Modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States:
MODERN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT COALESCES (1947–1957)
(July 26) U.S. Military Desegregated
Missouri-born President Harry S. Truman signs an executive order stating, "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."
(February 2) Truman Advocates for Civil Rights
In addition to desegregating the U.S. military, President Truman riles segregationists in Congress by proposing national anti-lynching laws, anti-poll tax laws, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, and a Commission on Civil Rights. In the summer, when the Democratic Party adopts an even stronger Civil Rights plank in their party platform, Southern "Dixiecrats" walk out of the convention, form their own political party, and nominate South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president.
(May 17) Brown v. Board of Education
In a landmark case brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), attorney Thurgood Marshall against the school board of Topeka, Kansas, the U.S. Supreme overturns the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and determines "separate but equal" educational facilities are unconstitutional.
(August) Emmett Till Murdered
After allegedly whistling at a white woman, 14-year-old Emmett Till is kidnapped and murdered by J.W. Milan and Roy Bryant. The two white men are acquitted by a jury of their peers, but confess the crime in a Look magazine interview. The case is not officially closed by the U.S. Department of Justice until 2007.
(December 1) Rosa Parks Bus Protest
Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks launches the year-long Montgomery Alabama bus boycott when she is arrested because she refuses to give up her bus seat to a white passenger and move to the back of the segregated vehicle.
(January–February) SCLC Established
Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles K. Steele, and Fred L. Shuttlesworth establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Elected the organization’s president, Dr. King wisely announces that the Civil Rights Movement "Must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline."
(September) "The Little Rock Nine"
When Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sends state troopers to block nine African-American students from attending Little Rock’s Central High School, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends in the National Guard to protect the students.
(September) Civil Rights Act of 1957
South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond sets a record by filibustering for over 24 hours in attempt to derail the bill, but the Civil Rights Act of 1957, ensuring African Americans the right to vote, is signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill becomes the first civil rights legislation enacted since Reconstruction.
GROWING TURBULENCE AND PROGRESS (1960–1969)
(February 1) Lunch Counter Sit-Ins
Triggering many similar non-violent sit-ins across the country, four black student protesters sit politely at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in an attempt to desegregate the establishment. They are refused service but not ejected from the store. By February 5, 300 students arrive for the ongoing protest. After a bomb threat, the store closes for more than two weeks. The Greensboro sit-ins become lynchpin protests in the cause of African-American civil rights.
(April) SNCC Founded
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. A crucial organization in the modern civil rights movement, the SNCC plays a major role in organizing sit-ins and "freedom rides" over the next several years. In 1966, under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership, the group turns radical, focusing on "black power" and anti-Vietnam protests.
(November 14) Ruby Bridges Enters First Grade
Six-year-old Ruby Bridges becomes the first African-American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South when she starts first grade in New Orleans, accompanied by federal marshals. In 1963, famed illustrator Norman Rockwell paints an iconic Saturday Evening Post cover depicting her walk to school, and in a 40-year commemoration, Ruby is sworn in as an honorary federal marshal by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.
(March 6) EEOC Beginnings
President John F. Kennedy issues an executive order requiring federal contractors to "Take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." The committee to handle compliance becomes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
(May 4) Freedom Riders
Shortly after the Supreme Court rules in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation on interstate buses and in railway stations is unconstitutional, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC dispatch over 1,000 male and female, African-American and white volunteers on buses to the Deep South. Some buses are burned and dozens of protesters are beaten and jailed up to two months for violating local segregation laws.
(September 25) Herbert Lee Murdered
Voter registration activist and farmer Herbert Lee is shot and killed by Mississippi state legislator E.H. Hurst. During Hurst's subsequent trial, witnesses are threatened, and the armed, all-white coroner’s jury acquits Hurst.
(April 16) Housing Segregation Eliminated
By executive order, President Kennedy eliminates segregation in all federally funded housing.
(July 23) Baseball Honors Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson, the first African American to become a major league baseball player, is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1971, the Hall of Fame also honors the Negro League’s legendary pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige.
(September 30–October 1) James Meredith at University of Mississippi
After Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black orders that James Meredith be admitted to the University of Mississippi, riots erupt and French newsman Paul Guihard and local jukebox repairman Ray Gunter are shot and killed.
(January 18) "Segregation Forever"
At his swearing-in ceremony, newly elected Alabama Governor George Wallace vows "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
(April 16) King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Arrested for parading without a permit, Martin Luther King, Jr., writes an open letter to other religious leaders arguing civil disobedience is a "moral responsibility."
