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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, hold the first sit-in (Corbis.)

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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

1966: 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.

Stokely Carmichael addresses the March Against Fear Rally in Mississippi in June 1966. (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, King 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


This timeline first appeared in the December 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine