For most people, the 1960s civil rights movement began with the decision of the Supreme Court in 1954, which attempted to get rid of segregated education. Others see it as the period of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, the movement was made up of actions and activities conducted by both ad hoc local groups and established organizations.
During the Civil War, the Constitution was amended three times and it was enacted during that period. That era abolished slavery and gave African Americans legal and civil rights – at least in theory. Practically, African Americans continued to pass through brutal treatment by whites, especially in the south.
The Jim Crow laws practiced in the South made it illegal for blacks to vote, attend the same learning institutions as whites, eat in some restaurants, and live in some areas.
To this day, some parts of the U.S. don’t provide a lot of opportunities for Black Americans to succeed. These are considered to be the worst cities for blacks to live in.
Table of Contents
Beginning of the Movement
The first stirrings of the 1960s civil rights movement started after World War II when blacks threatened to march on Washington to ask for equal job rights.
During the war, several blacks served in the army with distinction, despite institutional segregation. Most of them were worried that they were fighting a war for freedom abroad while they had no freedom back home.
In 1948, President Harry Truman passed an executive order to end segregation in the military. This was important in setting in motion the 1960s civil rights movement. It began as a grassroots initiative and advanced in the 1950s to a full-fledged movement. This led to important legislation that gave better opportunities for blacks and produced some of the greatest civil rights activists in the U.S.
The 7 Most Influential Events of the Civil Rights Movement
1. October 19, 1960: Arrest of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King is the undisputed energizing force behind the 1960s civil rights movement.
On October 19, 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. joined a student sit-in at a restaurant that blacks were not permitted in. That restaurant was in a department store in Atlanta. The police came around and arrested him, alongside 51 others who were protesting on the claim that they were trespassing.
Since he had an Alabama license, a DeKalb County judge gave him a jail sentence of four months with hard labor for the crime of driving without a valid Georgia license when he was on probation.
During that time, presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, places a call Coretta, King’s wife, and encouraged her. The brother of the candidate, Robert Kennedy, also played a role by convincing the judge to release King on bail. These acts convinced most blacks to vote for John F. Kennedy.
2. May 4, 1961: Freedom Riders
Some very motivated activists came to be known as the Freedom Riders. They were 13 individuals (seven blacks and six whites). They boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington D.C. This was the beginning of one of the most influential, grassroots events of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The embarked on a bus tour of the southern part of America to protest bus terminals that were segregated.
They were acting upon the 1960 decision of the Supreme Court in Boynton v. Virginia that made it unconstitutional for interstate transportation facilities to be segregated.
The Freedom Riders attracted a lot of attention because they were violently attacked by white protesters and the police. On Mother’s Day of 1961, a mob mounted the bus and threw a bomb into it. Even though they escaped from the burning bus, they were badly beaten.
Several media houses circulated the pictures of the bus in flames and the group was unable to get another bus driver. Robert F. Kennedy, who was the U.S. Attorney General at that time negotiated with Governor of Alabama, John Patterson, and they got another driver for the group to resume their journey under police protection.
Upon getting to Montgomery, the officers left the group, and a white mob brutally attacked them. The Attorney General responded by sending federal marshals to Montgomery.
In the fall of 1961, the administration of Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue regulations that made it illegal to segregate in interstate transit terminals.
3. August 28, 1963: March on Washington
Most people believe that this is one of the most popular events that took place during the 1960s civil rights movement. The march on Washington was put together and attended by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph.
About 250,000 people of all races participated in the peaceful march on Washington, demanding civil rights legislation and establishing job equality for all races. It was during the closing address of the march that Martin Luther King gave his popular “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
That speech by King was full of phrases that would motivate and inspire multitudes of people fights for equality and freedom during the 1960s civil rights movement and long after.
4. July 2, 1964: Civil Rights Act
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This law prevented discrimination at offices due to sex, race, color, religion, or nationality.
Part of the Act prevented discrimination at the workplace. This law was a better version of what President Kennedy had proposed previously before he got assassinated in November 1963.
In the Act, the federal government is authorized to prevent racial discrimination in voting, employment, and public facilities. Even though it was controversial, the law was a win for the civil rights movement. A lot of civil rights activists, including King, were present during the signing of the Act.
5. March 7, 1965: Bloody Sunday
The 1960s civil rights movement took a violent turn on March 7, 1965, in Alabama. About 600 peaceful demonstrators took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the unjust murder of civil rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by a white policeman and to demand legislation to pass the 15th amendment.
When the protesters got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the governor, George C. Wallace, who was also an opponent of desegregation, sent the police to block them. The protesters refused to stand down and proceeded to march forward. They were met by violent beatings and teargas from the police and dozens of protesters were injured.
The whole incident was televised and called the “Bloody Sunday.” This angered some activists who attempted to retaliate with violence. However, King encouraged them to protest in a nonviolent manner and he eventually got federal protection to hold another march.
6. February 21, 1965: Assassination of Malcolm X
There were two tragic consequences of the 1960s civil rights movement for two of its prominent leaders in the late 1960s. Former Nation of Islam leader and Organization of Afro-American Unity founder, Malcolm X was assassinated while lecturing at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York, on February 21, 1965.
Malcolm X was an eloquent speaker who spoke out on the civil rights movement, asking it move beyond civil rights to human rights and argued that the solution to racial issues was in orthodox Islam. His ideas and sermons contributed to the creation of Black Nationalist ideology and the Black Power movement.
7. April 4, 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968, by a sniper while he was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King had stayed in the hotel after leading a nonviolent protest for striking sanitation workers in that city.
His assassination caused riots in various cities across the country, and it also led to Congress passing the Fair Housing Act to honor King on April 11. The law made it illegal for house owners, sellers, and financial institutions to refuse to rent, sell, or give financing for a property based on factors other than on the financial strength of an individual.
The 1960s civil rights movement produced some beneficial legislation. It heightened awareness to the plight of black Americans. Yet, inequality remains in many spheres of American society. Racial prejudice and white privilege are very much alive.