African-American Civil Rights: Civil War to the 1970s – Timeline
The civil rights movement was an organised 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 colour, race, sex or national origin.
This timeline includes overviews of African-American civil rights events and issues in:
Civil War and Reconstruction
The Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865. The Reconstruction Era was the period in American history that lasted from 1863 to 1877 (how the USA would be ‘reconstructed’ began before the war ended), and is a significant chapter in the history of American civil rights.
Reconstruction ended the Southern Confederate secession and abolished slavery, making the newly freed slaves citizens with civil rights guaranteed by three new constitutional amendments.
1863 – Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation changes the legal status, as recognised by the United States federal government, of 3 million slaves in the designated areas of the South from ‘slave’ to ‘free.’
1865 – Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery and submits it to the states for ratification. Partly in response to this, Southern states pass ‘Black Codes’ that restrict the rights of freed slaves, who were emancipated but not yet full citizens.
1866 – Civil Rights Act passed by Congress even though the President, Andrew Johnson, attempts to block it. All persons born in the United States are now citizens. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan forms in Pulaski, Tennessee, made up of white Confederate veterans; and becomes a paramilitary group determined to enforce white supremacy, mainly through threats of violence and terror.
1868 – Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted. One of the most important amendments to the Constitution, the amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection under the law and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the end of the Civil War.
The amendment was bitterly contested, particularly by the states of the defeated South, which were forced to ratify it in order to regain representation in Congress. The amendment, particularly its first section, is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, forming the basis for landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) regarding racial segregation, Roe v. Wade (1973) regarding abortion, Bush v. Gore (2000) regarding the 2000 presidential election, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) regarding same-sex marriage. The amendment limits the actions of all state and local officials, and also those acting on behalf of such officials.
1870 – Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on ‘race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.’
1871 – Enforcement Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act empowered the President to combat the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacy organizations.
1873 – Colfax Massacre, Louisiana. An estimated 62-153 black men were murdered by white Southerners who had formed a militia.
1875 – Civil Rights Act. Further response to civil rights violations against African Americans. The last of the major Reconstruction statutes, which guaranteed African Americans equal treatment in public transportation and public accommodations and service on juries.
1883 – Civil Rights Cases. Five landmark Supreme Court decisions that declared the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments did not empower Congress to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals. The decision has never been overturned.
1890 – Mississippi, with a white Democrat-dominated legislature, passes a new constitution that effectively disfranchises (makes it almost impossible to vote) most blacks through voter registration and electoral requirements, e.g., poll taxes, residency tests and literacy tests. This shuts them out of the political process, including service on juries and in local offices.
1898 – Williams v. Mississippi. The U.S. Supreme Court upholds (essentially, saying they were OK) the voter registration and election provisions of Mississippi’s constitution because they applied to all citizens. Effectively, however, they disenfranchise blacks and poor whites. The result is that other southern states copy these provisions in their new constitutions and amendments, disenfranchising most African Americans and tens of thousands of poor whites until the 1960s.
1909 – First meeting of group which would become the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), an interracial group devoted to civil rights.
1910 – the National Urban League was founded in 1911 as a result of the merger between three early civil rights groups: the Committee for the Improvement of Industrial Conditions Among Negroes in New York, the National League for the Protection of Coloured Women, and the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes. The Urban League continues to be an active voice in African-American affairs in the 21st century.
1914 – Newly elected president Woodrow Wilson orders physical re-segregation of federal workplaces and employment after nearly 50 years of integrated facilities.
1916 – The Great Migration begins and lasts until 1940. Approximately one and a half million African Americans move from the Southern United States to the North and Midwest. More than five million migrate in the Second Great Migration from 1940 to 1970, which includes more destinations in California and the West.
1917 – Buchanan v. Warley. U.S. Supreme Court rules that a ban on selling property in white-majority neighbourhoods to black people and vice versa violates the 14th Amendment.
1918 – Mary Turner, a 33-year-old African-American woman was lynched in Lowndes County, Georgia. She was eight months pregnant. Turner and her child were murdered after she publicly denounced the extrajudicial killing of her husband by a mob. Her death is considered a stark example of racially motivated mob violence in the American south, and was referenced by the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
1921 – The Tulsa Race Massacre took place on May 31 and June 21 when mobs of white residents, many given weapons by city officials, attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been called ‘the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.’ The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest black community in the United States, known as ‘Black Wall Street’.
