Black History Timeline: 1960–1964

Martin Luther King Jr. leading march

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From 1960 to 1964, the civil rights movement is in full swing. Freedom Riders are beaten and arrested for protesting segregated transportation; the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech, takes place; and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law. Here are other important events in Black history that occur between 1960 and 1964.

Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee posing with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on stairs
Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee pose with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images


February: Four Black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College who come to be known as the Greensboro Four orchestrate a sit-in at the Woolworth Drug Store, protesting its policy of segregation. These students—David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil—begin their carefully planned protest on the first of February by sitting at the store's lunch counter, reserved for White patrons only, and staying there even after they are told they will not be served. Much to the boys' surprise, they are not arrested or attacked. They remain until the store closes and return the next day, this time with 25 supporters.

On February 6, there are hundreds of student protesters stopping service at Woolworth's. The protest gains more recognition and soon has the support of thousands of students, the Greensboro NAACP, and the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founded by students of Shaw University in Raleigh and led by Ella Baker. Students and activists around the country organize similar sit-ins to nonviolently advocate for change and although many participants are arrested for trespassing, many of these efforts are successful. Restaurants and lunch counters throughout the state slowly start integrating, including Woolworth's store in July. These protests become known collectively as the Greensboro Sit-Ins. The Greensboro Four return for a meal at the same counter at which they were refused service in February.

April 15: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is established at Shaw University by over 200 students of different races. After the success of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in and other protests like it led by mostly students, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) recognize the potential of student activists to combat discrimination. They organize a conference at Shaw University to meet with participants and coordinators for regional protests. The SNCC is formed and Baker resigns from her role at the SCLC to act as the committee's advisor. This committee differs from the SCLC and other prominent civil rights groups in that it does not appoint a single leader. The SCLC and SNCC are also ideologically dissimilar. At the encouragement of Baker, the SNCC adopts a model of grassroots organization and a manifesto that follows Mahatma Gandhi's philosophies for direct action nonviolent protest. The SNCC uses more radical and public tactics to protest for Black civil rights than other committees, helping to coordinate many successful, highly visible movements including the Freedom Rides in 1961.

May 6: President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1960 into law. The Act allows for federal inspection of local voter registration rolls and improves upon the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which failed to put in place permanent procedures and agencies for investigating voter discrimination (the Commission on Civil Rights was only supposed to be temporary) and enforcing policies against it. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 makes it easier to prove when Black voters are being discriminated against by requiring election officers to maintain voting-related documentation in the event that voting infringement needs to be investigated and assigns court-appointed referees to advocate for Black voters in these situations. This act also penalizes anyone found guilty of preventing another citizen from registering to vote or casting a ballot, criminalizing disenfranchisement attempts that included intimidation tactics, willful destruction of voting mechanisms, and other forms of physical and mental interference such as the enforcement of unjust application requirements.

August 25–September 11: Wilma Rudolph wins three gold medals in track and field, the first American woman to achieve this, and Muhammad Ali (still known as Cassius Clay) wins the gold medal in boxing at the Olympic Games in Rome. As the first televised Olympic Games, these history-making moments are widely covered in the media. The United States uses this opportunity to force an image of racial and gender equality even though the rights of women and Black people are jeopardized in America as racial segregation and discriminatory legislation against these demographics define the country in the 1960s.

Freedom Riders sit and stand outside of their bus as smoke comes out of the windows
Freedom Riders watch as their bus goes up in flames.

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January 9: The University of Georgia admits its first two Black students, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault. When they applied in 1959, their applications were denied without consideration and they went to different colleges. The NAACP got involved in fighting the unjust denial with a team of experts that included education committee representative Jesse Hill, strategist and lawyer Constance Baker Motley, and a handful of lawyers in Atlanta such as Horace T. Ward and Donald Hollowell. They got to work filing an injunction against the University of Georgia for its discriminatory application screening and a trial was held in December 1960. On January 6, 1961, District Judge William Bootle ruled that the students were qualified to join the University of Georgia and should be admitted immediately. Three days later, Holmes and Hunter-Gault enroll in classes. A riot breaks out and the two are promptly suspended, but Judge Bootle permitted them to return the next day.

January 31: Nine Black men from Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, South Carolina, protest segregation at the McCrory's Five and Dime lunch counter. As soon as they try to sit at the counter reserved for White patrons, they are arrested and convicted of disturbing the peace and trespassing. All nine men, who come to be known as the Friendship Nine, accept a 30-day jail sentence that requires them to perform hard labor instead of paying their bail in further protest of the legal system that discriminates against them and profits off of their resistance. This decision inspires other activists and marks the first time civil rights activists choose jail over bail. In 2015, all Friendship Nine convictions are overturned.

