The Civil Rights Movement began long before Rosa Parks was even born. The first civil right the African Americans fought for was the right to be considered men rather than chattel--the right not to be owned.
The struggle to end slavery probably started when the first slave ship left Africa, and there were undoubtedly as many rebellious slaves as there were slaveholders, but I would like to highlight a few of the documented nonviolent attempts to gain rights much earlier than 1954.
(If I leave out one of your favorites, please send me an email and let me know.)
You don't think of the people who ran the Underground Railroad as participants in acts of civil disobedience? Think again. It has all the usual descriptors:
1. Refusal to obey a law or command of a government or of an occupying international power. (Aiding and abetting runaway slaves was definitely against the law--that's why it had to be underground.)
2. Usually, but not always, nonviolent. Quakers are always nonviolent.
3. Usually, but not always, collective. (It was definitely collective action. (Just because all the participants were not marching down the same physical street, they were risking their own lives to march down the same moral avenue.)
4. Used as a means of forcing concessions from the government. The Friends or Quakers are credited with initiating the abolitionist movement in England in 1783, and played an important role in the movement in the United States.
5. Nonresistance to consequent arrest and punishment.
The list of elements of Civil Disobedience is taken from my upcoming work, Tear Gas and Rubber Bullets: Violent reactions to nonviolent actions.
The National Negro Convention met in 1832 in Philadelphia and focused on actively fighting for civil rights. The basis of their action was their statement, "we have performed all the duties from the menial to the soldier...our fathers shed their blood in the great struggle for independence."
The following year, the plea was eloquent and reminiscent of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. The elected president of the Convention said, in part, that it was "lamentable that a deep and solemn gloom had settled on that once bright anticipation" regarding the endorsement of civil and political rights. He explained that a "monster, prejudice, is stalking over the land, spreading in its course its pestilential breath, blighting and withering the fair and natural hope of our happiness, resulting from the enjoyment of that invaluable behest of God to man--FREEDOM."
Unfortunately, that monster, prejudice, still stalks the land, and as long as it does, good men will continue to fight for freedom.
I hope you enjoy the video of Reverend King's speech as much as I did when he gave it. I was there on the Mall on August 28, 1963 and it was an amazing experience.