Black History from 1950–1959

Black lawyer Thurgood Marshall sitting with Little Rock Nine students on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building
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From the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to the murder of Emmitt Till and the dawn of the civil rights movement, these are the pivotal historical events in Black history that occur between 1950 and 1959.

Ralph Bunche sitting at his desk and writing
U.N. diplomat, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche works at his desk in his U.N. office.

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Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Ralph Bunche: Dr. Ralph Bunche wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his ability to mediate the Arab-Israeli war in the Middle East from 1947 to 1949. As assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, Bunche was responsible first for assisting UN appointee Count Folke Bernadotte in mediation and then for assuming the role of mediator himself when Bernadotte was assassinated in 1948. Years of conflict taking place in Palestine came to a head in 1947 when the UN passed a partition agreement that apportioned British-occupied Palestine into a separate Arab and Jewish state, and a civil war broke out in 1948 when Israel declared its independence and Arab nations invaded former Palestine. Bunche was able to successfully navigate this situation and get both sides to sign armistice agreements after months of negotiations, and he becomes the first Black Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1950. Bunche continues to serve as UN undersecretary for Special Political Affairs from 1955 to 1967.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Gwendolyn Brooks: Gwendolyn Brooks receives the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She is the first Black person to receive this distinction and also the first woman to serve as a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. Brooks' poetry about Black culture and life is praised not only for its artistic excellence but also for its authenticity and it is often regarded as valuable social commentary.

The work for which Brooks receives the Pulitzer Prize, "Annie Allen, follows the life of a young Black woman growing up poor in the 1940s, when Jim Crow laws are still in effect, in urban Chicago. This poetry collection tackles everything from racism and discrimination Black Americans face every day to gender equality and the additional tribulations Black women face in society. Other titles by Brooks include "Maud Martha," "The Bean Eaters," and "In the Mecca," and she publishes more than 17 collections in her lifetime. From "The Bean Eaters" comes one of her most notable works, "We Real Cool." This poem about teenage rebellion is widely taught and critiqued in schools.

Breaking the NBA Color Barrier: Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel Clifton, and Earl Lloyd become the first Black Americans to play in the National Basketball Association. Cooper is the first Black player recruited to an NBA team, the Boston Celtics; Clifton is the first Black player to sign a contract with an NBA team, the New York Knicks; and Lloyd joins the Washington Capitols for a game on October 31, 1950, and becomes the first Black player to play for the NBA. Together, the three break the NBA's color barrier. As of 2020, the NBA is comprised of 83.1% players of color, most of them Black. In the association, there are 10 coaches of color and 32% of team managers are Black. Michael Jordan is the sole Black majority owner of an NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets, but there are a handful of Black partial owners like Kevin Hart, Will Smith, and Magic Johnson.

April 9: Juanita Hall becomes the first Black person to win a Tony Award for her portrayal of Bloody Mary in the 1949 play "South Pacific." Her award is for Best Supporting Actress. She performs this role, portraying not a Black woman but a Pacific Islander, over 1,900 times.

John Harold Johnson sits at his desk with a copy of Ebony and Ebony Jr. in front of him
Founder of Johnson Publishing Company John Harold Johnson sits at his desk in his Chicago office.

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July 11: An estimated 4,000 White people riot in Cicero, Chicago, when news of the community's first Black family—Harvey Jr. and Johnetta Clark and their two children—moving into an apartment in the neighborhood spreads. During their first attempt to move in, the Clarks are stopped not only by angry White civilians but by police officers who demand a warrant, beat Harvey Clark Jr., and threaten to arrest him if they do not leave. The NAACP helps the Clarks obtain an order from Federal Judge John P. Barnes, which grants them permission to move in and police protection when doing so. The family moves in on July 10 as a crowd harasses them from across the road and they flee immediately after getting all of their belongings into their apartment. Overnight, a riot starts when members of the hostile crowd throw rocks into the Clarks' apartment. A mob of thousands of people forms. They destroy the Clarks' apartment and steal their possessions through the night without police intervention.

