Pre-Civil Rights Movement (17th-1954)

1619 A Dutch ship brings 20 African indentured servants to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia.
1775 George Washington changes a previous policy and allows free blacks to enlist in the Continental Army. Approximately 5,000 do so. The British governor of Virginia promises freedom to slaves who enlist with the British. 
1787 The U.S. Constitution is ratified. It provides for the continuation of the slave trade for another 20 years and required states to aid slaveholders in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It also stipulates that a slave counts as three-fifths of a man for purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives.
*1791 On August 22, 1791, slaves in the northern region of the French colony known as Saint-Domingue staged a revolt that began the Haitian Revolution. Slaves burnt the plantations where they had been forced to work, and killed masters, overseers and other whites.
1793 Congress passes the first Fugitive Slave Act, which makes it a crime to harbor an escaped slave.
1807 Congress bans the importation of slaves into the U.S. The law will be largely ignored in the South.
*1831-1861 Approximately 75,000 slaves escape to the North and freedom using the Underground Railroad, a system in which free African American and white "conductors," abolitionists, and sympathizers guide, help, and shelter the escapees. 
*1831 “Year of Eclipse”.  Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Virginia. Fifty-seven whites are killed, but Turner is eventually captured and executed.
*1833 On 23 August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act outlawed slavery in the British colonies. On 1 August 1834, all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but still indentured to their former owners in an apprenticeship system which was finally abolished in 1838. $20 million was paid in compensation to plantation owners in the Caribbean.
1839 Slaves being transported aboard the Spanish ship Amistad take it over and sail it to Long Island. They eventually win their freedom in a Supreme Court case.
1850 Congress passes another Fugitive Slave Act, which mandates government support for the capture of escaped slaves, and spurs widespread protest in the North.
1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is an immediate bestseller and helps turn public opinion against the Fugitive Slave Act and slavery itself.
1857 In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court decides that African Americans are not citizens of the U.S., and that Congress has no power to restrict slavery in any federal territory. This meant that a slave who made it to a free state would still be considered a slave. 
1861-1865 The Civil War begins when the Confederates attack Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina. The war, fought over the issue of slavery, will rage for another four years. The Union's victory will mean the end of slavery in the U.S.
1863 President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation legally frees all slaves in the Confederacy.

The Union's 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American regular army regiment, assaults Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina, losing half its men. The event is memorialized in the 1989 movie Glory. By the war's end, nearly 180,000 African American men will have served in the Union army. Some also served in the Confederate army - both freedmen and conscripted slaves.
*1865 Civil War ends. Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery, and establishes the Freedmen's Bureau to assist former slaves. This is the beginning of the Reconstruction era. 

All-white legislatures in the former Confederate states pass the so-called "Black Codes," sharply curtailing African Americans' freedom and virtually re-enslaving them.

The white supremacist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan is founded in Tennessee.

1868 The 14th amendment conferring citizenship ratified.
1875 Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1875, prohibiting racial discrimination in public spaces, but the act is rarely enforced and was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court ruling in 1883.
*1896 In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregated, or "separate but equal," public facilities for whites and black African-Americans are legal. The ruling stands until 1954.
*1909 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by a group of African American and white activists, including W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois is the only one of the seven African American activists to serve on the NAACP board.
*1910-1920 The Great Migration of southern African Americans to northern industrial towns gets underway. Millions of African Americans will have migrated North by the 1960s.
1931 Nine African American youths are accused of raping two white women, and tried for their lives and quickly convicted in Scottsboro, Alabama. The "Scottsboro Boys" case attracts national attention and will help fuel the civil rights movement.
1932 The U.S. government begins a 40-year study in Tuskegee, Ala., on the effects of syphilis in 400 African American men, never telling the subjects they have the disease or offering any treatment. President Bill Clinton will apologize in 1997. 
1941 The first training program for African American pilots is established at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The Tuskegee Airmen serve heroically in World War II.
1948 President Truman issues an executive order that desegregates the military.
1952 Racial, ethnic barriers to naturalization removed by Immigration and Naturalization Act.
1954 U.S. Supreme Court declares school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling.

Civil rights movement (1955-1965)

1955 *Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, triggering a successful, year-long African American boycott of the bus system. 
1957   The first time since Reconstruction, the federal government uses the military to uphold African Americans' civil rights, as soldiers escort nine African American students to desegregate a school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Daisy Bates, a NAACP leader, advised and assisted the students and eventually had a state holiday dedicated to her.
1960 *Four African American college students hold a sit-in to integrate a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., launching a wave of similar protests across the South.
1961 The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) begins to organize Freedom Rides throughout the South to try to de-segregate interstate public bus travel.

James Meredith becomes the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Violence and riots surrounding the incident cause President Kennedy to send 5,000 federal troops.

*African American radical Malcolm X becomes national minister of the Nation of Islam. He rejects the nonviolent civil-rights movement and integration, and becomes a champion of African American separatism and black pride. At one point he states that equal rights should be secured "by any means necessary," a position he later revises.

1963 Civil rights leader Medgar Evers is killed by a sniper's bullet.

* More than 200,000 people march on Washington, D.C., in the largest civil rights demonstration ever; Martin Luther King, Jr., gives his "I Have a Dream" speech.

*Four African American girls are killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.


Congress passes Civil Rights Act declaring discrimination based on race illegal after 75-day long filibuster.

*The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), CORE and the NAACP and other civil-rights groups organize a massive African American voter registration drive in Mississippi known as "Freedom Summer." Three CORE civil rights workers are murdered. In the five years following Freedom Summer, black voter registration in Mississippi will rise from a mere 7 percent to 67 percent.

*Congress passes Civil Rights Act of 1964 declaring discrimination based on race illegal after 75-day long filibuster. 


King organizes a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for African American voting rights. A shocked nation watches on television as police club and teargas protesters.

Malcolm X assassinated.

Riot in Watts, Los Angeles.

New voting rights act signed. 

Aftermath (1966-present)


*Militant Black Panthers are founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

*Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, calls for "black power" in a speech, ushering in a more militant civil rights stance.


Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African American justice on the Supreme Court

Edward W. Brooke becomes the first African American U.S. Senator since Reconstruction. He serves two terms as a Republican from Massachusetts.


Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His murder sparks a week of rioting across the country. James Earl Ray later convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Title VIII, also known as the Fair Housing Act.

*1971 The Supreme Court, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, upholds busing as a legitimate means for achieving integration of public schools. Although largely unwelcome (and sometimes violently opposed) in local school districts, court-ordered busing plans in cities such as Charlotte, Boston, and Denver continue until the late 1990s.
1986 Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is made into a national holiday.
1988 Congress passes Civil Rights Restoration Act over President Reagan's veto.
1990 President Bush vetoes a civil rights bill he says would impose quotas for employers; weaker bill passes muster in 1991.
1992 Rioting in Los Angeles follows the acquittal of four white policemen caught on videotape beating African American motorist Rodney King.
1996 Amid growing racial tension in the South, nearly 40 primarily African American churches are burned there.
*2003 In the most important affirmative action decision since the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court (5–4) upholds the University of Michigan Law School's policy, ruling that race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when selecting their students because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
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