Lawrence extends its gratitude to Congressman John Lewis for his lifelong commitment to the advancement of civil rights for all people, and for joining us at Lawrence University's 166th commencement exercises. This will be the Congressman's third visit to Lawrence. He spoke to a student group in 1964 and at convocation in 2005.

Congressman Lewis and Jim Zwerg will both receive honorary degrees at commencement; Lewis will also deliver the principal address.

Now 75 years old, Congressman Lewis is the youngest of the "Big Six," the civil rights leaders who led the 1963 March on Washington. Cinema showings of Selma and PBS's American Experience: Freedom Riders at Warch Campus Center offered students the opportunity to follow the early years of John Lewis's career as a civil rights leader. He continues a career of service to social justice as a representative in the U.S. Congress.

Find details on commencement. Plan to join us, or watch live online.

Below, explore some of the significant events in the American civil rights movement. Expand the links to see and hear Lawrence University Associate Professor of History and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies, Jerald Podair, describe significant events in their historical context.

Timeline of a Movement: Civil Rights

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1941 +

  • President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 8802, directing that black Americans be accepted into job-training programs, forbidding discrimination by defense contractors and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission.

1947 +

  • Journey of Reconciliation
  • Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American to play major league baseball.

1948 +

  • President Harry Truman signs Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces and setting the stage for desegregation in the U.S. military.

1954 +


  • Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Plessy V. Ferguson and states that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal,” paving the way for desegregation in schools. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP argued the case.

1955 +

  • Kidnapping, beating and murder of Emmett Till. Till’s white murderers are acquitted by an all-white jury and later boasted about the killing in a magazine interview. (August 27)
  • Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat at the front of the “colored” section of a bus for a white passenger, defying custom and leading to her arrest. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than a year and ended with the desegregation of the buses.

1956 +

  • End of Montgomery bus boycott, after Montgomery announces that it will comply with a November Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation of buses illegal.

1957 +

  • Establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (February)
  • The “Little Rock Nine” are blocked from entering school on the orders of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. National Guard troops intervene but are blocked by the Supreme Court. School resumes and the black students enter through a side door; an angry mob leads to their removal before noon. (September)

1960 +


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  • Four black students organize a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., beginning a sit-in movement that leads to integration of public facilities throughout the South. (February)
  • President Kennedy signs Executive Order 10925, prohibiting discrimination in federal government hiring on the basis of race, religion or national origin. (March)
  • The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., providing young blacks with a more prominent place in the civil rights movement. (April)

1961 +


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  • Freedom Rides: A group of 13 African-American and white civil rights activists launch bus rides across the South, testing the Supreme Court rulings on segregation in the bus system. Black Freedom Riders try to use facilities labeled “whites only,” and vice-versa; violence erupts. John Lewis is viciously attacked in Rock Hill, S.C., and Jim Zwerg is savagely beaten by a mob in Montgomery, Ala. (May)

1962 +

  • James Meredith becomes the first black man to enroll at University of Mississippi. The violence in reaction prompts President Kennedy to send in 5,000 National Guard troops. (October)

1963 +


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  • Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evans is murdered outside his home in Jackson, Miss. (June)
  • More than 200,000 people join in the March on Washington, congregating at the Lincoln Memorial. Keynote speakers include Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. (August)
  • Bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Four young girls are killed. Riots erupt in Birmingham, Alabama. (September)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. receives the Nobel Peace Prize.

1964 +

  • 24th Amendment abolishes the poll tax, which had been in place in 11 southern states and made it difficult for many blacks to vote. (January)
  • President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (July) Mississippi Freedom Summer, a voter education and registration project, is launched.
  • Bodies of three Freedom Summer activists murdered by Mississippi Ku Klux Klan members are found. (August)

1965 +


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  • Malcolm X is assassinated. (February)
  • Selma to Montgomery, Ala., marches, including the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The march was finally completed under protection of 25,000 federalized National Guard troops. (March)
  • Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (August)
  • President Lyndon Johnson signs Executive Order 11246, enforcing affirmative action. (September).

1967 +

  • Detroit race riots result in 43 deaths. Riots erupt across the country.
  • Supreme Court rules in Loving v. Virginia that the prohibition of interracial marriage is unconstitutional. (June)
  • Thurgood Marshall is confirmed by the Senate as the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court. (August)

1968 +

  • Martin Luther King Jr. is shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Violence erupts across the country. (April)
  • President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting housing discrimination. (April)

1971 +

  • Supreme Court upholds busing as a legitimate means for desegregation, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. (April)

1973 +

  • In Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colo., Supreme Court addresses intentional—and unlawful—segregation in Northern schools.



1988 +

  • Congress passes Civil Rights Restoration Act—overriding President Reagan’s veto—to extend the reach of nondiscrimination laws into the private sector. (March)

2003 +

  • Supreme Court, in Grutter v. Bollinger, upholds University of Michigan Law School’s policy on including race as a factor for student selection.


Jim Zwerg, Freedom Rider

Born and raised in Appleton, Jim Zwerg attended Beloit College, where he observed his classmates of color enduring racist treatment by white peers. The experience led him to a semester exchange at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and went on to become a Freedom Rider.

Jim shares a few thoughts for our graduates below:

Anton Valukas '65

As part of a Civil Rights Week program he helped organize in 1964, Anton Valukas '65 played a leading role in bringing a young John Lewis to Lawrence for the first time. Valukas, who delivered Lawrence's 2012 commencement address, shares some reflections on that time and Lewis' return to campus as this year's commencement speaker.