The Black Struggle for Freedom

The Major Events and Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement in America

The history of black civil rights is the story of America's caste system. It is the story of how for centuries upper-class whites made African Americans into a slave class, easily identifiable because of their dark skin, and then reaped the benefits—sometimes using law, sometimes using religion, sometimes using violence to keep this system in place.

But the Black Freedom Struggle is also a story of how enslaved people were able to rise up and work together with political allies to overthrow a ridiculously unfair system that had been in place for centuries and driven by an entrenched core belief. 

This article provides an overview of the people, events, and movements that contributed to the Black Freedom Struggle, starting in the 1600s and continuing to this day. If you want more information, use the timeline on the left to explore some of these topics in greater detail. 

Slave Revolts, Abolition, and the Underground Railroad

Frederick Gooddall's "Song of the Nubian Slave" (1863)
This 19th-century painting depicts an Egyptian slave imported from Sub-Saharan Africa. Between the 8th and 19th centuries, colonial powers all over the world imported untold millions of slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa. Frederick Gooddall, "Song of the Nubian Slave" (1863). Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.

"[Slavery] involved redefining African humanity to the world..."—Maulana Karenga

By the time European explorers began to colonize the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, African slavery had already been accepted as a fact of life. Leading the settlement of the two huge continents of the New World—which already had a Native population—required an immense labor force, and the cheaper the better: the Europeans chose slavery and indentured servitude to build that labor force.

The First African American

When a Moroccan slave named Estevanico arrived in Florida as part of a group of Spanish explorers in 1528, he became both the first known African American and the first American Muslim. Estevanico functioned as a guide and translator, and his unique skills gave him a social status that very few slaves ever had the opportunity to attain.

Other conquistadors relied on both enslaved American Indians and imported African slaves to labor in their mines and on their plantations throughout the Americas. Unlike Estevanico, these slaves generally labored in anonymity, often under extremely harsh conditions.

Slavery in the British Colonies

In Great Britain, poor whites who could not afford to pay their debts were swept up into a system of indentured servitude that resembled slavery in most respects. Sometimes the servants could purchase their own freedom by working off their debts, sometimes not, but in either case, they were the property of their masters until their status changed. Initially, this was the model used in the British colonies with white and African slaves alike. The first twenty African American slaves to arrive in Virginia in 1619 had all had earned their freedom by 1651, just as white indentured servants would have.

Over time, however, colonial landowners grew greedy and realized the economic benefits of chattel slavery—the full, irrevocable ownership of other people. In 1661, Virginia officially legalized chattel slavery, and in 1662, Virginia established that children born to a slave would also be slaves for life. Soon, the Southern economy would rely primarily on African American slave labor.

Slavery in the United States

The rigor and suffering of the enslaved life as it is described in various slave narratives varied considerably depending on whether one worked as a house slave or a plantation slave, and whether one lived in plantation states (such as Mississippi and South Carolina) or more industrialized states (such as Maryland). 

The Fugitive Slave Act and Dred Scott

Under the terms of the Constitution, the importation of slaves ended in 1808. This created a lucrative domestic slave-trading industry organized around slave-breeding, the sale of children, and the occasional kidnapping of free blacks. When slaves escaped from this system, however, Southern slave traders and slaveowners were not always able to count on Northern law enforcement to assist them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was written to address this loophole.

In 1846, an enslaved man in Missouri named Dred Scott sued for his and his family's freedom as people who had been free citizens in the Illinois and Wisconsin territories. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that no-one descended from Africans could be citizens entitled to the protections offered under the Bill of Rights. The ruling had a chilling effect, cementing race-based chattel slavery as a policy more clearly than any other ruling ever had, a policy which remained in place until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

The Abolition of Slavery

Abolitionist forces were invigorated by the Dred Scott decision in the north, and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act grew. In December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States. Although conventional wisdom states that the American Civil War began due to complex issues involving states' rights rather than slavery, South Carolina's own declaration of secession reads "[T]he constituted compact [respecting the return of fugitive slaves] has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States." The South Carolina legislature decreed, "and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation [to remain a part of the United States]."

The American Civil War claimed well over a million lives and shattered the Southern economy. Although U.S. leaders were initially reluctant to propose that slavery be abolished in the South, President Abraham Lincoln finally acquiesced in January 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all Southern slaves but did not affect slaves living in the non-Confederate states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia. The 13th Amendment, which permanently ended the institution of chattel slavery throughout the country, followed in December 1865.

Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era (1866–1920)

Ex-Slave Henry Robinson (1937)
Photograph of ex-slave Henry Robinson, taken in 1937. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1865, the caste system that held it in place has only gradually dissipated. To this day, blacks are three times as likely as whites to live in poverty. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the U.S. Works Progress Administration.

