Key Moments Leading up to the March on Washington

from Bill Moyers & Company

May, 1954 – Brown v. Board of Education

When, in 1951, the Sumner School in Topeka, Kansas refuses to admit 9-year-old Linda Brown because she is black, it unknowingly sets the stage for the Supreme Court ruling that would mandate desegregation of all public schools, push segregation and Jim Crow into the public eye and fuel what would become a decades-long civil rights movement. Brown’s case is one of several class action lawsuits brought to the Supreme Court by the NAACP on behalf of black schoolchildren. The Court holds, unanimously, that racial segregation in public schools violates a clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that prohibits a state from denying anyone under its jurisdiction equal protection under the law. It overturns Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 decision that held that segregated public facilities were legal so long as they were equal. “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” writes Chief Justice Earl Warren in the opinion of the Court. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Many officials in the most segregated states feel that the Court’s decision violates states’ rights, and implement only token measures to begin desegregation. Some officials are openly defiant, challenging the decision from different angles in court and passing laws to circumvent it. Integration proceeds very slowly.

Linda Brown with parents Leola and Oliver and little sister Terry in front of their house in Kansas, 1953. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki of Getty Images)

August, 1955 – Emmett Till’s Murder



Left: Emmett Till, about eight months before his death. Right: Emmett Till’s body at the open-casket funeral.


An African-American teen from Chicago is visiting relatives in Mississippi when he makes a fatal mistake. By whistling at a white woman in a grocery store, Emmett Till breaks the unwritten laws of the Jim Crow South. Three days later, two white men drag him from his bed and brutally murder him. In Chicago, Till’s mother makes the fateful decision to let the world see what has happened to her son, and has an open-casket funeral. Thousands witness the brutality the boy suffered, and photos are published and disseminated nationwide in Jet magazine. Despite national outrage and the testimony of eyewitnesses, Mississippi finds the two accused killers not guilty at trial. A short time later, safe from being tried twice for the same crime, the men admit their guilt and describe details of the lynching in Look magazine. Till’s death and his killers’ acquittal help ignite the civil rights movement.

1955-1956 – The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Just a few months after Emmett Till’s murder, a 43-year-old civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and is arrested. Parks’ arrest inspires black leaders to mount a one-day bus boycott. With the help of Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council, 40,000 people are organized in just two days.

On the night of December 5, 1955, elated at the day’s success in emptying the buses, boycotters assemble at the Holt Street Baptist Church and vote to keep the protest going. A main speaker is a new minister in town, the 26-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Because he has no history with the town leaders, other ministers, including Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, persuade King to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association and the boycott. King delivers an inspiring speech, saying, “If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.”

The boycott lasts until December 1956. Boycotters walk and rely on volunteer drivers in a carpool system to get where they need to go, and gain strength in nightly mass meetings. The bus company suffers economically; violence erupts; bombs are thrown at organizers’ homes; and the white Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan hold rallies. At last, a Supreme Court decision integrates the buses, and soon thousands of black riders are on the buses again — sitting where they please.

1957-1962 – Desegregating Southern Schools

Southern whites resist the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, which states that separate school facilities are inherently unequal and orders school integration. Several Southern governors lead the way in preventing integration, claiming the Federal government is intervening in state matters and pledging to maintain the South’s traditions and heritage. The NAACP’s legal team files suit to open the doors of public educational institutions to African Americans.

Mob rule and violence are used to keep Autherine Lucy from enrolling in the University of Alabama in early 1956, although a court decision backs her efforts. In Arkansas, the Little Rock Nine — a group of African-American high school students — pass through angry crowds to integrate Central High School in fall 1957. They are protected by paratroopers dispatched by President Dwight Eisenhower, and advised by state NAACP officials including Daisy Bates. In Virginia, the governor chooses to close schools rather than integrate. In New Orleans in 1960, white residents riot over four black girls entering a desegregated first-grade classroom. And in Mississippi, in 1963, James Meredith is barred from registering at the University of Mississippi by Governor Ross Barnett. As segregationists gather on campus, armed with guns and homemade explosives, the governor and President John Kennedy engage in fruitless negotiations. Kennedy has to decide whether he will take the political risk to actively support civil rights, even as tensions mount. When he sends Federal marshals to the campus, the mob erupts in violence, killing two people and wounding many others before the U.S. Army is sent to restore order. Meredith will enroll and ultimately graduate from the university.

1960 – Sit Ins

Southern cities maintain segregated public facilities including movie theaters, hotels, and lunch counters in downtown stores. In Greensboro, North Carolina, four black college students stage the first sit-in at a white lunch counter.

African Americans take seats in the “white only” section of a Woolworth’s in Atlanta for the second straight day, Oct. 20, 1960, during a sit-in demonstration. The counter was closed as soon as the demonstration began. W.O. McClain, manager of the Woolworth store, second from right, talks to a spectator. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

Activist Jim Lawson holds workshops in non-violent protest at Nashville’s Fisk University. He attracts people like college student Diane Nash and seminarians John Lewis and C. T. Vivian, and teaches non-violent direct action tactics adopted from Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, including peaceful resistance.

