January 11th, 1960
Georgia Governor Threatens to Withhold Funds From Integrated Schools
After the United States Supreme Court struck down public school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, many Southern states rushed to implement new laws to circumvent the ruling. In 1955 and 1956, the Georgia legislature passed a series of laws that prevented any integrated school system in the state from receiving or spending state funds.
Ernest Vandiver, Jr., a staunch opponent of integration, was elected Governor of Georgia in 1958. Maintaining segregation within the school system was so core to his candidacy that his election motto was "No, not one," referring to the number of black children that should be allowed to attend schools alongside white children.
During the Vandiver administration, a federal court in Calhoun v. Latimer found that the Atlanta school system remained unlawfully segregated and ordered the school district to integrate. Vandiver defied the court order and continued Georgia's policy of school segregation, stating that he would comply with existing state law and withhold funds from the offending school district rather than see segregation end.
February 9th, 1960
The Little Rock Nine
In September 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock's Central High School by barring nine newly admitted black students from entering the school building. In order to compel the school's integration, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and ordered troops to escort the students into the school. That group of black students came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, and fourteen-year-old Carlotta Walls was the youngest among them.
Carlotta Walls later described the integration experience as "painful" and recalled that Central High's white students fell into three groups: those who tormented her and the other black students; those who sympathized with them; and those who silently ignored the way they were treated.
Young Carlotta remained at Central throughout her high school years. On February 9, 1960, four weeks before graduation, a bomb exploded at her home. Carlotta, her mother, and her sister were at home but no one was injured. Police arrested and beat Carlotta's father in unsuccessful efforts to coerce a confession. Police then arrested two young black men, Herbert Monts, a family friend, and Maceo Binns, Jr. Carlotta never believed either man was responsible, but both were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
In 2010, Ms. Walls described the bombing and its aftermath as the worst part of the integration experience, and firmly asserted that "the segregationists were behind all of it - the bombing and the arrests of Herbert and Maceo."
February 29th, 1960
Student Sit-In Organizers Expelled from Alabama State University
Students at Alabama State College, a traditionally African American institution in Montgomery, Alabama, staged an anti-segregation sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse on February 25, 1960. Four days later, on February 29, 1960, Alabama Governor John Patterson held a news conference to condemn the sit-in.
Patterson, who was also chairman of the State Board of Education, threatened to terminate Alabama State College's funding unless it expelled the student organizers and warned that "someone [was] likely to be killed" if the protests continued. The next day, more than 1000 Alabama State College students marched on the state capitol. On March 2, 1960, the college expelled the nine student leaders of the courthouse sit-in.
More than 1000 students immediately pledged a mass strike, threatened to withdraw from the school, and staged days of demonstrations; 37 students were arrested. Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan recommended closing the college, which he claimed produced only "graduates of hate and racial bitterness." Meanwhile, six of the nine expelled students sought reinstatement through a federal lawsuit. In August 1960, in Dixon v. Alabama, a federal court upheld the expulsions as "justified and, in fact, necessary" and barred the students' readmission to the school.
On February 25, 2010, in a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the sit-in, Alabama State University (formerly Alabama State College) President William Harris reinstated the nine students, criticized Governor Patterson's "arbitrary, illegal and intrusive" role in forcing the expulsions, and praised the student protest as "an important moment in civil rights history."
October 19th, 1960
Martin Luther King Arrested in Atlanta Sit-In Protest
On October 19, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and 51 others were arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, after refusing to leave their seats at downtown department store lunch counters. The Jim Crow segregation laws and customs heavily in force in Atlanta at the time dictated that black and white people use separate water fountains, bathrooms, ticket booths, and other public spaces, and banned black people from being served at store lunch counters.
Similar laws in other Southern states had recently become the focus of a “sit-in” movement, in which black college students calmly, peacefully sat at segregated lunch counters and refused to leave until they were served. In February 1960, three North Carolina A&T students held the first sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. Soon, many more students joined their protest and word of the tactic spread to students in other states. By August 1961, sit-ins had attracted over 70,000 participants, generated over 3000 arrests and, in cities like Nashville, Tennessee, led to desegregation.
Dr. King, an invited participant at the student-organized Atlanta sit-in, was arrested with students and local activists for violating a 1960 law that made refusing to leave private property a misdemeanor offense. Charges against 16 of the 51 were dismissed at their first court appearance, but Dr. King (the most high-profile of the group) was held on charges that his arrest violated a term of state probation imposed earlier that year. After Dr. King was sentenced to six months at hard labor, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy reached out to the King family, helped secure Dr. King’s release, and earned pivotal black votes that would help him win the presidency that year.
November 14th, 1960
Six-Year-Old Ruby Bridges Integrates New Orleans Elementary School
In August 1955, African American parents of students in New Orleans, Louisiana, public schools sued the Orleans Parish School Board to challenge its failure to desegregate local schools in compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The following February, United States District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the school board to desegregate the city’s schools. For the next four years, the school board and state lawmakers defied the federal court's order and resisted school desegregation.
On May 16, 1960, Judge Wright issued a federal order demanding the gradual desegregation of New Orleans public schools, beginning with the first grade. The Orleans Parish School Board convinced Judge Wright to accept a more limited desegregation plan, requiring African American students to apply for transfer into all-white schools. Only five of the 137 African American first graders who applied for a transfer were accepted and four agreed to attend, includig six-year-old Ruby Bridges.
On November 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges started first grade at the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School. The other three black students entered first grade at another school. Four federal marshals escorted Ruby into the school past a riotous white mob organized by the local White Citizens Council. When Ruby arrived in her assigned classroom, she and the teacher were the only two people present; it would remain that way for the rest of the school year. Within a week, nearly all of the white students assigned to the newly-integrated elementary schools had withdrawn. Despite threats and retaliation against her family, including her grandparents’ eviction from the Mississippi farm where they worked as sharecroppers, Ruby remained at Frantz Elementary and, in 1961, advanced to the second grade. That year, the incoming first grade class included eight black students.
December 5th, 1960
U.S. Supreme Court Rules Racial Segregation in Interstate Bus Terminals Is Unconstitutional
In 1958, Bruce Boynton, an African American student at Howard Law School, was traveling by bus from Washington, DC, to his home in Montgomery, Alabama. While stopped in Richmond, Virginia, Boynton sat in the "white" section of the bus terminal’s lunchroom and refused requests to move to the “colored" section. He was arrested and convicted of trespassing, an offense for which he was ordered to pay a $10 fine.