"I had crossed the line. I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land."—Harriet Tubman

From Slavery to Freedom

When the United States abolished chattel slavery in 1865, it created the potential for a new economic reality for millions of African American slaves and their former masters. For some (especially elderly slaves), the situation did not change at all—the newly freed citizens continued to work for those who had been their masters during the slavery era. Most of those who did escape slavery found themselves without security, resources, connections, job prospects, and (sometimes) basic civil rights. But others adapted immediately to their newfound freedom—and thrived.

Lynchings and the White Supremacist Movement

However, some whites, upset by the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy, created new posses and organizations—such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League—to maintain whites' privileged social status, and to violently punish African Americans who did not fully submit to the old social order.

During the Reconstruction period after the war, several Southern states immediately took measures to see to it that African Americans were still subject to their employers. Their former masters could still have them jailed for disobedience, arrested if they tried to escape, and so forth. Newly freed slaves also faced other drastic civil rights violations. Laws creating segregation and otherwise limiting the rights of African Americans soon became known as "Jim Crow laws."

The 14th Amendment and Jim Crow

The federal government responded to the Jim Crow laws with the Fourteenth Amendment, which would have banned all forms of prejudicial discrimination if the Supreme Court had actually enforced it.

However, in the midst of these discriminatory laws, practices, and traditions, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently refused to protect the rights of African Americans. In 1883, it even struck down the federal Civil Rights of 1875—which, if enforced, would have ended Jim Crow 89 years early.

For a half-century after the American Civil War, Jim Crow laws ruled the American South—but they would not rule forever. Beginning with a crucial Supreme Court ruling, ​Guinn v. ​the United States (1915), the Supreme Court began to chip away at segregation laws.

The Early 20th Century

marshallwithhouston.gif
Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston in 1935. Maryland State Archives

"We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom."—Mary Bethune

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 and almost immediately became the United States' leading civil rights activist organization. Early victories in Guinn v. the United States (1915), an Oklahoma voting rights case, and Buchanan v. Warley (1917), a Kentucky neighborhood segregation case, chipped away at Jim Crow.

But it was the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as head of the NAACP legal team and the decision to focus primarily on school desegregation cases that would give the NAACP its greatest victories.

Antilynching Legislation

Between 1920 and 1940, the U.S. House of Representatives passed three pieces of legislation to fight lynching. Each time the legislation went to the Senate, it fell victim to a 40-vote filibuster, led by white supremacist Southern senators. In 2005, 80 members of the Senate sponsored and easily passed a resolution apologizing for its role in blocking antilynching laws—though some senators, most notably Mississippi senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, refused to support the resolution.

In 1931, nine black teenagers had an altercation with a group of white teenagers on an Alabama train. The State of Alabama pressured two teenage girls into fabricating rape charges, and the inevitable death penalty convictions resulted in more retrials and reversals than any case in U.S. history. The Scottsboro convictions also hold the distinction of being the only convictions in history to have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court twice.

The Truman Civil Rights Agenda

When President Harry Truman ran for reelection in 1948, he courageously ran on an openly pro-civil rights platform. A segregationist senator named Strom Thurmond (R-SC) mounted a third-party candidacy, pulling support from Southern Democrats who were perceived as essential to Truman's success.

The success of Republican challenger Thomas Dewey was regarded as a foregone conclusion by most observers (prompting the infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline), but Truman ultimately prevailed in a surprising landslide victory. Among Truman's first acts after reelection was Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the U.S. Armed Services.

The Southern Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks in 1988. Getty Images / Angel Franco

"We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."—Martin Luther King Jr.​

The Brown v. Board of Education decision was arguably the most important piece of legislation in the United States in the long slow process to reverse the "separate but equal" policy laid down in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In the Brown decision, the Supreme Court said that the 14th Amendment applied to the public school system.

During the early 1950s, the NAACP brought class action lawsuits against school districts in several states, seeking court orders to allow black children to attend white schools. One of those was in Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of Oliver Brown, a parent of a child in the Topeka school district. The case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1954, with the chief counsel for the plaintiffs future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The Supreme Court did an in-depth study of the damage done to children by separate facilities and found that the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, was being violated. After months of deliberation, on May 17, 1954, the Court unanimously found for the plaintiffs and overturned the separate but equal doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson.

The Murder of Emmett Till

In August 1955, Emmett Till was 14 years old, a bright, charming African American from Chicago who attempted to flirt with a 21-year-old white woman, whose family owned the Bryant grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Seven days later, the woman's husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother John W. Milan dragged Till from his bed, abducted, tortured, and killed him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett's mother had his badly beaten body brought back to Chicago where it was laid in an open casket: a photograph of his body was published in Jet magazine on Sept. 15.