Finally, by the night of July 12, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson calls the state’s national guard to subdue the rioters, who are now destroying the whole building. Only 60 police officers arrive to help. The mob hurls bricks and stones at firefighters that arrive on the scene. This race riot lasts for several days and results in the complete destruction of the Clark family's apartment and their belongings, as well as many apartments rented by other residents of the building. The NAACP files a suit against the police involved, who are indicted and fined.

November 1: Johnson Publishing Company prints its first issue of Jet. John Harold Johnson, founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, began his publishing corporation with a small Black periodical that closely resembles the style of the popular Reader's Digest in 1942. Jet covers a broad range of topics in Black news in an accessible style and format similar to Quick. At four inches by six inches and later five inches by eight inches, Jet is smaller than most magazines and this presents an advertising challenge. Advertisers do not want to change the format of their ads to accommodate a single magazine, and their reasons for not purchasing ad space with Jet might also be race-based.

The Johnson Publishing Company also publishes a successful Black periodical called Ebony, which resembles Life. Ben Burns, the executive editor of Ebony, is the Jet managing editor as well. When Jet is forced to halt publication in 1953 due to lack of capital, Johnson uses profits from Ebony to bring the small news magazine back. Johnson believes in the importance of this fledgling publication's cause—to spread awareness about events that affect Black lives in a way that is easily understood by the majority of readers—and gives this publication more attention than his others. When Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, is murdered after being wrongfully accused of attacking a White woman, Jet covers this story. A few years after it is founded, Jet's large readership buoys it to long-term success and it becomes one of the biggest Black magazines in the world.

December 25: Florida NAACP official Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriett are killed by a bomb. This is the first assassination of a civil rights leader in United States history. Moore has fought for Black rights in Florida for several years, calling attention to police brutality against Black Americans, systemic injustices in education, and lynchings. He is a well-known advocate for Black voter rights and works tirelessly to register Black voters, and he is an active member of the NAACP and establishes the organization's first state branch in Florida. Moore is also involved in the Groveland Four case, the 1949 case of four young Black men who are wrongfully accused of rape, and campaigns for their pardon. Later, when two of the boys are murdered by Sheriff Willis V. McCall, Moore demands that McCall be suspended and convicted of murder, but the Supreme Court does not agree to hear the case.

On the evening of December 25, a bomb placed under the Moores' house explodes and fatally wounds Moore and his wife. They both die within the week. The FBI, directed by J. Edgar Hoover, investigates the assassination, but no one is ever convicted of the murder. Some believe McCall is behind the assassination but the Ku Klux Klan is also suspected. During its investigation, the FBI uncovers details of many crimes committed by the Klan in Orange County but does not have jurisdiction over these and cannot bring the criminals to justice.

Author Ralph Ellison sits in front of a bookcase
Author of "The Invisible Man," the 1953 National Book Award Winner, Ralph Ellison.

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Lynchings Decline: For the first time in more than 70 years, the Tuskegee Institute finds that there are no lynchings reported in the United States. Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 people are lynched, the majority of them Black. Lynchings spiked in frequency but have declined in frequency leading up to 1952 due to the efforts of civil rights activists, speeches made by President Theodore Roosevelt condemning the practice, and accomplishments by the NAACP and other organizations fighting for equality. Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955, is just one key figure who is credited for this—White has implemented strategies that have made the organization more effective at lobbying for legislation to protect Black Americans and has personally investigated more than 40 lynchings.

Invisible Man: Writer Ralph Ellison publishes "Invisible Man." This novel follows a Black narrator as he grows up in the south before the Civil War, attends and is expelled from a Black college, and experiences various emotional traumas including grief. Because his identity as a Black person is constantly suppressed, the narrator feels that he is invisible. Throughout the novel, readers take in the effects of racial prejudice on Black Americans through a story that is as much social commentary as it is fiction. Ellison cites George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and O. O. McIntyre as influences that spurred his interest in writing and he draws on many personal experiences to write the narrator for his acclaimed novel. "Invisible Man" receives the National Book Award in Fiction from the National Book Foundation in 1953, making Ellison the first Black author granted this honor. Other works by Wells include "Shadow and Act," a collection of essays about Black culture and race relations, and "Juneteenth," a book about the nuances of Black identity, published in 1999 posthumously by his executor, John Callahan.

