On August 28, 1955, while visiting family in Money, Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and lynched, just days after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in a local store. By the time his remains were found three days later, his body was so disfigured he was only identified by a family ring he was wearing. The brutality of the murder of Emmett Till—and the subsequent acquittals of his killers—galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. Eight years to the day of Till’s death, some 250,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital for the iconic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
August 1955: Emmett Till is Murdered
Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, brought his body back home to Chicago for burial. Eager to shed light on the brutality of her boy’s death, she chose to hold an open-casket funeral. Nearly 100,000 people visited his glass-topped casket during the four-day public viewing.
December 1955: Montgomery Bus Boycott
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. In response to her arrest, 40,000 African Americans boycotted public buses to protest segregated seating, led by the newly-elected leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the pastor of the city’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. The boycott lasted 381 days.
1956: Bombing Threats
In 1956, a wave of bombings and violence targeted civil rights activists. Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was attacked following his involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On Christmas Day, the home of Fred Shuttlesworth, another Alabama civil rights leader, was nearly destroyed when 16 sticks of dynamite were placed near his bedroom window. Police suspected the bombings were the work of the KKK.
1956: SCLC formed
Following the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded by Martin Luther King Jr, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin and others. SCLC was dedicated to using nonviolent methods to end segregation and coordinate protests throughout the South. On May 17, along with the NAACP, they helped organize the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C, held to coincide with the third anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.
1957: Little Rock Nine
In the fall of 1957, nine students registered to be the first African Americans to attend Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls had been recruited by Arkansas NAACP president Daisy Gaston Bates.On September 2, Governor Orval Faubus said he would call in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school, claiming it was for their own protection. Two days later, however, the students decided to attend their first day. Eight of them arrived together in a coordinated carpool. Eckford (pictured) arrived alone, with this iconic image capturing the anger and rage the students faced in their fight to desegregate.
1959: Martin Luther King Jr. Goes to India
In his role as SCLC president, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled across the country and around the world advocating for a nonviolent approach to the fight for civil rights. In February 1959, by invitation of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, took a four-week pilgrimage to India, where they met with other disciples of Mohandas Gandhi.
February 1960: Greensboro Sit-Ins
The nonviolent protests held in Greensboro, North Carolina, sparked a movement throughout college towns in the region. It started with four students from nearby North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College–Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil–who sat at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1. They returned each day with more students, and by February 5 more than 300 had joined the demonstration. The sit-in movement soon spread to 55 cities in 13 states, desegregating dining facilities across the South.
1960: Formation of SNCC
In the wake of the North Carolina sit-ins, SCLC member Ella Baker, James Lawson, Marion Barry and others established the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which aimed to give younger activists a platform within the movement. SNCC would become of the era’s leading forces, organizing the 1961 Freedom Rides, as well as the March on Washington. The group became more radicalized in later years, as the civil rights movement itself fractured.
1961: Freedom Rides
On May 4, 1961, a group of 13 activists launched a series of bus trips through the American South to protest segregation in interstate terminals. Ten days later, a Greyhound bus with the first Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston, Alabama, and was quickly surrounded by about 200 white protestors. After someone threw a bomb in to the bus, the riders fled, only to be attacked and beaten by the angry crowd. The violent response gave their cause international attention, and other Riders took up the cause. By September, the Interstate Commerce Commission had issued regulations prohibiting segregation in bus and train stations nationwide.
1962: Mississippi Riots
James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi in September 1962 met with a violent backlash. After failing to gain admittance to “Ole Miss,” after two successful years at an all-black college, he sued the university with the help of the NAACP. When the discrimination case was ruled in his favor, he arrived at the Oxford campus, where a 2,000-person mob awaited him. The resulting riots led to two deaths and numerous injuries, forcing Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to send in U.S. Marshals and 31,000 federalized National Guardsman. Meredith eventually enrolled in the school, and graduated a year later.
April 1963: Birmingham Campaign
On April 12, Martin Luther King Jr. and nearly 50 other activists, including Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, were arrested after leading a Good Friday demonstration during their Birmingham Campaign, designed to bring attention to the brutal, racist conditions in one of the most segregated cities in America. King was thrown in to solitary confinement in an Alabama jail, unable to contact a lawyer or his wife until President John F. Kennedy intervened on his behalf. After receiving a smuggled newspaper that contained criticism of his tactics by other religious leaders, King composed his famous response, the 7,000-word Letter from Birmingham Jail.
May 1963: Children’s Crusade
King was finally released on April 20 and continued the campaign. Two weeks later, more than 1,000 black schoolkids joined the “Children’s Crusade,” skipping classes to march for integration and equality. Fire hoses and police dogs were turned on the young protestors, with more than 600 jailed on the first day alone. The brutal tactics (spearheaded by “Bull” Connor, the city’s notorious commissioner of public safety) were broadcast across the world, horrifying many Americans, and leading to President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address in June.
June 1963: Medgar Evers is Killed
Evers was a field officer for the NAACP, whose work in Mississippi made him one of the state’s most high profile activists. He led voter registration efforts, organized boycotts of white-owned companies that discriminated and helped investigate the murder and disappearances of several African Americans, most notably Emmett Till. As early as the mid-1950s, his family had become the frequent target of death threats, and their home was firebombed in May 1963. Just weeks later, on June 12, Edgars was shot in the back in the driveway of his Jackson home. The outrage of his death increased support for the legislation that would later become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
August 1963: March on Washington
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” Demonstrators of every background came together in the nation’s capital to demand voting rights and equal opportunity for African Americans and to appeal for an end to racial segregation and discrimination. The peaceful rally was the largest assembly for a redress of grievances that the capital seen to that point. He ended his stirring, 16-minute speech with his vision of the fruit of racial harmony:
“When we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”