- May 17
- The Supreme Court rules on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., unanimously agreeing that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The ruling paves the way for large-scale desegregation. It is a victory for NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who will later return to the Supreme Court as the nation's first black justice.
- Dec. 1
- (Montgomery, Ala.) NAACP member Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat at the front of the bus to a white passenger, defying a southern custom of the time. In response to her arrest the Montgomery black community launches a bus boycott, which will last for more than a year, until the buses are desegregated Dec. 21, 1956. As newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is instrumental in leading the boycott.
- Rev. King, Charles K. Steele, and Fred L. Shuttlesworth establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King is made the first president. The SCLC becomes a major force in organizing the civil rights movement.
- (Little Rock, Ark.) Formerly all-white Central High School learns that integration is easier said than done. Nine black students are blocked from entering the school by crowds organized by Governor Orval Faubus. President Eisenhower sends federal troops and the National Guard to intervene on behalf of the students.
- Feb. 1
- (Greensboro, N.C.) Four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College begin a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter. Although they are refused service, they are allowed to stay at the counter. The event triggers many similar nonviolent protests throughout the south.
- (Raleigh, N.C.) The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded at Shaw University, providing young blacks a more organized place in the civil rights movement. The SNCC later grows into a more radical organization, especially under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael (1966–1967).
- May 4
- The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) begins sending student volunteers on bus trips to test the implementation of new laws prohibiting segregation in interstate travel facilities. One of the first two groups of "freedom riders," as they are called, encounters its first problem two weeks later, when a mob in Alabama sets the riders' bus on fire. The program continues, and by the end of the summer 1,000 volunteers, black and white, have participated.
- June 12
- (Jackson, Miss.) Mississippi's NAACP field secretary, 37-year-old Medgar Evers, is murdered outside his home. Byron De La Beckwith is tried twice in 1964, both trials resulting in hung juries. Thirty years later he is convicted for murdering Evers.
- Aug. 28
- (Washington, D.C.) About 250,000 people join the March on Washington. Congregating at the Lincoln Memorial, participants listen as Reverend King delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
- Sept. 15
- (Birmingham, Ala.) Four young girls attending Sunday school are killed when a bomb explodes at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a popular location for civil rights meetings. Riots erupt in Birmingham, leading to the deaths of two more black youths.
- The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a network of civil rights groups that includes CORE and SNCC, launches a massive effort to register black voters during what becomes known as the Freedom Summer. It also sends delegates to the Democratic National Convention to protest—and attempt to unseat—the official all-white Mississippi contingent.
- July 2
- President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making segregation in public facilities and discrimination in employment illegal.
- Aug. 5
- Three Mississippi civil-rights workers are officially declared missing, having disappeared on June 21. The last day they were seen, James E. Cheney, 21; Andrew Goodman, 21; and Michael Schwerner, 24, had been arrested, incarcerated, and then released on speeding charges. Their murdered bodies are found after President Johnson sends military personnel to join the search party. It is later revealed that the police released the three men to the Ku Klux Klan. The trio had been working to register black voters.
- Feb. 21
- Malcolm X, black nationalist and founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, is shot to death in Harlem. It is believed the assailants are members of the Black Muslim faith, which Malcolm had recently abandoned.
- March 7
- (Selma, Ala.) Blacks begin a march to Montgomery in support of voting rights but are stopped at the Pettus Bridge by a police blockade. Fifty marchers are hospitalized after police use tear gas, whips, and clubs against them. The incident is dubbed "Bloody Sunday" by the media.
- Aug. 10
- Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for southern blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests and other such requirements that tended to restrict black voting become illegal.
- April 4
- (Memphis, Tenn.) Reverend King, at age 39, is shot as he stands on the balcony outside his hotel room. Although escaped convict James Earl Ray later pleads guilty to the crime, questions about the actual circumstances of King's assassination remain to this day.
- April 20
- The Supreme Court, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, upholds busing as a legitimate means for achieving integration of public schools. Although largely unwelcome (and sometimes violently opposed) in local school districts, court-ordered busing plans in cities such as Charlotte, Boston, and Denver continue until the late 1990s.
- March 22
- Overriding President Reagan's veto, Congress passes the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which expands the reach of non-discrimination laws within private institutions receiving federal funds.
- Nov. 22
- After two years of debates, vetoes, and threatened vetoes, President Bush reverses himself and signs the Civil Rights Act of 1991, strengthening existing civil rights laws and providing for damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.
- April 29
- (Los Angeles, Calif.) The first race riots in decades erupt in south-central Los Angeles after a jury acquits four white police officers for the videotaped beating of African American Rodney King.
- June 23
- In the most important affirmative action decision since the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court (5–4) upholds the University of Michigan Law School's policy, ruling that race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when selecting their students because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
- June 21
- The ringleader of the Mississippi civil rights murders (see Aug. 4, 1964), Edgar Ray Killen, is convicted of manslaughter on the 41st anniversary of the crimes.
- October 24
- Rosa Parks dies at age 92.
- January 30
- Coretta Scott King dies of a stroke at age 78.
- Emmett Till's 1955 murder case, reopened by the Department of Justice in 2004, is officially closed. The two confessed murderers, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were dead of cancer by 1994, and prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to pursue further convictions.
- May 10
- James Bonard Fowler, a former state trooper, is indicted for the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson 40 years after Jackson's death. The 1965 killing lead to a series of historic civil rights protests in Selma, Ala.
- Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduces the Civil Rights Act of 2008. Some of the proposed provisions include ensuring that federal funds are not used to subsidize discrimination, holding employers accountable for age discrimination, and improving accountability for other violations of civil rights and workers' rights.
- In the Supreme Court case Ricci v. DeStefano, a lawsuit brought against the city of New Haven, 18 plaintiffs—17 white people and one Hispanic—argued that results of the 2003 lieutenant and captain exams were thrown out when it was determined that few minority firefighters qualified for advancement. The city claimed they threw out the results because they feared liability under a disparate-impact statute for issuing tests that discriminated against minority firefighters. The plaintiffs claimed that they were victims of reverse discrimination under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court ruled (5–4) in favor of the firefighters, saying New Haven's "action in discarding the tests was a violation of Title VII."