1925 – The Harlem Renaissance (also known as the New Negro Movement) is formed in New York and show-cases African-American music, literature and dance.
1930 – August 7 – Two African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana, after being taken from jail and beaten by a mob. They had been arrested as suspects in a robbery, murder and rape case. A third African-American suspect, 16-year-old James Cameron, had also been arrested and narrowly escaped being killed by the mob. He later became a civil rights activist.
1931 – The Scottsboro Boys were nine African American teenagers, ages 13 to 19, falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931. The landmark set of legal cases from this incident dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. The cases included a lynch mob before the suspects had been indicted, all-white juries, rushed trials, and disruptive mobs. It is commonly cited as an example of a miscarriage of justice in the United States legal system.
1935 – Murray v. Pearson. The NAACP successfully argued the landmark case in Maryland to open admissions to the segregated University of Maryland School of Law on the basis of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
1936 – African-American sprinter Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
1939 – Billie Holiday first performs ‘Strange Fruit’ in New York City. The song, a protest against lynching written by Abel Meeropol, became a signature song for the civil rights movement.
1940s – Second Great Migration. In multiple acts of resistance and in response to factory labour shortages in World War II, more than 5 million African Americans leave the violence and segregation of the South for jobs, education, and the chance to vote in northern, midwestern, and western cities (mainly to the West Coast).
1942 – Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) established and goes on to play a pivotal role for African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement.
1942 – The Double V campaign promoted the fight for democracy in overseas campaigns and at the home front in the United States for African Americans during World War II. The Double V refers to the “V for victory” sign prominently displayed by countries fighting “for victory over aggression, slavery, and tyranny,” but adopts a second “V” to represent the double victory for African Americans fighting for freedom overseas and at home. Approximately 140,000 African-Americans served in World War Two.
President Harry S Truman, 1945-52
Truman becomes President in 1945 following the death of President Roosevelt.
1946 – The Supreme Court declared segregation on buses that crossed state borders was illegal. President Truman established a Committee on Civil Rights and the renowned actor/singer Paul Robeson founds the American Crusade Against Lynching.
Following the publication if the Committee on Civil Rights report – ‘To Secure These Rights’ – many Southern conservative white politicians who objected to this course organised themselves as a breakaway faction of the Democratic Party, determined to protect Southern states’ rights to maintain racial segregation. Formally known as the States’ Rights Democratic Party (usually called the Dixiecrats) it was formed as a segregationist political party, active primarily in the South.
1948 – Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma. U.S. Supreme Court rules that the State of Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma Law School could not deny admission based on race.
1948 – President Truman issues Executive Order 9981 ordering the end of racial discrimination in the Armed Forces. The executive order led to the end of segregation in the services during the Korean War (1950-1953). 600,000 African-Americans fought in Korea with 5,000 killed there.
President Dwight D Eisenhower, 1953-1960
1954 – Supreme Court declared segregation in schools to be unconstitutional. In the key case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court, effectively ended racial segregation in public schools. Many schools, however, remained segregated. In the same year, the last all-black units in the armed forces were disbanded. The Brown case is one of the high profile decisions taken by the Warren Supreme Court (Supreme Courts always take the name of the presiding Chief Justice, in this case – Earl Warren). The Warren Court also sought electoral reforms, equality in criminal justice and the defence of human rights before its chief justice retired in 1969.
1955 – The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed on 5 December 1955 by black ministers and community leaders in Montgomery, Alabama. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., the MIA was instrumental in guiding the Montgomery bus boycott.
The year-long bus boycott began in Alabama after the arrest of Rosa Parks for her refusal to sit in the ‘black only’ section of a bus. Also in 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.
1956 – Southern Manifesto declared in Congress. Formally titled the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles,” it was signed by 82 Representatives and 19 Senators—roughly one-fifth of the membership of Congress and all from states that had once composed the Confederacy. It marked a moment of southern defiance against Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, which determined that separate school facilities for black and white school children were inherently unequal.
The Manifesto attacked Brown as an abuse of judicial power that trespassed upon states’ rights. It urged southerners to exhaust all “lawful means” to resist the “chaos and confusion” that would result from school desegregation.
