While the non-violent movement for civil rights started in the 1950s, it was during the early sixties that non-violent techniques began to pay off. Civil rights activists and students across the South challenged segregation, and the relatively new technology of television allowed Americans to witness the often brutal response to these protests.
By 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to push through the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. This timeline of the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement reveals just what an impressive number of historic events happened between 1960 and 1964.
On February 1, four young African-American men, students at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College, go to a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sit down at a whites-only lunch counter. They order coffee. Despite being denied service, they sit silently and politely at the lunch counter until closing time. Their action marks the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, which sparks similar protests all over the South.
On April 15, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee holds its first meeting.
On July 25, the downtown Greensboro Woolworth desegregates its lunch counter after six months of sit-ins.
On Oct. 19, Martin Luther King, Jr., joins a student sit-in at a whites-only restaurant inside of an Atlanta department store, Rich's. He is arrested along with 51 other protesters on the charge of trespassing. On probation for driving without a valid Georgia license (he had an Alabama license), a Dekalb County judge sentences MLK to four months in prison doing hard labor. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy phones King's wife, Coretta, to offer encouragement while his brother, Robert Kennedy, convinces the judge to release King on bail. This phone call convinces many African-Americans to support the Democratic ticket.
On December 5, the Supreme Court hands down a 7-2 decision in the Boynton v. Virginia case, ruling that segregation on vehicles traveling between states is unlawful because it violates the Interstate Commerce Act.
On May 4, the Freedom Riders, composed of seven African-American and six white activists, leave Washington, D.C. for the rigidly segregated Deep South. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), their goal is to test Boynton v. Virginia.
On May 14, Freedom Riders, now traveling in two separate groups, are attacked outside Anniston, Alabama and in Birmingham, Alabama. A mob throws a firebomb onto the bus that the group outside Anniston is riding. Members of the Ku Klux Klan attack the second group in Birmingham after making an arrangement with the local police to allow them 15 minutes alone with the bus.
On May 15, the Birmingham group of Freedom Riders is prepared to continue their trip down south, but no bus will agree to take them. They fly to New Orleans instead.
On May 17, a new group of young activists join two of the original Freedom Riders to complete the trip. They are placed under arrest in Montgomery, Alabama.
On May 29, President Kennedy announces that he has ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to enact stricter regulations and fines for buses and facilities that refuse to integrate. Young white and black activists continue to make Freedom Rides.
In November, civil rights activists participate in a series of protests, marches and meetings in Albany, Georgia, that come to be known as the Albany Movement.
In December, King comes to Albany and joins the protesters, staying in Albany for another nine months.
On August 10, King announces that he is leaving Albany. The Albany Movement is generally considered a failure in terms of effecting change, but what King learns in Albany allows him to be successful in Birmingham, Alabama.
On September 10, the Supreme Court rules that the University of Mississippi must admit African-American student and veteran James Meredith.
On September 26, the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, orders state troopers to prevent Meredith from entering Ole Miss's campus.
Between September 30 and October 1, riots erupt at over Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi or "Ole Miss."
On October 1, Meredith becomes the first African-American student at Ole Miss after President Kennedy orders U.S. marshals to Mississippi to ensure his safety.
King, SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organize a series of demonstrations and protests to challenge segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
On April 12, Birmingham police arrest King for demonstrating without a city permit.
On April 16, King writes his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in which he responds to eight white Alabama ministers who urged him to end the protests and be patient with the judicial process of overturning segregation.
On June 11, President Kennedy delivers a speech on civil rights from the Oval Office, specifically explaining why he sent the National Guard to allow the admittance of two African-American students to the University of Alabama.
On June 12, Byron De La Beckwith assassinates Medgar Evers, the first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi.
On August 18, James Meredith graduates from Ole Miss.
On August 28, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is held in D.C. Around 250,000 people participate, and King delivers his legendary "I have a dream" speech.
On September 15, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed. Four young girls are killed.
On November 22, Kennedy is assassinated, but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, uses the nation's anger to push through civil rights legislation in Kennedy's memory.
On March 12, Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam. Among his reasons for the break is Elijah Muhammad's ban on protesting for Nation of Islam adherents.
Between June and August, SNCC organizes a voter registration drive in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer.
On June 21, three Freedom Summer workers--Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman--disappear.
On August 4, the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman are found in a dam. All three had been shot, and the African-American activist, Chaney, had also been badly beaten.
On June 24, Malcolm founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity along with John Henrik Clarke. Its aim is to unite all Americans of African descent against discrimination.
On July 2, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination in employment and in public places.
In July and August, riots break out in Harlem and Rochester, New York.