(May 2–10) "Bull" Connor’s Fire Hoses
Dozens of children and teens are arrested during Rev. James Bevel’s nonviolent Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. In incidents of brutal force broadcast repeatedly on television, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connors, orders the use of fire hoses, police dogs, and a small tank against peaceful demonstrators who arrive to protest the arrests.
(June 11) The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door
Alabama's Governor Wallace attracts national attention when he blocks the door to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama against entry by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and three qualified African-American students. President Kennedy orders the National Guard to intervene, and the students are registered.
(June 12) Medgar Evers Assassinated
Mississippi’s NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers is shot and killed. Former Marine Byron De La Beckwith later boasts at Ku Klux Klan rallies that he had committed the murder. In 1994, he is finally convicted of the act and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
(June 19) Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act
President Kennedy requests Congress to enact "Civil rights for Negroes—the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves."
(June 25) "Call Me 'Miss Hamilton' "
Arrested for civil disobedience along with hundreds of others, CORE field secretary Mary Lucille Hamilton is jailed for contempt of court because she asks to be addressed as "Miss Hamilton" by the court instead of "Lucy." The case Hamilton v. Alabama goes to the Supreme Court, which rules in 1964 that "Persons of color must be addressed with the same courtesy extended to whites."
(August 28) "I Have a Dream"
Gathered for the March on Washington, 200,000 Americans assembled at the Lincoln Memorial to witness Rev. Martin Luther King deliver his famous, resounding "I Have a Dream" speech, which includes the now-immortal line, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
(September 10) Birmingham Schools Desegregated
President Kennedy dispatches the National Guard to ensure peaceful integration of the schools in Birmingham, Alabama.
(September 15) Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombed
Allegedly reacting to Alabama Governor George Wallace’s recent quote in the New York Times, "The way to stop integration is a few first-class funerals," the Ku Klux Klan explodes 19 sticks of dynamite under a Birmingham, Alabama, church, killing four girls and injuring 22 others. "Bull" Connor publicly blames the Supreme Court for the bombings, and suggests that the bomb may have been set deliberately by "King’s crowd." No city officials are among the over 8,000 people who attend funeral services for the slain.
(November 22) Kennedy Assassinated
Shot from the back while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy dies en route to the hospital, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as president. The Southern Johnson surprises many by being a strong advocate for civil rights.
(January 3) MLK Elected Time’s "Man of the Year"
To honor the civil rights leader's "fight for justice," Martin Luther King, Jr., graces the cover ofTime Magazine as its "Man of the Year."
(January 23) Poll Tax Abolished
The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, and poll taxes are abolished.
(April 13) Sidney Poitier Wins Oscar
Sidney Poitier wins the first Oscar for an African-American actor in a leading role for his role as Homer Smith, the itinerant carpenter who builds a chapel in the desert. In 2002, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences present Poitier with a special Oscar "for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence."
(Summer) Freedom Summer
Against advice from the NAACP, activists from CORE and SNCC (including over a thousand white volunteers) launch a massive voter registration drive in Mississippi.
(June 21) Civil Rights Workers Murdered
Three civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner), are arrested in Mississippi by the Nashoba County police, who turn them over to the Ku Klux Klan. After an investigation ordered by President Johnson, their mutilated bodies are found August 4. It takes 41 years before the ringleader Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen is convicted of the murders.
(July 2) Civil Rights Act of 1964
President Johnson uses his intimate knowledge of Senate practices to bypass "Dixiecrat" filibusters and obtain Congressional support for a benchmark law prohibiting racial discrimination. In an attempt to derail the vote, Virginia Senator Howard W. Smith adds the word "sex" to the list of "no discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin," in the hopes that this will lead to its defeat. His plan backfires, and when the bill passes, women are granted the same protections.
(February 21) Malcolm X Murdered
The controversial founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity and former Nation of Islam spokesperson Malcolm X is murdered. Three black Muslims are later convicted of his murder.
(March 7) Bloody Sunday
Voting rights marchers in Montgomery, Alabama, are stopped by a police blockade at Pettus Bridge, where they are attacked with whips, clubs, and tear gas. Fifty protesters are hospitalized, and the incident gains global media attention.
(March 15) "We Shall Overcome"
In his speech presenting the Voting Rights Bill to Congress, President Johnson uses Charles Albert Tindlet’s phrase from a protest song made popular by singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, "We Shall Overcome."
(April 13) Bill Cosby Stars in I-Spy
Cast as the multilingual Temple University graduate, Rhodes scholar, and secret agent Alexander Scott in I-Spy, Bill Cosby becomes the first African-American star of a TV drama. With race a "non-issue" in the series, the friendship between Scott and his secret-agent partner Kelley Robinson (Robert Culp) becomes a model for racial equality.
