Colin Powell Becomes Secretary of State, 2001
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993—the first African American to hold that position—the Vietnam veteran and four–star U.S. Army general Colin Powell played an integral role in planning and executing the first Persian Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush. After his retirement from the military in 1993, many people began floating his name as a possible presidential candidate. He decided against running, but soon became a prominent fixture in the Republican Party.
In 2001, George W. Bush appointed Powell as secretary of state, making him the first African American to serve as America’s top diplomat. Powell sought to build international support for the controversial U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, delivering a divisive speech to the United Nations regarding that country’s possession of weapons material that was later revealed to be based on faulty intelligence. He resigned after Bush’s reelection in 2004.
In another history-making appointment, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s longtime foreign policy adviser and the former head of the National Security Council, succeeded Powell, becoming the first African American woman to serve as secretary of state. Though he largely stayed out of the political spotlight after stepping down, Powell remained an admired figure in Washington and beyond.
Though he continued to brush off any speculation of a possible future presidential run, Powell made headlines during the 2008 presidential campaign when he broke from the Republican party to endorse Barack Obama, the eventual winner and the first African American to be elected president of the United States.
Barack Obama Becomes 44th US President, 2008
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States; he is the first African American to hold that office. The product of an interracial marriage—his father grew up in a small village in Kenya, his mother in Kansas—Obama grew up in Hawaii but discovered his civic calling in Chicago, where he worked for several years as a community organizer on the city’s largely Black South Side.
After studying at Harvard Law School and practicing constitutional law in Chicago, he began his political career in 1996 in the Illinois State Senate and in 2004 announced his candidacy for a newly vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. He delivered a rousing keynote speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention, attracting national attention with his eloquent call for national unity and cooperation across party lines. In February 2007, just months after he became only the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
After withstanding a tight Democratic primary battle with Hillary Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, Obama defeated Senator John McCain of Arizona in the general election that November. Obama’s appearances in both the primaries and the general election drew impressive crowds, and his message of hope and change—embodied by the slogan “Yes We Can”—inspired thousands of new voters, many young and Black, to cast their vote for the first time in the historic election. He was reelected in 2012.
The Black Lives Matter Movement
The term “Black lives matter” was first used by organizer Alicia Garza in a July 2013 Facebook post in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida man who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Martin’s death set off nationwide protests like the Million Hoodie March. In 2013, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi formed the Black Lives Matter Network with the mission to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter first appeared on Twitter on July 13, 2013 and spread widely as high-profile cases involving the deaths of Black civilians provoked renewed outrage.
A series of deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police officers continued to spark outrage and protests, including Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland Ohio and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed attention on September 25, 2016, when San Francisco 49ers players Eric Reid, Eli Harold, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem before the game against the Seattle Seahawks to draw attention to recent acts of police brutality. Dozens of other players in the NFL and beyond followed suit.
George Floyd Protests
The movement swelled to a critical juncture on May 25, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic when 46-year-old George Floyd died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by police officer Derek Chauvin.
Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a local deli in Minneapolis. All four officers involved in the incident were fired. In April 2021, Chauvin was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Floyd’s killing came on the heels of two other high-profile cases in 2020. On February 23, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was killed while out on a run after being followed by three white men in a pickup truck. And on March 13, 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor, was shot eight times and killed after police broke down the door to her apartment while executing a nighttime warrant.
On May 26, 2020, the day after Floyd’s death, protestors in Minneapolis took to the streets to protest Floyd’s killing. Police cars were set on fire and officers released tear gas to disperse crowds. After months of quarantine and isolation during a global pandemic, protests mounted, spreading across the country in the following days and weeks.
Kamala Harris Becomes the First Woman and First Black US Vice President, 2021
In January 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman and first woman of color to become vice president of the United States. Then-candidate Joe Biden had nominated Harris in August 2020 during the Democratic party’s “remote” national convention. Harris, whose mother immigrated to the United States from India and whose father immigrated from Jamaica, was the first person of African or Asian descent to become a major party’s vice presidential candidate—and the first to win the office.
In her victory speech in November 2020, Harris said that she was thinking “about the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women—who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight—women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all.”
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Ferguson shooting victim Michael Brown. BBC.
George Floyd Protests: A Timeline. The New York Times.
Tamir Rice. PBS.org.
The Matter of Black Lives. The New Yorker.
The Hashtag Black Lives Matter. Pew Research.
The Path to Eric Garner’s death. The New York Times.
Timeline of Murder Trial of Amber Guyger. ABC.
Black History Milestones: Timeline