Selma to Montgomery March, March 1965
In early 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made Selma, Alabama, the focus of its efforts to register Black voters in the South. Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, was a notorious opponent of desegregation, and the local county sheriff had led a steadfast opposition to Black voter registration drives: Only 2 percent of Selma’s eligible Black voters had managed to register. In February, an Alabama state trooper shot a young African American demonstrator in nearby Marion, and the SCLC announced a massive protest march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery.
On March 7, 600 marchers got as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma when they were attacked by state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas. The brutal scene was captured on television, enraging many Americans and drawing civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths to Selma in protest. King himself led another attempt on March 9, but turned the marchers around when state troopers again blocked the road; that night, a group of segregationists fatally beat a protester, the young white minister James Reeb.
On March 21, after a U.S. district court ordered Alabama to permit the Selma-Montgomery march, some 2,000 marchers set out on the three-day journey, this time protected by U.S. Army troops and Alabama National Guard forces under federal control. “No tide of racism can stop us,” King proclaimed from the steps of the state capitol building, addressing the nearly 50,000 supporters—Black and white—who met the marchers in Montgomery.
Malcolm X Shot to Death, February 1965
In 1952, the former Malcolm Little was released from prison after serving six years on a robbery charge; while incarcerated, he had joined the Nation of Islam (NOI, commonly known as the Black Muslims), given up drinking and drugs and replaced his surname with an X to signify his rejection of his “slave” name. Charismatic and eloquent, Malcolm X soon became an influential leader of the NOI, which combined Islam with Black nationalism and sought to encourage disadvantaged young Black people searching for confidence in segregated America.
As the outspoken public voice of the Black Muslim faith, Malcolm challenged the mainstream civil rights movement and the nonviolent pursuit of integration championed by Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, he urged followers to defend themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary.” Mounting tensions between Malcolm and NOI founder Elijah Muhammad led Malcolm to form his own mosque in 1964. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca that same year and underwent a second conversion, this time to Sunni Islam. Calling himself el–Hajj Malik el–Shabazz, he renounced NOI’s philosophy of separatism and advocated a more inclusive approach to the struggle for Black rights.
On February 21, 1965, during a speaking engagement in Harlem, three members of the NOI rushed the stage and shot Malcolm some 15 times at close range. After Malcolm’s death, his bestselling book The Autobiography of Malcolm X popularized his ideas, particularly among Black youth, and laid the foundation for the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Voting Rights Act of 1965, August 1965
Less than a week after the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers were beaten and bloodied by Alabama state troopers in March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for federal legislation to ensure protection of the voting rights of African Americans. The result was the Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed in August 1965.
The Voting Rights Act sought to overcome the legal barriers that still existed at the state and local level preventing Black citizens from exercising the right to vote given them by the 15th Amendment. Specifically, it banned literacy tests as a requirement for voting, mandated federal oversight of voter registration in areas where tests had previously been used and gave the U.S. attorney general the duty of challenging the use of poll taxes for state and local elections.
Along with the Civil Rights Act of the previous year, the Voting Rights Act was one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, and it greatly reduced the disparity between Black and white voters in the U.S. In Mississippi alone, the percentage of eligible Black voters registered to vote increased from 5 percent in 1960 to nearly 60 percent in 1968. In the mid 1960s, 70 African Americans were serving as elected officials in the South, while by the turn of the century there were some 5,000. In the same time period, the number of Black people serving in Congress increased from six to about 40.
Rise of Black Power
After the heady rush of the civil rights movement’s first years, anger and frustration was increasing among many African Americans, who saw clearly that true equality—social, economic and political—still eluded them. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this frustration fueled the rise of the Black Power movement. According to then–SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael, who first popularized the term “Black power” in 1966, the traditional civil rights movement and its emphasis on nonviolence, did not go far enough, and the federal legislation it had achieved failed to address the economic and social disadvantages facing Black Americans.
Black Power was a form of both self-definition and self-defense for African Americans; it called on them to stop looking to the institutions of white America—which were believed to be inherently racist—and act for themselves, by themselves, to seize the gains they desired, including better jobs, housing and education. Also in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, college students in Oakland, California, founded the Black Panther Party.
While its original mission was to protect Black people from white brutality by sending patrol groups into Black neighborhoods, the Panthers soon developed into a Marxist group that promoted Black Power by urging African Americans to arm themselves and demand full employment, decent housing and control over their own communities. Clashes ensued between the Panthers and police in California, New York and Chicago, and in 1967 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after killing a police officer. His trial brought national attention to the organization, which at its peak in the late 1960s boasted some 2,000 members.
