Civil Rights Movement Timeline

Updated January 16, 2023 | Infoplease Staff
Black history
Source: Getty Images

From small acts of defiance to mass marches and meetings, the civil rights movement fought for positive change and won. The movement was formed by people in the 1950s and 60s who would no longer accept the segregation and discrimination that African Americans faced.

What Was the Civil Rights Movement? 

The civil rights movement was a struggle to demand social justice for Black Americans in the United States that took place during the 1950s and 1960s. The movement covers a range of campaigns and protests against racial segregation and the prejudiced treatment of African Americans. Protest groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pushed back against laws, particularly in Southern states, which limited how and where Black Americans could live and work.

What Caused the Civil Rights Movement? 

The civil rights movement grew in response to forms of discrimination against Black Americans that remained in the United States after the abolition of slavery. Despite post American Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution, local state laws continued to treat African Americans as second-class citizens. These became known as "Jim Crow laws", named after a character from a Black minstrel show. It was a collective refusal to abide by these laws, particularly in Southern states, that give rise to the civil rights movement.

Who Are 3 Key Figures in the Civil Rights Movement? 

While the civil rights movement was filled with many impactful and important people, a few individuals do stick out as major players in the entire struggle, including the following three names.

Rosa Parks

It was a small act by 42-year-old African-American Rosa Parks that acted as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. She was returning from her work as a seamstress and sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama when she was asked by the driver to give up her seat for a white passenger. She refused. It was an act that would lead to her arrest as it breached a rule designating seats at the front of the bus as "white only". It was a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and attracted global media coverage for the everyday discrimination faced by African Americans.

Martin Luther King Jr.

A Baptist minister and activist who became known as a civil rights movement leader. His background as a preacher made him a powerful public speaker, best known for the "I have a dream" speech he made on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he advocated a non-violent form of civil disobedience to protest against the discrimination of Jim Crow laws. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, aged 39, in 1968 during a stay in Memphis, Tennessee.

Malcolm X

An influential leader and supporter of Black Nationalism who believed that civil rights should be won "by any means necessary". His radical approach acted as a counterpoint to Martin Luther King Jr’s message of non-violence and reflected divides within the civil rights movement. Born Malcolm Little, he renamed himself Malcolm X after becoming a supporter of the Nation of Islam during a spell in prison during the 1940s. A controversial figure who was accused of racism and the promotion of violence, Malcolm X was assassinated, aged 39, in 1965.

Civil Rights Movement Timeline

The civil rights movement emerges less than 100 years after slavery has been abolished in 1865. It grows in response to the racial attitudes and segregation that remain within society.

1948 1954 1960 1967 1968 1971 1988 1991 2005 2008 2013

1948

July 26

President Truman signs Executive Order 9981, which states, "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."

1954

May 17

Thurgood MarshallThe 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 overturned 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.

1955

Aug. 28

Fourteen-year-old 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 rights movement.

Dec. 1

Rosa ParksRosa Parks (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 the newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is instrumental in leading the boycott.

 

1957

Jan.–Feb.

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 urges.

 

Sept.

The Little Rock Nine pictured with Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas NAACP.

(Little Rock, Arkansas) 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." The plight of the Arkansas nine draws national attention with all nine of the African-American students being admitted into the school by the end of September.

1960

Feb. 1

(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.

April

(Raleigh, N.C.) The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded at Shaw University, providing young Black people with a place in the civil rights movement. The SNCC later grows into a more radical organization, especially under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael (1966–1967).

1961

May 4

Over the spring and summer, student volunteers begin taking bus trips through the South to test out new laws that prohibit segregation in interstate travel facilities, which include bus and railway stations. Several of the groups of "freedom riders," as they are called, are attacked by angry mobs along the way. The program, sponsored by The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), involves more than 1,000 volunteers, both Black and white individuals. Freedom rides often result in police arrests and violent protests but help to highlight the issue of segregation. 

1962

Oct. 1James Meredith

James Meredith becomes the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Violence and riots surrounding the incident caused President Kennedy to send 5,000 federal troops. Meredith reported experiencing continual harassment during his time at the university but graduated with a degree in political science.

1963

April 16

Martin Luther King Jr. 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. It emphasizes his belief in non-violence while urging religious people to break loose from the "paralyzing chains of conformity".

May 3

During civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, 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.

June 12

(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 of murdering Evers.

Aug. 28

Martin Luther King, Jr. (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. The impact of the speech is seen as being a major factor in the passing for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sept. 15

(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.

1964

Jan. 23

The 24th Amendment abolishes the poll tax, which originally had been instituted in 11 southern states after Reconstruction to make it difficult for poor Black people to vote. The poll tax was a fee required by states before a person became eligible to vote in a national election. Scrapping the poll tax, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “There can be no one too poor to vote.”

Summer

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.

July 2

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislation is originally presented by John F. Kennedy before his assassination in 1963. 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 power to enforce desegregation.

