Civil Rights Movement Timeline: Significant Events of the Era

The core events of the Civil Rights Movement timeline took place during the 1950s and 1960s. Even though slavery had been abolished nearly a century before this time, Black people were still denied equal rights in the United States. During this timeframe, which is often referred to as the Civil Rights Era, great strides were made to eliminate segregation and discrimination against people of color. There is still work to be done.

Demonstrating on Behalf of School Integration 1959 Demonstrating on Behalf of School Integration 1959
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Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

In 1954, in deciding the Brown. v. Board of Education of Topeka case, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregation of public schools is unconstitutional. This unanimous decision rendered state laws touting "separate but equal" to be an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment, which is the equal protection clause. As a result, all public schools in the United States were required to integrate.

Murder of Emmett Till (1955)

Emmett Till, a Black teenager, was kidnapped, beaten, tortured, shot, and murdered in a small town in Mississippi. Why? Because he had been accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a local white woman. Till's killers dumped his body in the river. His body was eventually found. Half-brothers Roy Bryant (Carolyn's husband) and John William Milam were tried for murder but were acquitted. A year later, they admitted their guilt to a reporter, but could not be tried again due to double jeopardy.

Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)

On a fateful day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white patron. She was arrested and jailed, which led to a mass protest of Alabama's bus segregation laws that lasted more than a year. The protest was coordinated by the Montgomery Improvement Association under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. The protest is credited with playing a role in the Supreme Court's decision in Browder v. Gayle (1956), which ended public bus segregation.

Nashville Sit-Ins (1960)

In 1960, groups of Black students attending college in Nashville, Tennessee coordinated a series of protests against segregated lunch counters. Future congressman John Lewis was among the student leaders. Students simply entered diners, sat down at the counters and refused to leave. Some proprietors closed their businesses rather than serve the Negro students. The home of an attorney who was working with some of the protestors was bombed. After a few months, Nashville's mayor and the protestors entered into a dialogue, which ultimately led to Nashville becoming one of the first large cities in the South to desegregate public services like lunch counters.

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March on Washington (1963)

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in 1963. Approximately a quarter of a million people attended the event from all across the United States, making it the largest civil rights gathering to date. The event's purpose was to support the pending Civil Rights Act and to seek an end to employment discrimination, civil rights violations and disenfranchisement of Black Americans. It was during this march that Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Civil Rights Act (1964)

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. This law is the United States' first piece of legislation focused on providing equal access to employment and educational opportunities. This law made it unlawful for employers and educational institutions to discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, sex, and religion. It also established the existence of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Bloody Sunday: Selma March (1965)

In March of 1965, around 600 civil rights activists gathered in Selma, Alabama to march to Montgomery to protest a recent police killing of a young Black preacher. The gathering became known as Bloody Sunday. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a blockade of state troopers and other officers ordered the protestors to stop. The protestors kept going. The officers advanced on them, launching tear gas and striking into the crowd with clubs. Officers on horseback even chased and beat protestors who tried to flee. More than 50 people were injured, 17 of whom had to be hospitalized. John Lewis, who would become a member of Congress, was among those seriously injured.

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Voting Rights Act (1965)

The purpose of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was to ensure that the 15th Amendment, which extended voting rights to Blacks, would be upheld as intended. It outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had become commonplace in many southern states after the 15th Amendment was passed. For example, it prohibited states from requiring people to pass a literacy test in order to vote. It also made it illegal for people to be required to pay a poll tax before being allowed to vote.

Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)

In 1986, Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights icon was in Memphis to participate in an event in support of sanitation workers, who were on strike to protest unfair treatment and discrimination in the workplace. While preparing to go to dinner with the group of people he was traveling with, King was struck by a single bullet and killed. His legacy of contributions to the Civil Rights Movement timeline impacted or was affected by all of the events on this timeline and countless others. His vision changed the world and continues to impact the current and future state of civil rights in the U.S. and around the world.

Visual Timeline: Key Civil Rights Era Events

For a pictorial representation of the key Civil Rights Movement era events discussed above, review the visual timeline below. This brief overview helps show how these pivotal events unfolded, leading to major accomplishments but tinged with tragedy.

civil right movement timeline

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Beyond the Civil Rights Era

These key Civil Rights Movement events were all pivotal. The struggle for civil rights began long before the first event on this timeline and the civil rights timeline continues today. It stretches all the way back to the early days of slavery, through the Underground Railroad, the U.S. Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow Laws, and many injustices and events. It continues today, with issues like an infringement on voting rights via gerrymandering, and continued inequity. Groups like the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) continue the struggle on a daily basis. Now that you're familiar with some major Civil Rights Movement events, explore some key differences between civil liberties and civil rights.