Civil Rights in Public Accommodations and Facilities: Law and History

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man who had boarded the bus after she did. At that time, public buses in the South were segregated, and African Americans not only had to ride in the back of the bus, but also had to give up their seats to any white person who wanted to sit. Ms. Parks was arrested and taken to jail for refusing to give up her seat.

On December 5, 1955, African Americans in Montgomery began a boycott of the public buses led by a minister who had recently come to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The peaceful boycott continued for 381 days during which time 90 percent of the African Americans in Montgomery refused to ride the buses. In the end, the buses in Montgomery were desegregated.

The section Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation because of race, color, religion, or national origin. Places of public accommodation are hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and concert halls. But the struggle began long before that historic piece of legislation was signed into law.

Public Access Discrimination Prior to the Civil Rights Act

Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, persons from minority groups were excluded from, or segregated in, restaurants, motels, theaters, and other places of public accommodations. On February 1, 1960, 4 African American students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College went into the Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the lunch counter and ordered cups of coffee. The waitress refused to serve them coffee unless they stood up to drink it because only whites were allowed to sit at the lunch counter.

The black students sat at the lunch counter until the store closed, but were never served their coffee. The next day they returned with more students and the peaceful protest called a "sit-in" was begun. Across the South, peaceful sit-ins by students took place in more than 100 cities in 1960. Although the protesters were beaten, and sometimes sent to jail, they continued to peacefully sit-in until they achieved their goals - desegregation of places of public accommodation.

The Freedom Rides

In 1961, a new phase of the movement to desegregate places of public accommodation began - the "Freedom Rides." African Americans were still sitting in the back of the buses in the South and were not permitted to use "whites only" restroom facilities in the terminals even though the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate buses (buses that traveled between states) in 1946.

In May 1961, the first group of 13 Freedom Riders, white and black ranging in age from college students to a 60-year-old professor and his wife, left Washington, DC, on their way via Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana. They went in 2 buses. Riders in the first bus were attacked in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. The Freedom Riders on this bus were beaten by men with pipes. The second bus was firebombed just outside of Anniston, Alabama.

The section Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public facilities because of race, color, religion, or national origin. Public facilities are facilities owned, operated or managed by state or local governments, like courthouses or jails. At the same time as the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, other protesters demonstrated against segregation in public facilities.

State Law Protection

The sit-ins and protests during the Civil Rights Movement certainly contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which resulted in legal desegregation in public accommodations and facilities. In addition, there are state laws that ban discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and disability and help to ensure equal access to facilities open to the public.

Obtain Professional Help from an Attorney

The United States has a sordid history of violating civil rights in public accommodations and public facilities. If you have been mistreated at a place of public accommodation or facility based on your race, religion, or other protected characteristic, assert your rights. Talk to an experienced civil rights attorney who can help assess your potential claim.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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