Key figures in the resistance to ‘Brown’ included Orval Faubus (racist governor of Arkansas), Strom Thurmond (racist Senator from South Carolina), James Eastland (racist Senator from Mississippi), Richard Russell (racist Senator from Georgia) and Harry Byrd (racist politician and newspaper owner from Virginia).
COINTELPRO is established by the FBI in 1956. COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence Program – was set-up to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s It was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party.
All COINTELPRO operations were ended in 1971. Although limited in scope (about two-tenths of one percent of the FBI’s workload over a 15-year period), COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons.
1957 – As bus boycotts spread across the South, leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association and other protest groups met in Atlanta on January 10 – 11, 1957, to form a regional organization and coordinate protest activities across the South.
Despite a bombing of the home and church of Ralph David Abernathy during the Atlanta meeting, 60 persons from 10 states assembled and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr Martin Luther King became President of this new – non violent – organisation.
The Little Rock High School clash occurs and Eisenhower had to use Federal troops to enforce the law. A Civil Rights Act is passed to help protect voter rights. The law allows federal prosecution of those who suppress another’s right to vote.
President John F Kennedy, 1960-1963
1960 – First student sit-ins against segregation at school lunch counters begin and 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.
The Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) is formed. In Louisiana, six-year-old Ruby Bridges is escorted by four armed federal marshals as she becomes the first student to integrate at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Her actions inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting ‘The Problem We All Live With’ (1964).
In the same year, Elijah Muhammad called for the creation of a separate state for blacks. A religious leader who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975, he was a mentor to Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and Muhammad Ali.
1961 – arrest of the Freedom Riders in the South. 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 severe violence from white protestors that drew international attention to their cause.
March 1961 – Executive Order 10925 signed by Kennedy. It required government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, colour, or national origin.”
The Albany Movement – in 1961 Albany, Georgia, a group of students from Albany College led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to mobilize the black community and start a voter registration drive in Albany and communities with African American majorities. They also staged sit-ins at bus stations to test the compliance with the Supreme Court barring discrimination in interstate bus and train stations.
1962 – James Meredith’s attempt to attend Mississippi University was successful only as a result of Federal troops being used.
June 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. Kennedy makes his televised Civil Rights speech on June 11th. Kennedy also faced opposition from White Citizens’s Councils that had been established after the Brown ruling.
August 1963 – 250,000 civil rights protesters marched in Washington following the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. 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.’
In the same year, four black children were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. The man who was arrested (white) was charged with the unlawful possession of dynamite but not murder. Years later the guilty were brought to trial for murder.
President Lyndon B Johnson, November 1963-1968
1964 May – Johnson came to the Presidency following the assassination of John Kennedy in November, 1963. As Vice President, Johnson was next in line for the Presidency, the US system does not allow for ‘by elections, if the President dies, the position is passed to the Vice President. Johnson laid out his agenda for a “Great Society” during a speech at the University of Michigan.
1964 – riots in Harlem (New York), Chicago, Rochester and Philadelphia. A Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress preventing employment discrimination due to race, colour, sex, religion or national origin. Title VII of the Act establishes the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to help prevent workplace discrimination. Later in the year, Dr. Martin Luther King was awarded the Noble Peace Prize.
1965 – a civil rights march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery was led by Dr Martin Luther King. Known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, around 600 civil rights marchers protest at 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.
A Voting Rights Act was passed which in theory made it illegal for anyone to restrict the right of anybody to vote. The Act also prevented 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. The civil rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated at the start of the year and a violent riot in Watts, Los Angeles, left 34 dead.
1966 – Stokely Carmichael introduced the idea of ‘Black Power’, a social movement motivated by a desire for safety and self-sufficiency that was not available inside African American neighbourhoods. Black Power activists founded black-owned bookstores, food cooperatives, farms, media, printing presses, schools, clinics and ambulance services.
The Panthers believed that the non-violent campaign of Martin Luther King had failed and any promised changes to their lifestyle through campaigns of the ‘traditional’ civil rights movement would take too long or simply never be introduced.
The Black Panthers called for a “revolutionary war” and used language that was as violent as was their public image. Although they considered themselves a party for African-Americans, they spoke out for all those in society who were oppressed. They were willing to use violence to get what they wanted.