Mary Church Terrell (middle) sits at table with Ella P. Stewart (right)
Mary Church Terrell plans for the 1952 National Association of Colored Women convention with the organization's president, Ella P. Stewart.

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April 30: Racial segregation in Washington D.C. public places is declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. This historic victory is the result of three years of legal battles and protests that began in 1950, launched by a Black woman's experience with discrimination. Mary Church Terrell, a teacher and civil rights activist, is denied service at a local store because the store's owner has decided not to serve persons of color any longer.

Determined to end restaurant segregation in D.C., Terrell and other activists and allies form the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D. C. Anti-Discrimination Laws (CCEAD). This committee's primary goal is to hold D.C. establishments accountable for abiding by laws passed in the early 1870s requiring public dining places to serve any and all "respectable" and "well-behaved" patrons, under penalty of a $100 fine and a one-year suspension of their license. The CCEAD works closely with the Assistant Corporation Counsel of the District Commissioners to prove that widespread segregation is taking place and that the 1870s laws are still, in fact, in effect (some opponents of desegregation claim that they are null, including Judge John Meyers of the Municipal Court). Terrell and three others provide proof of wrongful discrimination when the Black members of their group are denied service at a restaurant owned by John Thomas, who is prosecuted, on February 28, 1950. A large-scale survey then takes place to further illustrate the magnitude of the discrimination in Washington, D.C.: 99 restaurants are studied and 63 of these deny service to Black participants. After three years of negotiations and peaceful protest tactics, Supreme Court Chief Justice William O. Douglas finally rules in favor of desegregating establishments in the District of Columbia, maintaining that the anti-discrimination laws passed in 1872 and 1873 are still in effect.

May 18: James Baldwin publishes his first novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain." This semi-autobiographical book follows a young Black boy named John Grimes as he faces daily discrimination and hardship in Harlem and learns what it means to be Black in America, covering both the country's history of racism and elements of Black pride and culture. The book's spiritual focal point, anchored by the protagonist's devoutly religious stepfather, contributes to Grimes' struggle to find himself, particularly when grappling with morality and sin. Gender and sexuality are also prominent themes. This book is one of many works Baldwin publishes throughout his life. Others include Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name, both collections of essays that also attempt to define America's racial divide in a number of ways and comment on the "condition" of being Black in a profoundly racist country.

June 19-25: Black residents of Baton Rouge boycott the city’s segregated transportation system. During this time, Black Americans are the bus system's primary riders—around 80% of those that regularly use buses are Black and the routes often go through mostly Black neighborhoods—yet they are required to sit at the back of the bus and stand when the section designated for Black people is full, which occurs more often than not. Reverend T. J. Jemison watches Black riders being forced to stand and goes to the Baton Rouge City Council to propose a new system: Black riders would be able to seat themselves starting from the back of the bus and working toward the front while White riders would do the opposite until all the spaces were filled. Mayor Jesse Webb approves this resolution, Ordinance 222, on March 11, 1953. This ordinance is met with backlash from White bus drivers who refuse to comply and go on strike for four days, prompting Fred LeBlanc, Louisiana's Attorney General, to declare the ordinance unconstitutional for not explicitly stating that buses would still be segregated (as segregation is required by state law).

In response, on June 19, Reverend Jemison and other activists in the community encourage Black Americans in the area to stop riding city buses entirely and instead use a fleet of free transportation vehicles arranged just for this purpose. Meetings organized to spread the word about the boycott draw thousands of attendees. The public transportation system suffers greatly, losing more than $1,500 per day while the boycott is in effect. On June 24, the bus company and city agree to Ordinance 251, a measure that gives Black riders the right to occupy any bus seat except for those in the first two rows, which are reserved for White riders, and Jemison calls for an end to the boycott and the free-ride system on June 25. Participants in the boycott are mostly satisfied, but many are still frustrated that the buses are segregated. This is the first of many bus boycotts throughout the south and is said to be the first successful civil rights bus boycott in history.

