The U.S. Supreme Court hands down a unanimous 9-0 decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, opening the door for the civil rights movement and ultimately racial integration in all aspects of U.S. society. In overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court rules that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”1
Fourteen-year-old African-American Emmett Till is brutally murdered after reportedly flirting with a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. For the first time, both black and white reporters cover the trial epitomizing “one of the most shocking and enduring stories of the twentieth century.”2 The white defendants, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, are acquitted by an all-white jury in only 67 minutes; later they describe in full detail to Look magazine (which paid them $4,000) how they killed Till.3 His mother insists on an open casket funeral, and the powerful image of his mutilated body sparks a strong reaction across the country and the world.
The arrest of Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress and civil rights activist who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, sets off a long anticipated bus boycott by residents of Montgomery, Ala. The 13-month protest and ensuing litigation eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declares that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.4 The Montgomery bus boycott brings the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent approach to social change to the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Three years removed from the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus orders the National Guard to stop nine black students from attending the all-white Little Rock Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervenes by federalizing the National Guard and deploying Army troops to protect the students, stripping the state of power. Media coverage of the physical and verbal harassment the black students were subjected to is reported and broadcast around the world. In the end, they successfully integrate Central High. 5
The first of many civil rights “Freedom Rides” leaves Washington, D.C., for New Orleans. The Freedom Riders want to test the validity of the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw racial segregation in bus terminals and through interstate bus travel.6 Angry white mobs – with the blessing of Alabama law enforcement – meet the convoy in Anniston and Birmingham, brutally beating the Freedom Riders and firebombing one of the buses.7
Federal troops are brought in to quell a riot in Oxford, Miss., after a court order demands that the state allow James Meredith to become the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. More than 3,000 troops eventually subdue the crowd with tear gas and rifle shots, but not before two people are killed - one a 30-year-old journalist, the other a 23-year-old jukebox repairman. Press accounts describe the riot as "the most serious Federal-state conflict since the Civil War."26
Gov. George Wallace stands in the doorway of the University of Alabama to physically and symbolically block two black students from enrolling. President John F. Kennedy federalizes the National Guard and forces Wallace to yield.8
Shortly after 8 p.m., the president announces on national television that he will be sending comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
Hours later, civil rights leader Medgar Evers is assassinated just outside his Jackson, Miss., home. A prime suspect, Ku Klux Klansman Byron de la Beckwith, is set free after two mistrials when all-white juries deadlock. Reporting by Jerry Mitchell of The (Jackson) Clarion Ledger 25 years later prompts authorities to reopen the case, and in 1994, Beckwith is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. 9
In one of the largest gatherings in the nation’s capital and one of the first to be broadcast live on national television, at least 200,000 civil rights protesters stage a March on Washington concluding at the Lincoln Memorial. The march is dedicated to jobs and freedom and takes place 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The highlight of the event is Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
A dynamite bomb detonated in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., kills four young black girls, 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. President Kennedy says, “I know I speak on behalf of all Americans in expressing a deep sense of outrage and grief.” No white city officials attend the girls’ funerals in what is known pejoratively as “Bombingham” because of the 20 unsolved bombings against civil rights leaders’ homes or sanctuaries in the preceding seven years.10 Although the FBI identifies four Ku Klux Klansmen within days as the perpetrators, no one is prosecuted for 14 years. Eventually, between 1977 and 2002, three men – Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry – are convicted; the fourth suspect, Herman Cash, was deceased.
Three civil rights volunteers participating in Freedom Summer efforts to register African-Americans to vote – two white and one black – are stopped and arrested in Philadelphia, Miss., by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a Ku Klux Klan member who had followed their car. Hours later, they are released, and then rearrested by Price, who turns them over to fellow Klansmen. The bodies of James E. Chaney, who had been savagely beaten, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who had been shot, are not found by the FBI until Aug. 4. The FBI arrests 18 men, but state prosecutors say there is not enough evidence to charge them. Three years later, the suspects are tried on federal charges of “conspiring to violate the civil rights” of the victims; seven are convicted, and none serves more than six years. Decades later, through the efforts of Illinois high school teacher Barry Bradford, his students and reporter Jerry Mitchell of The (Jackson) Clarion Ledger, new information about the slayings is uncovered. In June 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, who was considered the ringleader and who by then was 80 years old, is convicted of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison.11 12
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, mandating equal opportunity employment, and complete desegregation of schools and other public facilities. It also outlaws unequal voter registration requirements.13 Although it would take years for these changes to take effect in communities around the country, the law is a monumental victory for the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; at 35, he is the youngest recipient.