The protesters, dressed in their best clothes, target Nashville’s lunch counters, where they sit and wait to be served. The stores respond by closing the counters, but the students continue to sit, quietly doing homework. After several weeks, their protest attracts gangs of white toughs, and police who arrest the activists for disorderly conduct. More students sit to take their places, filling the jails and refusing to pay fines. When punched or assaulted by segregationists, the protesters do not retaliate, but simply protect themselves and each other.

The sit-in movement spreads to 69 cities across the South, black communities organize economic boycotts, and sympathetic Northerners picket local branches of the department stores. In Nashville, a climate of fear culminates in a bombing that destroys the house of Alexander Looby, a black lawyer who has been working with the activists. Thousands march to City Hall and confront Mayor Ben West. After the mayor concedes that the lunch counter segregation is wrong, businesses quickly desegregate. Elated with their success, students found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

1961 – The Freedom Rides

After the 1960 presidential election, civil rights activists pressure the Kennedy administration to support their cause and existing laws. The Supreme Court has banned segregation in interstate travel twice, but Southern states widely ignore the rulings. In May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sends mixed-race groups of non-violent volunteers, known as Freedom Riders, on bus trips into Dixie. They meet minor resistance in the upper South, but when they get to Alabama, trouble erupts. Segregationists firebomb a bus in Anniston, Alabama, and Klan members attack the passengers as they disembark in Birmingham.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy tries to protect the Riders, telling Governor John Patterson he will send federal troops if the state can’t maintain law and order. On the next leg of the trip, from Birmingham to Montgomery, the promised state police escorts evaporate. The Riders are assaulted and bloodied when they arrive in Martin Luther King’s home town. As the violence rages, Kennedy calls in U.S. marshals, and ultimately Patterson is forced to dispatch the Alabama National Guard as well.

When the riders continue into Mississippi under protection, they encounter heavy police presence and no violence — but they are arrested in Jackson and sentenced to the maximum-security Parchman Penitentiary for trespassing. CORE sends more riders to the South to keep the protest going. Over the course of the next few months, 300 riders are arrested and sentenced in Mississippi. The activists find camaraderie in Parchman, singing freedom songs and providing mutual support. Ultimately, the Freedom Riders win their battle when Kennedy gets the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in interstate travel.

Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, is notorious for its segregation and racial hatred, gaining the nickname “Bombingham” for the many violent acts against black citizens. Governor George Wallace declares, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” in January 1963.

Spring, 1963 – Project “C” in Birmingham

Activists in Birmingham launch Project “C” — for “confrontation.” Although the city government is in a state of confusion following a disputed election, the segregationist commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor, takes charge. When Martin Luther King is arrested, he writes his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which justifies the movement’s work. In early May, activists begin recruiting children to march. By the end of the first day, 700 have been arrested. On May 3rd, 1,000 more children show up to peacefully protest, and Connor turns high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs on them, creating some of the most indelibly violent images to date. Horrified Americans see it all on the news. After five days, 2,500 protesters fill the jails, 2,000 of them children.

Birmingham business leaders make a deal with protesters after 38 days of confrontation. The city promises to desegregate public facilities and begin an employment program for black people downtown. In response, George Wallace says the deal was not made by the legitimate leaders of Birmingham, and the Klan bombs King’s hotel. Though King has already left town, a crowd gathers, and are beaten by state police with clubs and rifles. A riot follows, and black protests spread to other cities, showing that the non-violent approach has limits.

In September of that year, the Ku Klux Klan bombs the 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. Fifteen people are injured and four young girls are killed, filling many in the movement with rage. It will be 14 years before the first of three men, Robert Chambliss, is brought to justice in 1977; his companions Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Lee Cherry will not be convicted until 2001 and 2002, respectively.

August, 1963 – The March on Washington

Soon after the events in Birmingham, civil rights leaders announce plans for a mass march in Washington, D.C. to demonstrate for jobs and freedom. Attorney general Robert Kennedy, fearing more violence, is opposed to the plan. But long-time labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who first proposed such a march during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in 1941, and Bayard Rustin, organizer of the march’s complex logistics, press ahead.

On August 28, more than 200,000 people gather in peace and unity on the National Mall. Behind the scenes, SNCC leader John Lewis’ speech causes conflict for its harsh words against the Kennedy administration and the nation’s slowness to correct injustices. Persuaded by the 75-year-old Randolph to tone down the rhetoric, Lewis delivers an amended speech and few know of the controversy. The speech that will go down in the history books, however, is the one delivered by Martin Luther King as he stands before the Lincoln Memorial. “I have a dream,” he declares, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…”