Fair Housing Act, April 1968
The Fair Housing Act of 1968, meant as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked the last great legislative achievement of the civil rights era. Originally intended to extend federal protection to civil rights workers, it was later expanded to address racial discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of housing units. After the bill passed the Senate by an exceedingly narrow margin in early April, it was thought that the increasingly conservative House of Representatives, wary of the growing strength and militancy of the Black Power movement, would weaken it considerably.
On the day of the Senate vote, however, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Pressure to pass the bill increased amid the wave of national remorse that followed, and after a strictly limited debate the House passed the Fair Housing Act on April 10. President Johnson signed it into law the following day. Over the next years, however, there was little decrease in housing segregation, and violence arose from Black efforts to seek housing in white neighborhoods.
From 1950 to 1980, the total Black population in America’s urban centers increased from 6.1 million to 15.3 million; during this same time period, white Americans steadily moved out of the cities into the suburbs, taking with them many of the employment opportunities Black people needed. In this way, the ghetto—an inner city community plagued by high unemployment, crime and other social ills—became an ever more prevalent fact of urban Black life.
MLK Assassinated, April 4, 1968
On April 4, 1968, the world was stunned and saddened by the news that the civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike. King’s death opened a huge rift between white and Black Americans, as many Black people saw the killing as a rejection of their vigorous pursuit of equality through the nonviolent resistance he had championed. In more than 100 cities, several days of riots, burning and looting followed his death.
The accused killer, a white man named James Earl Ray, was captured and tried immediately; he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 99 years in prison; no testimony was heard. Ray later recanted his confession, and despite several inquiries into the matter by the U.S. government, many continued to believe that the speedy trial had been a cover-up for a larger conspiracy. King’s assassination, along with the killing of Malcolm X three years earlier, radicalized many moderate African American activists, fueling the growth of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party.
The success of conservative politicians that year—including Richard Nixon’s election as president and the third-party candidacy of the ardent segregationist George Wallace, who won 13 percent of the vote—further discouraged African Americans, many of whom felt that the tide was turning against the civil rights movement.
Shirley Chisholm Runs for President, 1972
By the early 1970s, the advances of the civil rights movement had combined with the rise of the feminist movement to create an African American women’s movement. “There can’t be liberation for half a race,” declared Margaret Sloan, one of the women behind the National Black Feminist Organization, founded in 1973. A year earlier, Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York became a national symbol of both movements as the first major party African American candidate and the first female candidate for president of the United States.
A former educational consultant and a founder of the National Women’s Caucus, Chisholm became the first Black woman in Congress in 1968, when she was elected to the House from her Brooklyn district. Though she failed to win a primary, Chisholm received more than 150 votes at the Democratic National Convention. She claimed she never expected to win the nomination. It went to George McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon in the general election.
The outspoken Chisholm, who attracted little support among African American men during her presidential campaign, later told the press: “I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being Black. When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being Black. Men are men.”
The Bakke Decision and Affirmative Action, 1978
Beginning in the 1960s, the term “affirmative action” was used to refer to policies and initiatives aimed at compensating for past discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin. President John F. Kennedy first used the phrase in 1961, in an executive order calling on the federal government to hire more African Americans. By the mid 1970s, many universities were seeking to increase the presence of minority and female faculty and students on their campuses. The University of California at Davis, for example, designated 16 percent of its medical school’s admissions spots for minority applicants.
After Allan Bakke, a white California man, applied twice without success, he sued U.C. Davis, claiming that his grades and test scores were higher than those of minority students who were admitted and accusing UC Davis of “reverse discrimination.” In June 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of strict racial quotas was unconstitutional and that Bakke should be admitted; on the other hand, it held that institutions of higher education could rightfully use race as a criterion in admissions decisions in order to ensure diversity.
In the wake of the Bakke verdict, affirmative action continued to be a controversial and divisive issue, with a growing opposition movement claiming that the so–called “racial playing field” was now equal and that African Americans no longer needed special consideration to overcome their disadvantages. In subsequent decisions over the next decades, the Court limited the scope of affirmative action programs, while several U.S. states prohibited racially based affirmative action.
Jesse Jackson Galvanizes Black Voters, 1984
As a young man, Jesse Jackson left his studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary to join Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in its crusade for Black civil rights in the South; when King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, Jackson was at his side. In 1971, Jackson founded PUSH, or People United to Save Humanity (later changed to People United to Serve Humanity), an organization that advocated self-reliance for African Americans and sought to establish racial parity in the business and financial community.
