Civil RightsTimeline – 1839-1956


1839-1849: Supreme Court ruled in Roberts v the City of Boston MA that “separate but equal” was constitutional in education.


January 1, 1865: The Emancipation Proclamation ends American Slavery in the Southern States; Due to communication issues slavery did not end in the State of Texas until June 19th, 1865.


June 13, 1866: The 14th Amendment was proposed and then ratified July 28, 1868.

Amendment XIV

Section 1.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2.

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.

Section 3.

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4.

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5.

The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.


1892- 1896: Plessy v Ferguson, The Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” was constitutional in transportation. Plessy v. Ferguson is a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1896 that upheld the rights of states to pass laws allowing or even requiring racial segregation in public and private institutions such as schools, public transportation, restrooms, and restaurants. The case strengthened the ability of southern states to pass Jim Crow laws discriminating against African Americans and other minorities, and enshrined the doctrine of "separate but equal" as the guiding principle in American race relations and public services. "Separate but equal" remained the law of the land after Plessy v. Ferguson until the Supreme Court invalidated that case with the 1954 decision against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.


The Plessy Decision

Although the Declaration of Independence stated that "All men are created equal," due to the institution of slavery, this statement was not to be grounded in law in the United States until after the Civil War (and, arguably, not completely fulfilled for many years thereafter). In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified and finally put an end to slavery. Moreover, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) strengthened the legal rights of newly freed slaves by stating, among other things, that no state shall deprive anyone of either "due process of law" or of the "equal protection of the law." Finally, the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) further strengthened the legal rights of newly freed slaves by prohibiting states from denying anyone the right to vote due to race.


Despite these Amendments, African Americans were often treated differently than whites in many parts of the country, especially in the South. In fact, many state legislatures enacted laws that led to the legally mandated segregation of the races. In other words, the laws of many states decreed that blacks and whites could not use the same public facilities, ride the same buses, attend the same schools, etc. These laws came to be known as Jim Crow laws. Although  many people felt that these laws were unjust, it was not until the 1890s that they were directly challenged in court. In 1892, an African-American man named Homer Plessy refused to give up his seat to a white man on a train in New Orleans, as he was required to do by Louisiana state law. For this action he was arrested. Plessy, contending that the Louisiana law separating blacks from whites on trains violated the "equal protection clause" of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, decided to fight his arrest in court. By 1896, his case had made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. By a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice Henry Billings Brown, writing the majority opinion, stated that:


1948-1950: Creation of the Women’s Political Action Council (founded by Fair Burk and Jo Ann Robinson), after several black female citizens were arrested and mistreated.


1954: Supreme Court issues the decision in Brown v Board of Education claiming “separate but equal” in education is unconstitutional. Three days after the decision Jo Ann Robinson makes demands known to the City of Montgomery and called for a one day boycott of city bus services.


Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955)

The case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education was actually the name given to five separate cases that were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the issue of segregation in public schools. These cases were Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA.), Boiling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel. While the facts of each case are different, the main issue in each was the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation in public schools. Once again, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund handled these cases.


Although it acknowledged some of the plaintiffs’/plaintiffs’ claims, a three-judge panel at the U.S. District Court that heard the cases ruled in favor of the school boards. The plaintiffs then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When the cases came before the Supreme Court in 1952, the Court consolidated all five cases under the name of Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall personally argued the case before the Court. Although he raised a variety of legal issues on appeal, the most common one was that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violate the "equal protection clause" of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Furthermore, relying on sociological tests, such as the one performed by social scientist Kenneth Clark, and other data, he also argued that segregated school systems had a tendency to make black children feel inferior to white children, and thus such a system should not be legally permissible.


Meeting to decide the case, the Justices of the Supreme Court realized that they were deeply divided over the issues raised. While most wanted to reverse Plessy and declare segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, they had various reasons for doing so. Unable to come to a solution by June 1953 (the end of the Court's 1952-1953 term), the Court decided to rehear the case in December 1953. During the intervening months, however, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died and was replaced by Gov. Earl Warren of California. After the case was reheard in 1953, Chief Justice Warren was able to do something that his predecessor had not—i.e. bring all of the Justices to agree to support a unanimous decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On May 14, 1954, he delivered the opinion of the Court, stating that "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . ."


Expecting opposition to its ruling, especially in the southern states, the Supreme Court did not immediately try to give direction for the implementation of its ruling. Rather, it asked the attorney generals of all states with laws permitting segregation in their public schools to submit plans for how to proceed with desegregation. After still more hearings before the Court concerning the matter of desegregation, on May 31, 1955, the Justices handed down a plan for how it was to proceed; desegregation was to proceed with "all deliberate speed." Although it would be many years before all segregated school systems were to be desegregated, Brown and Brown II (as the Courts plan for how to desegregate schools came to be called) were responsible for getting the process underway.

March 1955: Claudette Colvin is arrested and mistreated on a Montgomery Bus.


April 1955: Aurelia Browder is arrested for violating the segregation laws.


June 1955: Rosa Parks is sent to Highlander to be trained in non-violent resistance.


October 1955: Mary Louise Smith and Susie McDonald are arrested and mistreated on a Montgomery Bus, further escalating the call for a boycott.


December 1, 1955: Rosa Parks arrested for violating segregation laws.


December 3, 1955: Jo Ann Robinson circulated flyers throughout Black communities calling for a 1 day bus boycott if Rosa Parks is convicted.


December 5, 1955: Mrs. Parks is convicted and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) is created, the bus boycott begins and the 1st Mass Meeting is held.


December 8, 1955 – January 23, 1956: MIA and the City officials meet to discuss settlement of the bus issue. During this time (January/February) Martin Luther King is arrested for driving 5 miles over the speed limit and 89 carpool supporters indicted for violating carpooling laws.


February 1, 1956: With Aurelia Browder as the Lead Plaintiff and on the encouragement of the WPC the ground-breaking lawsuit “Browder v Gayle” is filed. Rosa Parks was not on the lawsuit.


May 11, 1956: The case of Browder v Gayle is heard before a 3-Judge Panel in the Middle District of Alabama Supreme Court.


November 13, 1956: Supreme Court rejects the appeal by the City of Montgomery to end the lawsuit and throw out the case: Martin Luther King is found guilty of violating carpooling laws.


December 19, 1956: The Supreme Court rejects a second appeal from the City of Montgomery and orders the immediate desegregation of city buses, which occurred on December 21, 1956 and upheld the lawsuit of Browder v Gayle.


Note on the timeline: The bus boycott of 1955-1956 did not change the law as it related to Plessy vs Ferguson but it  demonstrated the solidarity in the Black community that has been unmatched in any other period in history.  Browder vs Gayle changed the law for all time.


The plaintiffs in the case of Browder v Gayle were – Aurelia E.S. Browder, Mary Louise Smith Ware, Claudette Colvin and Susie McDonald. Leading the charge for equality was Professor Jo Ann Robinson, President of the Women’s Political Council and a professor at Alabama State College.