of others who took part in the civil rights movement understood a new era was just around the corner.

"I have been to the mountaintop," Dr. King said. "And I have seen the promise land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promise land."