Notable Moments in Civil Rights History

Read about important events throughout the history of the civil rights movement.
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Dreams & destruction

“I Have a Dream”

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. Speaking from the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of some 300,000 civil rights advocates of all ages and races, his largely improvised remarks were to become his most famous words: “I have a dream today …”

The Sixteenth-Street Bombing

Barely two weeks after King articulated his impassioned vision of peace, a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, during Sunday school. Four young African-American girls died instantly.

Riots erupted in the city as African-Americans expressed their anger. It wasn't until 2002 that the last of the suspects was convicted.

Freedom Summer, 1964

In the summer of 1964 civil rights groups banded together in a massive effort to register African-American voters in Mississippi.

On the March

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in federally assisted government programs and protects the constitutional rights of people of all races in public facilities and public education.

They sent college students and others all over the south knocking on doors. Some southern whites objected to what they called “outside agitators.” On June 21 three young civil rights workers, one African-American and two white, disappeared. Their bodies were found buried in a dam only after President Lyndon Johnson sent Army soldiers to look for them. (See “Remembering Those Who Paid the Ultimate Price” later in this chapter.)

Making the most of the legacy of the assassinated John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, making segregation in public facilities and discrimination in employment illegal.

The Other Side of the Coin

While the majority of activists joined with white supporters in pursuing a course of litigation, sit-ins, and other nonviolent efforts, other forces were also at work. These were separatists, advocates of violent change, or both.

What's the Word?

A separatist is someone who advocates the formal separation of racial or cultural groups.

Stokely Carmichael radicalized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In Oakland, California, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton organized the Black Panthers to provide community services, breakfasts for the poor and elderly, educational programs; patrol African-American neighborhoods; and monitor police treatment of people of color. They dressed in uniforms of black berets and leather jackets and were heavily armed. Their platform, known as the Manifesto (What We Need, What We Want), outlined the demands of a now radicalized African-American citizenry.

The charismatic preacher Malcolm X was converted to the Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad while he was in prison. He was initially a black nationalist and separatist.

Malcolm X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, dedicated to promoting and supporting the notion of “Black Pride.” After he broke with the Nation of Islam in 1965, and after declaring that he favored a more integrated vision for African-Americans, Malcolm X was assassinated while speaking in Harlem. Three of the men arrested in the murder were later identified as members of the Nation of Islam. (Interestingly, Malcolm's assassination prevented him from undertaking his next project, a presentation of charges of U.S. crimes against humanity at the United Nations and the World Court.)

Malcolm's Autobiography (co-written with the author Alex Haley) remains an important piece of American literature.

Excerpted from

The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
Melba J. Duncan
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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