Bryant and Milam were tried in Mississippi beginning on Sept. 19; the jury took one hour to deliberate and acquitted the men. Protest rallies took place in major cities around the country and in January 1956, Look magazine published an interview with the two men in which they admitted they had murdered Till.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

In December 1955, 42-year-old seamstress Rosa Parks was riding in the front seat of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama when a group of white men got on and demanded that she and three other African Americans seated in her row give up their seats. The others stood and made room, and although the men only needed one seat, the bus driver demanded that she also stand, because at the time a white person in the South would not sit in the same row with a black person.

Parks refused to get up; the bus driver said he would have her arrested, and she replied: "You may do that." She was arrested and released on bail that night. On the day of her trial, Dec. 5, a one-day boycott of the buses took place in Montgomery. Her trial lasted 30 minutes; she was found guilty and fined $10 and an additional $4 for court costs.  The bus boycott—African Americans simply did not ride the buses in Montgomery—was so successful that it lasted 381 days. The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended on the day the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation laws were unconstitutional.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The beginnings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference started with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. The leaders of the MIA and other black groups met in January 1957 to form a regional organization. The SCLC continues to play a vital role in the civil rights movement today.

School Integration (1957 - 1953) 

Handing down the Brown ruling was one thing; enforcing it was another. After Brown, segregated schools all over the South were required to become integrated "with all deliberate speed." Although the school board in Little Rock, Arkansas, had agreed to comply, the board established the "Blossom Plan," in which children would be integrated over a period of six years beginning with the youngest. The NAACP had nine black high school students enrolled in Central High School and on Sept. 25, 1957, those nine teenagers were escorted by federal troops for their first day of classes.

Peaceful Sit-In at Woolworth's

In February 1960, four college students went into the Woolworth's five-and-dime store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat at the lunch counter, and ordered coffee. Although the waitresses ignored them, they stayed until closing time. A few days later, they returned with 300 others and in July of that year, the Woolworth's officially desegregated.

Sit-ins were a successful tool of the NAACP, introduced by Martin Luther King Jr., who studied Mahatma Gandhi: well-dressed, polite people went to segregated places and broke the rules, submitting to arrest peacefully when it happened. Black protesters staged sit-ins at churches, libraries, and beaches, among other places. The civil rights movement was driven by many of these small acts of courage.

James Meredith at Ole Miss

The first black student to attend the University of Mississippi at Oxford (known as Ole Miss) after the Brown decision was James Meredith. Beginning in 1961 and inspired by the Brown decision, future civil rights activist Meredith began applying to the University of Mississippi. He was twice denied admission and filed suit in 1961. The Fifth Circuit Court found that he had the right to be admitted, and the Supreme Court supported that ruling.

The governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, and the legislature passed a law denying admission to anyone who had been convicted of a felony; then they accused and convicted Meredith of "false voter registration." Eventually, Robert F. Kennedy convinced Barnett to let Meredith enroll. Five hundred U.S. marshals went with Meredith, but riots broke out. Nevertheless, on Oct. 1, 1962, Meredith became the first African American student to enroll at Ole Miss.

The Freedom Rides

The Freedom Ride movement began with racially-mixed activists traveling together in buses and trains to come to Washington, D.C. to protest at a mass demonstration. In the court case known as Boynton v. Virginia, the Supreme Court said that segregation on interstate bus and rail lines in the South was unconstitutional. That didn't stop the segregation, however, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) decided to test this by putting seven blacks and six whites on buses.

One of these pioneers was future congressman John Lewis, a seminary student. Despite waves of violence, a few hundred activists confronted Southern governments—and won.

The Assassination of Medgar Evers

In 1963, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP was murdered, shot in front of his home and his children. Medgar Evers was an activist who had investigated the murder of Emmett Till and assisted organizing the boycotts of gas stations that would not allow African Americans to use their restrooms.

The man who killed him was known: it was Byron De La Beckwith, who was found not guilty in the first court case but was convicted in a retrial in 1994. Beckwith died in prison in 2001.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The astonishing power of the American civil rights movement was made visible on Aug. 25, 1963, when more than 250,000 demonstrators went to the largest public protest in American history in Washington, D.C. Speakers included Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Whitney Young of the Urban League, and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. There, King delivered his inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech.

Civil Rights Laws

In 1964, a group of activists traveled to Mississippi to register black citizens to vote. Blacks had been cut off from voting since Reconstruction, by a network of voter registration and other repressive laws. Known as the Freedom Summer, the movement to register blacks to vote was organized in part by activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a founding member and vice president of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in public accommodations and with it the Jim Crow era. Five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his intention to push through a civil rights bill.