October 18: Willie Thrower joins the Chicago Bears and becomes the first Black quarterback in the National Football League (NFL). There is an unofficial ban on Black players that takes effect in 1932 and there are no Black players in the NFL from 1933 to 1946. In 1946, the NFL announces its decision to integrate as per the terms of its new lease at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Chicago Bears, coached by George Halas, pick up Thrower to fill in temporarily for George Blanda. He plays in one more game this season before the Bears cut him from the team. Thrower's recruitment to a skill position is significant because even though the NFL is now officially integrated, most teams still recruit only White players to skill positions, effectively keeping the race ban in place. Thrower retires from football and becomes a youth social worker. A statue is erected in his honor at his alma mater, Valley High School, and he is inducted into the Westmoreland County Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.

Monroe School, a national historic site of Brown v. Board of Education
Monroe School, now a national historic site of Brown v. Board of Education, is the all-Black school Linda Brown attended.

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First Black Air Force General: Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. is the first Black person to be appointed as an Air Force general after serving in World War II and the Korean War. Davis begins training at the U.S. Military Academy West Point branch in 1932, then joins the Air Force, the Black 24th Infantry Regiment in Georgia, in 1936 after graduating and attempting to join the Army Air Corps and being turned away because he is Black. He is transferred to Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1938 and becomes a captain by 1940. From there, Davis is soon recruited to the Army Air Corps' first all-Black fighter squadron, the 99th. The 99th leaves in 1943 on orders to fly a combat campaign over North Africa during World War II, traveling throughout Europe and Africa on similar assignments. The squadron flies dozens of successful missions, downing over 100 enemy planes. This same year, Davis becomes the commander of the 332nd Fighter Squadron back in Tuskegee and speaks on why Black pilots should be allowed to continue flying in combat at a conference at the Pentagon. Davis finally transfers to the Air Force in 1947, helping to desegregate the service, and graduates from the Air War College in 1950. In 1954, he is promoted to brigadier general, making him the first Black American to hold this position. In 1959, he becomes the first Black American to reach major general status. The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado celebrates Davis by naming its airfield Davis Airfield after him in 2019.

Malcolm X Appointed Minister: Malcolm X becomes Minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 7 in New York City. Malcolm X preaches Black nationalist beliefs and becomes a civil rights icon in New York. The temple is burned down after a bombing following his assassination in 1965 and rebuilt as a Sunni Muslim mosque called the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque, or Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, after both Malcolm X and his wife, Betty Shabazz.

May 17: The U.S. Supreme Court declares segregation in public schools unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education case, ruling that such practices violate the 14th Amendment rights of Black Americans; specifically, rights granted by the "equal protection of the law" clause. Leading up to this ruling, a Black minister named Oliver Brown takes the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education to court after his daughter, Linda, is declined admission to The Sumner Elementary School of Topeka, an all-White school. She attends Monroe Elementary School, an all-Black school Brown believes to be physically and academically inferior to Sumner. This landmark case comes 62 years after a Black man named Homer Plessy is arrested for refusing to give up his seat on a train to a White person, convicted of violating a Louisiana Jim Crow law passed in 1890 that requires Black and White passengers to sit in separate train cars. In the resulting 1896 court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court passes down a ruling that the 14th Amendment is intended to "enforce the equality of the two races before the law," not to "endorse social equality." With this, the "separate but equal" doctrine that defines the justice system for the next several decades is introduced.

Brown v. Board of Education discusses the constitutionality of segregation in public schools sanctioned by the prevailing "separate but equal" doctrine, and the court comes to the unanimous decision that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." However, the Supreme Court does not take any immediate action to hand down a plan for desegregating. Then, on May 31, 1955, a year after the case is resolved, the dourt rules that all public schools must proceed with desegregating immediately. Some states resist violently, including Arkansas, the site of the Little Rock Nine desegregation effort in 1957. Other Supreme Court cases that made Brown v. Board of Education possible include Murray v. Maryland in 1936 and Sweat v. Painter in 1950.

Crowd of people and cars gathered in the street outside of Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ
Thousands of Black Americans show support for Mamie Till outside of Emmett Till's funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago.