With the assistance of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, Boynton challenged his conviction. The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on October 12, 1960. Boynton contended that, as a passenger of a bus company engaged in commerce across state boundaries, he possessed a federal right to be served without discrimination by the restaurant maintained to accommodate interstate bus customers. The State of Virginia argued that the bus terminal restaurant was not owned or operated by the bus company, and thus was exempt from the Interstate Commerce Act’s directive not to “make, give, or cause any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person.”
On December 5, 1960, the Supreme Court ruled for Boynton, overturning his conviction and prohibiting discrimination in interstate bus terminal facilities nationwide. Despite this victory and ruling against segregation, the federal government did not actively enforce the Boynton ruling, and many bus terminals continued to operate as before. The Congress of Racial Equality, an interracial civil rights organization founded in Chicago in 1942, decided to draw attention to this continuing problem by staging one of the most important protests of the civil rights era, the “Ride for Freedom” or Freedom Rides.
January 9th, 1961
Rioting White Students Force Suspension of First Black Students to Integrate University of Georgia
On January 9, 1961, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes registered at the University of Georgia, becoming the university's first African American students. Their enrollment came days after federal judge William Bootle ordered the university to admit them, ending a two-year administrative and legal effort to integrate the school.
Despite this landmark victory, Hunter and Holmes registered for classes against the backdrop of nearly 100 protesting white students. The protests escalated into full-scale riots involving nearly 2000 white students, local residents, and Ku Klux Klan members. The rioters set fires outside Hunter's dormitory, hurled rocks into the dormitory, and yelled racist epithets. At least one student in the dormitory was injured by a flying object. After several hours, campus officers, city police, and local firefighters quelled the riot using tear gas and fire hoses. Nearly twenty rioters were arrested.
Hunter and Holmes were forced to withdraw from the university and were escorted home by Georgia state troopers. White student leaders gloated; one cited the University of Alabama's violent reaction to the enrollment of Autherine Lucy in 1956 as inspiration for their own demonstration.
Days later, Judge Bootle ordered the university to readmit Hunter and Holmes, and they graduated in 1963, becoming the first African American undergraduate students to graduate from the University of Georgia.
May 9th, 1961
Civil Rights Leader John Lewis Assaulted at South Carolina Greyhound Bus Terminal
On May 9, 1961, 21-year-old John Lewis, civil rights activist and now United States Congressman from Georgia, was savagely assaulted by a mob at the Rock Hill, South Carolina, Greyhound bus terminal. A few days earlier, John Lewis and twelve Freedom Riders, seven African Americans and six whites, left Washington, D.C., on a Greyhound bus headed to New Orleans. They sat interracially on the bus, planning to test a Supreme Court ruling that made segregation in interstate transportation illegal.
The Freedom Riders rode safely through Virginia and North Carolina, but experienced violence when they stopped at the bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and tried to enter the white waiting room together. Mr. Lewis and two other Riders were brutally attacked before a white police officer, who had been present the entire time, finally intervened. The Freedom Riders responded with nonviolence and decided not to press charges. Nearly 47 years later, Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols apologized to Mr. Lewis, and in 2009, one of his attackers, former Klansman Elwin Wilson, also apologized. Mr. Lewis has said that he has no ill will toward Rock Hill: "I don't hold the town any more responsible than those men who beat us, and I saw those men as victims of the same system of segregation and hatred."
May 14th, 1961
Freedom Riders Attacked in Anniston, Alabama
The Freedom Riders, an interracial group of civil rights activists, began riding interstate buses in 1961 to test Supreme Court decisions that prohibited discrimination in interstate passenger travel. Their efforts were unpopular with whites who supported segregation.
On Mother's Day, May 14, 1961, a Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders arrived at the Anniston, Alabama, bus station shortly after 1:00 p.m. The station was locked shut. A mob of fifty men led by Ku Klux Klan leader William Chapel and armed with pipes, chains, and bats, smashed windows, slashed tires, and dented the sides of the Riders' bus. Though warned hours earlier that a mob had gathered at the station, local police did not arrive until after the assault had begun.
Once the attack subsided, police pretended to escort the crippled bus to safety, but instead abandoned it at the Anniston city limits. Another armed white mob arrived and the Freedom Riders refused to exit the bus. They received no aid from two highway patrolmen. When a member of the mob tossed a firebomb into a broken window on the bus, others in the mob attempted to trap the passengers inside the burning vehicle by barricading the door but were scared away by fuel tank explosions. The Riders escaped the ensuing flames and smoke through the bus windows and main door, only to be attacked and beaten by the mob outside. After police finally dispersed their attackers, the Freedom Riders received substandard, limited medical care before being evacuated in a convoy organized by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
May 20th, 1961
Mob Attacks Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama
On May 16, 1961, mob violence in Birmingham, Alabama, threatened to prematurely end the Freedom Ride campaign organized by the Congress on Racial Equality. The Nashville Student Movement, an interracial group of twenty-two college students studying in Tennessee, volunteered to take over the ride and continue through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana.
The new Freedom Riders reached Birmingham on May 17 but were arrested and returned to Tennessee by Birmingham police officers under the command of Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. Undeterred, the riders and additional reinforcements from Tennessee returned to Birmingham on May 18. Under pressure from the federal government, Alabama Governor John Patterson agreed to authorize state and city police to protect the riders during their journey from Birmingham to Montgomery.
On May 20, 1961, nineteen Freedom Riders arrived in Montgomery. Abandoned by state police at the city limits, the bus continued unescorted to the bus station, anticipating the arrival of city police escorts. But Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner L.B. Sullivan had promised the Ku Klux Klan several minutes to attack the riders without police interference. The riders were met at the bus station by several hundred angry whites armed with baseball bats, hammers, and pipes. Montgomery police watched as the mob first attacked reporters and then turned on the riders. Several were seriously injured, including future United States Congressman John Lewis. John Seigenthaler, an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was knocked unconscious. Ignored by ambulances, two injured riders were saved by good samaritans who transported them to nearby hospitals.
May 21st, 1961
National Guard Disperses White Crowd Threatening Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama
The Freedom Riders were an interracial group of civil rights activists who began riding interstate buses in 1961 to test Supreme Court decisions that prohibited discrimination in interstate passenger travel. Their efforts were unpopular with whites who supported continued segregation.