(August 6) Voting Rights Act of 1965
President Johnson signs into law legislation prohibiting literacy tests, poll taxes, and all other "Jim Crow" requirements used to restrict minorities' voting rights.
(September 24) Affirmative Action
Employment discrimination by federal contractors and subcontractors is prohibited in an Executive Order issued by President Johnson. In addition, they are required to "take affirmative action to insure that equal opportunity is provided to all."
(August 11–17) Watts Riots
Sparked by what was at first a routine traffic arrest in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a series of hot August nights erupts into widespread anarchy after frustrated African-American residents reacted to what they considered police hostility and brutality. After the smoke clears, 977 buildings are destroyed or damaged, 34 people are dead, another 2,000-plus are injured, and nearly 4,000 are in jail. The damage estimate is over $40 million, and some sections of the area have never been rebuilt.
(June 6–16) "Black Power" Slogan Born
Ten days after James Meredith is wounded in an assassination attempt during his March Against Fear in Mississippi, SNCC organizer Stokely Carmichael coins the term for a new militant civil rights movement when he says, "The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin' now is Black Power!"
(September 8) Star Trek’s Officer Uhura
Predicting race relations in the future will be much more enlightened, Star Trek TV show creator Gene Roddenberry casts African-American Nichelle Nichols as Communications Officer Lieutenant Uhura onboard the Starship Enterprise. Nichols contemplates quitting the show after a year, but Martin Luther King convinces her to stay as an "important role model."
(October 16) Black Panther Party Formed
Founded in Oakland, California, by activists Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in reaction to police brutality, the Black Panther Party becomes a revolutionary force for "Black Nationalism."
(November) Edward Brooke Elected
When Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke wins a seat in Congress, he becomes the first popularly elected African-American U.S. Senator in history.
(April 28) Muhammad Ali Refuses Draft
Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World and Nation of Islam activist Muhammad Ali announces, "I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong," declaring himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He also offers, "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" Refusing induction in the U.S. Army, Ali is convicted of draft evasion, but in 1971, the Supreme Court reverses the conviction.
(June 12) Loving v. Virginia
The Supreme Court rules in Loving v. Virginia that laws against interracial marriage are unconstitutional.
(June 13) Thurgood Marshall Appointed to U.S. Supreme Court
Describing the situation as "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man, and the right place," President Johnson appoints Thurgood Marshall as the first African American on the Supreme Court.
(Summer) Race Riots
Sparked by minor misunderstandings, major race riots sweep the nation, occurring in the cities of Boston, Tampa, Buffalo, Newark, Detroit, Minneapolis, Memphis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and many others.
(April 3) "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop" Speech
In a speech to a small crowd in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., gives a speech that includes the now-famous excerpt, "And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land."
(April 6) MLK Assassinated
Shortly after 6p.m., a sniper’s bullet kills Martin Luther King, Jr., on a Memphis hotel balcony. On March 10, 1969, James Earl Ray is convicted of the murder after entering a guilty plea and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Ray hints at an assassination conspiracy, and Ray testifies in 1977 that he did not shoot King. One of King's sons publicly supported a retrial for Ray in later years, and another man is found legally liable as a conspirator in King's death in a 1997 civil trial. Ray dies in prison of hepatitis the following year.
(April 11) Civil Rights Act of 1968
President Johnson signs the law prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.
(June 6) Robert Kennedy Assassinated
The evening he wins the California presidential primary, staunch civil rights advocate and former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy is shot and killed in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom.
THE POST-MLK YEARS (1969–1980)
(September) First African-American Superhero
Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Gene Colan introduce The Falcon, the first African-American superhero in Captain America #117.
(January 19) Nixon’s Supreme Court Nominee Rejected
Strongly supported by Southern senators but criticized for his decisions against civil rights and women’s rights, Judge G. Harold Carswell is denied a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court by the U.S. Senate.
(April 20) Court-ordered Busing
In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds busing as a "legitimate means for achieving school desegregation."
(December) Operation PUSH
Self-titled "country preacher" Jesse Jackson organizes People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) to negotiate positive changes in marketing and employment regarding major corporations like Coca-Cola, Seven Up, and Burger King. In 1984, Jackson founds the Rainbow Coalition, and Jackson, a 1984 presidential candidate, becomes a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement. The Rainbow Coalition merges with PUSH in 1996.
(January 25) Shirley Chisolm Runs for Vice President of the U.S.
At the Democratic National Convention, presidential candidate George McGovern picks New York State Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm as his running mate; she becomes the first African American and the first woman from a major political party to run for vice president. Nixon handily defeats McGovern the following November.