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January 7: Marian Anderson is the first Black woman to perform a lead singing role with the Metropolitan Opera, also called the Met. Before being cast in this role as Ulrica in "Un Ballo in Maschera," Anderson performs as a solo concert artist. She joins the New York Philharmonic on stage for the first big performance of her career in 1925, famously sings for more than 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution do not let her perform at Constitution Hall, and sings recitals at the Met throughout the 1940s (without yet being a part of the company). Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has by now recruited several Black artists to various positions within the Met, including ballerina Janet Collins. Despite the fact that Paul Cravath, the president of the Metropolitan Opera Association and an NAACP lawyer, pushes to hire Black artists for years, the Met is one of the last major performing venues and institutions to do so. Anderson, by now famous around the world for her unique voice, breaks the Met's color barrier with a performance for which she receives a standing ovation. Twenty days after her performance, singer Bobby McFerrin becomes the first Black man to perform a solo at the Met.

May 21: Rock 'n roll artist Chuck Berry records the hit song "Maybellene" with Chess Records. This rock and roll song blends styles from popular genres in "Black" music like blues and jazz with styles from popular genres in "White" music like country and western. "Maybellene" uses a rhythm similar to that of "Ida Red," a Western song by Bob Willis. Berry's debut single is an instant hit and Berry becomes the first Black rock musician to successfully outsell their own music over cover versions performed by White artists. However, Berry, aware that he is a Black man performing a tour for audiences of different races, feels pressured to conceal aspects of his identity. In an effort to avoid conflict and appeal to White listeners, Berry speaks "whiter" during interviews, leading many listeners to believe that he is White. As the song rises in popularity, Russ Fratto of Chess Records and DJ Alan Freed—both White men involved in Berry's career in small ways—add their names to his song, resulting in a lawsuit that doesn't return full credit to Berry for 30 years.

August 28: Two White men kill 14-year-old Emmett Till while he visits family in Money, Missouri. Till is shopping at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market when he encounters a White woman named Carolyn Bryant. After whistling at her and perhaps making a joke, he is accused of harassing her. A few days later on August 28, Bryant's husband Roy and his brother J.W. Milam kidnap Till. Till's cousins Simeon Wright and Wheeler Parker witness this. Believing that Till attacked or attempted to rape Carolyn Bryant, Bryant's husband and Milam beat and murder Till, throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River where it is discovered by a fisher. News of what happened breaks and Bryant and Milam are tried for murder and acquitted. Till's mother, Mamie Till, decides to have an open-casket funeral for her son, despite insistence from law enforcement and the funeral director that she keep it closed, to send a message about racial injustice and to properly grieve. She wants the crime made as public as possible. Thousands of people attend Till's funeral in Chicago.

Till's murder is widely covered in the media, especially by the popular Black-owned Jet, which publishes an image of Till from his funeral. However, not all publications frame this event as the racially charged murder it is and some fault Till for what happened. Some reports suggest that Till committed suicide when he "offended" Carolyn Bryant. Others defend Till as the victim of a hate crime and demand justice. Many young Black Americans begin participating in civil rights causes in response to this event. According to Timothy B. Tyson, historian and author of "The Blood of Emmett Till," Bryant confesses that she doesn't remember exactly what happened the day she accused Till of grabbing her and trying to rape her, but that neither of those claims was true and that she had been lying all those years. She concludes by saying, "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."

December 1: Rosa Parks is arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery Bus to a White patron. She is released on bail this same day but her arrest quickly gains traction in the growing civil rights movement. She is not the only Black person to stand up to segregation policies on transportation. Earlier this year in March, a 15-year-old Black girl named Claudette Colvin does the same, refusing to relinquish her seat to a White passenger on the grounds that it is her constitutional right to sit where she wants as a paying customer. She is arrested and escorted off the bus in handcuffs by police officers, then taken to an adult jail until she is bailed out by her pastor, Reverend H. H. Johnson.

