A Brief Timeline of Civil Rights Movement

By June 1, 2020Uncategorized

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was one of the most influential periods in American History. Even with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, African Americans would continue to be the victims of racial segregation, disenfranchisement, exploitation, and violence for nearly a century to follow. With the 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, justifying “separate but equal,” treatment for African Americans, most public facilities such as bathrooms, “colored balconies,” water fountains, buses, sports, and schools remained segregated. Many efforts were made to combat this oppression, such as the formation of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1909, however, it took more than just litigation, education, and lobbying efforts to create all the social reforms that were necessary for change. It wasn’t until the 1950’s, starting with the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, and the overruling of “separate but equal” established 58 years prior, that the civil rights movement began to take off. Through numerous organizations, boycotts, “sit-ins,” marches, federal legislation, and influential individual leaders that political legislation and social accommodations were finally starting to become a reality.
One of the most remarkable features of this movement was its relatively minimal bloodshed. Though hundreds of deaths and injuries occurred, compared to the civil war, which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilian casualties, the Civil Rights Movement brought about social reform without nearly as much loss as past American wars or revolutions.
Though some influential leaders of the movement, such as Malcolm X, believed a civil rights revolution was not possible without using violence, others such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., used a method of nonviolent resistance, also known as civil disobedience, to protest African American oppression. Modeling the approach used by Gandhi while protesting the British rule in India, Dr. King believed that civil disobedience could be used as “a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. (It is) through our pain we will make them (white society) see their injustice”. To Dr. King, “Nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life.”
But even though the Civil Rights Movement brought American society closer to equal rights and treatment, we still have a long way to go. In the words of Archie Loss, Professor of American Studies and Popular Culture at Penn State Behrend, “We would not have the President now occupying the White House if it weren’t for the sacrifices and tenacity of the people involved in the Movement then. At the same time, it’s naive to think that racism is dead in our society. It isn’t dead, it’s just disguised itself in other forms. Certainly, there have been enormous gains for African-Americans, but there are also many hurdles still to be cleared, especially for those in the lower economic brackets. And demographically African-Americans still attend lesser schools in certain areas rather than better ones.”
Dr. Loss is right. Many people of his generation never thought they’d live to see the day a black president would hold the office, yet as recently as October 17th, 2009, Keith Bardwell, a Louisiana justice of the peace, refused to marry an interracial couple because in his experience, most interracial marriages did not succeed.
Indeed, though we have made progress, we still have a far way to go. For example, it was only a week ago, on October 28th, 2009, that President Barack Obama signed into law by the Matthew Shepard Act which expands the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Though we’ve made many great strides in the effort for racial equality, much work still needs to be done. In the words of LBJ, “Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson and made the policy of “separate but equal” unconstitutional. The decision was based on a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In August of 1955, Emmitt Till was murdered while visiting Mississippi by two white men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who were acquitted by an all white jury. Later the men bragged about the murder in a magazine interview.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the “colored section,” in the back of the bus. The incident inspired a yearlong boycott by the black community, largely orchestrated by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., until on December 21, 1956, the buses of were desegregated. In the words of Rosa Parks, “At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was the masses of the people joined in.”

In January of 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. was named president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group utilized many same techniques used by Gandhi against the British. The values of non-violence, passive resistance, and civil disobedience were as forms of protest.

Also in 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus denied nine black students entrance in a local school. These nine students were later coined “The Little Rock Nine.” The National Guard and other federal troops had to be called in to allow the students to enter.

In 1960, four students from Greensboro, North Carolina, began the first “sit-in.” The event took place in a segregated cafeteria, and though the students were not served food, they were not forced to move. This was the first of many “sit-ins” that became an integral part of the civil rights movement. Also in this year, SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was formed.

In 1961, “Freedom Riders,” over 1,000 volunteer students both black and white, rode into the South to investigate continuing discrimination in the public transportation system. Some of theses “Freedom Riders” were physically and verbally attacked as they traveled.

On October 1, 1962, the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi. Riots occurred and John F. Kennedy was forced to send in 5,000 troops to aid in handling the situation.
On July 23, 1962, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Major League baseball was completely segregated until 1946 when Jackie Robinson was also the first player to break the color barrier.
On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he argues that individuals have a duty to disobey unjust laws. In the words of MLK, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In May 1963, black protesters from Birmingham were shown being sprayed by fire hoses by policemen on national news media. This shocking and brutal image helped the Civil Rights Movement gain support among white Americans who could no longer remain ignorant to the cruel mistreatment of African Americans in the South.

On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, a NAACP field secretary, was shot outside his home. The alleged perpetrator, Byron De La Beckwith was tried twice, but not convicted until 30 years later. This incident inspired Bob Dylan’s song, “Only a Pawn in their Game,” one of his many famous protest songs adopted by the civil rights and counterculture movements.

On August 28, 1963, the “March on Washington” is held at the Lincoln Memorial. 200,000 people are there to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

On September 15, 1963, four girls were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Bridge Baptist Church. The location was a popular meeting place for civil rights meetings. The girls were attending Sunday school at the time of their death. The incident leads to riots in Birmingham where two more black men were killed.

