In 1954, the ruling of the Supreme Court on the case of Brown vs. Board of Education led to the legal agreement that segregation was inherently a policy of inequality. It led to the systematic desegregation of schools and represented an overturn of the earlier Plessy vs. Fergusson ruling, which had backed segregation. In August of the following year (1955), a 14-year-old boy from Chicago was shot in Mississippi by white assailants who bragged about it in Look magazine.
The incident transforms to one of the inciting causes of the civil rights movement. It is in the same year that Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama refuses to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, and this leads to the famous bus boycott spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and urges disciplined resistance to racism. In September of that same year, nine black students at high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, are blocked from entering the school in resistance to an integration effort (Brunner & Haney).
On February 1, 1960, a group of four students tried to sit at a lunch counter in Woolworth’s. Though they are not served, they are allowed to sit. This led to several other non-violent attempts at integration in public places. Six months later, the four black students are finally served at the counter. Freedom rides began in the South in 1961 as a way of investigating the new anti-segregation laws regarding the facilities on the interstate. Later that year, James Meredith enrolls as the first black student of the University of Mississippi. The riots that broke out caused President Kennedy to send 5,000 troops to force the integration of Meredith into his environment (Brunner & Haney).
On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King is placed in jail for his non-violent, civil rights activities. Here he wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. The field secretary of the NAACP, Medgar Evers, was murdered on June 12 of the same year, and his killer Byron de la Beckwith was tried two times (in 1964) and allowed to go free. August 28 saw Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his famous I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington (Finlayson, 56).
The poll tax, instituted to aid in the denial of the right to vote to blacks, was abolished on January 23, 1964 via the 24th Amendment. The Council of Federal Organization launched a campaign that sought the wide-scale registry of black voters. President Lyndon Johnson later signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination and endows the Federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation (Finlayson, 66). On August 4, 1964, three civil rights activists were found dead in a dam after they were arrested for “speeding” on their way to investigate black church’s burning. They were later released to members of the Ku Klux Klan, who killed them (Brunner & Haney).
In February of 1965, Malcolm X, who founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, was shot—purportedly by Black Muslims upset at his abandonment of their faith in favor of Orthodox Islam. On March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” occurred when a group of blacks marching to Montgomery were gassed and beaten by police. President Johnson, in that same year, issued the order that leads to the enforcement of affirmative action. The following year (1966) saw the founding of the Black Panthers (Finlayson, 79; Brunner & Haney).
The leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael, used the term “black power” for the first time on April 19, 1967. On June 12th of the same year, the case of Loving v. Virginia led to the Supreme Court ruling that the prohibition of interracial marriages is unconstitutional. This forced sixteen American states that still prohibited this by law to revise their statutes concerning interracial marriages.
Race riots broke out in July 1967 in such cities as Newark and Detroit. On April 4 of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed; James Earl Ray was charged for and convicted of the crime (Finlayson, 76). Later, President Lyndon Johnson signed another Civil Rights Act (of 1968) that now prohibited all discrimination in the sale and rental of housing, as well as in their financing (Brunner & Haney).
While the earliest years of the Civil Rights movement were characterized by sporadic incidents of people defying laws, toward the middle years, the movement took momentum when organizations began to be formed. The involvement of Martin Luther King, Jr. caused unity to come about in these middle years, as can be seen through the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott and the large event that the March on Washington became. However, rifts began growing in the movement when King’s non-violent approach was challenged by Malcolm X’s militant efforts.
Toward the end of the period, civil rights became more and more integrated into the laws of American society, so that racist and anti-integration groups (like the Ku Klux Klan) had to recede more into the background. At this time, it became less necessary for civil rights activists to fight the law in order to be heard, as many of the laws began favoring civil rights.
Brunner, Borgna & Elissa Haney. “Civil Rights Timeline: Milestones in the Modern Civil Rights Movement.” Infoplease. Boston: Pearson Education, 2006. Retrieved on March 18, 2007 from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/civilrightstimeline1.html
Finlayson, Reggie. We Shall Overcome: The History of the American Civil Rights Movement. Minneapolis: Lerner, 2003.