The American Civil Rights Movement occurred over several phases, the most dramatic occurring after World War II. While African-Americans had been granted the right of citizenship, voting, and other rights after the Civil War, federal and state governments did not enforce these laws until the 1950s and 1960s. The change in the federal government's willingness to enforce laws granting African-Americans equality, along with the powerful tactics used by Martin Luther King and his followers, began to motivate people to change.
In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Plessy v. Ferguson that African-Americans could have separate but equal facilities, such as schools and sections of trains. This remained the law until the important 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, in which it was ruled that separate but equal was inherently unequal. The Supreme Court ordered all schools in the nation to desegregate and the ruling was met by massive resistance in the south and some parts of the north. As a result, the federal government under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson sent troops at times to enforce the law. Over time, schools and universities in all parts of the country were desegregated.
In addition, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early to mid 1960s with peaceful tactics. His non-violent protests began with the bus boycott to desegregate buses in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955-1956. His use of non-violent tactics was effective because it won over public opinion, as people were more likely to support protestors who were not violent.
The other factors that finally motivated people to change were that many African-Americans had served their countries in several wars, including World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Also, in the years after Hitler, it became very distasteful to support ideas that were seen as racist or anti-Semitic. Finally, as part of the Cold War, or the proxy wars the U.S. fought with the Soviet Union, the U.S. wanted to make sure that the world did not see us as racist. As a result, the country began slowly to change its attitudes about race, and the Civil Rights movement gained some victories, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among others.