Study Guide

Letter from Birmingham Jail Timeline

By Martin Luther King, Jr.

Timeline

May 17, 1954

Brown v. Board of Education

The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, overturned the 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, which had held that segregation was okay in public facilities and institutions so long as everything was "separate but equal." In 1954, the Court decided (9-0) that was clearly against the Fourteenth Amendment.

August 28, 1955

Emmett Till Murdered

Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. He allegedly flirted with a white woman, and was subsequently abducted and murdered by the woman's husband and an accomplice. After being acquitted by an all-white jury, they publicly bragged about doing it. Needless to say, this event galvanized support for the Civil Rights Movement.

December 1, 1955 – December 20, 1956

Montgomery Bus Boycott

The arrest of Rosa Parks (that notorious insurrectionist sitter) started the boycott, which aimed to force the bus companies to integrate by not giving them anymore money. It worked.

January 26, 1956

MLK's first arrest

Dr. King was arrested, officially for going 30 in a 25 MPH zone, but in reality for carpooling to support the bus boycott. Makes you feel a little bad about using the carpool lane when you're by yourself, huh?

January 10, 1957

SCLC formed

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was created to coordinate Southern black churches and social organizations in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King was elected the president, because duh.

February 1 – July 25, 1960

Greensboro sit-ins

Black students sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter. It doesn't sound like much, but this form of protest spread from Greensboro, North Carolina to cities all across the South. There had been several sit-ins before, but this one got enough attention to elevate the tactic to national use. Who knew grilled cheese could be such a powerful political tool?

November 8, 1960

JFK elected

John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, a victory largely attributed to their performances in the first ever televised presidential debates. JFK appeared cool and collected, while Nixon looked a bit sweaty

May 4 – December 10, 1961

Freedom Rides

The Freedom Riders were activists who rode interstate buses into the South to challenge the segregation laws. They were often met with vicious brutality from the KKK and their accommodating police friends.

April 3, 1963

Birmingham Campaign Begins

An economic boycott of segregated businesses had already been going on for a while, but in April the SCLC got directly involved, leading sit-ins and marches. The idea was to overfill the city's jails and to draw national media attention.

April 12, 1963

King and Abernathy arrested

BFFs go to jail protesting injustice together, after all. This is when Dr. King wrote "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

May 2 – 5, 1963

Children's Crusade

How do you arrest hundreds of children at once? The Birmingham Police had to figure that one out. After the second day's blasting of students with water cannons, it was pretty clear the police had lost.

June 11, 1963

JFK Announces Civil Rights Bill

Because of the developments in Birmingham, President Kennedy decided the time had come for Civil Rights legislation.

June 12, 1963

Medgar Evers killed

Medgar Evers was a prominent Civil Rights activist assassinated by a White Citizens' Councilman. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it.

August 28, 1963

March on Washington/"I Have a Dream"

This was undoubtedly the public apotheosis (extra credit, look it up) of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with hundreds of thousands of people walking to the Lincoln Memorial to hear over a dozen speakers.

September 15, 1963

16th Street Baptist Church bombing

Four girls were killed by a bomb planted by the KKK in a Birmingham church. Twenty-two other people were injured. The murders shocked the nation, but no charges were filed until 1977 even though everyone knew who was behind it.

November 22, 1963

JFK assassinated

While riding in an open car through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was shot and killed. Vice President Lyndon Johnson became President.

January 3, 1964

Time Magazine Man of the Year Award

Because of the success of the Birmingham Campaign and the March on Washington, Dr. King had become a household name and the face of the Civil Rights Movement. The editors of Time Magazine thought he was a big deal and put his face on their cover as Man of the Year.

July 2, 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law, making discrimination based on a person's race, color, sex, religion, or nationality illegal. Finally.

December 10, 1964

Dr. King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

With this award, the Civil Rights Movement in America officially received international recognition. Dr. King's non-violent civil disobedience was an inspiration to the Nobel Committee, and he got to tell them a bit about it in his Nobel Lecture.

March 21-25, 1965

March from Selma to Montgomery

Because of violent opposition from the KKK and associates, federal protection had to be ordered for the marchers to safely make their way to Montgomery, Alabama, to support a campaign for voting rights.

August 6, 1965

Voting Rights Act of 1965

This Act made racial discrimination in voting illegal. States needed federal approval for any changes in their voting laws. Parts of the Act are currently in the process of being gutted because the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans no longer face the barriers to voting that made the Act necessary.

August 11-17, 1965

Watts Riots

Almost a week of riots, looting, vandalism, and arson in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles were seemingly sparked by the arrest of an African American man for driving while intoxicated. Really, though, it was the eruption of a long bubbling toxic brew of police racism, widespread unemployment, and housing discrimination.

April 4, 1967

MLK speaks out against Vietnam

Dr. King hadn't said much publicly about the war in Vietnam, but as a deeply religious pacifist, he decided to finally speak his mind on the subject.

April 3, 1968

MLK Mountaintop Speech

Dr. King's last speech was in support of the Memphis Sanitation Strike. At the end, he seemed to predict his own death, as he said he might not live to get to the mountaintop with the people hearing the speech.

April 4, 1968

MLK assassinated

Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee to support the striking Black Sanitary Workers' Union, and was hit with a sniper's bullet while standing on the second floor balcony of his motel. Race riots erupted across the country, although in Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy gave an inspired impromptu speech that is widely credited with keeping that city peaceful in the aftermath of King's murder. James Earl Ray confessed to the murder but later recanted. King's family ended up believing Ray was innocent. We'll never know—he died in 1998 and no trial was ever held.