Timeline: the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s

Historian John Kirk maps out 12 key moments in the campaign for civil rights in America during the middle of the 20th century… This timeline first appeared in the December 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine


1954: Brown v Board of Education

The US Supreme Court rules an end to segregation in schools. It overturns the earlier Plessy v Ferguson (1896) decision that permitted “separate 
but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. In reality, of course, “separate” facilities were hardly ever “equal”.

Portrait of the children involved in the landmark Civil Rights lawsuit 'Brown V. Board of Education,' which challenged the legality of American public school segregation, Topeka, Kansas, 1953. From front, Vicki Henderson, Donald Henderson, Linda Brown (the 'Brown' of the case's name), James Emanuel, Nancy Todd, and Katherine Carper. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The children involved in the Brown v Board of Education lawsuit (Time Life/Getty)

1955: The Emmett Till murder

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago is brutally murdered by whites while visiting relatives in Mississippi. His alleged crime is saying “Bye, baby” to a white woman in a store for a dare. The case causes outrage among America’s black population.

ca. 1955, Chicago, Illinois, USA --- Young Emmett Till wears a hat. Chicago native Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi after flirting with a white woman. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Emmett Till in Chicago, c 1955. (Corbis)

1955–6: The Montgomery bus boycott

Blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, boycott buses 
for 13 months after the arrest of Rosa Parks for breaking segregation laws. The US Supreme 
Court eventually rules a complete end to segregation on city buses in Montgomery.

21 Dec 1956, Montgomery, Alabama, USA --- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) rides the Montgomery bus with Rev. Glenn Smiley (right) of Texas. In 1955, black activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to boycott the segregated transit system and chose Dr. King as their leader. A year later, the African Americans of Montgomery, Alabama, achieved their goal of desegregation of the city's buses. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Martin Luther King, Jr rides the Montgomery bus with Reverend Glenn Smiley of Texas in 1956. (Corbis)

1957: The Little Rock school crisis

Arkansas Governor Orval E Faubus prevents the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School by calling out National Guard troops. President Dwight D Eisenhower sends in federal soldiers to allow nine black students to attend the school.

09 Oct 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA --- 10/9/1957-Little Rock, AR: Nine Negro students attending central High School are shown leaving the school under protection of Federalized Arkansas National Guardsmen. The students are now in their third week of intergrated classes while the integration dispute continues to make headlines. (Original Caption) --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Soldiers guard black students leaving Little Rock school, 1957. (Corbis)

1960: Sit-ins

Four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, hold the first sit-in. They refuse to move from a segregated lunch counter when denied service. Sit-ins are employed by a growing number of civil rights activists in the South.

1961: Freedom rides

Activists run integrated freedom rides on coaches across the South to test a US Supreme Court ruling forbidding segregated facilities in interstate transport. Passengers are beaten in transit, forcing President John F Kennedy’s administration to intervene.

An unidentified young Black 'Freedom Rider' is told to leave a segregated 'white' waiting room at a bus depot in Jackson, Mississippi, May 26, 1961. The Freedom Riders traveled from Montgomery, Alabama to Mississippi to protest segregation in public bus depots. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

A ‘freedom rider’ is told to leave a ‘white’ waiting room in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961. (Hulton Archive)

April–June 1963: 
The Birmingham Campaign

King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) run their first community-wide non-violent direct action campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s men turn high power fire hoses and police dogs on demonstrators. The images provoke nationwide condemnation.

04 May 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, USA --- An African American man and two African American women hold hands and try to brace themselves against the harsh spray of a fire hose during an anti-segregation protest in Birmingham, Alabama, May 4, 1963. Against the 3,000 protesters, police released dogs, attacked with electric cattle prods and used water sprayed with the strength to rip bark off of trees. These images were televised cross the nation. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Birmingham, Alabama, 4 May 1963. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

August 1963: The March on Washington

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president 
A Philip Randolph and his assistant Bayard Rustin organise a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Almost a quarter of a million people attend. King delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech.

28 Aug 1963, Washington, DC, USA --- Dozens of civil rights marchers pass the Washington Monument during the March on Washington. --- Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

Civil rights marchers pass the Washington Monument in August 1963. (Corbis)

1964: Mississippi Freedom Summer

Hundreds of mainly 
white northern college students travel to Mississippi to assist with black voter registration. The murders of two white New Yorkers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and black Mississippian James Chaney, makes news headlines across the country.

1964: An FBI poster seeking information as to the whereabouts of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Henry Schwerner, Civil Rights campaigners who went missing in Mississippi. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

A 1964 poster seeking information on three missing civil rights activists. (Corbis)

1964–5: 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act

US Congress passes the 1964 Civil Rights Act which, among other things, forbids segregation in public facilities and accommodations. After demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, the 1965 Voting Rights Act follows, containing provisions for the federal protection of black voters.

President Lyndon B Johnson (1908 - 1973) discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968). The act, part of President Johnson's 'Great Society' program trebled the number of black voters in the south, who had previously been hindered by racially inspired laws, 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

President Lyndon B Johnson in discussions with Martin Luther King, Jr in 1965. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Black power

New chair of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) Stokely Carmichael popularises the “black power” slogan in a march across Mississippi. The organisation rejects non-violence in favour of armed self-defence, and embraces black nationalism and separatism over inter-racialism.

June 1966, Jackson, Mississippi, USA --- SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael speaks to the crowd during the final rally of the March Against Fear at the Mississippi State Capitol. During the speech Carmichael introduced the slogan "Black Power!" to a wider audience, exposing the rift between him and Martin Luther King Jr. --- Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

Stokely Carmichael addresses the March Against Fear Rally in Mississippi in June 1966. (Corbis)

1968: King is assassinated

While working on plans for a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington DC, King travels to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers. While there, on 4 April 1968, he is assassinated by white racist James Earl Ray.

Mourners await Martin Luther King’s funeral cortege, 1968. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

Dr John A Kirk is senior lecturer in US history at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book, Martin Luther King, Jr, was published in Pearson Longman’s Profiles in Power series in 2005