A Timeline of Civil Rights

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A Brief History

This article serves as a sort of table of contents to other articles on this site by presenting a chronological listing of bizarre events in the history of civil rights.  For the purpose of this timeline, we are expanding “civil rights” to include “natural rights,” “gay rights,” and “women’s rights” rather than just limiting the timeline to “African-American rights”.

Digging Deeper

On April 22, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered a speech that may well have led to the successful formation of the United States.  Known as the “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death” speech, Henry was addressing the Virginia Convention of the Virginia legislature known as the House of Burgesses.  Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were there, and the mesmerizing effects of Henry’s stirring speech were enough to sway the delegates to vote for pledging the Virginia militia to the revolutionary army.

On November 7, 1775, the first movement to free African-Americans from slavery (also known as “emancipation”) took place when the Royal Governor of Virginia offered freedom to any slave willing to fight for the British against the American Revolution in an announcement called “Dunmore’s Proclamation.” About 800 to 2000 African slaves accepted the offer, causing fear and rage among Virginia’s slave holders. Over the course of the revolution, an estimated 100,000 slaves tried to take advantage of similar British offers, and at least 3000 slaves were sent to Nova Scotia as freemen.

On November 18, 1803, Haitians won their independence, not with the Devil’s assistance, but with their victory at The Battle of Vertières, the last major battle of the Haitian Revolution.  The victory lead to the establishment of the Republic of Haiti, the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere.

On March 21, 1804, the Code Napoleon became the law of France, and went on to influence legal reforms in many other countries.

On March 3, 1859, the largest sale of African slaves in the United States came to a sad conclusion near Savannah, Georgia when the last slaves formerly owned by plantation owner Pierce Mease Butler (1806-1867) were sold in order for Butler to satisfy his considerable debts.

On December 17, 1862, the stormy history of the United States concerning civil rights was once again marked by a shameful disregard for human rights when Major General Ulysses S. Grant, future President of the United States, issued his infamous Order No. 11, an order expelling all Jews from the military district he commanded, which included Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.

On February 3, 1913, a dark day indeed for Americans, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was adopted, making it legal to institute an income tax!

On February 13, 1920, the Negro National League of professional baseball was founded, not the first all African American baseball league, but the first to last more than one season and the foundation for African American professional baseball in the United States.

On August 18, 1920, the United States ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, that which gave women in the US the right to vote, also known as women’s suffrage.  Women have struggled since the dawn of man to be treated equally with men, both under the law and in common practice.

On November 4, 1924, the citizens of Wyoming made the historic step of electing the first woman governor of any state in the United States. This should not be too much of a surprise, as Wyoming was also the first state to allow women to vote on December 10, 1869, a date that is celebrated in Wyoming as “Wyoming Day.” In 1889, Wyoming passed a state constitution that specifically stated the right of women to vote, the first such clause in any constitution in world history.

On January 3, 1933, history was made in North Dakota when Minnie D. Craig became the Speaker of the House of Representatives for the State of North Dakota. As such, Craig became the first Speaker of any political House of Representatives in any of the United States.

On December 16, 1938, world famous dictator and villain Adolf Hitler directed his Nazi German Empire (Reich) to issue a new medal, one only for mothers. The new medal would be only for women of German ethnicity living within Germany (an later other German areas incorporated into Germany).

On June 3, 1943, US Navy sailors and US Marines tangle with Latino young men in what is known as The Zoot Suit Riots

On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the desegregation of the US military.  At times presidents cannot or will not wait for congress to act on a subject and they take it into their own hands by issuing an “Executive Order.”  

On December 25, 1951, Civil Rights activists Harry T. Moore and Harriette V. S. Moore were killed by a bomb explosion at their home in Sanford, Florida.

On March 21, 1952, disc jockey Alan Freed (inventor of the term “rock and roll”) and record store owner Leo Mintz staged the first rock concert in Cleveland, Ohio!

On April 8, 1952, President Truman ordered the Federal government to take control of the nation’s largest steel mills to prevent a strike that would interrupt steel production.

On October 27, 1954, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became the first African-American General (Brigadier, or 1 star) in the US Air Force. In 1998 he was promoted by President Clinton to (full) General (4 star rank). His accomplishment is all the more notable as his father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. had became the first African-American General in US Army history in 1940, a time when the US military was still segregated.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, the celebrated civil rights pioneer, triggered the “Montgomery Bus Boycott” in Alabama by refusing to sit in the back of the bus as decreed by segregation laws of that time.  She held her nerve even when threatened with arrest.  She later recalled, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true.  I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then.  I was forty-two.  No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  For her courageous actions, she has been hailed as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”, while being labeled the fourth most influential woman in history.

On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, an event commemorated in the 1988 feature film, Mississippi Burning.  Advocating or campaigning for civil rights of various groups of people has been an historically dangerous business.

On August 28, 1964, the City of Philadelphia erupted into a race riot when the predominantly African American neighborhoods of North Philadelphia in the Columbia Avenue area broke out into a full blown riot between the police and African American residents that had long complained of police brutality.

On June 13, 1966, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Miranda in Miranda v Arizona, creating the requirement for police to inform people of their rights before questioning.  