On May 20, 1961, Freedom Riders arriving in Montgomery, Alabama, were attacked by a white mob and several suffered serious injury. On the evening of May 21, more than 1000 black residents and civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth attended a service at Montgomery's First Baptist Church organized by Rev. Ralph Abernathy to support the Freedom Riders. A white mob surrounded the church and vandalized parked cars. From the church's basement, Dr. King called United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and requested help. United States Marshals soon arrived to dispel the riot; the growing mob pelted them with bricks and bottles. The marshals responded with tear gas.
When police arrived to assist the marshals, the mob broke into smaller groups and overturned cars, attacked black residences with bullets and firebombs, and assaulted black people in the streets. Alabama Governor John Patterson declared martial law in Montgomery and ordered National Guard troops to restore order. Authorities arrested seventeen white rioters and, by midnight, the streets were calm. Only then were those in the church permitted to leave. Three days later, troops escorted the Freedom Riders as they departed to Jackson, Mississippi, where they would face further resistance.
June 22nd, 1961
Thirteen Activists Stand Trial for Attempting to Desegregate Airport Restaurant
On June 13, 1961, an interracial group of eighteen rabbis and ministers participated in a freedom ride to Tallahassee, Florida, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality. The riders experienced a few minor confrontations along the way, but were spared major incidents of violence in Florida due to the governor's negotiations with local officials to ensure that the riders were left alone.
On June 15, 1961, shortly before they were scheduled to board an airplane and return to Washington, D.C., the interfaith riders and local activists attempted to integrate the Tallahassee Airport's segregated restaurant. The restaurant closed to avoid serving the riders and eight riders departed as planned for Washington. Ten riders and three local activists remained at the airport and demanded service throughout the night and into the following day. On June 16, 1961, the group was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly.
The riders and activists stood trial on June 22, 1961. Judge John Rudd acquitted the local activists of the unlawful assembly charge but convicted the ten interfaith riders and sentenced them to thirty days in jail or a $500 fine. The riders appealed to the United States Supreme Court but were denied relief. In August 1964, nine of the interfaith riders returned to Tallahassee to serve their jail sentences. After they were released, the riders enjoyed a meal at the airport restaurant which had been desegregated by federal order just months after their convictions.
August 9th, 1961
James B. Parsons Nominated First Black Federal Judge in Continental United States
On August 9, 1961, President John F. Kennedy nominated James Benton Parsons as United States District Court Judge for Northern Illinois. At the time, Judge Parsons, a native of Missouri and the great-grandson of enslaved people, was serving as a judge on the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois. The Senate confirmed Judge Parson’s nomination on August 30, 1961, making him the first African American federal judge in the continental United States and the first African American federal judge with life tenure. Prior to his appointment, African Americans had been appointed solely to fixed judicial terms on the United States District Court for the Virgin Islands.
Judge Parsons went on to accomplish other significant firsts within his position as a district court judge. On April 17, 1975, he became the first African American Chief Judge of a District Court; one month later, he was elected the first African American representative to the United States Judicial Conference. In 1992, after 30 years of service, Judge Parsons retired from active trial duty. He died in Chicago, Illinois, the following year, at 81.
(Judge James Parsons in 1961. The Decaturian.)
October 1st, 1962
With Federal Marshals' Protection, James Meredith Enrolls at University of Mississippi
In Fall 1962, the University of Mississippi was the scene of violent riots in protest of James Meredith’s attempts to enroll as the segregated school’s first black student. In June 1962, after more than a year of litigation, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered the university to admit Meredith. In response, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett gave a televised speech on September 13, 1962, vowing to resist integration.
Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran born in Mississippi, sought to enroll at Ole Miss in September 1962. Governor Barnett, a member of the pro-segregation White Citizen’s Council, personally blocked him the first two times he tried, and sent Lt. Governor Paul Johnson to prevent Meredith’s enrollment a third time. On September 28, 1962, the Fifth Circuit unanimously held Barnett in contempt of court for violating his duty to maintain order and allow Meredith to lawfully enroll.
On September 30, 1962, the next date set for Meredith’s enrollment, mobs formed on campus and riots raged, killing two people and injuring many others. The following day, October 1, 1962, federal marshals sent by President John F. Kennedy successfully escorted Meredith to enroll as the University of Mississippi’s first black student and accompanied him to his first day of classes.
Mississippi Attorney General Joe Patterson soon instructed university students it was their constitutional right to refuse “to socialize or fraternize with an undesirable student” and unrest continued. Meredith suffered ongoing isolation, harassment, and violence. In October, students rioted and broke university cafeteria windows as Meredith ate there; in December, Meredith’s home was struck by shotgun blasts that nearly injured his teenaged sister and a dead raccoon was left on his car. Nevertheless, Meredith remained and on August 18, 1963, he graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in political science.
(An angry mob gathered in 1962 outside the Lyceum at the University of Mississippi to prevent James Meredith from entering and integrating the school. Photo from Exhibitor Online.)
November 20th, 1962
President Kennedy Orders End to Discrimination in Federal Housing
On November 20, 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11063, banning federally funded housing organizations from discriminating against individuals on the basis of race. The order attempted to end the rampant racial prejudice influencing the loan decisions of government-backed organizations like the Federal Housing Administration. These organizations commonly engaged in practices like “red-lining,” a color-coded method of labeling the riskiness of a mortgage based on the racial demographics of a borrower’s neighborhood. Under this system, black neighborhoods typically received the worst ratings (red). As a result, home loans were channeled away from those communities and into mostly white, “less risky” neighborhoods. In the face of high levels of residential segregation, African Americans found themselves without ready access to federal home loans and largely unable to purchase homes regardless of their financial situation. Many African Americans were thus relegated to living in segregated, impoverished areas.
While President Kennedy’s executive order marked an important symbolic step in redressing the problem of discriminatory housing policies in the United States, it did not immediately have a dramatic impact. Because the order failed to provide a strong enforcement mechanism, impacted agencies were simply directed to take steps to police themselves. This allowed discriminatory lending practices to continue without the threat of federal intervention. It was not until the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that a mechanism for enforcing fair housing regulations was established.
April 23rd, 1963
William Moore Killed During One-Man Civil Rights March to Mississippi
On April 23, 1963, the body of William L. Moore was found on U.S. Highway 11 near Attalla, Alabama, only four days shy of his 36th birthday. Moore, a white man, was in the midst of a one-man civil rights march to Jackson, Mississippi, to implore Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett to support integration efforts. He wore signs that stated: “End Segregation in America, Eat at Joe's-Both Black and White” and “Equal Rights For All (Mississippi or Bust).”
