Civil Rights Timeline, 1624 – 2012

Part One: 1624-1947.

1624                The first slaves are brought to New York.

1688                Philadelphia Quakers organize the first protest against slavery.

1763 Jul 7       In early 1763 Indians lay siege to Fort Pitt, near Pittsburgh. The fort’s commander asks Col. Henry Bouquet, for help, stating also that a smallpox epidemic is raging inside the fort. Bouquet writes to British commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who responds on this date, suggesting, “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?” He reiterates the idea in a subsequent letter: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”

1830                Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, requiring Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi River.

1831                In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the Supreme Court rules that Indian tribes are not sovereign nations, but also that tribes are entitled to their ancestral lands and cannot be forced to move from them.

1831-1838       The U.S. Army forces as many as 60,000 Native Americans from their homes, moving them to areas west of the Mississippi River designated as Indian Territory. A Choctaw chief called the removal a “trail of tears and death.” Among the five tribes on the Trail of Tears (Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Cherokee, along with thousands of black slaves), historians estimate that as many as one-fourth of those who set out died before reaching their destination. (maps)

The removal of the Cherokee nation by the U.S. Army, 1838. Painting, The Trail of Tears, by Robert Lindneux, 1942. (public domain)

1832                In Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court rules that whites may not enter tribal lands without the permission of the tribe. White Georgians ignore the Court’s decision, and President Andrew Jackson refuses to enforce it.

1857 Mar 6     In Dred Scott v. Sanford the Supreme Court finds that slaves are property, that they are not and cannot become citizens, and thus that they have no rights of citizenship, such as the right to sue.

1861-1865       The American Civil War begins on April 12, 1861, with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, is usually considered the end of the war. However, a few other Confederate commanders surrendered in the next few weeks, and the terms of amnesty and parole still needed to be negotiated. President Andrew Johnson officially proclaimed the war to be over on August 20, 1866.

1865 Dec 6      The 13th Amendment is ratified, making slavery illegal.

1866 Apr 9      Both Houses of Congress overturn President Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prevents state governments from discriminating on the basis of race.

1866 May 1-3 A race riot in Memphis results in 48 deaths, 5 rapes, many injuries, and the destruction of 90 black homes, 12 schools, and 4 churches.

1868 Jul 28     The 14th Amendment is ratified. It characterizes citizenship as the entitlement of all people born or naturalized in the United States and increases federal power over the states to protect individual rights, while leaving the daily affairs of the states in their own hands.

1870 Feb 17    The 15th Amendment is ratified, guaranteeing that “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” will not be used to bar U.S. male citizens from voting. Tennessee will not ratify it until 1997.

1875 Mar        The Tennessee Legislature passes House Bill No. 527 authorizing racial discrimination in transportation, lodging, and places of entertainment. The Bill receives Senate approval before the end of the month and becomes law (Chapter 130 of the Tennessee Code) It is Tennessee’s first Jim Crow law.

1884 Nov 3     In Elk v. Wilkins the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the 14th Amendment (1868), granting citizenship to former slaves, does not apply to Native Americans.

1887-1888       Elected to the 45th Tennessee General Assembly are Monroe W. Gooden of Fayette County, Styles L. Hutchins of Hamilton, and Samuel A. McElwee of Haywood. After their term ends in January 1889, no more African Americans are elected to the Tennessee legislature until A. W. Willis, Shelby County, takes his seat in the Tennessee House in January 1965, 76 years later!

1890 Nov 1     The Mississippi Plan becomes law. It uses literacy and “understanding” tests to disenfranchise minority voters. Other Southern states soon adopt similar practices to prevent blacks from exercising their right to vote: violence, voter fraud, gerrymandering, poll taxes, literacy tests, white primaries, grandfather clauses, etc.

1896 May 18   In Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court rules that state laws requiring separate-but-equal accommodations for blacks and whites are reasonable and do not imply the inferiority of either race. The 7-1 decision (Justice John Marshall Harlan dissents) will serve as legal justification for segregation for 58 years, until it is finally overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

1902 Dec 1      In Cherokee Nation v. Hitchcock (Ethan Allen Hitchcock was U.S. Secretary of the Interior at the time.), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the United States has the power to overrule Cherokee laws.

1903 Jan 5       In Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, a case involving land allotment on Kiowa land, the Supreme Court established the right of Congress to modify or terminate treaties without Native American consent. The Court declared the Indians to be “an ignorant and dependent race” that must be governed by the “Christian people” of the United States.

