Major civil rights moments in every state

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January 18, 2021
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Major civil rights moments in every state

A land of contradictions from the outset, the United States was founded by slave owners who spoke passionately and eloquently about liberty, freedom, and justice for all. In the beginning, “all” was limited to men of European ancestry who were wealthy enough to own land. The Constitution’s protections did not apply to most of the people living in America for most of America’s history—at least not in full.

Women—about 50% of the population—were not included in the country’s concept of “all,” likewise millions of slaves—and for a long time, their offspring. The descendants of the original inhabitants of the United States were commonly excluded from the promise of America, as were many immigrants, ethnic groups, and religious minorities.

Despite all the work that remains to be done, all of those groups and many others now enjoy freedoms that had to be won—won through the courts, through the court of public opinion, through mass demonstrations, through legislation, through boycotts, and in many cases, through martyrdom.

Fighting to expand the definition of “all” requires powerless people to challenge the power structures that benefit from their status as second-class citizens. They often do it at great risk to their jobs, their reputations, their homes, and in many cases, their lives. Even so, brave advocates and activists fought the good fight in every state in America. Each state has a unique story to tell about the epic struggles for civil rights that were waged there, as well as those that continue to be waged. The following is a tiny sliver of their collective efforts.

Using a variety of sources, Stacker identified a defining moment for civil rights in all 50 states. They stand out for different reasons and led to changes that lifted different groups, but they all prove how much can be achieved—and how much still remains to be accomplished.

Click through to find out your state’s contribution to civil rights.

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Alabama: Rosa Parks takes a stand

The March from Selma to Montgomery took place in Alabama, as did the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and some of the most important Freedom Rides. One moment, however, stands out as dramatic and consequential, even by the standards of Alabama during the civil rights era. On Dec. 1, 1955, the arrest of 42-year-old seamstress Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus led to the Montgomery bus boycott, the first great victory of the movement.

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Alaska: A night at the movies transforms a culture

Far from Alabama and 11 years before Rosa Parks took her stand, a teenager with a white father and Alaska Native mother named Alberta Schenck was arrested on March 11, 1944, for sitting in the “whites only” section of a movie theater in Nome, Alaska. Although their plight isn’t as well known as that of Black Americans in the South, Native Alaskans lived under their own version of Jim Crow—“no natives” and “whites only” signs were standard all over Alaska, just as in the South. Schenck’s arrest ignited a burgeoning Indigenous rights movement whose activism led to the passage of the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945, nearly 20 years before Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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Arizona: Arizonans refuse to show their papers

In 2010, Arizona passed the most restrictive, most sweeping, and—in the eyes of its detractors—most racist immigration law in America. Among other things, SB1070 required immigrants to carry federal registration papers at all times and allowed law enforcement officers to demand to see the papers of anyone they suspected of being here illegally—with or without probable cause—and arrest them without a warrant. Known as the “papers, please” law, the moment triggered the creation of One Arizona’s Resilience in the Desert movement, which fights for vulnerable Arizonans no matter their backgrounds.

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Arkansas: Little Rock 9 go to school

In 1957, three years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, nine African American students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. It took several tries—they were physically blocked on the first few attempts by a combination of enraged white mobs and armed National Guard troops. Finally, President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard, ordering them to escort the students to and from the building, and on Sept. 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine began attending classes at Central High.

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California: Immigrant farmworkers stand up

Decades before Cesar Chavez popularized the plight of agricultural laborers in California, a coalition of Mexican and Japanese farmworkers blazed the trail that Chavez would follow. In 1903 in Oxnard, 1,200 immigrant laborers formed the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association, which would become the first union in California to win a strike against the state’s formidable agriculture industry.

 

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Colorado: A cultural rainbow gets results

Colorado’s sizable population of not only African-Americans but also Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Roman Catholics, and Jewish immigrants all faced discrimination through the first half of the 20th century. Alone, these disparate underclasses did not have enough leverage to demand change—so they joined forces. A multiracial, multiethnic civil rights coalition protested and petitioned until the state passed a series of sweeping civil rights laws in 1957 to protect vulnerable minority groups, outlaw discrimination in housing and employment, and repeal bans on interracial marriage.

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Connecticut: Women get some privacy

A Connecticut reproductive rights advocate named Estelle Griswold took the state to court over its 19th-century ban on contraception. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ban in the landmark 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut. The case was a watershed moment that set the first legal precedent for a constitutional right to privacy.