Moore, a resident of Baltimore, Maryland, was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and had staged other lone protests in the past. On his first protest, he walked to Annapolis, Maryland, from Baltimore. On his second march, he walked to the White House. For his third and final march, he planned to walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson.
About 70 miles into the march, a local radio station reporter named Charlie Hicks interviewed Moore after the radio station received an anonymous tip of his whereabouts. After the interview, Hicks offered to drive Moore to a hotel where he would be safe, but Moore continued on his march instead. Less than an hour later, a passing motorist found his body.
Moore had been shot in the head with a .22-caliber rifle that was traced to Floyd Simpson, a white Alabamian. Simpson was arrested but never indicted for Moore's murder. When activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and CORE attempted to finish Moore’s march using the same route, they were beaten and arrested by Alabama State Troopers.
April 29th, 1963
United States Supreme Court Outlaws Segregated Courtroom Seating
In April 1962, Ford T. Johnson, Jr. appeared in a Richmond, Virginia, city traffic court and was convicted of contempt because he refused to sit in the segregated courtroom's "Negro" section. Mr. Johnson was unaware of the segregated seating and first sat in a section reserved for whites. When ordered to move, Mr. Johnson refused the judge's order to re-seat himself in the black section and said he would prefer to stand. He was immediately convicted of contempt and fined ten dollars.
When Mr. Johnson appealed, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled his conviction was "plainly right." He then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. The State of Virginia admitted that the Richmond traffic court maintained a segregated seating policy but argued the policy was irrelevant and Mr. Johnson's contempt conviction was justified because he disobeyed a judge's order.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Reasoning that one could not be held in contempt for refusing to comply with unconstitutional segregation rules, the Court unanimously overturned Mr. Johnson's conviction on April 29, 1963, in Johnson v. Virginia. The majority opinion declared that "such a conviction cannot stand, for it is no longer open to question that a State may not constitutionally require segregation of its public facilities." The decision was lauded by civil rights activists nationwide. The Richmond Afro-American newspaper hailed it as a "ruling against this long injustice practiced in what are supposed to be chambers of impartial justice."
May 2nd, 1963
Black Children Arrested and Assaulted While Protesting Segregation in Birmingham
On May 2, 1963, more than 700 black children protesting racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, were arrested, blasted with fire hoses, clubbed by police, and attacked by police dogs. As part of the Children's Crusade launched by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to revive the Birmingham anti-segregation campaign, more than 1000 African American children trained in nonviolent tactics walked out of their classes and assembled at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to march to downtown Birmingham. Hundreds were arrested and transported to jail in school buses and paddy wagons but the children refused to relent.
On May 3, 1963, hundreds more children began to march. Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor directed local police and firemen to attack the children with high-pressure fire hoses, batons, and police dogs. Images of children being brutally assaulted by officers and dogs appeared on television and in newspapers throughout the nation and world, provoking global outrage. The United States Department of Justice soon intervened. The campaign to desegregate Birmingham ended on May 10, 1963, with an agreement that the SCLC would halt demonstrations in exchange for city officials releasing imprisoned protesters and desegregating the city's downtown stores. The following evening, disgruntled proponents of segregation responded to the agreement with a series of local bombings.
In the wake of the Children's Crusade, the Birmingham Board of Education announced that all children who participated in the march would be suspended or expelled from school. While the local federal district court upheld the ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the decision.
June 9th, 1963
Fannie Lou Hamer Arrested and Beaten in Winona, Mississippi
On June 9, 1963, while returning from a voter registration workshop in South Carolina, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists were arrested in Winona, Mississippi. Ms. Hamer and the other activists had been traveling in the "white" section of a Greyhound bus despite threats from the driver that he planned to notify local police at the next stop. When the bus arrived at the Winona bus depot, the activists sat at the "white only" lunch counter inside the terminal. Winona Police Chief Thomas Herrod ordered the group to go to the "colored" side of the depot and arrested them when one of the activists tried to write down his patrol car license number.
At the county jail, white jailers forced two African American prisoners to savagely beat Ms. Hamer with loaded blackjacks and she was nearly killed. As she regained consciousness, she overheard one of the white officers propose, "We could put them SOBs in [the] Big Black [River] and nobody would ever find them."
Ms. Hamer never fully recovered from the attack; she lost vision in one of her eyes and suffered permanent kidney damage, which contributed to her death in 1977 at age 59. Lawyers with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee filed suit against the Winona police who brutalized the activists but an all-white jury acquitted them. Despite the trauma she experienced, Ms. Hamer returned to Mississippi to continue organizing voter registration drives and remained active in civil rights causes until her death.
June 19th, 1963
Medgar Evers, Assassinated NAACP Field Secretary, Buried at Arlington National Cemetery
Medgar Wiley Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi, in 1925 and grew up during the height of the Jim Crow era. He served in the United States Army during World War II, and his time deployed overseas in France and England highlighted the stark racial inequalities blacks endured in the South. After returning from the war, Mr. Evers enrolled at Mississippi's Alcorn College and became increasingly involved in the growing civil rights movement. He eventually joined the local NAACP and, in 1954, attempted to desegregate the University of Mississippi Law School.
The NAACP National Office later made Mr. Evers the first field secretary of the organization's Mississippi chapter. He worked tirelessly to promote racial equality and became a highly visible civil rights leaders in Mississippi, which was one of the most violent and hostile environments for racial equality work at the time.
On June 11, 1963, the same evening President John F. Kennedy gave a national speech outlining federal civil rights legislation he planned to submit to Congress, Medgar Evers was shot and killed outside of his home while his wife and children were inside. He was thirty-seven years old. Eight days later, on June 19, Mr. Evers was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors at a funeral attended by more than 3000 people. Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist, was arrested and charged with the murder days later, but was not convicted until February 1994.
September 10th, 1963
State Funds Private School for Whites to Avoid Integration in Tuskegee, Alabama
In January 1963, African American parents of students in Macon County, Alabama, sued the Macon County Board of Education to desegregate the county’s public schools. Though the United States Supreme Court had declared school segregation unconstitutional nearly nine years earlier, the board had taken no steps integrate local schools. In August 1963, Federal District Judge Frank Johnson ordered the school board to begin integration immediately.