He was a leading voice for Black Americans during the early 1980s, urging them to be more politically active and heading up a voter registration drive that led to the election of Harold Washington as the first Black mayor of Chicago in 1983. The following year, Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination for president. On the strength of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, he placed third in the primaries, propelled by a surge of Black voter participation.
He ran again in 1988 and received 6.6 million votes, or 24 percent of the total primary vote, winning seven states and finishing second behind the eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis. Jackson’s continued influence in the Democratic Party in the decades that followed ensured that African American issues had an important role in the party’s platform.
Throughout his long career, Jackson has inspired both admiration and criticism for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Black community and his outspoken public persona. His son, Jesse L. Jackson Jr., won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois in 1995.
Oprah Winfrey Launches Syndicated Talk Show, 1986
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the success of the long-running sitcom The Cosby Show—featuring popular comedian Bill Cosby as the doctor patriarch of a close-knit middle-class African American family—helped redefine the image of Black characters on mainstream American television. Suddenly, there was no lack of educated, upwardly mobile, family-oriented Black characters for TV viewers to look to, both in fiction and in life. In 1980, entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), which he later sold to entertainment giant Viacom for some $3 billion. Perhaps the most striking phenomenon, however, was the rise of Oprah Winfrey.
Born in rural Mississippi to a poor unwed teenage mother, Winfrey got her start in television news before taking over a morning talk show in Chicago in 1984. Two years later, she launched her own nationally syndicated talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which would go on to become the highest rated in TV history. Celebrated for her ability to talk candidly about a wide range of issues, Winfrey spun her talk show success into a one-woman empire—including acting, film and television production and publishing.
She notably promoted the work of Black female writers, forming a film company to produce movies based on novels like The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, and Beloved, by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. (She starred in both.) One of the most influential individuals in entertainment and the first Black female billionaire, Winfrey is also an active philanthropist, giving generously to Black South Africans and to the historically Black Morehouse College, among other causes.
Los Angeles Riots, 1992
In March 1991, officers with the California Highway Patrol attempted to pull an African American man named Rodney King over for speeding on a Los Angeles freeway. King, who was on probation for robbery and had been drinking, led them on a high-speed chase, and by the time the patrolmen caught up to his car, several officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were on the scene. After King allegedly resisted arrest and threatened them, four LAPD officers shot him with a TASER gun and severely beat him.
Caught on videotape by an onlooker and broadcast around the world, the beating inspired widespread outrage in the city’s African American community, who had long condemned the racial profiling and abuse its members suffered at the hands of the police force. Many demanded that the unpopular L.A. police chief, Daryl Gates, be fired and that the four officers be brought to justice for their use of excessive force. The King case was eventually tried in the suburb of Simi Valley, and in April 1992 a jury found the officers not guilty.
Rage over the verdict sparked the four days of the L.A. riots, beginning in the mostly Black South Central neighborhood. By the time the riots subsided, some 55 people were dead, more than 2,300 injured, and more than 1,000 buildings had been burned. Authorities later estimated the total damage at around $1 billion. The next year, two of the four LAPD officers involved in the beating were retried and convicted in a federal court for violating King’s civil rights; he eventually received $3.8 million from the city in a settlement.
Million Man March, 1995
In October 1995, hundreds of thousands of Black men gathered in Washington, D.C. for the Million Man March, one of the largest demonstrations of its kind in the capital’s history. Its organizer, Minister Louis Farrakhan, had called for “a million sober, disciplined, committed, dedicated, inspired Black men to meet in Washington on a day of atonement.” Farrakhan, who had asserted control over the Nation of Islam (commonly known as the Black Muslims) in the late 1970s and reasserted its original principles of Black separatism, may have been an incendiary figure, but the idea behind the Million Man March was one most Black—and many white—people could get behind.
The march was intended to bring about a kind of spiritual renewal among Black men, and to instill them with a sense of solidarity and of personal responsibility to improve their own condition. It would also, organizers believed, disprove some of the stereotypical negative images of Black men that existed in American society.
By that time, the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” had sent a disproportionate number of African Americans to prison, and by 2000, more Black men were incarcerated than in college. Estimates of the number of participants in the Million Man March ranged from 400,000 to more than 1 million, and its success spurred the organization of a Million Woman March, which took place in 1997 in Philadelphia.