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Delaware: A road to Brown v. Board is paved

The Brown v. Board of Education decision that banned race-based segregation in schools was actually the culmination of five separate lawsuits, all of which were filed to challenge the “separate but equal” doctrine that propped up Jim Crow. One of them, Gebhart v. Belton, played out in Wilmington, Delaware, where African Americans faced discrimination and segregation modeled after the Deep South.

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Florida: A sea change starts in a swimming pool

On June 18, 1964, civil rights activists went into the whites-only pool of a segregated motel in St. Augustine, a hotbed of racial strife in Florida. The motel’s owner, James Brock, responded by pouring deadly muriatic acid into the water. Although the incident is largely forgotten now, it caused national outrage and helped to end an 83-day Senate filibuster on the Civil Rights Act, which was passed the very next day.

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Georgia: A King is born

The America that exists today would certainly look much different had a baby named Michael King not been born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929. When his parents changed his name at six years old, the child became Martin Luther King Jr., the most revered and successful civil rights leader in history. He would go on to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, articulate his vision at the March on Washington, become history’s youngest Nobel laureate, and wage his crusade for justice and equality through nonviolence.

 

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Hawaii: The struggle for Native rights continues

In 1993, the U.S. government formally apologized to the Indigenous people of Hawaii for the overthrow of their kingdom a century earlier, the annexation of their land, and the subjugation of their people. Although they suffered a fate similar to that of their Indigenous counterparts in North America, Native Hawaiians are still not federally recognized the way Native Americans and Native Alaskans are, nor do they have the same power to negotiate on their own behalf.

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Idaho: Idaho beats the country to the punch

Idaho has a long, proud, and often overlooked history of important civil rights achievements dating back to mask-ban laws that challenged the Ku Klux Klan at the height of the group’s power in the 1920s. Idaho’s finest moment, however, came in 1961, when the state passed a comprehensive civil rights bill three years before the United States as a whole.

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Illinois: Chicago takes on Northern racism

Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other major civil rights figures, the Chicago Freedom Movement was a sprawling series of protests, meetings, boycotts, rallies, and other nonviolent actions aimed at dismantling racial discrimination and injustice, neither of which were by any means unique to the South. It lasted for two years between 1965-67 and evolved into the biggest civil rights campaign in the North. The grassroots movement laid the groundwork for the Fair Housing Act, which Congress passed in 1968.

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Indiana: A state desegregates early

In 1949, Indiana lawmakers passed the Indiana School Desegregation Act, which banned racial segregation in schools five years before Brown v. Board. As the adopted home of many relocated white Southerners, however, Indiana was a poster child for Northern racism and a longtime KKK stronghold above the Mason-Dixon line. Despite the good intentions of the legislation, attitudes proved harder to change than laws, and de facto segregation continued for decades.

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Iowa: Iowa advances in 1868

Iowa’s long record as a pioneering state for civil rights can be traced to 1868, just three years after the close of the Civil War. That year, Iowa lawmakers—all white men—outlawed segregation in schools nearly 90 years before Brown v. Board and granted Black men the right to vote. As in so much of the country, however, the laws rarely matched the realities on the ground for African Americans in Iowa, many of whom remained both separate and unequal for generations.

 

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Kansas: Plessy v. Ferguson meets its end

The “separate but equal” doctrine established by the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896 came crashing down in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that separate was inherently unequal in American schools. The case was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the most important civil rights case in history and the ruling that laid the legal foundation for the modern civil rights movement.

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Kentucky: Breonna Taylor becomes a martyr for the movement

In March 2020, white police officers killed 26-year-old Black EMT Breonna Taylor in her home during a botched drug raid and a no-knock warrant obtained on flimsy evidence through clumsy police work. Her death kicked off nationwide protests against not only the killing, but police violence in general and the widespread use of no-knock warrants specifically. Further outrage and activism followed when only one officer was indicted—and only for one of his bullets hitting a neighboring structure.

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Louisiana: A little girl brings a burden to school

At just 6 years old, tiny Ruby Bridges became a giant in November 1960 as the first African American child to integrate a Southern elementary school. Born the same year as the Brown v. Board ruling, Bridges began her education at a time when states were using every means at their disposal to resist the court’s ruling and prevent kids like her from attending white schools. Under the escort of U.S. marshals, the little girl braved an angry white mob on the way to her New Orleans school every day, but her courage signaled a point of no return for the civil rights movement, hammering one of the strongest nails yet in the coffin of systemic racism.