The school board selected 13 African American students to integrate Tuskegee High School that fall. On September 2, 1963, the scheduled first day of integrated classes, Alabama Governor George Wallace ordered the school closed due to “safety concerns.” The school reopened a week later, and on September 10, 1963, the second day of classes, white students began to withdraw. Within a week, all 275 white students had left the school.
Most fleeing white students enrolled at Macon Academy, a newly formed, all-white private school. In support of the school and its efforts to sidestep federal law to maintain school segregation, Governor Wallace and the school board approved the use of state funds to provide white students abandoning the public school system with scholarships to attend Macon Academy. Meanwhile, the Macon County School Board ordered Tuskegee High School closed due to low enrollment and split its remaining African American students among all-white high schools in Notasulga and Shorter, Alabama. White students in those high schools boycotted for several days and many eventually transferred to Macon Academy.
Now Macon-East Academy, the school relocated near Montgomery, Alabama, in 1995, and today operates as one of several private schools in the Alabama Black Belt with origins rooted in resistance to integration. As of the 2007-2008 school year, Macon-East Academy's student population of more than 400 was 98% white and less than 1% African American.
September 15th, 1963
Four Black Girls Killed in Bombing of Birmingham, Alabama, Church
In 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the largest black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Due to its size and central location, the church served as a meeting place for civil rights activists in the community at a time when they were engaged in efforts to register local African Americans to vote and racial tensions in Birmingham were reaching a fever pitch.
On the morning of September 15, 1963, a white man was seen placing a box under the steps of the church. Shortly afterward, the box detonated and the resulting explosion rocked the building, with 400 congregants inside. Parents rushed to the Sunday School classroom to check on their children, and it was discovered that four young girls had been killed in the blast: Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). More than 20 others were injured.
Immediately after the bombing, violence surged throughout the city as police clashed with enraged members of the black community. Before the day ended, at least two other African American children were slain: 16-year-old Johnny Robinson, who was shot by police as he fled down an alley, and 13-year-old Virgil Ware, who was shot and killed by white youths while riding his bicycle.
More than a decade later, in 1977, Ku Klux Klan leader Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder for participating in the bombing; he died in prison. Several more decades passed before Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton were also convicted of murder for the bombing in the early 2000s. Both men were sentenced to life imprisonment.
March 30th, 1964
Supreme Court Reverses Contempt Conviction for Woman Who Challenged Disrespect
In June 1963, Mary Hamilton, a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality in Alabama, was one of hundreds arrested during civil rights protests in Gadsden, Alabama. On June 25, the local court held a hearing to determine the legitimacy of those arrests. While Ms. Hamilton was on the witness stand, Etowah County Solicitor William Rayburn addressed her by her first name only. Ms. Hamilton refused to answer Mr. Rayburn's questions until she was accorded the same courtesy he had accorded white witnesses and addressed her as "Miss." Mr. Rayburn did not comply and Judge A.B. Cunningham held Ms. Hamilton in contempt of court, sentenced her to five days in jail and fined her $50.
Ms. Hamilton served the jail time but refused to pay the fine and was allowed out on bond to appeal the contempt conviction. The Alabama Supreme Court denied her appeal, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On March 30, 1964, the Supreme Court overturned Ms. Hamilton's contempt citation in Hamilton v. Alabama.
June 25th, 1964
Hundreds Attack Anti-Segregation March in St. Augustine, Florida
In the summer of 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders began anti-segregation work in St. Augustine, Florida. They held weeks of civil rights demonstrations and marches, and many demonstrators, including Dr. King, were arrested. After weeks of activism and outbreaks of violence between segregationists and anti-segregationists, Florida Governor Farris Bryant, a segregationist, issued a ban on evening demonstrations held after 8:30 p.m.
On June 25, 300 anti-segregationist marchers who had spent the afternoon rallying at the site of St. Augustine's former slave market, Slave Market Square, were violently attacked by over 200 white segregationists. The segregationists easily evaded police and physically assaulted the marchers. As the marchers fled, they were chased and attacked across the city's downtown area. Close to fifty of the marchers were injured, and fifteen were treated at the city's hospital. Several hours before the attacks on the marchers, seventy-five white segregationists had attacked a group of 100 African Americans who attempted to wade into the ocean at a local "white beach," and twenty people were arrested. Such violent clashes between anti-segregationists and segregationists in St. Augustine continued throughout June 1964.
August 4th, 1964
Bodies of Murdered Civil Rights Workers Found in Mississippi
In 1964, Michael Schwerner, a white New Yorker working with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), traveled to Mississippi to organize black citizens to vote. Schwerner worked extensively with James Chaney, a black CORE member from Meridian, Mississippi. The activist pair led an effort to register black voters and helped Mt. Zion Methodist Church, a black church in Longdale, Mississippi, create an organizing center. These developments angered local members of the Ku Klux Klan, and on June 16, 1964, while Schwerner and Chaney were absent, Klansmen torched the church and assaulted its members.
On June 21, 1964, Schwerner and Chaney were joined by a new white CORE member named Andrew Goodman. The trio investigated the church burning and then headed for Meridian, Mississippi. Aware that they were in constant danger of attack, Schwerner told colleagues in Meridian to search for them if they did not arrive by 4:00 p.m. While passing through the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, the three men were stopped by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price.
A member of the Ku Klux Klan, Price had been monitoring the activities of the civil rights workers and he arrested and jailed them that day. After about seven hours of detention, the three men were released on bail and Price escorted them out of town. Price returned to Philadelphia to drop off another officer and then raced to intercept the men. He again arrested them but was soon joined by fellow Klansmen who planned to murder the three civil rights workers. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were shot dead and buried a few miles from Mt. Zion Methodist Church. More than a month later, after national news coverage and an intensive search by federal authorities, their remains were discovered on August 4, 1964.
December 14th, 1964
U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Law Prohibiting Racial Discrimination in Private Hotels
The Heart of Atlanta Motel, owned by committed segregationist Moreton Rolleston, Jr., opened for business in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 5, 1956. From that time, the 216-room hotel steadfastly refused to provide service to African American patrons as a matter of general policy. A little less than a decade later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title II of which specifically prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation that effect commerce.
Following passage of the Civil Rights Act, Rolleston sued the federal government to obtain injunctive relief and bar enforcement of its provisions. He principally claimed that, in passing the law, Congress had exceeded its constitutionally-granted power to regulate commerce. In its landmark unanimous decision Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, the Supreme Court on December 14, 1964, firmly upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ordered the Heart of Atlanta Motel to cease refusing service to African Americans.