Aug. 4

FBI photographs of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner

(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 them.

1965

Feb. 21

Malcolm X

(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.

March 7

(Selma, Ala.) Black people 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.

Aug. 10

Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for Southern Black people to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other such requirements that were used to restrict Black voting are made illegal.

Aug. 11—17, 1965

(Watts, Calif.) Race riots erupt in a Black section of Los Angeles.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Sept. 24, 1965

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.

1966

Oct.

(Oakland, Calif.) The militant Black Panthers are founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.The group has revolutionary aims with an ideology of Black nationalism, socialism, and armed resistance to police brutality. It formed a part of a radical movement that rejects the non-violence policies of mainstream civil rights organizations.

1967

April 19

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.

June 12

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 their laws.

July

Major race riots take place in Newark (July 12–16) and Detroit (July 23–30). They are among the many flare-ups that occur in cities across America during the summer of 1967, resulting in around 80 deaths and 17,000 arrests. In the majority of disturbances, confrontations occur between Black protesters and white police officers.

1968

April 4

(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. The death sparks a series of protests and outbreaks of violence in American cities. James Earl Ray died in prison on April 23, 1998.

April 11

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. Also referred to as the Fair Housing Act, the legislation was passed in the wake of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther Jr.

1971

April 20

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.

1988

March 22

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.

1991

Nov. 22

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 discrimination.

1992

April 29

(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. The riots left 63 people dead, 12,000 arrests, and estimated property damage in excess of $1 billion.

2003

June 23

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 body."

(See also: Affirmative Action Timeline.)

2005

June 21

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 crimes.

October 24

Rosa Parks dies at age 92. Her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott made her an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. But it also led to her losing her job as a department store seamstress. She later moved to Detroit where she worked for African-American US Representative John Conyers. After retiring, Parks wrote her biography “Rosa Parks: My Story”, which is published in 1992.

2006

January 30

Coretta Scott King dies of a stroke at age 78. An author and civil rights activist who was married to Martin Luther King Jr. After her husband’s assassination, she continues to campaign for racial equality and led a successful campaign to turn the date of her husband’s death, November 2, into a national holiday. Her funeral is attended by more than 10,000 people.

2007

February

Emmett Till's 1955 murder case, reopened by the Department of Justice in 2004, is officially closed. The two confessed murderers, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were dead of cancer by 1994, and prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to pursue further convictions.

May 10

James Bonard Fowler, a former state trooper, is indicted for the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson 42 years after Jackson's death. Aged 77, Fowler pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in prison. The 1965 killing lead to a series of historic civil rights protests in Selma, Alabama.

2008

January

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduces the Civil Rights Act of 2008. Some of the proposed provisions include ensuring that federal funds are not used to subsidize discrimination, holding employers accountable for age discrimination, and improving accountability for other violations of civil rights and workers' rights.

 

2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2020

June

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which established a formula for Congress to use when determining if a state or voting jurisdiction requires prior approval before changing its voting laws. Under Section 5 of the act, nine—mostly Southern—states with a history of discrimination must get clearance from Congress before changing voting rules to make sure racial minorities are not negatively affected. While the 5–4 decision did not invalidate Section 5, it made it toothless.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the formula Congress now uses, which was written in 1965, has become outdated. "While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," he said in the majority opinion. In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the V.R.A." (Voting Rights Act).

July 

A Black Lives Matter movement emerges after George Zimmerman is acquitted of the shooting of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012. The "BlackLivesMatter" phrase is used as a hashtag on social media to express anger at the treatment of African-Americans by the justice system.

The phrase became established as it's used in the wake of similar cases such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Pamela Turner.

In 2014, three activists, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, formed Black Lives Matter into a civil rights organization with a focus on police brutality and racism. It has since become a global social movement with a wider focus on human rights.

 

May 25 

Police in Minneapolis arrested 46-year-old African American, George Floyd after he was alleged to have paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Mr. Floyd dies during the arrest as three police officers pin him down with a knee pressed against his neck.

Videos of the encounter that circulated the following day caused an angry response with a protest march and confrontations between demonstrators and the police. The situation escalates over the following nights with protests and outbreaks of rioting and arson.

The unrest spreads to cities across the United States as the issue becomes a focal point for Black Lives Matters demonstrations. While most of the protests are peaceful, the police make more than 14,000 arrests in 49 different cities.

Derek Chauvin, a police officer involved in the arrest of George Floyd, was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being found guilty of his murder.

 
 

Milestones in the Modern Civil Rights Movement

Most of the major milestones in the civil rights movement took place during the 1950s and 1960s. But civil rights groups and activism continue to play an important role in the drive for social justice and equality. The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement highlights how many of the issues that were raised during the 1960s are yet to be resolved.

It’s important to understand Black history and the civil rights movement in a wider context. How rights and attitudes towards slavery have been such a crucial element of America’s past. You can see how civil rights issues emerge by taking a look at the US History Timeline.

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