1967 – state laws forbidding inter-racial marriage were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In the same year, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Detroit experienced five days of violent rioting following a police raid on an unlicensed bar popular with African-Americans. It turned into the largest act of civil disturbance in 20th century America.
1968 – Martin Luther King was assassinated. The man convicted of his murder – James Earl Ray – was sentenced to 99 years prison but denied having anything to do with the murder. King’s murder was followed by a week of violence in Washington known as the ‘King Assassination Riots’.
At the Mexico Olympics, a Black Power protest was made at the medal ceremony for the men’s 400 metres by Tommy Smith and John Carlos. In the summer of 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a Civil Rights advocate, is assassinated after winning the California presidential primary. His appeal to minorities helped him secure the victory.
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. On November 22, American audiences saw their first interracial kiss on American television, between Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner on Star Trek.
President Richard M Nixon, 1968-1974
The Nixon presidency witnessed the first large-scale integration of public schools in the South.
1968 – Nixon appointed Vice President Agnew to lead a task force to determine how to integrate local schools. By September 1970, less than ten percent of black children were attending segregated schools.
1969 – Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education Supreme Court orders that the southern school districts must end segregation at once.
1970 – Nixon signs a bill extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to 1975.
Nixon implemented the Philadelphia Plan (Executive Order 11246) in 1970 – the first significant federal affirmative action program. He also endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment after it passed both houses of Congress in 1972 and went to the states for ratification. He also pushed for African American civil rights and economic equity through a concept known as black capitalism
Tensions over desegregation surfaced in Northern cities, with angry protests over the busing of children to schools outside their neighbourhood to achieve racial balance. Nixon opposed busing personally but enforced court orders requiring its use
1972 – First National Black Political Convention is attended by 3,000 delegates and 5,000 observers.
President Gerald Ford 1974-1976
Gerald Ford became President on August 9, 1974, upon the resignation of Richard Nixon from office, and ended on January 20, 1977, a period of 895 days.
1974 – a Boston judge ordered the city school system to integrate immediately. Many schools were segregated and in close proximity. African-American students were bused to predominantly white schools, and vice versa. Mobs of whites greeted black children with taunts and obscenities, and fights broke out between black and white students inside the schools. The violence worsened, culminating in the stabbing of a white student and a subsequent riot.
Many Democrats called on Ford to intervene. The President, instead, chose to stay on the sidelines and out of the political fire. Ford was in favour of integrated schools; he had attended an integrated high school in Michigan and had thoroughly enjoyed it. But Ford opposed busing, largely because he believed the federal government had an obligation only to end “de jure” (by law) segregation rather than “de facto” (by circumstance) segregation.
1976 – Ford officially recognized Black History Month, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”
President Jimmy Carter 1976-1980
A popular local politician, Carter became Governor of Georgia in 1970. Carter’s election represented the change that had taken place in the Deep South following the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
When he had run for governor in 1966, an outpouring of segregationists turned out to the polls to elect Jim Crow supporter Lester Maddox.
As Georgia state senator from 1963 to 1967, Carter worked to overturn laws that made it challenging for blacks to vote.
1970 – in his inaugural address as State Governor, Carter announced that “the time for racial discrimination is over” and during his period of office (1970-74) he increased the number of African American appointees on major state boards and agencies from three to fifty-three and the number employed by the state rose to 40 per cent.
1971 – Carter appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which called him the face of the “New South.”
Carter sparked controversy on April 3, 1976, while discussing public housing. The then-presidential candidate said that he thought community members should be able to preserve the “ethnic purity” of their neighbourhoods, a statement that sounded like the tacit support of segregated housing. Five days later, Carter apologized for the comment.
1977 – as president, Carter launched the Black College Initiative to give historically black colleges and universities more support from the federal government.
“Other administration education initiatives covered in the collection include science apprenticeships for minority students, technical assistance to black colleges, and minority fellowships in graduate management education,” according to the “Civil Rights During the Carter Administration” report.
Carter also tried to close the wealth gap between whites and people of color. He developed initiatives to give minority-owned businesses a boost.
1978 – Carter continued to support affirmative action after the Supreme Court judgement in Bakke (1978). The decision had historical and legal significance because it upheld affirmative action, declaring that race could be one of several determining factors in college admission policies, but rejected the use of racial quotas.