In the majority opinion authored by Justice Tom Clark, the Court decisively held that Congress does have the authority to regulate the transportation of people between states, regardless of whether or not that transportation is purely commercial. The Court also found that this power extends even to the regulation of local incidents which could potentially have a harmful effect on commerce. The Court’s strong defense of the protections established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was instrumental in dismantling the structure of racial apartheid in the South.
February 1st, 1965
Dr. King and Hundreds of Voting Rights Protestors Arrested
In early 1965, civil rights groups including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began concentrating on voter registration in Selma, Alabama -- a city with the lowest voter registration record in the state's Black Belt region.
Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, others in local law enforcement, and county registration employees regularly used violence, discrimination, and intimidation to prevent black residents of Selma from registering to vote. Though African Americans constituted approximately fifty percent of Selma's population in the 1960s, only one to two percent were registered voters.
On February 1, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led more than 250 marchers to the Dallas County Courthouse to register to vote. All of them were arrested during the peaceful demonstration and charged with parading without a permit. In a letter written from the local jail that same night, and later published in the New York Times, Dr. King decried the racist conditions in Selma and observed that "there are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls."
The arrests of Dr. King and the other civil rights activists resulted in protests in which African Americans were injured and killed. Despite these attacks, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders continued their work and organized another voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery the following month.
(Photo by Charles Moore)
February 18th, 1965
The Murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson
On the evening of February 18, 1965, a group of civil rights activists gathered at the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama, for a night march in support of James Orange, the recently arrested field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As the demonstration started, protestors were met by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered the crowd to disperse and then attacked the protestors.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother, Viola Jackson, and his eighty-two-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee, were among those who fled the escalating violence. Surrounded by panicking demonstrators, the three sought shelter in Mack's Cafe. Police followed them into the cafe and physically assaulted them. When Jimmie Lee Jackson came to the aid of his mother and grandfather, he was shot twice in the abdomen by trooper James Fowler.
Despite his wounds, Jimmie managed to escape from the cafe before collapsing. He died eight days later at a local hospital. In an impassioned eulogy, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described Jimmie Lee Jackson as a "martyred hero."
Though he readily admitted to the shooting in the event's aftermath, James Fowler did not face any criminal charges until 2007. Mr. Jackson's death has been cited as one of the catalysts for the March 7, 1965, march from Selma to Montgomery, which became known as "Bloody Sunday."
March 7th, 1965
Bloody Sunday: Civil Rights Protestors Brutally Attacked in Selma
On March 7, 1965, state and local police used billy clubs, whips, and tear gas to attack hundreds of civil rights protesters beginning a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Marchers were protesting the denial of voting rights to African Americans as well as the murder of 26-year-old activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been shot in the stomach and killed during a peaceful protest just days before.
The march, led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, turned violent when the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were confronted by a phalanx of state and county officers. When demonstrators did not promptly obey the officers' order to disband and turn back, troopers brutally attacked them. Dozens of civil rights activists were hospitalized with severe injuries. Horrifying images of the violence broadcast nationally on television roused support for the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists organized another march two days later, and the events helped spur passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act three months later.
March 11th, 1965
Boston Minister Dies After Beating in Selma, Alabama
On March 7, 1965, a peaceful crowd of 600 people led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to show their support for black voting rights. Police armed with batons, pepper spray, and guns attacked the marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in a violent assault that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
After the attack, Dr. King remained determined to complete the march. He urged clergy throughout the country to come to Selma and join the march to Montgomery. Hundreds of clergy from across the country heeded the call and traveled to Selma, including Reverend James Reeb, 38, a white Unitarian minister from Boston.
On March 9, 1965, Dr. King led 2500 marchers onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a short prayer session. That evening, three white ministers, Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen, and James Reeb, were attacked and beaten by a group of white men. Struck in the head with a club, Reverend Reeb suffered a severe skull fracture and brain damage.
Fearing that he would not be treated at the “whites-only” Selma Hospital, doctors at Selma’s black Burwell Infirmary ordered Reverend Reeb rushed to the Birmingham hospital. After a series of unfortunate events, including car trouble and confrontations with local police, Reverend Reeb reached the hospital in Birmingham in critical condition. He died on March 11, 1965, leaving his wife and four children. Three white men were later indicted for Reverend Reeb’s murder but were acquitted by an all-white jury.
More widely reported than the death of local black activist Jimmie Lee Jackson a few weeks earlier, Reverend Reeb’s death brought national attention to the voting rights struggle and moved President Lyndon B. Johnson to call a special session of Congress, where he urged legislators to pass the Voting Rights Act. The president signed the act into law in August 1965.
March 25th, 1965
Viola Liuzzo Murdered After Driving Voting Rights Activists to Selma
On March 25, 1965, Viola Liuzzo, a middle-class white housewife from Detroit, Michigan, was shot and killed in Lowndesboro, Alabama. After watching television footage of state troopers attacking freedom marchers on "Bloody Sunday," Liuzzo drove to Selma, Alabama, to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s efforts to organize another march. Hours after the successful Selma-to-Montgomery march ended, Mrs. Liuzzo and Leroy Moton, a nineteen-year-old local black activist, were driving back to Montgomery to pick up the last group of demonstrators waiting to return to Selma.
Four Klansmen chased down Mrs. Liuzzo's car and opened fire, killing Mrs. Liuzzo. Mr. Moton survived by pretending to be dead. One of the drivers, and possibly Mrs. Liuzzo's shooter, was Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., an FBI informant who had participated in the 1961 beatings of Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned that Mr. Rowe's history of violence against civil rights activists and close ties to the FBI would harm the agency's public image, launched character attacks against Mrs. Liuzzo in the media, painting her as an unstable woman who abandoned her husband and children and traveled to Selma for interracial sex and drugs.
Mr. Rowe later testified against the three other Klansmen who were with him on the night of Mrs. Liuzzo's murder. They were acquitted by an all-white Lowndes County jury but later convicted of federal civil rights violations.
August 17th, 1965
Days of Riots End in Watts
On the evening of August 11, 1965, a police officer pulled over brothers Marquette and Ronald Frye in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. A crowd gathered to watch and quickly grew as officers questioned the young men. Police presence grew as well. When the young men’s mother arrived on the scene, a struggle ensued, police beat Marquette and Ronald with batons, and all three Fryes were arrested. Outraged, the crowd of onlookers began throwing rocks at police cars, then at passing city buses and other motorists. The unrest soon erupted into pockets of rioting throughout the 20-block area of Watts.