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Maine: Original Mainers get what’s theirs

Decades of civil rights activism came to fruition when President Carter signed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The legislation awarded the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Penobscot tribes of Maine $81.5 million in reparations for land that had been stolen from their people. Equally important to the money, the moment served as a recognition of historical injustices and as an inspiration for Native rights advocates across the country.

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Maryland: A suspicious death spotlights police violence

Baltimore became the center of this generation’s civil rights struggle in 2015 when 25-year-old Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury he suffered under mysterious and suspicious circumstances in the back of a police van after a frivolous arrest. His case ignited protests in Baltimore and around the nation, as the all-too-familiar themes of police brutality, racism, poverty, unequal treatment under the law, and the deep distrust in minority communities of the police sworn to protect them once again surfaced.

 

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Massachusetts: Integration arrives by bus

In 1974, Boston became a symbol of Northern racism when riots broke out over a court order to use out-of-district busing as a remedy to the widespread segregation that existed in the city’s schools. Black children bused from the African American enclave of Roxbury to notoriously hostile South Boston were attacked with bricks by angry mobs who screamed racial slurs and spit on them as riot police struggled to hold them back. Strikingly similar to the treatment Ruby Bridges received in Louisiana, the moment not only integrated Boston’s schools but forced the country to confront racism outside the South.

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Michigan: A white jury delivers justice

Like much of America, Michigan has a long history of using economic and social leverage to ghettoize its African American citizens, but it also has a long history of civil rights achievements that were ahead of their time. When a mob attacked the home of Ossian Sweet, a Black physician who bought a house in a white neighborhood in 1925, the man and his family fought back, killing a white mob member in the process. A year later, Sweet was acquitted by an all-white jury for a crime that would have almost certainly gotten him lynched elsewhere in the country, proving that sometimes justice could prevail, despite its imperfections.

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Minnesota: A final breath triggers a revolution

Echoing Eric Garner, the mantra of the modern civil rights movement remains “I can’t breathe,” the last words spoken by Garner and then George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who on May 25, 2020 was slowly killed over 8 minutes and 46 seconds by a white Minneapolis police officer who refused to lift his knee from Floyd’s neck. His death set the spark for the most significant social upheaval since the 1960s and triggered global protests that continue to this day.

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Mississippi: A boy’s murder galvanizes a movement

The murder of Emmett Till was by no means unique in Mississippi—Black men and boys there had been killed with impunity for perceived transgressions with white women for generations. The gruesome murder of the baby-faced Chicago 14-year-old, however, put a national spotlight on racial violence and injustice in the South when graphic photos of the child’s mutilated body were published in Jet magazine. The moment launched the modern civil rights movement.

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Missouri: Ferguson erupts

Glimpses of 2020 were evident in the protests that followed the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer who originally targeted the Black teenager for walking off the sidewalk. When protestors gathered, the Ferguson police and affiliated law enforcement agencies responded with what looked like an army invading a hostile country—images of police in armored vehicles gassing, beating, falsely arresting, and otherwise brutalizing peaceful protestors and journalists alike circled the globe. The moment triggered a national debate on police militarization, racism and brutality in law enforcement, institutional cover-ups, and the widespread practice of policing for profit in municipalities like Ferguson.

 

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Montana: A woman goes to Washington

In 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, Jeannette Rankin, a women’s rights advocate and driving force for suffrage in Montana, was elected to Congress. Paving the way for women lawmakers in the decades to come, she was the first woman ever elected to Congress or any federal office.

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Nebraska: A victim becomes an activist

A man of Japanese ancestry named Joseph Ishikawa came to Lincoln, Nebraska, after being incarcerated in an internment camp during World War II solely on the basis of his race. Unwilling to stay quiet when he learned municipal swimming pools were off-limits to his Black neighbors, he resigned his position as an employee of the recreation department in protest and embarked on a tireless campaign to integrate the city’s facilities. Ishikawa served as an inspiration to countless civil rights activists who risked it all to change an oppressive system, even when they weren’t the ones directly oppressed.

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Nevada: A holiday validates a struggle

Every president since 1976 has officially recognized February as Black History Month. That national recognition can be traced to Feb. 11, 1959, when Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer proclaimed that week to be Black History Week in the state.

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New Hampshire: MLK gets his due

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a law declaring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to be a federal holiday, and most states quickly did the same. A few states held out, but none longer than New Hampshire—with its tiny African American population—which refused to budge for the remainder of the 20th century. Despite compromising with Civil Rights Day in 1993, New Hampshire refused to recognize MLK until 2000, when state officials finally conceded to relentless pressure from local activists.