May 4–December 16: Eleven members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a group of Chicago-based students formed under the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1942 to support civil rights movements in the greater Chicago area, ride public buses from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana. These are called Freedom Rides and they are intended to end illegal segregation practices taking place in southern states, which defy legislation passed in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) and Morgan v. Virginia (1946) that makes segregation on interstate buses illegal. The riders, a mix of Black and White people, are prepared for the possibility of violence and arrests. When they make it to Rock Hill, South Carolina, two White men brutally assault John Lewis, one of the riders and an experienced nonviolent activist, when he tries to use a bathroom reserved for White people. In Anniston, Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan attacks the riders and sets fire to their bus without consequence. Many local authorities allow attacks against the Freedom Riders.

Freedom Rides continue and more and more people volunteer to participate. The NAACP, SNCC, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. support the demonstration, but King does not join the riders because he says he is on probation. Instead, he urges the federal government to protect the young protesters. After several weeks of protesting, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy orders troops to escort the buses in Montgomery, sending federal marshals as well when the state police fail to protect the bus. Hundreds of riders have been arrested and attacked by the time the Freedom Rides are called to an end in December after the Interstate Commerce Commission rules to enforce desegregation of interstate travel under orders from the federal government.

November 17: Various activist groups in Albany, Georgia, come together to protest segregation in the region. Among those involved are the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Federation of Women's Clubs. Inspired by sit-ins organized by the SNCC to protest segregation in Albany education and transportation facilities, Black members of the Albany community create a coalition to combat racial segregation in all forms throughout Albany. Specifically, the goal is to ensure that the city's establishments comply with anti-segregation directives on public transportation laid out by the Interstate Commerce Commission. This is called the Albany Movement, and doctor William G. Anderson is elected president. Over 500 protestors who participate in these boycotts, sit-ins, and other forms of nonviolent protest are arrested by orders of Albany Police chief Laurie Pritchett, who wants to bring an end to the movement by stopping it from receiving attention.

Controversially, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is asked to join the movement in December. He is promptly arrested for obstructing a sidewalk and parading without a permit, which allows Albany Movement leaders to negotiate: the city would enforce segregation bans if King left. Unfortunately, the city does not follow through on this promise after King leaves and the arrests continue. Pritchett is praised for preventing the movement from gaining any momentum.

James Meredith walking with two men beside him and a crowd of people behind him
James Meredith walks toward Ole Miss to register for classes flanked by a lawyer and member of law enforcement and trailed by a mob of angry protesters.

Buyenlarge / Getty Images


First Black Navy Commander: Samuel L. Gravely becomes the first Black commander of a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Falgout (DER-324), after serving seven years in the Navy. This is an operating destroyer escort charged with patrolling around Pearl Harbor. In 1971, Gravely becomes the first Black Vice Admiral, and in 1976, President Richard Nixon chooses him to take over the Third Fleet, making him the first Black commander of a fleet.

December 6: Syracuse University student Ernie Davis becomes the first Black athlete to win the institution’s Heisman Trophy. He is one of three Black players on the Syracuse team. Davis and his Black teammates are told they may not join their White teammates at the awards banquet, so the whole team refuses to attend in protest.

October 1: James Meredith becomes the first Black student to study at the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss. In January 1961, Meredith had applied to Ole Miss and, anticipating resistance from the school, reached out to both Medger Evers, who had himself attempted to integrate the University of Missippi in 1954, and Thurgood Marshall for support. Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP, and Marshall, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who later became a Supreme Court justice, launched legal battles against the school and the state of Mississippi when Meredith was rejected in May. By the time the case reached the Supreme Court on September 10, 1962, and the court ruled in favor of Meredith's admittance, it had been over a year and a half since he first applied. Outraged by this decision, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, a known segregationist, attempted to prevent Meredith's enrollment himself by ordering state troopers to physically block him. Word of Meredith's acceptance spread and talk of rioting broke out, prompting the NAACP to urge President John F. Kennedy to intervene. Kennedy ordered federal marshals to the scene. A mob of over 2,000 White citizens violently protested the school's integration, injuring hundreds of people and killing two. On September 30, Meredith was escorted to the University of Missippi to register for classes. On October 1, he attends his first classes.

Thousands of people crowded in front of the Washington Monument Reflecting Pool during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Thousands of protestors gather around the Washington Monument Reflecting Pool in support of equality and Black rights during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Kurt Severin / Getty Images


June 11: Governor George Wallace of Alabama defies federal district court orders when he stands in the way of two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, trying to enter the University of Alabama to enroll in classes. State troopers stand by his side and members of the press record the incident. Soon after, President Kennedy federalizes the state's National Guard to force the governor's compliance, and Malone and Hood become the first Black students to attend the school.

June 12: Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers is assassinated outside of his Mississippi residence, shot as he exits his car at the end of a workday. Byron de la Beckwith, a Ku Klux Klan member, is arrested. As a high-profile civil rights activist working for the NAACP, his death is widely broadcast on news outlets and he is publicly mourned. President Kennedy delivers a speech honoring the activist and over 3,000 people attend the funeral. Musicians including Bob Dylan and The Freedom Singers pay tribute to Evers as well. Beckwith receives two trials in 1964 by all-White juries; he is neither convicted nor acquitted and is released in 1964. In 1990, Beckwith is reindicted and is ultimately convicted of murder after his 1994 trial and sentenced to life in prison without bail. Another funeral is held for Evers.

August 28: More than 250,000 people participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom protesting for civil rights and equality for Black Americans. A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, has organized the demonstration, which takes place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Randolph plans the march because Black unemployment rates are high and many Black Americans are living with incomes below the federal poverty threshold or no incomes at all due to racially discriminatory employment practices. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, the SCLC, the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the SNCC, and many other organizations support the movement. Aside from protesting employment discrimination (specifically in the defense industry), calling for an end to segregation in public places, and demanding equal pay, the march is also designed to show public support for anti-discrimination legislation in the works at the White House, which ultimately becomes the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On the day of the march, Bayard Rustin coordinates the schedule and maintains order. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his historic "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial during this event, and Daisy Bates is the only woman to speak. Bates' speech—intended for Myrlie Evers—is entitled "Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom."

September 15: Ku Klux Klan members bomb the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—between the ages of 11 and 14 are killed and many more are injured. Two more Black children are killed in subsequent riots. Birmingham is the most segregated city in the country and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, located in the center of a large Black community, has been the meeting place for many civil rights demonstrations. The FBI immediately begins investigating the case and finds four suspects: Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Thomas Blanton. The investigation is hindered when witnesses refuse to disclose information and by the time it ends in 1968, no indictments or convictions have been made for the bombing. Rumors that J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's director, has withheld information from the investigation surface. Attorney General Bill Baxley reopens the case in 1971. Chambliss is sentenced to life in prison by 1977 and by 2002, both Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton have been convicted. The final suspect, Herman Cash, dies in 1994.

November 10: Malcolm X delivers his "Message to the Grassroots" speech in Detroit, Michigan, at a Northern Negro Grassroots Leadership Conference. In this speech, Malcolm X urges Black Americans to unite against a common enemy: White people who have enslaved and "colonized" them. He asks Black Americans to set aside their differences to come together and "do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country," implying that violence may be necessary. Malcolm X talks extensively of the need for a revolution, which he says is at the center of Black nationalism. He also criticizes the March on Washington for allowing White people to attend, which he claims defeats the purpose of a Black revolution.

December 1: Wendell Oliver Scott becomes the first Black driver to win a major NASCAR race, a race in the Sprint Cup Division. Scott also became NASCAR's first Black driver when he first raced in 1953 after years of attempting to join the association and being turned down because of the color of his skin. After his win, NASCAR officials do not credit him with the victory and tell him that he may not participate in the post-race Victory Circle to receive his award. Instead, they give his trophy to another racer, a White man named Buck Baker, and claim that a clerical error has occurred. Most news outlets do not cover the story and NASCAR neglects to publish an article in its newsletter. This treatment is not unusual for Scott, who is accustomed to being scrutinized for minor issues such as paint imperfections, being excluded from racing at select speedways, and being forced to service his own cars when mechanics refuse. He gets only a small trophy in the mail a few weeks afterward.

December 6: Marian Anderson and Ralph Bunche become the first Black Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President Kennedy awards them. Anderson is granted this honor for breaking down barriers for Black musicians and performers and for a career filled with outstanding performances, especially her historic Lincoln Memorial Concert in the nation's capital after she was barred from performing in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Bunche, also the first Black person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, receives this medal for his role in mediating and ending the Arab-Israeli Conflict in 1948 and for his lifelong dedication to civil rights.

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate Fannie Lou Hamer speaking
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) delegate Fannie Lou Hamer making a case for replacing the Democratic Party with the MFDP at the Democratic National Convention before the credential committee.

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First Black Player in a Ladies Professional Golf Association Tournament: Tennis champion Althea Gibson, who was also the first Black tennis player to win Wimbledon, becomes the first Black woman to compete in a Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tournament.