Using his personal power in Washington to get the needed votes, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law in July of that year. The bill prohibited racial discrimination in public and outlawed discrimination in places of employment, creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Voting Rights Act

The Civil Rights Act did not end the civil rights movement, of course, and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was designed to end discrimination against black Americans. In increasingly stringent and desperate acts, Southern legislators had put in place extensive "literacy tests" that were used to discourage prospective black voters from registering. The Voting Rights Act put a stop to them.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis in support a strike of 1,300 black sanitation workers who were protesting a long stretch of grievances. On April 4, the leader of the American civil rights movement was murdered, shot by a sniper on the afternoon after King gave his last speech at Memphis, a stirring oration in which he said that he had "been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land" of equal rights under the law.

King's ideology of nonviolent protest, in which sit-ins, marches, and disruption of unfair laws by polite, well-dressed persons, was a key to overturning the South's repressive laws.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968

The last major Civil Rights Act was known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Including the Fair Housing Act as Title VIII, the act was intended as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it explicitly prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex.

Politics and Race in the Late 20th Century

Ronald Reagan Accepts the 1980 Republican Party Presidential Nomination
Reagan announced his presidential candidacy at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, where he spoke in favor of "states' rights" and against the "distorted ... balance" created by federal law, a reference to desegregation laws like the Civil Rights Act. Ronald Reagan at the 1980 Republican National Convention. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

"I've finally figured out what 'with all deliberate speed' means. It means 'slow.'"—Thurgood Marshall

Busing and White Flight

Large-scale school integration mandated the busing of students in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), as active integration plans were put into effect within school districts. But in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that busing could not be used to cross district lines—giving Southern suburbs a massive population boost. White parents who could not afford public schools, but wanted their children to socialize only with others of their race and caste, could simply move across the district line to avoid desegregation.

The effects of Milliken are still felt today: 70 percent of African American public school students are educated in predominantly black schools.

Civil Rights Law From Johnson to Bush

Under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created to investigate claims of job discrimination, and affirmative action initiatives began to be widely implemented. But when President Reagan announced his 1980 candidacy in Neshoba County, Mississippi, he vowed to fight federal encroachment on states' rights—an obvious euphemism, in that context, for the Civil Rights Acts.

True to his word, President Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, which required government contractors to address racial employment disparities in their hiring practices; Congress overrode his veto with a two-thirds majority. His successor, President George Bush, would struggle with, but ultimately choose to sign, the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots

March 2 was a night like many others in 1991 Los Angeles, as police severely beat a black motorist. What made March 2 special was that a man named George Holliday happened to be standing nearby with a new video-camera, and soon the entire country would become aware of the reality of police brutality.

Resisting Racism in Policing and the Justice System

NAACP Rally Outside Supreme Court - December 4, 2006
Protesters rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court building during oral arguments on two major school desegregation cases on December 4, 2006. The black civil rights movement has changed in recent decades, but it remains strong, energized, and relevant. Photo: Copyright © 2006 Daniella Zalcman. Used by permission.

"The American dream is not dead. It is gasping for breath, but it is not dead."—Barbara Jordan

Black Americans are statistically three times as likely to live in poverty as white Americans, statistically more likely to end up in prison, and statistically less likely to graduate from high school and college. But institutional racism like this is hardly new; every long-term form of legally mandated racism in the history of the world has resulted in social stratification that outlived the original laws and motives that created it.

Affirmative action programs have been controversial since their inception, and they remain so. But most of what people find objectionable about affirmative action isn't central to the concept; the "no quotas" argument against affirmative action is still being used to challenge a series of initiatives that don't necessarily involve mandatory quotas.

Race and the Criminal Justice System

In his book "Taking Liberties," Human Rights Watch co-founder and former ACLU executive director Aryeh Neier described the criminal justice system's treatment of low-income black Americans as the single greatest civil liberties concern in our country today. The United States currently imprisons over 2.2 million people—about one-quarter of Earth's prison population. Approximately one million of these 2.2 million prisoners are African American.

Low-income African Americans are targeted at every step of the criminal justice process. They are subject to racial profiling by officers, increasing the odds that they will be arrested; they are given inadequate counsel, increasing the odds that they will be convicted; having fewer assets to tie them to the community, they are more likely to be denied bond; and then they are sentenced more harshly by judges. Black defendants convicted of drug-related offenses, on average, serve 50 percent more time in prison than whites convicted of the same offenses. In America, justice isn't blind; it isn't even color-blind.

Civil Rights Activism in the 21st Century

Activists have made incredible progress over the past 150 years, but institutional racism is still one of the strongest social forces in America today. If you'd like to join the battle, here are some organizations to look into: