The civil rights movement was an organized effort by Black Americans to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law. It began in the late 1940s and ended in the late 1960s. Although tumultuous at times, the movement was mostly nonviolent and resulted in laws to protect every American’s constitutional rights, regardless of color, race, sex or national origin.
May 17, 1954: Brown v. Board of Education, a consolidation of five cases into one, is decided by the Supreme Court, effectively ending racial segregation in public schools. Many schools, however, remained segregated.
August 28, 1955: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago is brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. His murderers are acquitted, and the case bring international attention to the civil rights movement after Jet magazine publishes a photo of Till’s beaten body at his open-casket funeral.
January 10-11, 1957: Sixty Black pastors and civil rights leaders from several southern states—including Martin Luther King, Jr.—meet in Atlanta, Georgia to coordinate nonviolent protests against racial discrimination and segregation.
September 4, 1957: Nine Black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” are blocked from integrating into Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. President Dwight D. Eisenhower eventually sends federal troops to escort the students, however, they continue to be harassed.
September 9, 1957: Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law to help protect voter rights. The law allows federal prosecution of those who suppress another’s right to vote.
February 1, 1960: Four African American college students in Greensboro, North Carolina refuse to leave a Woolworth’s “whites only” lunch counter without being served. The Greensboro Four—Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil—were inspired by the nonviolent protest of Gandhi. The Greensboro Sit-In, as it came to be called, sparks similar “sit-ins” throughout the city and in other states.
November 14, 1960: Six-year-old Ruby Bridges is escorted by four armed federal marshals as she becomes the first student to integrate William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Her actions inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With (1964).
1961: Throughout 1961, Black and white activists, known as freedom riders, took bus trips through the American South to protest segregated bus terminals and attempted to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters. The Freedom Rides were marked by horrific violence from white protestors, they drew international attention to their cause.
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June 11, 1963: Governor George C. Wallace stands in a doorway at the University of Alabama to block two Black students from registering. The standoff continues until President John F. Kennedy sends the National Guard to the campus.
August 28, 1963: Approximately 250,000 people take part in The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King gives his “I Have A Dream” speech as the closing address in front of the Lincoln Memorial, stating, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
September 15, 1963: A bomb at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama kills four young girls and injures several other people prior to Sunday services. The bombing fuels angry protests.
July 2, 1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, preventing employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin. Title VII of the Act establishes the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to help prevent workplace discrimination.
March 7, 1965: Bloody Sunday. In the Selma to Montgomery March, around 600 civil rights marchers walk to Selma, Alabama to Montgomery—the state’s capital—in protest of Black voter suppression. Local police block and brutally attack them. After successfully fighting in court for their right to march, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders lead two more marches and finally reach Montgomery on March 25.
August 6, 1965: President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prevent the use of literacy tests as a voting requirement. It also allowed federal examiners to review voter qualifications and federal observers to monitor polling places.
April 11, 1968: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, providing equal housing opportunity regardless of race, religion or national origin.
Read more about the civil rights movement:
Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?
Six Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement
The ‘Silent’ Protest That Kick-Started the Civil Rights Movement
How the Black Power Movement Influenced the Civil Rights Movement
Executive Order 9981. Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.
Civil Rights Act of 1957. Civil Rights Digital Library.
Governor George C. Wallace’s School House Door Speech. Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Greensboro, NC, Students Sit-In for US Civil Rights, 1960. Swarthmore College Global Nonviolent Action Database.
Historical Highlights. The 24th Amendment. History, Art & Archives United States House of Representatives.
History—Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment. United States Courts.
History of Federal Voting Rights Laws. The United States Department of Justice.
“I Have a Dream,” Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute Stanford.
Oldest and Boldest. NAACP.
SCLC History. Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Selma to Montgomery March: National Historic Trail and All-American Road. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. National Archives.