On August 27, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDM), organized to challenge the traditional state democratic party that had excluded African Americans, sends a delegation to the national Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They ask to represent Mississippi at the convention. Offered two seats at the convention in turn, the MFDM delegates reject the proposal.
On December 10, the Nobel Foundation awards MLK the Nobel Peace Prize.
1963: The defining year of the civil rights movement
Fifty years on, we look back at the year that signalled the beginning of the modern era
by Gary Younge
6 May 2013
On 28 August, in the shadow of Lincoln's monument, Martin Luther King announced to the March on Washington during his famous "I have a dream" speech that "1963 is not an end, but a beginning". For legal segregation, it would turn out to be the beginning of the end. The year started with Alabama governor George Wallace standing on the steps of the state capitol in hickory-striped trousers and a cutaway coat declaring: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever." The civil rights leadership was ambivalent about the suggestion of a national march and President John F Kennedy was focused on foreign affairs. Within a few months Alabama would become internationally renowned as policemen turned dogs and high-pressure water hoses on children as young as six in Birmingham. Civil rights leaders were running to catch up with the militancy of their grassroots activists and the Democratic House majority leader told Kennedy: "[Civil rights] is overwhelming the whole programme".
This phase of civil rights activism did not start in 1963. Far from it. Until that point there had, of course, been many fearless acts by anti-racist protesters. On 1 February 1960, 17-year-old Franklin McCain and three black friends went to the whites-only counter at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, and took a seat. "We wanted to go beyond what our parents had done. The worst thing that could happen was that the Ku Klux Klan could kill us … but I had no concern for my personal safety. The day I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration," he told me.
But in 1963 the number who were prepared to commit such resistance reached a critical mass. "In three difficult years," wrote the late academic Manning Marable in Malcolm X, "the southern struggle had grown from a modest group of black students demonstrating at one lunch-counter to the largest mass movement for racial reform and civil rights in the 20th century".
The pace and trajectory of these changes were global. Two days after McCain's protest, British prime minister Harold Macmillan addressed the South African parliament in Cape Town with an ominous warning: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent," he said. "Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact." As the decade wore on, that wind became a gale. In the three years between Macmillan's and King's speeches, Togo, Mali, Senegal, Zaire, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika and Jamaica all became independent. "The new sense of dignity and self-respect on the part of the Negro," King argued in a 1960 essay, The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness, was due in part to "the awareness that his struggle is a part of a worldwide struggle".
Civil rights protestors are attacked with a water cannon. Photograph: Getty Images
In the US in May, events in Birmingham were transformative. The New York Times published more stories about civil rights in those two weeks than it had in the previous two years. Televised scenes of children campaigning against rigid segregation, being bitten by Alsatians and knocked off their feet by water fired with enough power to rip bark off a tree caused international outrage. Before, only 4% of Americans thought civil rights was the country's most pressing issue; afterwards it was 52%. According to the Justice Department, in the 10 weeks before King's "I have a dream" speech there were 758 demonstrations in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests. "Birmingham became the moment of truth," argued Bayard Rustin, who organised the March on Washington. "Birmingham meant that tokenism is finished. The Negro masses are no longer prepared to wait for anybody … They are going to move. Nothing can stop them."
The march for jobs and freedom in Washington, which had aroused precious little interest just months before, now became the order of the day. It was a bold initiative. At the time marches in the capital were rare and this one was not particularly popular. A Gallup poll just a few weeks before the march revealed that 71% of Americans knew about it and of those only 23% were favourable while 42% were unfavourable, 18% thought it wouldn't accomplish anything and 7% thought it would end in violence. Kennedy, who was trying to get civil rights legislation through Congress, tried to talk them out of it. "We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the capitol," he said. Union organiser A Philip Randolph, who had called the march, told him: "The Negroes are already in the streets. It is very likely impossible to get them off."
Still, the march drew 250,000 people, roughly a quarter of whom were white and was deemed a great success by many. King's speech – which received no mention in the Washington Post the following day – would eventually become its most celebrated articulation of the period. "That day for a moment it almost seemed that we stood on a height," wrote James Baldwin in No Name in the Street. "And could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not for ever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."
It did not take long for the realities of southern bigotry to deflate the mood. "There was no way we could have known then that that afternoon would represent the peak of such feelings, that the hope and optimism contained in King's words would dwindle in the coming years," wrote Congressman John Lewis; "that in a matter of mere days after he stepped down from that stage a bomb blast in Birmingham would kill four little girls and usher in a season of darkness for the movement and for me."
• Gary Younge's The Speech, The story behind Martin Luther King's Dream Speech, will be published in August
1963: the defining year of the civil rights movement