Civil Rights Movement: Desegregation Timeline
How It All Went Down
Segregation in Boston
Benjamin Roberts sues the city of Boston for refusing to allow his five-year-old daughter to enroll in a local all-white elementary school. The Massachusetts Supreme Court dismisses the case, thereby validating segregation in Boston public schools.
Plessy v. Ferguson
In Plessy v. Ferguson the United States Supreme Court upholds a Louisiana law that mandates "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites.
Black Student Refused at Missouri Law
The University of Missouri School of Law refuses to admit Lloyd Lionel Gaines, a black college graduate, on account of his race. The state offers Gaines a scholarship to attend a school outside Missouri, but he refuses the funding and files a lawsuit. Although he loses his case, the NAACP would appeal to the Supreme Court two years later.
Gaines v. Canada
After hearing arguments in Gaines v. Canada, the United States Supreme Court rules in favor of Lloyd Lionel Gaines, ordering his admission to the University of Missouri.
War Segregation Protest
A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, and Bayard Rustin, a political activist and one-time organizer for the Young Communist League, propose a March on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the expanding war industries and in the military. They hope to organize 10,000 African-Americans to march in Washington, D.C. "for jobs in national defense and equal integration in the fighting forces."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt learns of the March on Washington plan. Despite meeting with A. Philip Randolph months before, the president refuses to negotiate with him, fearing that by doing so he may antagonize southerners in Congress. Randolph raises the stakes of the March, promising 100,000 protestors.
Greatly concerned with the prospect of thousands of angry African-Americans descending upon the nation's capital, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, which states that there shall be "no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin." The Order also creates the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to investigate discrimination complaints in wartime.
A. Philip Randolph announces in a radio broadcast that the March on Washington, originally scheduled to take place on July 1, will be "postponed."
Tuskegee Air Field
The United States War Department opens the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, a segregated military base and the first U.S. Air Force facility to train black servicemen to be fighter pilots.
Desegration Pressure Grows
A. Philip Randolph believes much more can be done to end employment discrimination, lynching, and barriers to voting and equal education. He seeks to expand his original protest strategy and plans for the following year a series of "colossal and dramatic" non-violent rallies in major cities throughout the country.
Led by A. Philip Randolph, the March on Washington Committee successfully organizes mass gatherings in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis.
Huge Demonstrations Planned
Following a summer of protest, A. Philip Randolph calls for the organization of "millions" of African-Americans. Inspired by mass civil disobedience in India, Randolph tells a gathering of March on Washington Movement (MOWM) members, "We must develop huge demonstrations because the world is used to big dramatic affairs... Nothing little counts."1
War Aide Resigns in Protest
William H. Hastie, an African-American aide to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, resigns in protest of continued segregation in military training facilities.
An explosion at Port Chicago, a northern California naval base, kills 320 munitions workers and injures 400 more, most of whom are black. 50 black seamen refuse to continue loading munitions under unsafe conditions. They are court-martialed for mutiny, dishonorably discharged, and imprisoned.
Irene Morgan Resists on Greyhound
Irene Morgan, a young mother of two living in Virginia, boards a Greyhound bus headed for Baltimore, Maryland. She sits in a row in the "colored" section, but when a white couple needs seats the bus driver demands she stand and move further back. Morgan refuses; she is promptly arrested, jailed, and fined.
What The Negro Wants Published
The University of North Carolina publishes What The Negro Wants, a collection of essays written by black leaders calling for an end to segregation, for voting rights in the South, unionism, and for a solution to the problems of poverty, lynching, and imperialism.
An American Dilemma Discusses Race
Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish social scientist, writes An American Dilemma, a book encapsulating a five-year study sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. The encyclopedic study utilizes hundreds of interviews with black people, scholarly studies, and statistics in order to describe almost every major facet of black life at the time and the conflict between American racial policies and the American belief in freedom and justice for all. Myrdal concludes that World War II may very well be the catalyst for change.
With the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice President Harry S. Truman becomes the 33rd President of the United States.
The Japanese formally surrender, ending World War II.
Desegregation Protests Continue
Unsatisfied with the temporary nature of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), the government organization created to investigate discrimination complaints during wartime, A. Philip Randolph once again rallies the masses in protest. Seventeen thousand people gather in Madison Square Garden, New York, to call for a permanent FEPC. Despite later efforts by President Harry S. Truman and Congress, the U.S. government fails to renew the FEPC in peacetime.
Irene Morgan v. Virginia
In Irene Morgan v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation in interstate travel is unconstitutional. Many southern states refuse to enforce the new law.
Black Student Denied Admission to University of Texas Law
Heman Sweatt, a black mail carrier from Houston, Texas, is denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law on the basis of race. Sweatt sues the university. Four years later, the NAACP would argue his case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Journey of Reconciliation
Bayard Rustin and the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE) decide to force the South to comply with the 1946 Supreme Court decision in Irene Morgan v. Virginia. Rustin, along with an integrated group of passengers, board buses in protest; black protesters take the front seats and white protesters take the rear. The protesters, along with Rustin, are arrested and jailed, some sentenced to labor in chain gangs. These acts, collectively called "The Journey of Reconciliation," would provide a model for the Freedom Riders of the 1960s.