Black youth in the community, exasperated by police brutality and government officials’ indifference, took to the streets. They threw bricks and other debris through store windows, at police cars and at white passersby, and soon grew to include at least 5000 people. When a force of 400 police officers arrived to try to contain the crowds, they exchanged gunfire with the young protesters and beat and arrested many of them but remained unable to quell the unrest. After six days, the riots ended, leaving 34 dead, 1032 injured, nearly 4000 arrested and $40 million in damage.
After the riots, California Governor Pat Brown convened a commission to identify its roots. In December 1965, the commission released a report entitled Violence in the City - an End or a Beginning?, which concluded that the riots were the culmination of Watts’ black residents’ long-felt dissatisfaction with high unemployment rates, poor housing, and inadequate schools. Despite the commission’s findings, little was done in the following decades to address these inequalities or to rebuild Watts.
January 7th, 1966
Tuskegee Students March to Protest Murder of SNCC Activist Samuel Younge Jr.
On January 7, 1966, 250 black students staged a march through downtown Tuskegee to protest the recent murder of Samuel “Sammy” Younge Jr. The march ended with a rally on the steps of the local jail where Younge’s accused killer, Martin Segrest, was being held.
In 1966, Younge was a 21-year-old black student activist at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). He was involved in the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL) and worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register black voters in Mississippi.
On January 3, 1966, Samuel Younge spent the day helping black residents register to vote at the Macon County Court House in Tuskegee. While returning from a meeting with other civil rights workers, he stopped at the nearby Standard Oil gas station and asked the white attendant to use the bathroom. The attendant, 68-year-old Marvin Segrest, directed him to the “colored” restroom behind the station. When Younge said that he wanted to use the regular public restroom, Segrest took out a pistol and threatened to shoot him if he didn’t leave the property.
Younge got in his car and drove to City Hall, where he and reported what had happened to the police. He then drove to a bus station adjacent to the gas station, parked, and told Segrest that the police were coming. The two men began arguing and Segrest shot at Younge, missing him. Younge ran to board a nearby bus, telling the driver that his life was in danger; the driver attempted to intervene, walking to the gas station and urging Segrest not to fire any more shots at Younge. When the driver returned, Younge exited the bus, and was shot in the head by Segrest. He died that day.
The shooting brought to a head growing tensions in Tuskegee between African Americans and pro-segregation whites. The day following the shooting, Tuskegee University students launched protests that would last for weeks. Segrest was indicted and tried on second degree murder charges later that year, but acquitted by an all-white jury on December 8, 1966.
January 10th, 1966
Mississippi Voting Rights Activist Vernon Dahmer Dies After Bombing
In the early morning hours of January 10, 1966, two carloads of armed Ku Klux Klan members drove onto the property of Vernon Dahmer, ten miles outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. For years, Elli Dahmer and her husband Vernon, a local NAACP leader and small business owner, had slept in shifts to keep watch over their home in anticipation of attacks from local whites. As a successful black businessman active in the voting rights movement, Mr. Dahmer and his family were the targets of local whites' hostility and terrorism. On this night, klansmen set fire to the Dahmer's grocery store and house and blasted the buildings with gunfire. Mrs. Dahmer, her daughter, and two sons managed to escape, but Mr. Dahmer was murdered while holding off attackers as his family fled.
Following the murder, a massive crowd of black residents gathered at the local courthouse. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a wire expressing condolences. Mr. Dahmer's funeral was well attended and local residents raised money to rebuild the family's house.
Fourteen klansmen were later arrested and charged with murder, arson, and conspiracy. Only four were convicted due to alleged jury tampering and none received a sentence longer than ten years. In 1998, prosecutors reopened the case against Sam Bowers, the klansman who ordered the attack. Bowers, at age 74, was convicted on August 21, 1998, and sentenced to life in prison.
June 6th, 1966
James Meredith Shot During March Against Fear in Mississippi
On June 5, 1966, equipped with only a helmet and walking stick, James Meredith began a 220-mile March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Mr. Meredith, an activist who had integrated the University of Mississippi four years earlier, organized the one-man march to encourage African Americans in Mississippi to register to vote and to challenge the culture of fear perpetuated by white supremacists in the state.
Mr. Meredith crossed the Mississippi border on the morning of June 6, 1966, accompanied by a handful of friends and supporters. State police and FBI agents monitored the march while reporters and photographers trailed behind. A few miles south of Hernando, Mississippi, Aubrey Norvell, a white salesman, ambushed Mr. Meredith from the woods and shot him in the neck, head, and back. Before he started shooting, Mr. Norvell warned bystanders to disperse and twice shouted out Mr. Meredith's name from the woods, but law enforcement did nothing to protect Mr. Meredith.
James Meredith survived his injuries but was unable to immediately continue the march. Enraged by the attack, civil rights leaders organized to continue the march to Jackson in his place. On June 26th, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Floyd McKissick were among the thousands of marchers who completed the trip to Jackson, Mississippi, having weathered harassment and physical abuse from angry mobs and law enforcement alike. Mr. Meredith rejoined the march shortly before its completion in Jackson and led a rally at the state capitol. In November 1966, Aubrey Norvell pleaded guilty to assault and battery and was sentenced to two years in prison.
June 12th, 1967
United States Supreme Court Strikes Down State Bans on Interracial Marriage
When Richard and Mildred Loving returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, after marrying in Washington, D.C., in 1958, they were arrested and charged with felony offenses just for being husband and wife. Richard was white, Mildred was black, and interracial marriage was illegal under Virginia law. Facing prison time, the Lovings pleaded guilty to the charges in 1959, received a suspended sentence and were ordered to leave the state for twenty-five years.
The Lovings decided to challenge the law in 1964, when they were arrested again while visiting family members in Virginia. First unsuccessful in state courts, they asked the United States Supreme Court to hear the case. On June 12, 1967, the Court unanimously decided Loving v. Virginia in favor of the Lovings, declaring interracial marriage bans unconstitutional and striking down a total of eighteen state laws. The Court acknowledged the laws were rooted in racism and denounced them as "measures designed to maintain white supremacy."