1906 Dec 24    In March Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, two African-American lawyers from Chattanooga, convince Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan to grant an appeal to Ed Johnson, a black man wrongly convicted of rape. Meanwhile, a mob drags Johnson from the jail and lynches him. The Court, its authority challenged, finds the defendants (the sheriff, deputies, and members of the mob) guilty of contempt of court in United States v. Shipp. Their own lives now in grave danger, Parden and Hutchins flee the state forever.

1909 Feb 12    The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded in New York by a group of 60 men and women, both black and white. Among its founders are W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Archibald Grimké, and Florence Kelley.

Ida B. Wells Barnett (1862–1931) journalist, educator, and early civil rights leader

1912 Jul 4       Hadley Park is dedicated in Nashville. Originally part of the John L. Hadley plantation (Hadley was a well-known supporter of freedmen’s activities after the Civil War), this is the first public park in the United States for African Americans. Located near Tennessee State University, the park continues to honor the community’s cultural heritage.

1920 Aug 18   The 19th Amendment is ratified, with Tennessee, in a razor-thin vote, becoming the 36th state needed for ratification. Women, both black and white, can now legally vote.

1924 Jun 2       President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting citizenship to Native Americans born within the U.S., along with the right to vote in national elections. At this time most were still denied voting rights by state or local laws, despite the fact that they had already fought in three wars for the U.S. (Canada did not grant citizenship to Indians until 1960.)

1932 Nov 1     The Highlander Folk School opens near Monteagle, Tennessee. It supports the labor and Civil Rights movement with classes in labor education, literacy training, leadership development, non-violent methods, and voter education.

1934  Jun 18      The Indian Reorganization Act (also called the Wheeler-Howard Act) returns to Native Americans the right to reestablish tribal governments on their own reservations, write their own constitutions, and manage their own lands and resources, while also providing funds for education and development of their own businesses. The Johnson-O’Malley Act authorized contracts with states to administer educational, medical, and welfare programs on Indian reservations. It was not until 1974 that Johnson-O’Malley would be amended to encourage Indian administration of these programs.

1939 Apr 9      African-American contralto Marian Anderson performs at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday before a crowd of 75,000 people and a radio audience of millions. After Anderson was denied permission to perform in the D.A.R. Auditorium, Eleanor Roosevelt herself arranged the Lincoln Memorial concert.

Marian Anderson (in dark coat near the piano) sings from the Lincoln Memorial.

1940 Feb 29    Hattie McDaniel wins the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. She is the first African American, male or female, to win an Academy Award.

1940 Apr 7      Booker T. Washington becomes the first African American depicted on a postage stamp.

1940 Oct         Benjamin O. Davis Sr. is promoted to Brigadier General. He is the first black soldier to hold the rank of general. (See also May 16, 1960.)

1942 Apr         The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is established in Chicago by James L. Farmer Jr., George Houser, and Bernice Fisher. Having evolved from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the group espouses the principles of pacifism and believes that non-violent civil disobedience is the appropriate method by which to challenge racial segregation in the United States.

1943                Rosa PARKS joins the NAACP, having served as youth advisor for the Montgomery Chapter since the mid-1930s. She works with the state president to mobilize a voter registration drive in Montgomery. Later that same year she is thrown off a city bus, coincidentally by the same driver who will have her arrested in 1956.

1944                Representatives from various tribal groups organized the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to monitor federal policies. The organization today consists of more than 250 member tribes who work together to secure the rights and benefits to which they are entitles, to maintain rights granted by treaties, and to promote the common welfare of American and Alaskan natives.

1945 Oct 23    Baseball executive Branch Rickey announces that he has signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor-league affiliate Montreal Royals. Robinson will make his debut with the Royals in Daytona Beach on March 17, 1946.

1946                Zilphia Horton, music director at the Highlander Folk School, adapts the lyrics from a gospel hymn by the Rev. Charles Tindley (1851-1933) and creates the song “We Shall Overcome,” which will become the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

1946                African-American football players Kenny Washington and Woody Strode are signed by the Los Angeles Rams, and Marion Motley and Bill Willis join the Cleveland Browns.

1946 Dec 5      President Truman establishes a Committee on Civil Rights, whose task is to study violence against African Americans in the country.

Adapted from a timeline created by Kathy B. Lauder for the TN State Library and Archives, 2013.

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