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Civil Rights Movement Chronology, 1954-1968

 This chronology covers only the most significant dates of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and only a 15-year span that was its most active, potent period. The “modern” black freedom movement began in the 1930s and continued at least through the 1970s. On a less intense but wider scale the Civil Rights Movement has continued into the 21st century, encompassing other disadvantaged constituencies in addition to African Americans, who have remained central to it.

May 17, 1954:  In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Supreme Court unanimously declares public school segregation inherently unequal, thus unconstitutional

May 21, 1954:  Jo Ann Robinson, president of Women’s Political Council, Montgomery, Ala., confronts city commission on bus mistreatment and warns of bus boycott

July 1954:  White Citizens Council, to uphold segregation, founded in Indianola, Miss.; chapters spread quickly throughout the South

March 2, 1955:  Montgomery police arrest Claudette Colvin, 15, for allegedly violating bus segregation laws. Black leaders consider a legal challenge and a bus boycott, but neither happens yet

May 31, 1955:  Supreme Court orders desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed”

Aug. 28, 1955:  Emmett Till, 14, murdered in Money, Miss., for alleged disrespect to a white female store clerk

Dec. 1, 1955:  Rosa Parks, 42, arrested in Montgomery for alleged violation of bus segregation laws

Dec. 5, 1955:  Year-long Montgomery bus boycott launched by Women’s Political Council. First mass meeting of Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) with speech by its new president, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jan. 30, 1956:  King’s home bombed; Coretta Scott King and infant daughter unharmed

Feb. 1956:  MIA lawyers file federal lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, against bus segregation

March 12, 1956:  Southern senators and congressmen issue “Southern Manifesto” denouncing Supreme Court’s Brown decision and other desegregation efforts

March 19-22, 1956:  MLK’s boycott conspiracy trial in Montgomery draws national media; judge convicts him but appeal keeps him out of jail

May 11, 1956:  Browder v. Gayle federal court hearing. In June court strikes down city and state bus segregation laws

June 1, 1956:  Alabama attorney general John Patterson gets state court to outlaw Alabama NAACP. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth forms Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to lead desegregation campaigns

Nov. 13, 1956:  Alabama state court shuts down bus boycott car pool. U.S. Supreme Court upholds Browder v. Gayle banning Alabama bus segregation

Dec. 21, 1956:  Black citizens desegregate Montgomery buses despite violent attacks and church burnings by white supremacists

Jan. 1957:  Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), southwide civil rights organization, founded in Atlanta with MLK chosen president

May 17, 1957: Thousands protest for voting rights in Washington, D.C., with MLK as featured speaker

Sept. 1957:  President Dwight Eisenhower sends federal troops to enforce desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

Sept. 1958:  MLK stabbed and nearly killed by deranged black woman in a Harlem department store on book tour for his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the Montgomery bus boycott; he recovers in a New York hospital

Feb. 1, 1960:  Four first-year men at North Carolina A&T College sit down at segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, sparking southwide student sit-in movement

April 15, 1960:  Student sit-in leaders form Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University conference organized by Ella Baker

Oct. 1960:  MLK arrested in Atlanta restaurant sit-in. Held incommunicado in a Georgia prison until Sen. John F. Kennedy, Democratic presidential candidate, telephones Coretta Scott King; gesture increases black vote for JFK, helping him win thin victory

May 1961:  CORE and then SNCC run “freedom ride” in Deep South to integrate interstate buses and terminals as mandated by Supreme Court. Riders badly beaten by white mobs in Alabama cities, then imprisoned in Mississippi. Government soon bans segregation in interstate transport

Sept. 1961:  SNCC initiates year-long desegregation campaign in Albany, Ga.; local leaders invite SCLC to help, MLK jailed with many others; campaign fails

Sept. 1961:  SNCC organizer Bob Moses starts voter registration campaign in southern Miss.; organizers beaten and jailed, farmer Herbert Lee killed. After four months Moses shifts campaign north to Miss. Delta region

Sept. 1962:  JFK orders federal forces to enroll James Meredith to desegregate University of Mississippi; white mobs resist, two people killed

October 1962:  Cuban missile crisis

Jan. 1, 1963:  Centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that ordered freedom for slaves in the Confederacy

Feb.-March 1963:  SNCC leads voting rights campaign in Greenwood, Miss.

April 3, 1963:  SCLC’s starts major protest campaign in Birmingham to desegregate department stores

April 12, 1963 (Good Friday):  MLK, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and other protesters arrested and jailed in Birmingham; MLK and Abernathy held for a week

April 14, 1963 (Easter):  MLK begins drafting his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

May 2, 1963:  D-Day in Birmingham: high school and grade school youngsters leave school to march downtown, facing dogs and water cannon; hundreds jailed

May 7, 1963:  Children’s marches climax, filling downtown, with thousands jailed and brief rioting by unaffiliated youth

May 10, 1963:  SCLC negotiators reach limited settlement with Birmingham merchants; demonstrations suspended; MLK’s motel suite blown up by Klan just after he left

May-Aug. 1963:  Greenwood, Miss., and Birmingham movements spark “Negro revolution of 1963”: more than 15,000 protesters jailed in 900 protests in 200 cities across the South (and some northern cities)

June 11, 1963:  Alabama governor George Wallace unable to block two black students from enrolling at University of Alabama after JFK sends in U.S. marshals to enforce court order. That evening JFK delivers nationally televised address calling for strong civil rights legislation. Miss. NAACP leader Medgar Evers gunned down in his driveway by Klansman

Aug. 28, 1963:  March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Sept. 15, 1963:  Four girls killed by Klan bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham: Addie May Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley; city erupts in rioting

Nov. 22, 1963:  President Kennedy assassinated in Dallas. Lyndon B. Johnson becomes president

May-June 1964:  SCLC campaign to desegregate public places in St. Augustine, Fla.

