- The Supreme Court
rules on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of
Topeka, Kans., unanimously agreeing that segregation in public schools
is unconstitutional. The ruling paves the way for large-scale desegregation.
The decision overturns the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling
that sanctioned "separate but equal" segregation of the races, ruling
that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." It is
a victory for NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who will later return
to the Supreme Court as the nation's first black justice.
Chicagoan Emmett Till is visiting family in Mississippi when he is kidnapped,
brutally beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River for allegedly
whistling at a white woman. Two white men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant,
are arrested for the murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. They
later boast about committing the murder in a Look magazine
interview. The case becomes a cause célèbre of the civil
- (Montgomery, Ala.)
NAACP member Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat at the front of
the "colored section" of a bus to a white passenger, defying a southern
custom of the time. In response to her arrest the Montgomery black community
launches a bus boycott, which will last for more than a year, until
the buses are desegregated Dec. 21, 1956. As newly elected president
of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Reverend Martin Luther
King, Jr., is instrumental in leading the boycott.
- Martin Luther King,
Charles K. Steele, and Fred L. Shuttlesworth establish the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, of which King is made the first president.
The SCLC becomes a major force in organizing the civil rights movement
and bases its principles on nonviolence and civil disobedience. According
to King, it is essential that the civil rights movement not sink to
the level of the racists and hatemongers who oppose them: "We must forever
conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline," he
(Little Rock, Ark.) Formerly all-white Central High School learns that
integration is easier said than done. Nine black students are blocked
from entering the school on the orders of Governor Orval Faubus. President
Eisenhower sends federal troops and the National Guard to intervene
on behalf of the students, who become known as the "Little Rock Nine."
- (Greensboro, N.C.)
Four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College
begin a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter. Although they
are refused service, they are allowed to stay at the counter. The event
triggers many similar nonviolent protests throughout the South. Six
months later the original four protesters are served lunch at the same
Woolworth's counter. Student sit-ins would be effective throughout the
Deep South in integrating parks, swimming pools, theaters, libraries,
and other public facilities.
(Raleigh, N.C.) The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
is founded at Shaw University, providing young blacks with a place in
the civil rights movement. The SNCC later grows into a more radical
organization, especially under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael
- The Congress of
Racial Equality (CORE) begins sending student volunteers on bus trips
to test the implementation of new laws prohibiting segregation in interstate
travel facilities. One of the first two groups of "freedom riders,"
as they are called, encounters its first problem two weeks later, when
a mob in Alabama sets the riders' bus on fire. The program continues,
and by the end of the summer 1,000 volunteers, black and white, have
James Meredith becomes the first black student to enroll at the University
of Mississippi. Violence and riots surrounding the incident cause President
Kennedy to send 5,000 federal troops.
- Martin Luther King
is arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham,
Ala.; he writes his seminal "Letter from Birmingham Jail," arguing that
individuals have the moral duty to disobey unjust laws.
- During civil rights
protests in Birmingham, Ala., Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull"
Connor uses fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators. These
images of brutality, which are televised and published widely, are instrumental
in gaining sympathy for the civil rights movement around the world.
(Jackson, Miss.) Mississippi's NAACP field secretary, 37-year-old Medgar
Evers, is murdered outside his home. Byron De La Beckwith is tried
twice in 1964, both trials resulting in hung juries. Thirty years later
he is convicted for murdering Evers.
(Washington, D.C.) About 200,000 people join the March on Washington.
Congregating at the Lincoln Memorial, participants listen as Martin
Luther King delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
(Birmingham, Ala.) Four young girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley,
Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins) attending Sunday school are
killed when a bomb explodes at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,
a popular location for civil rights meetings. Riots erupt in Birmingham,
leading to the deaths of two more black youths.
- The 24th Amendment
abolishes the poll tax, which originally had been instituted in 11 southern
states after Reconstruction to make it difficult for poor blacks to
The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a network of civil rights
groups that includes CORE and SNCC, launches a massive effort to register
black voters during what becomes known as the Freedom Summer. It also
sends delegates to the Democratic National Convention to protest—and
attempt to unseat—the official all-white Mississippi contingent.