December 5: In response to Rosa Parks' arrest, the Women's Political Council, formed in 1949 to mobilize Black women to participate in civil rights activism by Mary Fair Burks, calls for a boycott of the public buses for one day. Word spreads throughout the Black community in Montgomery. Wanting to expand the effort into a larger campaign, a group of Black ministers and civil rights activists form the Montgomery Improvement Association and elect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as president and L. Roy Bennett as vice president. This organization leads a year-long boycott against Montgomery’s segregated transportation system, inspired by the Baton Rouge boycott in June 1953. The association arranges for carpools and hosts weekly meetings to update on progress and fundraise. This comes to be known as the Montgomery bus boycott, and it begins on December 5, 1955, and ends on December 20, 1956. During the boycott, Dr. King is tried and convicted for violating Alabama anti-boycott legislation.

December 27: Frankie Muse Freeman becomes the first Black woman to win a major civil rights case after serving as the lead attorney for the NAACP in the Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority trial. The ruling ends racial discrimination in public housing in St. Louis, declaring these practices unconstitutional. This class-action lawsuit, filed in 1953, investigates the St. Louis Housing Authority for claims that it is denying housing to qualified Black applicants. The court finds that racial discrimination is taking place against Black applicants and Federal Judge George Moore rules that the Housing Authority must desegregate its facilities and cease its racially discriminatory approval policies. Freeman becomes the first woman to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when President Lyndon Johnson appoints her in 1964. Freeman is inducted into the National Bar Association's Hall of Fame in 1990 and she receives the 2011 NAACP Spingarn Medal.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside of courthouse smiling while surrounded by crowd of supporters
Hundreds of supporters greet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he stands outside of a courthouse after his conviction in State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr., No. 7399, when he is found guilty of violating anti-boycott legislation during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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May 18: Harry Belafonte’s album "Calypso" is released. This becomes the first record by a solo artist to sell more than 1 million copies. This accomplishment is significant because the song's success signals a degree of acceptance of Black music—specifically in the case of "Calypso," Caribbean and Black folk music. Belafonte becomes known as the "King of Calypso," but he classifies his music as being globally influenced rather than specific to the Caribbean. After the song's release, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. enlists Belafonte's help in spreading the word about the Montgomery bus boycott. With his fame, Belefonte takes every opportunity to bring light to civil rights efforts and racism in America, refusing to use his success as a Black artist to pretend the state of race relations is more favorable to Black Americans than it is. Black Americans and civil rights protesters embrace "Calypso." In Alabama in 1961, Freedom Riders protesting segregated transportation adopt the tune of "Calypso" but change the lyrics and sing "Freedom's Coming and It Won't Be Long" in their jail cells.

June 5: The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) is established in Birmingham by local Black activists five days after the NAACP is banned in Alabama by Attorney General John Patterson. Sardis Baptist Church is the site of the first meeting, which draws a crowd of about 1,000 participants. Fred Shuttlesworth, a local reverend, is appointed president. The ACMHR drafts a declaration vowing to continue fighting for Black rights and for the "removal from our society any forms of Second Class Citizenship." This group helps organize boycotts and sit-ins against segregation and discrimination, including the historic sit-in in Greensboro, Alabama, to protest segregated lunch counters in 1960 and the Freedom Rides in 1961 that sees activists protest segregation on public transportation.

November 5: Nat King Cole becomes the first Black person to host a primetime show on national television when "The Nat King Cole Show" airs on NBC. He hosts famous Black artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, and Pearl Bailey. As a Black television production, the show struggles to pull in large sponsorships because national corporations do not want Black people to sell their products; particularly, Black people who do not embody the offensive stereotypes White viewers enjoy. Sixty-four episodes and one year later, Cole ultimately decides to end production due to a lack of funding.

December 20: The Montgomery bus boycott ends. On June 5, 1956, the Supreme Court rules the Alabama state statute requiring segregation on public transportation unconstitutional in Browder v. Gayle. Dr. King waits for an official call to end segregation on public buses, which comes on December 20 when the Court orders buses to desegregate immediately.

President of the National Council of Negro Women Dorothy Height speaking into a microphone
President of the National Council of Negro Women Dorothy Height speaks at the First National Women's Speak Out seminar.

