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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1964–5: 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.
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.
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.
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