The African American Civil Rights Movement is often presented within a limited context of events that occurred during the late 1950s and the 1960s. In reality, the radical change of this period was fueled by an incipient set of factors, most notably, the scourge of lynching in the Jim Crow South. The conviction and determination of civil rights activists derived from a broad spectrum of early 20th century influences spanning the campaign for women’s suffrage, the Harlem Renaissance, World Wars I and II and other events that made an undeniable moral imperative  increasingly urgent.

As you explore this Yale Alumni Academy program, African American Civil Rights: From Reconstruction to Right Now, you'll experience a story that spans from the end of the Civil War through today. This program features four themes: Reconstruction, Rights, Revolution and Right Now, explored through online museum exhibits, videos, collections from Yale's archives, virtual visits to historical sites around the country and recorded on-demand events. 

Museums and Virtual Exhibits

James Weldon Johnson

Drawing upon the theme of Langston Hughes’ 1936 poem, Let America be America Again, this exhibit at the Beinecke Library introduces us to Carl Van Vechten's portraits of artists, activists, and powerful voices from the Harlem Renaissance era. These visionaries created a legacy of social consciousness expressed through literature, poetry, music, and lives lived in pursuit of justice. Their work formed a foundation of self-determination and racial identity that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Explore the Beinecke Exhibit

Harlem Renaissance

A timeline of African American culture from 1910-1940: Critics throughout the Harlem Renaissance called for art that would make a point....intellectual leaders such as James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, Alain Locke, and W. E. B. Du Bois all insisted that African American art would serve as a front in the fight for racial equality.

Explore the Beinecke Exhibit

Article: What Was the Harlem Renaissance and Why Does it Matter?

African Americans in WWII

African Americans have served in every major military conflict in U.S. history. Prior to WWII, Black soldiers in each war hoped that their loyalty and patriotism would be rewarded with freedom and equality. Following WWII, winning freedom abroad while not having it at home fostered deep-rooted discontent, paving the path toward the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Explore this Exhibit from Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center

Tuskegee Airmen

On the eve of WWII, President Roosevelt commissioned a program to train African American aviators for the US Army Air Corps at the historically black college, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. These “Tuskegee Airmen,” also known as “The Red Tails” became famous for their heroic military legacy during the war and were a major influence in the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

Meet Tuskegee Airman, Charles McGee

Lt. James L. McCullin Jr.: A Memorial to a Fallen Hero

Information Links

Pauli Murray
  • Legislation

Pauli Murray ’65 J.S.D., ’79 Hon. D.Div.

The Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray: legal strategist whose thinking influenced Thurgood Marshall’s arguments in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case; whose work Ruth Bader Ginsberg relied upon when arguing a Supreme Court Case against gender discrimination in 1971; and whose advocacy for the inclusion of the word “sex” in the 1964 Civil Rights bill would define its interpretation as protecting women’s rights in its time, and securing LGBTQ rights in our time. The first African American to receive a J.S.D. degree from Yale Law School, Murray has been called a “one-woman civil rights movement” by the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Made a saint by the Episcopal church in 2018, and the namesake of Pauli Murray College at Yale in 2017, Murray's vision for a better society lives on in an extraordinary legacy for generations to come.

Pauli Murray at UNC

"On January 8th, in a ceremony in the National Cathedral, Murray became the first African-American woman to be vested as an Episcopal priest. A month later, she administered her first Eucharist at the Chapel of the Cross—the little church in North Carolina where, more than a century earlier, a priest had baptized her grandmother Cornelia, then still a baby, and still a slave."

Read The New Yorker Article

Watch Sundance Film Festival Premiers New Documentary on Pauli Murray

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian multi-media exhibit, Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: A Classic in African American Genealogy, based on Murray’s memoir, Proud Shoes, explores Murray's family history. “If Grandfather had not volunteered for the Union in 1863 and come south three years later as a missionary among the Negro freedmen, our family might not have walked in such proud shoes and felt so assured of its place in history.”

Exhibit at Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture

Watch: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray National Landmark

The Pauli Murray Family Home was designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2015 and a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 2016. Only 2% of the 95,000 entries in the National Register of Historic Places focus on the experiences of African Americans. To help to shatter this pitiful statistic, the Pauli Murray Center will be a leader and model to other communities who want to know, share and lift up the accomplishments and struggles of women, people of color and queer folk.

Visit the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice

The History of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1866

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first attempt at civil rights legislation after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Its landmark language attempted to put African Americans on equal footing with whites. It guaranteed basic economic rights to contract, sue, and own property; and it paved the way for the 14th Amendment.

