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Civil Rights Chronology

How the Civil Rights movement unfold? Our Chronology provides a timeline of the significant people and moments that defined a generation.

1619-1865: Background

The ancestors of African American people were brought to the United States as part of the slave trade from Africa, which began in the early 17th century. Increasing numbers of slaves were taken on slave ships against their will and then auctioned in American towns, before being brought to plantations to work. The slave trade became increasingly lucrative in the early years of the industrial revolution, when cotton production became more efficient and plantations expanded. By the nineteenth century, slavery had become a largely accepted feature of rural southern society but there were also those who were aware that slavery represented an abuse of human rights. During the civil war, the southern confederate states fought for independence from federal control and this was in part to ensure that they would not be forced to comply with anti-slavery legislation , such as the Emancipation Proclamation (which freed existing slaves) and the Thirteenth Amendment (which outlawed slavery). This undid the ruling of the Dred Scott case, which stated that Congress didn’t have the right to ban slavery and claimed that slaves were not citizens. However, the future prospects of former slaves were gravely undermined by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; future presidents showed more reluctance to enforce equality in the Deep South.

Key dates include:

1619 – The first twenty African slaves are sold in Virginia, U.S. as ‘indentured servants.’

1833 – The American Anti-Slavery Association is formed

1857 – The Dred Scott case

1863 – The Emancipation Proclamation

1865 – The Thirteenth Amendment

1865 – Abraham Lincoln is assassinated

1866-1910: Post-Emancipation

Initially, the years after emancipation saw the confirmation of rights for African-Americans, with the Fourteenth Amendment granting their citizenship and the Fifteenth guaranteeing their right to vote. Social equality was addressed through the first Civil Rights Act, which ruled that African Americans had the same right to access facilities and services as white people. Yet, this central legislation could not prevent individual states introducing their own restrictions on the freedom of black and coloured people and this era also saw the beginning of ‘Jim Crow laws’ across the south (and in some northern states), leading to discrimination. After federal troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy, home rule reinforced autonomy, allowing segregation and disenfranchisement to gradually spread across the southern states. The legitimacy of this was reinforced by the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling, which introduced the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that was used to justify segregation.

Key dates include:

1868 – The Fourteenth Amendment

1870 – The Fifteenth Amendment

1870 – The first Jim Crow law is introduced in Tennessee

1875 – The Civil Rights Act

1887 – Federal troops are withdrawn from the South

1896 – Plessy vs. Ferguson case

1900-1951: War time Era

With no sign of centralised action to remove the Jim Crow laws, various organisations emerged in the first half of the twentieth century to advance the cause of African-Americans. One of the most prominent was the NAACP, founded in New York by W.E.B Du Bois. This would become the most influential civil rights organisation for the next fifty years and it focused on promoting both political equality and social justice. As World War One broke out, Marcus Garvey formed an alternative organisation which focused specifically on encouraging racial pride and unity amongst black Americans. There was little progress throughout the 1920s and 30s however, with Jim Crow continuing to dominate the southern states. The weakness of federal power was repeatedly displayed, particularly in the Scottsboro’ case. Despite the Supreme Court twice overturning their convictions, five black youths were sentenced to long prison sentences in Alabama for the rape of two white women despite a profound lack of evidence. Yet, in the post-war era of Harry Truman’s presidency, there was some hope of progress as the Democrat party officially endorsed a civil rights platform after investigating inequality in the South. Yet, the break-away southern Democrats (known as ‘dixiecrats) demonstrated how divided politicians were on civil rights.

Key dates include:

1910 – National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) formed by W.E.B Du Bois

1914 – Marcus Garvey establishes the Universal Negro Improvement Association

1931 – The Scottsboro’ Boys trial

1946 – Executive Order 9808 leads to the formation of the Presidential Committee on civil rights