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Dorothy Height Appointed President of NCNW: Dorothy Irene Height is elected president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). She holds this position for 40 years before stepping down. Throughout her career, she serves on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and the President's Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped, among many other committees. She is the only woman to work closely with prominent civil rights activists collectively known as the "Big Six": Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, and James Farmer. She helps to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and is partially responsible for convincing the organizing committee to let a woman, who is originally going to be Myrlie Evers but ends up being Daisy Bates, speak at the event.

For her dedication to civil rights, Height receives many accolades. She is awarded the Citizens Medal Award for distinguished service in 1989 from President Ronald Reagan, the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, and over 20 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities. She is inducted into both the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Democracy Hall of Fame International in 2004.

January 10: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is established in Atlanta to unify activism campaigns across southern states. With the conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 and the rise of the civil rights movement that follows, community leaders see a need for organization and strategy in the protests and assemblies taking place nationally. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration is formed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is appointed president. The SCLC strives to make civil rights efforts more effective by joining churches and religious organizations into a cohesive group fighting against racism and injustice. The SCLC champions nonviolent protest tactics that come to define many successful civil rights movements, including the Crusade for Citizenship in 1957 that empowers Black Americans to vote and registers thousands of qualified voters. This organization also helps arrange the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the demonstration that features Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights joins the SCLC in 1957.

February 5: Perry H. Young Jr. becomes the first Black pilot of a commercial passenger airline when he flies a helicopter for New York Airways. This accomplishment comes nearly two decades after Young begins taking flying lessons. In 1940, he successfully completes the Civilian Pilot Training Program sponsored by the federal government and accepts a position teaching pilots in training at the Coffey School of Aeronautics. He instructs students of the 99th squadron, an all-Black fighting squadron that includes Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. in Europe. When he returns to America, segregation prevents him from obtaining a job despite the success of his 99th squadron students and his extensive experience flying. He finds work in Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean before New York Airways hires him as a copilot for the Sikorsky S-58s, a new line of passenger helicopters, at the prompting of the New York and State Commission against Discrimination. He is quickly promoted to captain. Hiring discrimination in the aviation industry persists, but Young inspires many other Black Americans to start flying.

July 7: Althea Gibson becomes the singles Wimbledon champion and also the first Black woman named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. She receives this title again in 1958 when she wins both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. She is the first Black tennis player in the U.S. Open in 1950 and in 1951, she is the first Black person to ever play in a Wimbledon tournament. Gibson retires from tennis in 1958. Despite her success, she is paid very little for playing the sport and has an income below the poverty threshold for much of her life.

September 9: Congress establishes the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This is the first legislative act protecting the rights of Black people since the Reconstruction period. This act establishes the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department, which serves to protect minority groups from voter discrimination. Under this act, federal prosecutors are now able to get court injunctions against those who interfere with Black citizens' right to vote. The bipartisan Federal Civil Rights Commission is also established to examine charges of discrimination and conditions preventing Black voters from casting their ballots. The original version of this act, presented on June 18, 1957, by Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. with the encouragement of the NAACP, passes on a majority vote in the House but only passes in the Senate after many clauses explicitly prohibiting different forms of disenfranchisement are removed.

September 23: President Dwight Eisenhower signs Executive Order 10730 to mandate that National Guard troops enforce the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The troops are instructed to quell the angry mob protesting the school's desegregation and to protect the nine Black students who are joining the school. These troops were previously under state control and on orders by Governor Orval Faubus, a segregationist, to prevent the Black students from entering. Eisenhower sends over 1,000 soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division to assist the National Guard.

The Little Rock Nine students are Minniejean Brown-Trickey, Ernest Green, Carlotta Walls, Elizabeth Eckford, Melba Patillo, Terrence Roberts, Thelma Mothershed, Gloria Ray, and Jefferson Thomas. Members of the NAACP including Daisy Bates, president of the organization's Arkansas chapter, see to it that the students are prepared for the discrimination they will face and as safe as possible. On September 25, three years after Brown v. Board of Education rules segregation in schools unconstitutional, the Little Rock Nine students successfully enter Central High School and attend their first classes.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers perform with their arms spread
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers perform Revelations.