On January 23, 1964, the poll tax was abolished by the 24th Amendment. The poll tax was a fee to vote that was a law in 11 Southern states that made it difficult for poor, black citizens to vote.

In the summer of 1964, CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, joined up with SNCC in a collaborative effort to register black voters. The movement was known as the Freedom Summer. This movement brought national attention for the voting rights of black citizens and eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act is signed by LBJ. Though initially proposed by Kennedy, LBJ was from the South and used his connections with Southern Democrats to get the bill through Congress. The Civil Rights Act was a comprehensive law that prohibits discrimination, not only based on one’s race, but religion and origin as well.

On August 4, 1964, three male civil rights activists, two white and one black, were arrested and then released to the KKK who murdered them.

On December 10, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At 35 years old, MLK was the youngest man to receive the award. King donated the $54,123 in prize money to the furtherance of the Civil Rights Movement.

March 7, 1964, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after 50 protesters were hospitalized when police used tear gas and billy clubs against them. This event was also a major factor in getting the voting rights act passed.

On February 21, 1965 Malcolm X was murdered. Malcolm X was an influential civil rights leader who promoted Black Nationalism and was not against violence as a means of revolution. In the words of Malcolm X, “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

On August 10, 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed which prohibited literacy tests, poll taxes, or property ownership to be a requirement for black voters in the South.
On August 11th through the 16th, the Watts riots left 34 dead in Los Angeles. Only after the National Guard sent in 14,000 soldiers to assist the already 1,500 police officers on duty did peace return to Watts. All in all, 35 million dollars worth of damages occurred.
On September 24, 1965, LBJ enforced the first acts of Affirmative Action, prohibiting employers from discrimination in hiring.

In October of 1966, The Black Panther Party was founded and adopts many of the values of Malcolm X. The movement had “provocative rhetoric and militant posture.” A ten-point list of demands was created that members strived for and promoted.

On April 19, 1967, Stokely Carmichael, leader of SNCC, coined the phrase “black power.” He defined black power as “the coming together of black people to fight for their liberation by any means necessary.” This assertion alarmed many people who believed that non-violence, passive resistance, and civil disobedience were the best means to achieve equal civil rights.

On June 12, 1967, the case of Loving v. Virginia set the precedence that not allowing interracial marriages was unconstitutional. 16 states were forced to comply.

From July 12th through the 16th, 1967, race riots took place in Newark, New Jersey, and from July 23 through the 30th race riots occurred in Detroit.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray while on his balcony outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupted all over the country, primarily in black urban areas. At least 110 cities experienced violence and destruction in the next few days, resulting in roughly $50 million in damage. Of the 39 people who died, 34 were black. The worst riots were in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Over 22,000 federal troops and 34,000 National Guard were sent to aid local police.

On April 11, 1968 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 barring discrimination in housing, sales, and retail.

Also in 1968, Arthur Ashe became the first African American tennis player to win the U.S. Open.

In 1969, the executive director of the Seattle Urban League, Edwin Pratt, a civil rights activist, was shot while at this home. His murder has never been solved.

Also during this time, protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War were at an all time high. The subjectivity of the composition of the ground forces (the fact that American soldiers who were enlisted or drafted were disproportionately African American or lower-class citizens) was a major argument used by “Doves” who were against the war. Riots erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, largely in part because of the recent deaths of MLK and Bobby Kennedy.


D’Souza, P.P. (2003, January 20). Commemorating martin luther king jr. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/01/20/ED163673.DTL

This article describes Gandhi’s influence on Dr. King. As described by King, “As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform.”

Simkin, J. Martin luther king: biography. Retrieved from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkingML.htm

Spartacus Educational was started in September, 1997 and produced over the next six years for the Electronic Telegraph, the European Virtual School, and the Guardian’s educational website. The article covers the life and history of Martin Luther King and provides video footage from various significant events of the civil rights movement.

Brunner, B., & Haney, E. (2009). Civil rights timeline. Retrieved from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/civilrightstimeline1.html

This webpage outlines milestones in the modern civil rights movement. The timeline spans from 1948 to 2008 and provides dates, pictures, and a brief description of each historical event.

(2003). Black american history. Retrieved from http://www.africanaonline.com/civil_rights_timeline.htm

This article, provided by the Seattle Times Company, depicts a timeline of the history of black people in the United States. Though less detailed, this website provides a few events not listed in the above mentioned website.

(2009, October 30). African american civil rights movement (1955- 1968). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement_(1955%E2%80%931968)

Although I was unable to use this website without verifying its credibility elsewhere, Wikipedia provided a large, detailed overview of the civil rights movement complete with pictures and numerous references.

(1997). The Civil rights struggle in modern times. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/EVENTS/1997/mlk/links.html

This webpage provided me with a timeline of the early efforts of the civil rights movement starting in 1783. Though not directly relevant to my timeline, this webpage did help me gain understanding of the duration of the movement which was valuable for my background paper.

African american world. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/timeline/civil_01.html

This website provided a well organized timeline of the civil rights era from 1957 to 1971. In addition to outlining significant historical events, this website also highlighted African American achievements in sports, music, and the arts.