To Secure These Rights
The United States Commission on Civil Rights issues To Secure These Rights, a scathing report on racial inequality in America.
Brooklyn Dodgers Sign Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson is recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers and becomes the first African American to play for a major-league baseball team. His success earns him the Rookie of the Year award.
Truman Tries on Civil Rights
President Harry S. Truman attempts to pass an extensive civil rights program including a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, national laws against lynching, and measures to ensure voting rights and equal access to education. Congress rejects it.
Truman Desegregates Armed Forces
President Harry S. Truman issues Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces.
President Harry S. Truman is elected to a second term.
University of Oklahoma Jim Crow Admission
George McLaurin, a black teacher, gains admission to the University of Oklahoma's School of Education, but he is admitted under Jim Crow arrangements. McLaurin is forced to sit in a small room separated from the regular classroom, to work in a segregated space in the library, and to eat at a designated table and only at a time when white students would not be using the university's cafeteria. Two years later, the NAACP would argue this case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Congress passes the Housing Act, authorizing funds to local governments for the construction of public housing to provide a "suitable living environment" for every American family. Under programs of "urban renewal," cities clear poor neighborhoods to construct retail centers, middle-class housing complexes, public universities, roads, and parks.
Jo Ann Robinson Expelled from Alabama Bus
Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at an all-black college and member of the Women's Political Council (WPC), is expelled from an Alabama bus for taking a seat directly behind the driver.
Integrated Units Fight in Korea
In the Korean War, black soldiers fight alongside whites in integrated units for the first time since the American Revolution.
Heman M. Sweatt v. Theophilus S. Painter et al.
In Heman M. Sweatt v. Theophilus S. Painter et al. the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the University of Texas School of Law cannot reasonably create an all-black law school that would be truly "separate but equal," and orders the university to admit Sweatt.
George W. McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education
In George W. McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the segregation practiced by the University of Oklahoma's Graduate School of Education violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that "no state shall... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Democrats nominate Adlai Stevenson for president and John Sparkman, a southern segregationist, as his running mate. Stevenson loses the election to Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower and his running mate Richard M. Nixon.
Brown v. Board of Education
In Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas the United States Supreme Court rules that segregated schools are "inherently unequal" and foster "feeling[s] of inferiority" in black children. The Court orders the desegregation of public schools but does not provide a firm timeline.
White Citizens’ Council Formed
In Indianola, Mississippi, a group of largely middle- and upper-class whites found the White Citizens' Council to oppose desegregation.
Martin Luther King Becomes Pastor
Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Claudette Colvin Resists on City Bus
In Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old black girl on her way home from school, refuses to relinquish her seat on the city bus to a white man. Police must drag her off the bus. She is convicted of violating segregation laws and for assault on a police officer.
George Lee Murdered for Voting
In Belzoni, Mississippi, George Lee, a grocery store owner and NAACP member, is fatally shot while leaving the courthouse after attempting to vote. Lamar Smith, another black Mississippi citizen, is killed in front of the county courthouse after casting his ballot. No one is arrested in connection with the murders.
Emmett Till Murder
Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy, is kidnapped by J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. The two white men believe Till had whistled at Bryant's wife in the family's grocery store. They brutally beat Till, take him to the Tallahatchie River, shoot him in the head, fasten a large metal cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire, and push Till's body into the water. One month later, Milam and Bryant are acquitted of the murder by an all-white, all-male jury.
Emmett Till Photographs in Jet
Photographs of Emmett Till's mutilated corpse appear in Jet magazine, a nationally distributed black publication.
Mary Smith Resists City Bus Segregation
In Montgomery, Alabama, Mary Louise Smith, 18, is arrested, jailed, and fined for refusing to give up her seat on the city bus to a white woman.
Rosa Parks Arrest
Rosa Parks, a seamstress and member of the NAACP, is arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, launching the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. The boycott lasts 381 days.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks is convicted for violating bus segregation laws. The Women's Political Council in Montgomery calls for a one-day boycott of city buses. Black ridership drops by a whopping 90%. Leaders of the boycott form the Montgomery Improvement Association and elect Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. president. The Association votes to continue the boycott.
The Montgomery Improvement Association organizes a carpool to assist those participating in the boycott of Montgomery city buses.
King Home Bombed
A white vigilante group bombs the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., who escapes unharmed along with his wife, and his infant daughter. A crowd of black citizens gathers to tell King they are ready to retaliate, but King urges them to disarm.
Alabama Support for Segregation
In Montgomery, Alabama, thousands gather at a White Citizens' Council rally to show support for city officials who refuse to revamp segregation laws.