June 1964:  Mississippi Freedom Summer launched by SNCC and allies. Civil rights organizers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman murdered by Klansmen, their bodies found in August

July 2, 1964:  President Johnson signs Civil Rights Act after tough congressional battle with prolonged Senate filibuster

June-Aug. 1964:  Mississippi Freedom Summer brings several hundred northern students to assist SNCC and CORE activists to register black voters and create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), whose delegates challenge segregationist Miss. delegation at Democratic convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

Aug. 7, 1964:  House and Senate pass Gulf of Tonkin Resolution almost unanimously, authorizing Johnson to wage war in Vietnam; he had ordered bombing of North Vietnam after two alleged attacks on U.S. destroyers (one of which did not occur)

Nov. 1964:  Johnson elected president in landslide over Republican senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona

Dec. 10, 1964:  MLK awarded Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway

Dec. 1964:  MLK feted for Nobel prize at White House; pushes president to fight for voting rights bill; LBJ says no

Jan. 1965:  MLK, SCLC, and Selma, Ala., black leaders launch voting rights campaign. LBJ announces “war on poverty”

Feb. 1965:  MLK jailed in march to Selma courthouse. Invited by SNCC, Malcolm X encourages young protesters at Selma rally

Feb. 21, 1965:  Malcolm X assassinated by Nation of Islam foes as he presents new political program to Harlem black community

March 7, 1965:  After protester Jimmie Lee Jackson killed by highway patrolman, “Bloody Sunday” assault of peaceful marchers heading to Montgomery on Pettus Bridge in Selma by Alabama highway patrol and sheriff’s posse; many marchers injured; unprecedented national media coverage. Next day Boston Unitarian minister James Reeb shot to death in Selma.

March 15, 1965:  LBJ calls for voting rights act in speech to joint session of Congress

March 21-25, 1965:  SCLC-led march from Selma to Montgomery. After climactic rally of 25,000 at state capitol, Detroit activist Viola Liuzzo murdered by Klan while driving marchers home

Feb.-March 1965:  LBJ orders “Rolling Thunder” continuous air war against North Vietnam and escalates U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam

April 17, 1965:  Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) conducts first major anti-Vietnam War protest; 25,000 march in Washington

Aug. 6, 1965:  LBJ signs Voting Rights Act to enforce universal suffrage after months-long battle in Congress, including long Senate filibuster

Aug. 11-12, 1965:  African Americans revolt and riot in Watts section of Los Angeles after black motorist beaten by police; national guard troops intervene; 34 people killed, hundreds injured

Sept. 1965:  SCLC conducts year-long campaign in Chicago to rebuild slums and integrate housing

June 1966:  MLK and SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael lead “march against fear” in Mississippi after James Meredith shot marching solo; Carmichael introduces “black power” slogan after he and other marchers arrested. Black Power comes to dominate Civil Rights Movement in late 1960s

October 1966:  Community organizers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale establish Black Panther Party in Oakland, Calif.; chapters form in many cities nationwide

April 4, 1967:  MLK condemns Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church, alienating LBJ and liberal allies; helps lead huge antiwar march to United Nations on April 15

July 1967:  Massive black revolts and rioting in Newark, Detroit, and many other cities; LBJ deploys 8,000 troops in Detroit, where at least 45 people killed, mostly blacks; over 100 die nationwide

January 1968:  MLK and SCLC inaugurate Poor People’s Campaign to bring nonviolent army of the poor to Washington in the spring to end poverty

Jan. 31, 1968:  Tet offensive by Hanoi and NLF in South Vietnam takes over cities and U.S. embassy, until beaten back; military defeat but psychological victory for Vietnamese communists

March 16, 1968:  New York senator Robert Kennedy announces bid for presidency four days after Sen. Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in New Hampshire primary

March 31, 1968:  LBJ announces on national television that he will not seek reelection, reduces bombing of North Vietnam and calls for peace talks

April 3, 1968:  MLK delivers his final speech, “To the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple Pentecostal church in Memphis, after several weeks supporting strike by black sanitation workers

April 4, 1968:  James Earl Ray assassinates MLK on his Memphis motel balcony. Over a hundred cities erupt in the most destructive rioting in U.S. history

April 8, 1968:  The day before MLK’s funeral at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, thousands march in Memphis led by Coretta Scott King, who speaks at rally; sanitation workers win strike and union rights. Congress finally passes bill outlawing housing discrimination

May-June 1968:  SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign marches to Washington, builds multiracial “Resurrection City” shantytown in National Mall, eventually evicted by police

May-June 1968:  SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign marches to Washington, builds multiracial “Resurrection City” shantytown in National Mall, eventually evicted by police

June 5, 1968:  Robert Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles after California primary win advances his presidential campaign

August 1968:  Demonstrators challenge pro-war Democratic Party at national convention in Chicago; several thousand protesters clash with police, who respond with excessive force. Convention disrupted and nominee Hubert Humphrey weakened

November 1968:  Richard Nixon wins presidency over Humphrey and independent George Wallace; takes office on Jan. 20, 1969, inauguration disrupted by protesters

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