February 29: SNCC, led by Robert Moses, launches the Mississippi Summer Project. Also called Freedom Summer, this project is intended to combat the widespread disenfranchisement of Black voters in Mississippi by registering voters and educating them about their rights and on subjects such as civics and literacy. Through a series of local campaigns, SNCC hopes to break down discrimination in Mississippi, one of the most racially oppressive states in the nation. On June 14, roughly 1,000 volunteers begin training for the project in Oxford, Ohio, at Western College for Women. Most are White college students from the north who are economically privileged, which causes tension in Mississippi. Citizens and government officials, a list that includes Governor Paul B. Johnson, feel that these outsiders are violating their privacy and disrupting their way of life by coming into their state and campaigning for Black rights. Some media sources refer to the volunteers' arrival as the "invasion of Mississippi." Shortly after the volunteers arrive in Oxford to begin training, three go missing while on a short trip to Missippi. They are James Chaney, a Black man, and White men Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

April 13: Sidney Poitier wins an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the film, "Lilies of the Field." The achievement makes Poitier the first Black person to win an Oscar in the Best Actor category (before him, Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress in 1939). Portier has also starred in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," the first Broadway show written by a Black playwright. Portier, a Bahamian-American, has turned down many roles throughout his career that he said were racially offensive or otherwise in opposition to his moral beliefs. For this reason and for his talent, he is admired by many.

April 26: Members of Freedom Party movements and affiliates of the Council of Federated Organizations form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer becomes one of the party's key spokespeople. This party seeks to replace the racially discriminatory Democratic Party as the only delegation in the state of Mississippi and it appeals to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) for formal recognition. Dr. King and other activists show support for the MFDP, but Democratic President Lyndon Johnson wants the Democratic Party to remain. To appease both sides, he proposes giving two seats at the Democratic Convention to MFDP delegates as a solution in exchange for the MFDP dropping its appeal to the credential committee to replace the Democratic Party entirely. The MFDP rejects this offer.

October: Visual artist Romare Bearden completes his collage series “Projections.” This work depicts aspects of Black American life and history. Bearden often uses Harlem, New York, as a backdrop for his work. He has worked for a number of civil rights organizations and Black-owned publications, including the NAACP's The Crisis and The Baltimore Afro-American. Bearden's skin is very light and many frequently mistake him for a White man, but Bearden does not attempt to "pass" as White. Instead, he creates pieces that challenge viewers to see the nuances of racial identity. His use of Black subjects encourages racial pride and pushes the boundaries of modern art, making space for Black representation in artwork that depicts universal experiences.

February 25: In Miami, Muhammad Ali wins the first of three world heavyweight championships by unseating Sonny Liston. This fight is highly anticipated by fans of the sport and by Ali himself, who has campaigned to go up against the prolific Liston for many months. As a devout member of the Nation of Islam, Ali attributes his win to his faith in Allah. At this time, Ali is a highly active member of the Black nationalist group while former friend and mentor Malcolm X is affiliating less and less with the organization.

March 12: Malcolm X publicly disassociates himself with the Nation of Islam, stepping down as a minister, and establishes Muslim Mosque, Inc. in Harlem. This same year, he founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity in New York City.

June 21: Three civil rights workers involved with the Freedom Summer project—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—are abducted and killed in Mississippi by members of the KKK. They are in Philadelphia, Mississippi, investigating a hate crime against a local Black church, lured there by Klan members who resent Schwerner for his civil rights work. The Freedom Summer project continues even after their bodies are found buried in a dam. The FBI arrests 22 Klan members in 1967 and the Southern District of Mississippi indicts 19 for conspiring throughout 1964 to harm the three men. None are charged with murder. Finally, in 1967, a federal jury finds eight of these Klan members guilty in United States v. Price: Jimmy Arledge, Samuel Bowers, Horace Barnette, James Jordan, Billy Posey, Cecil Price, Alton Roberts, and Jimmy Snowden. They are each sentenced to 10 years or less in prison. Edgar Killen, a Klan member and Baptist minister, is implicated but not convicted at this time because the jury cannot agree on whether to convict a religious leader. However, in 2005, this crime again reaches the Supreme Court in Edgar Ray Killen v. State of Mississippi and Killen is convicted of triple manslaughter for his role in planning and orchestrating the murders.

June 2: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law. This legislation makes it illegal for people to discriminate against others because of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin when making hiring and firing decisions and requires all public places including schools to desegregate. This act also protects the rights of Black Americans to vote by outlawing racially discriminatory voter application processes.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1960–1964." ThoughtCo, Feb. 24, 2021, Lewis, Femi. (2021, February 24). Black History Timeline: 1960–1964. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1960–1964." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).