1948 – The Democrat party endorses a civil rights platform

1948 – Executive Order integrating the armed forces

1952-1960: Eisenhower’s Presidency

During the 1950s, the civil rights movement gathered real momentum. Key tenets of the Jim Crow laws were undermined by court decisions that declared them illegal. In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned segregation in schools and Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act aimed to ensure that African Americans could exercise their right to vote. However, this act was something of an anomaly since Eisenhower never fully endorsed a civil rights agenda and the act itself was limited and rarely enforced. There was still substantial opposition to federal civil rights legislation from both Republicans and Democrats and it was therefore largely down to African-Americans themselves to bring about change. Rosa Parks demonstrated the potential success of non-violent direct action after her refusal to give up her seat led to a boycott that ended in the integration of public transport in Montgomery, Alabama and after this, Martin Luther King began to promote the policy as leader of the SCLC. Marches, speeches and sit-ins increased as the civil rights message spread across the south but the government continued to respond only once a crisis had occurred. This was demonstrated at Little Rock, Arkansas; when the need to protect black students with federal troops displayed that public attitudes remained far behind official legislation.

Key dates include:

1954 – The Brown vs. Board of Education decision

December 5th 1955 – December 21st 1956 - The Montgomery Bus Boycott

1957 – The SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) adopts a policy of non-violent direct action to advance civil rights and Martin Luther King becomes its leader

1957 – Civil Rights Act

1957 – Federal troops are mobilised to protect nine African American students who enrol at Little Rock central high school in Alabama

1959 – Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail launches a sustained campaign for equality in Birmingham, Alabama

February 1st 1960 – The Greensboro sit-in begins

1961-1963: Kennedy’s Presidency

John F Kennedy’s short presidency did not have civil rights as a focal point, largely because it was dominated by a series of international crises that distracted from the cause. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War meant that the advancement of African-American rights was not prioritised by the public or the president; the latter had in fact voted against Eisenhower’s civil rights legislation. As a result, government action continued to occur in response to events, such as when the National Guard and US army troops were used to enforce integration as James Meredith, an African American student, enrolled at Mississippi University. Yet, despite the lack of civil rights legislation during his presidency, JFK was often disturbed by the amount of violence aimed at civil rights campaigners in the Deep South. He condemned the attacks on so-called ‘freedom riders’ who rode on interstate buses to promote integration and also the heavy-handed actions of Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, the policy chief who used water hoses and dogs to attack unarmed civil rights campaigners in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King’s imprisonment in Birmingham made it a focal point for the movement, as did the deaths of three young black girls attending Sunday school at an African American Baptist church in the city. Three months before Kennedy’s assassination, the power and momentum of the civil rights movement under King’s leadership was revealed at the Washington March; 250,000 people marched to the capital to raise awareness of the cause.

Key dates include:

1961 – Freedom Rides take place across the South

1962 – James Meredith enrols at Mississippi University

1963 – Protests in Birmingham, Alabama

August 28th 1963 – The Washington March and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

September 15th 1963 – The Birmingham church bombing

November 22nd 1963 - President Kennedy is assassinated

1964-1968: Johnson’s Presidency

Under Kennedy’s successor, the most significant series of civil rights legislation was produced. Racial discrimination was made illegal in Johnson’s first Civil Rights Act, and the right of the government to enforce integration was confirmed. Further gains in legal equality were made through the Voting Rights Act (which made it illegal to obstruct voters on racial grounds) and through Johnson’s second Civil Rights Act, specifically aimed at preventing discrimination in housing. The impact of civil right campaigners is evident throughout the late 1960s, with the ‘freedom summer’ and Selma campaigners focused on the issue of black suffrage. Yet, the movement fragmented increasingly during this era, with the Black Panthers (formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale) and elements of the SNCC advocating a more militant form of activism. Although the movement can be broadly divided into those who focused on non-violent direct action and more militant elements, there was also division within these groups, as shown by the assassination of Malcolm X. By the time of King’s assassination, huge gains had been made in the civil rights of African-Americans but his death was a stark reminder that social attitudes had not necessarily moved at the same pace; legal equality did not necessarily translate into social equality in the everyday experiences of many African-Americans.

Key dates include:

1964 – Freedom Summer

July 2nd 1964 – Civil Rights Act

February 21st 1965 – Malcolm X is assassinated

March 7th 1965 – The Selma March begins

August 10th 1965 – The Voting Rights Act

October 1966 – The Black Panthers are formed

April 1967 – Stokely Carmichael first uses the phrase ‘Black Power’

April 4th 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King

April 10th 1968- Civil Rights Act