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New Jersey: A state provides a blueprint for the future

In many ways, the modern civil rights movement can be traced to New Jersey, where a generation before, the Garden State’s influential Black professional community won early gains more significant than those won by activists in any other state in America. Their efforts led to the New Jersey Civil Rights Act of 1949, which became a model for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

 

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New Mexico: Early Latino lawmakers blaze a trail

New Mexico’s Octaviano Larrazolo became the first Latino U.S. Senator in 1928, but 16 years later, a different New Mexico lawmaker, Sen. Dennis Chávez, introduced the Fair Employment Practices Bill in 1944. The first of its kind in the U.S., it would have banned discrimination based on factors like country of origin and race. The bill failed but stands as a primary prototype for the 1964 Civil Rights Act two decades later.

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New York: A community pushes back at Stonewall

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, harassing and arresting patrons as they so often did in the city’s gay bars—homosexuality, after all, was listed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973. That night, however, the patrons rebelled, fought back when the police became violent, and found a deep sense of unity in the moment. It is known as the catalyst of the modern Pride movement and the start of a long quest for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

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North Carolina: The volatile busing strategy is born

By 1971, 17 years had passed since Brown v. Board, but no one would have known that school segregation had been banned by looking at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case that busing Black children to white schools was a logical remedy to the widespread segregation that still existed. The decision had nationwide implications as out-of-district busing improved racial equity in education but also triggered an enormous backlash.

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North Dakota: The Sioux take a stand for water

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, its ancestral burial grounds, and its water supply were in the way of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but that didn’t stop construction from being approved in 2016. Peaceful protestors converged on the site and were met with a violent response from private energy industry security forces and an assortment of highly militarized police agencies. The moment sparked a movement, as an outraged public learned of tactics like the use of attack dogs, water cannons in subfreezing weather, sound cannons, automatic rifles, and concussion grenades on peaceful protestors exercising their First Amendment rights.

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Ohio: A child dies in Cleveland

In 2014, a 12-year-old African American boy in Cleveland named Tamir Rice was carrying a realistic-looking toy gun when he was killed by a white police officer, who shot the child before his patrol car had even come to a complete stop. As is so often the case, no officer was indicted, and the incident sparked nationwide protests demanding police accountability and reform.

 

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Oklahoma: A child gets a burger

In 1958, 13 African American children ages 6-13 and their teacher, Clara Luper, sat in shifts for two days at a segregated lunch counter at Katz Drug in Oklahoma City. Refusing to leave until they’d been served, they were verbally abused, spit on, and had drinks, food, and even hot grease spilled on them by angry crowds until an employee caved in and served a hamburger to one of the children. The moment is remembered as one of the earliest uses of sit-ins as acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience.

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Oregon: Portland protests ignite

Loud and radical public activism has been a central theme of Portland culture for decades, and the state of Oregon as a whole has a long and ugly history of often violent state-based racism. Those two dynamics contributed to an explosion of sustained civil unrest that has gripped the city for months on end in 2020, as protests for racial justice devolved into a sustained anarchistic outburst. In an irony not lost on the original organizers of the legitimate uprising, the crowds that co-opted the movement have been largely white—and Portland is the whitest large city in America.

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Pennsylvania: A pool party proves progress can be fleeting

Because swimming involves the close contact of bare bodies in shared water, communal pools, beaches, and lakes have hosted some of the bloodiest and most bitterly contested civil rights battles in history. A swim club in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, for example, canceled a contract with a summer camp when they realized the group they’d rented the pool to consisted of Black and Latino children. Such an event incredibly took place not in 1959 but in 2009, and when the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission determined racism was the motive, activists and advocates were once again reminded of the dangers of complacency.

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Rhode Island: Hard truths lead to real reform

One of racism’s cruelest traps is that for generations, African Americans were denied access to fair employment and then caricatured as lazy and shiftless for not working. In 1943, the Rhode Island Commission on the Employment Problems of the Negro released a groundbreaking report that did something that was incredibly rare for the time: provided truthful answers that broke inconvenient stereotypes. The report concluded that unfair and discriminatory hiring practices were responsible for disproportionate levels of Black unemployment and recommended the creation of what would become the Rhode Island Council for Fair Employment Practices in 1947.