(2006). Congress of racial equality. African american world. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/timeline/civil_01.html

The goal of this webpage is “making equality a reality.” The webpage provided me with a detailed the history of CORE (founded 1942) along with its current members, events, activities, and goals.

(2009). National assocation for the advancement of colored people. Retrieved from http://www.naacp.org/home/index.htm

This is the official website of the NAACP. In addition to providing information about programs and membership, the website also talks about current events that the NAACP is sponsoring or investigating. On November 2, 2009 the headlining story was: “The NAACP requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the Caswell County, North Carolina shooting by a 52-year-old white man in the direction of three African American children. The shooting is believed to be racially motivated.”

(2009). Southern christian leadership conference. Retrieved from http://www.sclcnational.org/#

This is the official webpage of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On October 29, 2009, Dr. Bernice King was chosen new President and CEO. “I stand before you as a daughter of the civil rights movement calling forth the daughters and sons of the next generation of social change,” said King, who pledged to build a bridge between veteran black activists of the 1960s and the hip-hop generation of the present day. “I am a King, yet I am mindful that I am not the only one.”

Six years of the student nonviolent coordinating committee. Retrieved from http://www.ibiblio.org/sncc/

This website outlines the six year history of the student nonviolent coordinating committee from 1960 to 1966. The website describes not only the groups’ initial commitment to nonviolence, but also their protests of the Vietnam War, their influence on the feminist movement, and their adoption of the Black Power movement with the election of Stokely Charmichael in 1966.

National archives and records administration. Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/

This website provides photographs of “featured documents” in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

(2009). New georgia encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2716

This article covered everything from the early years of protest, to the protests during the WWII era, to the mass protests during the 1960’s, to protests in the countryside, and finally ended with the continuing struggle for civil rights. In addition to a list of suggested readings and resources, the article also provided valuable images used in the timeline.

McPherson, J. (2009). An Overview of the american civil war. Retrieved from http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/civil-war-overview/overview.html

This article was provided by the Civil War Preservation Trust and describes a brief overview of the American Civil War. “The war resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the revolution: whether the United States was to be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government; and whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world.” This website was necessary for me to find the overall number of deaths in the civil war which I cite in my background paper.

Sweeney, N. (2009, October 30). Civil rights history. Retrieved from http://www.civilrights.org/resources/

This website talks about specific days in civil rights history and is updated on a weekly basis. In August there were articles posted which dealt with the anniversary of the social security act, the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote, the remembrance of Ted Kennedy, and a new documentary showing one school’s first integrated prom. It is sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.

(2009). Civil rights. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/civil-rights/

The link to the above webpage is from whitehouse.gov, the official webpage of the Whitehouse. The website contains up-to-date progress notes on the current administration’s progress for civil rights legislation. For example, on January 29, 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act to ensure that all Americans receive equal pay for equal work. Also, in July, President Obama announced benefits for gay partners of federal employees. It is important to keep up on such legislation to monitor the progress our society is making towards equal civil rights for all.
A & E Television Networks. (2009). Jackie robinson biography . Retrieved from http://www.biography.com/articles/Jackie-Robinson-9460813?part=2

This article illustrates the biography of Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was not only a hall of fame athlete, but he also served on the board of the NAACP until 1967 and was an active lobbyist for integration in professional sports throughout his lifetime.

The Nobel Foundation, (2009). Martin luther king jr. Retrieved from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-bio.html

This article outlines a brief history of MLK’s life and achievements highlighting his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In addition to this award, MLK was awarded five honorary degrees and was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963.

Moncur, M. (2007). Quotations by author. Retrieved from http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Malcolm_X/

This website has various quotes from Malcolm X reflecting his attitude towards the civil rights movement such as: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” “Power never takes a back step – only in the face of more power.”

BrainyMedia.com, (2009). Brainyquote. Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/r/rosa_parks.html#

This website has various quotes from Rosa Parks reflecting her opinions and reflections towards the civil rights movement such as: “Each person must live their life as a model for others.” “Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”

CORE, (2006). Three core members murdered in mississippi. Retrieved from http://www.core-online.org/History/freedom_summer.htm

“Freedom Summer” was a highly publicized campaign in the Deep South to register African Americans to vote during the summer of 1964. Though African American men and women were legally able to vote, poll taxes and literacy tests prevented many people from registering. During the summer of 1964, thousands of civil rights activists, many of them white college students from the North, descended on Mississippi and other Southern states to try to end the long-time political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the region.

Answers Corporation, (2006). Watts riots. Retrieved from http://www.answers.com/topic/watts-riots#

This website describes the day by day events of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. The riots began when a white officer pulled over a black driver for erratic driving. A small crowd of onlookers quickly grew and soon began to riot.

Curtis, (2006). Life of a party. Crisis, 113(5),

This online article talks about the ten-point platform of the Black Panther Party. In addition, the article discusses the party’s origins, programs, political activities, conflicts, support, criticism, decline, and legacy.

Loss, Archie. (personal communication, November 2, 2009).

Steve Wize

Author Steve Wize

More posts by Steve Wize

Leave a Reply