The Lovings returned to Virginia and lived as man and wife with their three children until Richard's death in a car accident in 1975. After the ruling, states that had never legally recognized an interracial marriage were forced to do so, and interracial couples no longer faced the threat of imprisonment. But opposition lingered. In 2000, Alabama became the last state to repeal its interracial marriage ban when its residents voted to remove an anti-miscegenation provision from the state constitution more than thirty years after Loving made it unenforceable.
February 8th, 1968
State Troopers Kill Three Students in Orangeburg, South Carolina
On February 8, 1968, white state troopers fired into a mostly African American crowd on the campus of South Carolina State College, an historically black college in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In what became known as the “Orangeburg Massacre,” the troopers shot and wounded twenty-eight people and killed three black male students: Samuel Hammond, eighteen, a freshman from Florida; Henry Smith, eighteen, a sophomore from Marion, South Carolina; and Delano Middleton, seventeen, an Orangeburg high school student.
Two days before the shooting, SCSC students had attempted to desegregate a local “whites only” bowling alley. When the owner refused to serve the students, violence ensued, leaving nine students and one officer wounded. On the day of the shooting, students again protested the segregated bowling alley, this time building a bonfire in the street. Escorted by police armed with carbines, pistols, and riot guns, the fire department arrived to extinguish the fire. Police then fired into the crowd as students fled for safety. Police later claimed they were attacked first.
South Carolina Robert Governor McNair blamed “black power advocates” for the violence and insisted officers had fired in self-defense while under attack from campus snipers. Witness accounts from reporters, firemen, and students contradicted this story; they reported that officers had fired on the crowd without warning. No evidence was ever presented that the protesters were armed.
None of the nine officers charged for their roles in the shooting were convicted of any wrongdoing, but Cleveland Sellers, a young black man and program director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was convicted of rioting for his role in leading the protest. He served seven months in jail and was not pardoned until 1993.
March 10th, 1968
Labor Leader Cesar Chavez Ends 25-Day Fast
During the 1960s, Latino and Asian workers at California’s grape farms faced brutal conditions. While at work, farm workers had no access to toilets or clean water and were often exposed to dangerous pesticides. Wages were low and workers had no access to health care. Labor contracts allowed farm owners to fire employees at will. In 1965, organizers inspired by the non-violent protests of the civil rights movement in the South organized a strike of grape farm workers. One of the organizers of this strike, Cesar Chavez, consolidated a number of local organizations of farm workers into the United Farm Workers union and became the symbol of the movement.
Owners of grape farms refused to comply with the farm workers’ requests and the strike continued for years. Farm workers conducted marches and organized national grape boycotts. In February 1968, Cesar Chavez began a fast to draw attention to the plight of farm workers and illustrate his commitment to non-violent protest. Mr. Chavez’s fast lasted 25 days and he lost 35 pounds, going from 175 to 140 pounds. He repeatedly ignored warnings from doctors who told him that permanent kidney damage would result from his actions.
Mr. Chavez’s fast attracted national attention; Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a number of national labor leaders, and hundreds of Latino farm workers attended a March 10, 1968, ceremony marking the end of the fast. In 1970, California grape growers signed the first union contracts with farm workers.
April 4th, 1968
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated
Thirteen hundred African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, went on strike on February 12, 1968, to protest low pay and poor treatment. When city leaders largely ignored the strike and refused to negotiate, the workers sought assistance from civil rights leaders, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King enthusiastically agreed to help and delivered a speech to more than 15,000 people in Memphis on March 18, 1968. Dr. King also planned and organized a march to take place ten days later. Against his wishes, the planned march turned violent and at least one protestor was killed as police forcibly dispersed the marchers. Dr. King planned a second march to take place on April 8.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King braved a bomb threat on his scheduled flight and traveled to Memphis. He gave a short speech reflecting on his own mortality before retiring to the Lorraine Motel. The next evening, Dr. King was shot as he stepped out onto the motel balcony and rushed to nearby St. Joseph's hospital. At 7:05 p.m. on April 4, 1968, 39-year-old Dr. King was pronounced dead, leaving a nation in shock and sparking riots in more than a hundred cities across the country. James Earl Ray, a white man, was later convicted of the murder.
October 16th, 1968
U.S. Sprinters Protest Racial Inequality on Medal Stand at Olympics
On October 16, 1968, African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos placed first and third in the 200-meter dash at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico. As the national anthem played during the medal ceremony, rather than hold their hands over their hearts and face the American flag, the two men bowed their heads and raised black gloved fists in a silent protest against racial discrimination in the United States. Both men wore black socks with no shoes and Smith also wore a black scarf around his neck. At a press conference following the demonstration, Smith explained he had raised his right fist to represent black power in America, while Carlos had raised his left fist to represent black unity. Smith said the black scarf represented black pride and the black socks without shoes were intended to signify black poverty in America.
The demonstration was supported by Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who wore a patch representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization established in 1967 that had urged athletes to boycott the Olympics to protest racial segregation in the United States, South Africa, and in sports generally. Two days after their gesture of protest, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village for allegedly violating the principles of the Olympic spirit.
Despite their medal-winning performances, the two athletes faced intense criticism and received death threats upon returning home. At the time, their protest was largely perceived as a show of disrespect directed toward the American flag and national anthem, though supporters praised their bravery. Gradually, the symbolic importance of their protest came to be more widely recognized. Today, the image of the two men with fists and heads bowed is one of the most enduring symbols of the American civil rights struggle.
October 23rd, 1969
U.S. Supreme Court Orders Mississippi to Desegregate Schools 15 Years After Brown v. Board
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court struck down racially segregated schools as unconstitutional in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. In the aftermath of the decision, many school districts tried to maintain segregated school systems by adopting new rules adhering to the letter but not the spirit of the Court’s decision. Congress attempted to create incentives for states to comply with Brown by passing legislation that increased federal funding to successfully integrated school districts but many Southern school districts remained resistant and refused to integrate until forced to do so by a series of later Supreme Court rulings.
Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education challenged continued school segregation in Holmes County, Mississippi, where public schools had done nothing to integrate following Brown. When challenged in court, Holmes County officials argued that they were entitled to control the pace of integration, based on the “all deliberate speed” language in Brown. The Supreme Court heard argument in Alexander on October 23, 1969.
Two months later, the Court explicitly rejected the school board’s claim and clarified that “the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter unitary schools.” The strong and unambiguous holding in Alexander intensified the pressure to integrate in school districts across America and signaled that the court system would no longer tolerate segregated public schools.