View the original Civil Rights Act of 1866

Videos and Lectures

Emmett Till

14-year old Emmett Till, was savagely lynched in August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His killers were acquitted. This racist attack shocked the nation and incited scorn from around the globe at the ruthless cruelty of the Jim Crow South. His murder, along with his mother's decision to display his mutilated body in an open-casket funeral, is widely considered one of the main events that launched the Civil Rights Movement. 

Watch Now: 65 years after Emmett Till's death, still no federal law against lynching

Watch Now: Historian on Emmett Till's Accuser Recanting Story

A Time For Freedom

This little known event took place on May 17, 1957 to commemorate the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Brown vs. The Board of Education. 30,000 people march to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC to advocate for the federal government's continued dedication to desegregating public education. Speakers included A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Mahalia Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Watch the Documentary at the Library of Congress

Read the Life Magazine article

Lee Friedlander

At the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Lee Friedlander was given full access to photograph the participants including everyday people as well as luminaries like Mahalia Jackson, A. Philip Randolph, Harry Belafonte, and Ruby Dee among many others. Representing some of Friedlander’s earliest works, the complete (and only existing) set of the 58 prints, was acquired by the Yale University Art Gallery, and exhibited in 2017 in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Prayer Pilgrimage.

Explore the Yale University Art Gallery Exhibit

Read the Article: The American Experience at Yale University

The Incident

Reckoning with “The Incident”: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural is the subject of this exhibition at the Yale Art Gallery. Wilson’s mural stands out for its size, the ephemerality of its form, and its representation of African American resistance and physical defense of their families. In tandem with the show, the Gallery brought together five Yale faculty for a discussion called, "The Legacy of Lynching: Artistic Confrontations of Racial Terror."

Watch this Lecture: The Legacy of Lynching

Explore this Exhibit at The Yale Art Gallery

A Long Way From Home

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, but it took another generation of Black and Latinx players to make the sport truly open to all. Playing in remote minor-league towns where racial segregation remained a fact of life well into the 1960s, these were the men who, before they could live their big-league dreams, first had to beat Jim Crow. 

Watch the Desegregating Baseball Documentary

Read Jackie Robinson, Civil Rights Advocate at the National Archives

Jonathan Holloway

Former Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale, Jonathan Holloway’s Open Yale Course examines the African American experience in the United States from 1863 to the present. Prominent themes include the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction; African Americans’ urbanization experiences; the development of the modern Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath.

Explore the Lectures

Information Links

Crystal Feimster
  • Professor Crystal Feimster

The Long Civil Rights Movement

To commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020, Yale Professor Crystal Feimster sat down with President Peter Salovey for this discussion of Feimster's popular course, "The Long Civil Rights Movement." Feimster is Associate Professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies at Yale, and the author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching.


Defying Dixie

The Civil Rights Movement that looms over the 1950s and 1960s was the tip of an iceberg, the legal and political remnant of a broad, raucous, deeply American movement for social justice that flourished from the 1920s through the 1940s. In a dramatic narrative, Yale Professor of History, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore deftly shows how the movement unfolded against national and global developments, gaining focus and finally arriving at a narrow but effective legal strategy for securing desegregation and political rights.

Professor Glenda Gilmore's Book

One Grain of Sand

Professor Matthew Jacobson's book tells the story of 20-year-old Odetta Holmes, a classically trained vocalist who could have become “the next Marian Anderson.” When she veered away from both opera and musical theater in favor of performing politically charged field hollers, prison songs, work songs, and folk tunes before mixed-race audiences in 1950s coffee houses, she was making one of the most portentous decisions in the history of both American music and Civil Rights.

Professor Matthew Jacobson's Book

Spectacular Secret

In this incisive study, Professor Jacqueline Goldsby shows that lynching cannot be explained away as a phenomenon peculiar to the South or as the perverse culmination of racist politics. Rather, lynching—a highly visible form of social violence that has historically been shrouded in secrecy—was in fact a fundamental part of the national consciousness whose cultural logic played a pivotal role in the making of American modernity.

Professor Jacqueline Goldsby's Book

Information Links

A Raisin In the Sun
  • The Yale Rep

A Raisin in the Sun

Published in 1959, the stage play, A Raisin in the Sun, thrust Lorraine Hansberry onto the scene as an important voice in the Civil Rights Movement. Rooted in themes of housing discrimination and redlining and signifying the Langston Hughes poem, Harlem, the script highlights key factors in the everyday struggle for equality and justice at the onset of the Movement. The Yale Repertory Theatre's 2020 production was canceled due to COVID-19, but this study guide - a companion to the play - preserves its powerful social message.