(February) Black History Month
Expanding upon Carter Woodson’s "Negro History Week," President Gerald Ford declares February "National Black History Month."
(June 25) Private School Discrimination Abolished
In Runyon v. McCrary, the Supreme Court rules private schools cannot discriminate on the basis of race.
(January 20) U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young
President Jimmy Carter appoints Congressman and civil rights leader Andrew Young as the first African-American ambassador to the United Nations.
(January 23–30) Roots TV Miniseries
Based on Alex Hailey's 1976 novel Roots: the Saga of an American Family, the astoundingly successful TV miniseries Roots tells the story of a young African’s capture and enslavement in America and the sorrows and joys of his children and grandchildren. It remains one of the most watched and successful television events in U.S. history, and becomes a cultural touchstone, particularly among African Americans interested in a greater understanding of their history.
(June 27) Affirmative Action Declared Legal
In United Steelworkers of America v. Weber, the Supreme Court rules that employees can give hiring preferences to women and minorities.
THE REAGAN/BUSH ERA (1980–1992)
Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and poet Alice Walker publishes In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose, proving a new label for "black feminism." This social/political philosophy purports that sexism, racism, and class oppression are inextricably bound together.
(November 2) MLK National Holiday
President Ronald Reagan signs a bill making Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday.
(Spring) Eyes On the Prize
Labeled "indispensable" by Time magazine, PBS Broadcasting airs this Emmy-winning 14-hour miniseries on the Civil Rights Movement.
(October 1) Colin Powell
President Bill Clinton selects Army General Colin Powell as the first African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In January 2001, President George W. Bush chooses Powell as the first African-American secretary of state.
(February 6) Obama Elected President of Harvard Law Review
After Barack Obama is elected the first African-American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, he tells fellow editors, "Just remember folks, nobody reads it."
(May 19) Willy T. Ribbs at Indy 500
Willy T. Ribbs drives an average speed of 217 mph (349 kph) to become the first African American to participate in the famed Indianapolis 500 car race.
(July 1) Thomas Nomination Stirs Controversy
President George H.W. Bush nominates African-American Federal Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Despite opposition from the NAACP, Urban League, and National Organization for Woman, as well as allegations of sexual harassment from fellow DOE attorney Anita Hill, Thomas receives Senate confirmation in October.
(November 22) Civil Rights Act of 1991
Reversing his earlier threat of a veto, President Bush signs a law allowing lawsuits in cases of intentional discrimination in employment.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES (1992–PRESENT)
(April 29) South Central Riots
Despite videotaped evidence of the incident, four LAPD officers are acquitted in the beating of African American Rodney King in a trial held in the affluent, predominantly white Simi Valley, California. Devastating riots erupt in South Central Los Angeles while King takes to television to deliver his infamous plea, "Can't we all just get along?" During the six-day civil unrest, 53 people die and about $1 billion dollars in damage is inflicted. Two officers are subsequently found guilty of civil rights violations in a federal trial, while two are acquitted of the charges.
(February 18) Merlie Evers Becomes Chair of the NAACP
Actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement before and after her Husband Medgar was assassinated, Merlie Evers restores the NAACP as the leading civil rights organization in the U.S.
(June 30) Racial Gerrymandering Outlawed
In the Miller v. Johnson case, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that gerrymandering based on race is unconstitutional.
(October 16) The "Million Man March"
Although estimates of actual attendance are still in dispute and range from 400,000 to two million, the event hosted by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Christian minister James Bevel largely presents a positive image of black men in America, its original intent. In 1997, Siste Phile’ Chionesu organizes a similar Million Woman March in Philadelphia featuring South Africa’s Winnie Mandella and Cuban exile Assata Shakur.
(November 3) California Bans Affirmative Action
California voters pass Proposition 209, which outlaws "preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, or national origin."
(January 20) "The Most Powerful Woman in the World"
Forbes Magazine labels Condoleezza Rice "The Most Powerful Woman in the World" twice: first, as National Security Advisor under President George W. Bush, and later when she becomes the country’s first female, African-American secretary of state at the start of Bush’s second term.
(June 23) Grutter v. Bollinger
The Supreme Court rules that the University of Michigan Law School did not use race in a "mechanical way" in its admissions policy, but its undergraduate process did not provide similar "individualized consideration" and is therefore unconstitutional.
(November 4) Obama Elected President
Illinois Senator Barak Obama is elected the first African-American President of the United States.
(June 29) Firefighters Claim Discrimination
In Ricci v. Stefano, the Supreme Court rules in favor of 18 minority firefighters who brought suit against the city of New Haven, Connecticut, after their lieutenant and captain exams were disregarded and whites promoted instead.