President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The most sweeping
civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act
prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion,
or national origin. The law also provides the federal government with
the powers to enforce desegregation.
(Neshoba Country, Miss.) The bodies of three civil-rights workers —
two white, one black — are found in an earthen dam, six weeks
into a federal investigation backed by President Johnson. James
E. Chaney, 21; Andrew Goodman, 21; and Michael Schwerner, 24, had been
working to register black voters in Mississippi, and, on June 21, had
gone to investigate the burning of a black church. They were arrested
by the police on speeding charges, incarcerated for several hours, and
then released after dark into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, who murdered
(Harlem, N.Y.) Malcolm X, black nationalist and founder of the Organization
of Afro-American Unity, is shot to death. It is believed the assailants
are members of the Black Muslim faith, which Malcolm had recently abandoned
in favor of orthodox Islam.
(Selma, Ala.) Blacks begin a march to Montgomery in support of voting
rights but are stopped at the Pettus Bridge by a police blockade. Fifty
marchers are hospitalized after police use tear gas, whips, and clubs
against them. The incident is dubbed "Bloody Sunday" by the media. The
march is considered the catalyst for pushing through the voting rights
act five months later.
Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for
Southern blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and
other such requirements that were used to restrict black voting are
(Watts, Calif.) Race riots erupt in a black section of Los Angeles.
Asserting that civil rights laws alone are not enough to remedy discrimination,
President Johnson issues Executive Order 11246, which enforces affirmative
action for the first time. It requires government contractors to "take
affirmative action" toward prospective minority employees in all aspects
of hiring and employment.
- (Oakland, Calif.)
The militant Black Panthers are founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
- Stokely Carmichael,
a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), coins
the phrase "black power" in a speech in Seattle. He defines it as an
assertion of black pride and "the coming together of black people to
fight for their liberation by any means necessary." The term's radicalism
alarms many who believe the civil rights movement's effectiveness and
moral authority crucially depend on nonviolent civil disobedience.
In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court rules that
prohibiting interracial marriage is unconstitutional. Sixteen states
that still banned interracial marriage at the time are forced to revise
Major race riots take place in Newark (July 12–16) and Detroit
- (Memphis, Tenn.)
Martin Luther King, at age 39, is shot as he stands on the balcony outside
his hotel room. Escaped convict and committed racist James Earl Ray
is convicted of the crime.
President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination
in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.
- The Supreme Court,
in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education,
upholds busing as a legitimate means for achieving integration of public
schools. Although largely unwelcome (and sometimes violently opposed)
in local school districts, court-ordered busing plans in cities such
as Charlotte, Boston, and Denver continue until the late 1990s.
- Overriding President
Reagan's veto, Congress passes the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which
expands the reach of non-discrimination laws within private institutions
receiving federal funds.
- After two years
of debates, vetoes, and threatened vetoes, President Bush reverses himself
and signs the Civil Rights Act of 1991, strengthening existing civil
rights laws and providing for damages in cases of intentional employment
- (Los Angeles, Calif.)
The first race riots in decades erupt in south-central Los Angeles after
a jury acquits four white police officers for the videotaped beating
of African American Rodney King.
- In the most important
affirmative action decision since the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme
Court (5–4) upholds the University of Michigan Law School's policy,
ruling that race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when
selecting their students because it furthers "a compelling interest
in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student
- The ringleader
of the Mississippi civil rights murders (see Aug. 4, 1964), Edgar Ray
Killen, is convicted of manslaughter on the 41st anniversary of the
Blacks, Mexicans and other minorities are routinely denied their right
to due process in civil and criminal courts. These rights are denied
by corrupt, self-serving judges. The judges have made themselves immune
to prosecution for their criminal acts by denying ordinary citizen's
right to direct access to the Federal Grand Jury to
report judicial crimes committed against them.
The people petition the Supreme Court to return this civil right.