On June 30, 1966, the Women’s movement took a giant leap forward when the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by 28 women’s rights activists.  Soon, terms like feminist and Women’s Liberation became common, and a new force in the civil rights movement flexed its muscles.

On December 21, 1965, the United Nations, often accused of being a useless organization, outlawed racism by passing The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. This agreement went into effect in 1969 and to date has 87 signatory nations (somewhat less than half of nations in the United Nations).

On December 22, 1965, one more bit of personal freedom went the way of the dinosaur in the United Kingdom when a 70 mph speed limit was set on all rural roads. Prior to this law, there had been no speed limit, and this is in the country with the most cars per mile of road than any other country in the world.

On July 4, 1966The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted, with an effective date one year later, July 4, 1967.  In keeping with the wondrous and mysterious ways of Washington, DC, the FOIA was repealed the next day!  Not to worry, a virtually identical FOIA was enacted on July 5, 1967, and was effective from July 4, 1967.

On February 11, 1968, Memphis Tennessee African-American garbage collection and sewer workers went on strike, prompted by the horrible death of two garbage men crushed in the back of a garbage truck.

On October 16, 1968, 2 US Olympic athletes on the medal stand each raised a black gloved fist during the playing of the US National Anthem to protest the lack of human rights in the US, particularly against African-Americans. What is little remembered is that both African-American medallists wore no shoes, but only black socks to symbolize Black poverty in the US. Both Americans and also the Silver Medalist from Australia wore “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badges as well as other symbols of protest. The 2 Americans were expelled from the Olympics by an irate International Olympic Committee, but their message certainly had been delivered, with millions of people seeing the photograph of what has become an iconic symbol of protest.

On November 27, 1968, the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, (American Basketball Association, a major league basketball rival of the NBA) actually put a woman on the court in a real basketball game. Using the 5’3” Penny Ann Early was just a publicity stunt, but it happened, making her the first (and so far only) major leaguer of any of the top professional American sports to be a woman. (For these purposes, we mean baseball, football, basketball and hockey. Sorry soccer and auto racing. Besides, auto racing uses machines, we mean people sports.)

On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police took the “war” with the Black Panthers (militant African-American extremists) right into the bedroom when they shot to death the sleeping Fred Hampton.

On February 9, 1971, baseball pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first player from the Negro Leagues so honored.

On January 4, 1972, the famous Old Bailey court in London England witnessed the first appointment of a female judge to the bench when Rose Heilbron was appointed, raising the question, are women physically and emotionally fit for judging other people? Should they have life altering decisions in their hands? Nancy Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States on January 4, 2007, putting her only 2 heartbeats from becoming President of the United States. Should she or any other female be permitted to wield the nuclear club?

On March 22, 1972, the US Supreme Court decided that unmarried Americans were allowed to have sex!

On October 11, 1972, a race riot took place not in a city, but at sea!

On December 15, 1973, the American Psychiatric Association decided by a vote of 13-0 to erase homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders. Obviously, prior to this the psychiatric world of medicine had considered homosexuality a mental problem, and this ruling was a major step in society redefining sexual orientation.

On April 8, 1975, slugger Frank Robinson became the first African-American major league baseball manager when he managed the Cleveland Indians opening day game.  

On November 27, 1978, Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down by an irate former supervisor.

On December 22, 1984, the tables got turned on thugs when their victim shot them!

On May 13, 1985, the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia was the scene of a chaotic and tragic ending for the cult led by John Africa. The headquarters was bombed by a helicopter killing 11 people and 60 other houses were burned down.

On May 19, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an act of Congress known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act.  This law was passed in response to allegations of abusive enforcement by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

On March 3, 1991, the combination of George Holliday and his home video camera and selective use of portions of that video by the news media shocked the country and profoundly affected American History!

On April 29, 1992, the lower income areas of Los Angeles erupted with violence, pent up anger released after the acquittal of 4 white police officers accused of beating Rodney King, one of history’s most evil people, after a high speed pursuit.

On December 31, 1993, transgender person Brandon Teena was raped and murdered, the inspiration for the 1999 major motion picture, Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hillary Swank.

On May 13, 1998, Jakarta (or Djakarta) Indonesia experienced race riots directed against the ethnic Chinese minority. These Indonesians of Chinese descent owned many of the shops and stores, creating jealousy and ill will, resulting in looting and rape. 

On February 4, 1999, New York City police fired 41 bullets at an unarmed immigrant, Amadou Bailo Diallo, hitting him 19 times!

On March 20, 2000, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin was arrested for shooting 2 police officers, killing one of them.

On May 22, 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry, former member of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

On December 10, 2013, Mary Barra became the CEO of General Motors Corporation, the first woman to be in charge of an automobile company. GM of course, is a giant company with a convoluted bureaucracy that has weighed it down from being the biggest, most important company in the world to being a blundering corporate joke that needed a government bail out to survive.

Question for students (and subscribers): What else still needs to be done with regards to Civil Rights?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Turck, Mary C.  The Civil Rights Movement for Kids: A History with 21 Activities (For Kids series).  Chicago Review Press, 2000.


About Author

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.