Malcolm X, a Muslim minister and an advocate of black nationalism, is fatally shot in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. He had publicly broken with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad a year earlier; three Nation of Islam members, Talmadge X Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, are later convicted in the assassination.14
Hoping to promote equal voting rights, civil rights leaders John Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams lead more than 500 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a Confederate general) in Selma, Ala., en route to the state capital of Montgomery. Awaiting them on the other side of the bridge are Alabama state troopers on horseback, who proceed to attack them with billy clubs and tear gas; Lewis, the future congressman, is hospitalized with a fractured skull. The events are captured on television and broadcast to a horrified national audience. Demonstrations follow in 80 U.S. cities to protest the “Bloody Sunday” beatings, and hundreds of people begin streaming into Selma to march anew.15
The second Selma march is led by King and consists of roughly 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergymen who came from around the nation. They go to the Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings, where once again state troopers are waiting. The marchers sing “We Shall Overcome,” kneel and pray, and then, in compliance with a federal injunction, turn back. King’s decision to make the march symbolic is criticized by more militant civil rights activists who were prepared for confrontation. That night, one of the clergymen who had come to Selma to march, James J. Reeb of Boston, a white Unitarian minister, is brutally beaten by local white segregationists. He dies two days later.
The third attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, which follows a nationally televised speech by President Johnson and federal Judge Frank Johnson’s lifting of the injunction, begins. More than 100 journalists from all over the world came to Alabama to cover the dramatic and dangerous event.16 Johnson had authorized that the marchers be federally protected with helicopters, light planes, 1,800 National Guardsmen, 2,000 soldiers, 100 FBI agents and 100 federal marshals. The march is led by King, his wife, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis and other leaders of the civil rights movement. Walking with King was Cager Lee, the octogenarian son of a slave who had been wounded when his grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a church deacon, was shot and killed by a state trooper after a voter rights demonstration just weeks earlier.17
By the fifth day of the march, the ranks of the 3,200 original protesters have swelled to almost 20,000, including such celebrities as Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Lena Horne and Joan Baez, who entertain the marchers in the evenings.18 The marchers stop at the white domed and columned Alabama state capitol, with its state and Confederate (but no American) flags flying above, and where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861. Inside, from an office above, Gov. George Wallace watches the unprecedented spectacle, “peeking out through the drawn blinds.” King delivers what turns out to be his final nationally televised speech: “They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said we would get here only over their dead bodies. ...But all the world today knows that we are here. And we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama, saying, “‘We ain’t going to let nobody turn us around!’”19
On the last night of the march, Viola Liuzzo, a mother of five from Detroit who had come to Alabama to protest and while helping shuttle marchers between Selma and Montgomery, is shot by an ambushing carload of Ku Klux Klansmen upset to see a white woman and a black man in a car together. She dies instantly, her car rolling into a ditch. Her passenger, covered in her blood, survives. One of the passengers in the Klansmen’s car turns out to be a paid FBI informant.20
Thanks in part to the courage and heavy news media coverage of the Selma marchers, President Johnson signs the historic Voting Rights Act. It prohibits states from using biased procedures or preconditions such as literacy tests to disqualify citizens from voting.21 In his televised address to the nation, Johnson says, “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield. Yet to seize the meaning of this day, we must recall darker times. Three and a half centuries ago the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown. They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom. ... They came in darkness, and they came in chains. And today we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds. Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.”22
After years of death threats, Martin Luther King Jr., while in Memphis in support of striking black sanitation workers, is shot and killed on the balcony of his Lorraine Motel room a day after delivering his prophetic “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech.23 Informed of the assassination a few hours later, Sen. Robert Kennedy announces King’s death at a previously scheduled presidential campaign rally of 1,000 people in the poorest section of Indianapolis, and he calls upon America to resist divisive reactions and instead unite in “love, wisdom and compassion.”24 The news, however, leads to rioting in more than 100 American cities, resulting in 40 deaths.25 Escaped convict James Earl Ray is convicted in King’s assassination and sentenced to 99 years. Two months later, on June 6, Kennedy himself is assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the California primary.