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South Carolina: Tragedy spawns a new conversation about old symbols

In 2015, the murder of nine worshippers at a historic Black church in Charleston provided the kind of tragedy that so often seems to be required for any real change to take place. The Confederate battle flag—the most potent symbol of white supremacy and racial intimidation since the Civil War—still flew proudly over the South Carolina Statehouse. The moment sparked a renewed conversation about finally removing the countless Confederate flags, statues, monuments, and other celebrations of white supremacy that had adorned the South since that conflict.

 

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South Dakota: A government reconsiders holiday honors

In 1990, South Dakota took a great leap forward in reconciling its ugly history with its Native population when the state legislature unanimously approved a measure to change Columbus Day to Native American Day. It was a symbolic victory, but not an empty one, as several states, many universities, and more than 100 cities went on to recognize what’s now called Indigenous Peoples Day and more Americans became aware of the atrocities of Columbus and the impact his “discovery” of America had on the millions of people who already lived there.

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Tennessee: Integration begins in Clinton

In 1956, two years after Brown v. Board, a federal judge ordered the integration of Clinton High School in Anderson County. A large influx of Klansmen and other white supremacist protestors overwhelmed the town, and riots ensued. The governor called in the National Guard, and the Clinton 12 eventually integrated the first public high school in the American South.

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Texas: Juneteenth becomes official

News of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation did not reach slaves in Texas for two-and-a-half years when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger marched into Galveston on June 19, 1865, to announce the end of slavery and the Civil War to the last slaves still toiling for their masters on American soil. Also known as “Black Independence Day,” the moment has been enshrined as Juneteenth, one of the most important dates in civil rights history. In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, and all but a handful of states honor the date, which has received renewed attention amid 2020’s racial turmoil.

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Utah: LDS church turns a page

In 1978, the Mormon Church reversed its long-held ban on African Americans holding the priesthood. The move had major implications on attitudes and policies across the state. For generations, the ban had given theological cover for the overwhelmingly white state’s long history of racism and segregation.

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Vermont: Young Vermonters channel their outrage

In 1968, an assailant fired shots into the home of a Black minister—where a white woman had been staying—and instead of concentrating on the shooting, Vermont State Police officers quickly focused its investigation on the victim and arrested the pair for adultery. The incident sparked widespread outrage and led to the formation of the Vermont-New York City Youth Project, a race-reconciliation exchange program. The project sent Black teenagers from New York City to Vermont to participate in a wide range of social, educational, and recreational projects designed to foster racial unity.

 

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Virginia: Loving wins in Virginia

In 1958, a white man named Richard Loving married his high school sweetheart—a Black woman named Mildred Jeter—in Washington D.C., and upon returning home to Virginia, the couple were arrested and jailed for violating the state’s miscegenation laws. The Lovings left Virginia but were again arrested five years later when they returned to visit family. The case went to the Supreme Court and—in the most aptly named case in history—the court struck down all laws banning interracial marriage in the landmark Loving v. Virginia case.

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Washington: Diversity finds a voice in Seattle

Organized resistance to the racism and segregation that dominated Seattle for much of the city’s history began much earlier than the more famous movements that swept change across the South—and they looked much different, too. Seattle’s location, history, and unique demographic makeup cultivated a diverse civil rights coalition that included people of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Jewish, Latino, African American, and Native American ancestry as early as the 1910s.

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Historical // Getty Images

West Virginia: A woman breaks barriers

As the southernmost Northern state, the northernmost Southern state, and the only state created by the outbreak of the Civil War, West Virginia played a unique role in the struggle for civil rights. One of its finest moments came on Jan. 10, 1928, when Minnie Buckingham Harper was appointed to the West Virginia House of Delegates. She was the first African-American woman to serve in any legislative body anywhere in the United States.

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Wisconsin: Milwaukee rises—and struggles

After World War II, the Second Great Migration increased the African American population of Wisconsin by 600%, and Milwaukee emerged as one of the most segregated cities in America. In 1965, a civil rights activist named Lloyd Barbee filed a lawsuit challenging segregation in Milwaukee public schools. It wound its way through the courts, and in 1979, the city finally settled and developed a five-year desegregation plan.

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Wyoming: Women get a vote and a voice

The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, but women in Wyoming had already been making their voices heard at the ballot box for decades. Before it was even a state, the Wyoming Territory granted women’s suffrage in 1869 and confirmed it after securing statehood in 1890, making it both the first territory and the first state to extend the franchise to women. It launched a trend across the West, with the next five states to give women the vote being Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, and California, with Arizona, Oregon, Montana, and Nevada also beating the 19th Amendment to the punch.

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