The Southern Manifesto
Segregationist senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Harry Byrd of Virginia draft and distribute "The Southern Manifesto," a document declaring the southern white ruling elite's opposition to the Brown v. Board decision. "We commend the motives of those States," it reads, "which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means."2
Court Refuses Segregation
The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to reconsider a lower court's ruling against bus segregation in South Carolina.
Montgomery Resists Desegregation
In response to the Supreme Court's decision, several southern cities desegregate seating on buses. The mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, however, remains committed to segregation on public transportation and threatens to arrest any bus drivers who do not comply with his orders.
Robert Graetz Home Bombed
The home of Robert Graetz, a Lutheran minister and a white member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, is bombed. He, his wife Jeanie, and their children are unharmed.
Supreme Court Strikes Alabama Segregation
The Supreme Court strikes down Alabama's bus segregation laws.
Bus Boycott Ends
RANGEEND_BUSBOYCOTT The Supreme Court decision to end segregation on public transportation goes into effect. The Montgomery Improvement Association votes to end the bus boycott.
Montgomery Church Bombings
In Montgomery, Alabama, First Baptist, Mount Olive Baptist, Bell Street Baptist, and Hutchinson Street Baptist Churches are bombed. The homes of bus boycott organizers Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. are also targeted.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference Founded
In Atlanta, Georgia, ministers from eleven southern states meet to discuss the success of the boycott, the vitality of nonviolence, and the importance of Christian leadership. The group, including Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., founds the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The African nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule.
Eisenhower Passes Civil Rights Bill
Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower the U.S. federal government passes the first civil rights bill since 1875.
Arkansas Blocks Integration
Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas announces on a statewide television broadcast that he intends to use National Guardsmen to block the court-ordered integration of Little Rock Central High School.
Eisenhower Sends Troops
Previously reluctant to intervene, President Dwight D. Eisenhower orders the deployment of federal troops to enforce the integration of Little Rock Central High School.
Little Rock Students Suffer
Minniejean Brown, one of the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School, is suspended for pouring chili on the head of white student who had been harassing the group, "continuously calling us niggers. 'Ni---r, n----r, n----r.'" Brown would be expelled the following February after a white girl calls her a "ni---r b---h" and she responds by denouncing the young woman as "white trash."3
First Graduate of Little Rock Nine
Ernest Green becomes the first of the Little Rock Nine to graduate from Little Rock Central High School. Green would remember that upon hearing his name announced at the graduation ceremony, "there was eerie silence. Nobody clapped. But I figured they didn't have to... I had accomplished what I had come there for."4
Four students from the all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Greensboro, enter a local Woolworth's department store and sit down at a lunch counter in an area reserved for whites. They return, along with other students and a few whites, to protest day after day for five months until Woolworth's agrees to serve black customers at its lunch counters. Others use similar tactics in cities across the country.
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Ella Baker, a civil rights organizer, gathers a group of student activists to discuss strategies for ending segregation. The group founds the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The African nation of Senegal gains independence from French colonial rule.
The African nation of Nigeria gains independence from British colonial rule.
John Kennedy Elected
Democrat John F. Kennedy defeats Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon to become the 35th president of the United States.
Sierra Leone Independence
West African nation Sierra Leone gains independence from British colonial rule.
Kennedy Meets on Civil Rights
Civil rights organizations meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to discuss the obstacles to black voter registration in the South.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizes "Freedom Rides," in which integrated groups travel on buses and trains into the Deep South.
Interstate Transportation Desegregated
In response to the "Freedom Rides" organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, the Interstate Commerce Commission orders the desegregation of all buses, trains, and terminals.
The island nation of Jamaica gains independence from British colonial rule.
Kennedy Federalizes Mississippi Troops
At the urging of Medgar Evers and the NAACP, President John F. Kennedy federalizes Mississippi troops to enforce a federal court ruling to allow James Meredith, a student at the all-black Jackson State College, to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi.
University of Mississippi Riots
Upon the arrival of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, the first black student to enroll, students riot and federal troops must be deployed to quell the mayhem on campus. A reporter and a bystander are killed.
Emancipation Proclamation Centennial
The date marks the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC convene to discuss a new boycott campaign to integrate downtown Birmingham businesses.
MLK vs. Bull Connor
Martin Luther King, Jr. helps launch a series of non-violent anti-segregation protests in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor orders his police department to use fire hoses, police dogs, and night sticks to break up the demonstrations. Images of these violent episodes are disseminated worldwide.
A council representing businesses in downtown Birmingham reaches an agreement with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC. The council agrees to desegregate and hire black clerical workers and sales associates.
Kennedy Bans Public Discrimination
President John F. Kennedy appears on national television to announce a new bill that will ban discrimination in all public places.
Medgar Evers Assassinated
A sniper kills Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. He is shot in the back in the driveway of his home in Jackson.
Kennedy Discusses Civil Rights
Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy to discuss planning for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
More than 250,000 demonstrators, black and white, gather at the nation's capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.