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Louis E. Lomax Joins WNTA-TV: Louis E. Lomax is hired by WNTA-TV in New York City as a television journalist and documentary producer. Lomax is the first Black newscaster for a major network station. A year after he is hired, he works with CBS News' Mike Wallace to produce a documentary series about Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X. Malcolm X only agrees to be interviewed by a Black journalist. This documentary is called "The Hate That Hate Produced." After interviewing Malcolm X and giving the world one of its first glimpses into the workings of the Nation of Islam, which many White people know little to nothing about beforehand, Lomax becomes famous for his investigative reporting, especially on topics within Black civil rights. He gets his own interview show, "The Louis E. Lomax Show," on KTTV in 1964 and goes on to cover the NAACP, the Black Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and more. He shares opinions that are at times controversial and he is investigated by the FBI after trying to find out who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

March 30: A group of Black dancers led by dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey performs for the first time as a group in New York City at the YM-YWHA on 92nd Street, calling itself the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. The group then embarks on a global tour across 48 states and 71 countries. Ailey choreographs "Revelations" in 1960, a performance that encapsulates Black heritage using pillars of Black culture such as spirituals and gospels and representations of oppression including enslavement to show the resilience of Black Americans. This work launches the group into even greater fame. Again in 1962, the company goes on a global tour, this time as the first Black group to perform for President John F. Kennedy's "President's Special International Program for Cultural Presentations," a diplomatic foreign policy initiative by the Kennedy administration to promote an image of cultural appreciation in the U.S. As a highly visible group composed of Black dancers and later dancers of other racial identities, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater becomes an emblem for cultural pride and diversity in art.

Miles Davis plays trumpet into a microphone
Jazz musician Miles Davis, known for his groundbreaking album Kind of Blue, performs a concert in Germany in 1959.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images


January 12: Berry Gordy Jr. forms Motown Records, originally called Tamla Records, in Detroit. This marks the birth of Motown, a genre often performed by Black musicians that combines blues, rhythm, and soul stylings. Motown Records is the first Black-owned record label. Gordy signs many talented Black local artists who go on to become successful musicians, including Smokey Robinson of the Miracles, Diana Ross of The Supremes, and Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations. While the label is initially popular with primarily Black audiences, White listeners take notice of the talent Motown produces with hits such as "My Guy" by Mary Wells, "My Girl" by The Temptations, and "You Can't Hurry Love" by The Supremes.

March 11: "A Raisin in the Sun," a play written by Lorraine Hansberry, opens on Broadway. This play is the first Broadway show to be produced by a Black woman and Lloyd Richards, a Black man, directed it. It is set in Chicago in the 1950s and features a Black family living below the poverty threshold trying desperately to overcome the challenges presented to them by segregation and racial discrimination, specifically to better their financial situation. The family argues over how to spend a life insurance check after the father's passing, deciding to use some of it to purchase a house in a White neighborhood. Members of this community try to keep the family from moving in, which creates tension throughout the play. Hansberry draws on her own experiences growing up to write her play, a social drama representing an authentically Black American experience as it has never been represented before on stage. This play attracts large Black audiences and wide critical acclaim. It is adapted into a movie in 1961.

April 22: Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis finishes recording "Kind of Blue" for Columbia RecordsThis work is considered Davis' masterpiece and it becomes the best-selling jazz album in history. His music ushers in a new era of jazz in which musicians improvise based on scales rather than chords, allowing for greater variation and more melodic interpretations. "Kind of Blue" becomes the standard of modern or modal jazz.

April 24: Three days before he is scheduled to stand trial for raping a pregnant White woman, June Walters, Mack Charles Parker is beaten by a mob of angry White people in his jail cell in Pearl River Jail. They then take him by force out of his cell and lynch him near Poplarville, Mississippi, throwing his chained body into the Pearl River. Two months earlier on February 23, Parker is arrested after Walters picks him out of a lineup. It is unknown whether Parker is actually responsible for the crime, as there is little evidence against him. None of his murderers are arrested or indicted.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "Black History from 1950–1959." ThoughtCo, Oct. 8, 2021, Lewis, Femi. (2021, October 8). Black History from 1950–1959. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Black History from 1950–1959." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).