Michael Brown is killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri

Year
2014
Month Day
August 09

On August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shoots and kills Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in the street of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Protests and riots ensue in Ferguson and soon spread across the country.

There are many different accounts of the incident, including the testimonies of Wilson and of Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time. Many details differ, but most accounts agree that Wilson saw Brown and Johnson walking in the street, demanded they get on the sidewalk, then stopped his police SUV in front of them in order to confront them. He and Brown had an altercation through the open window of the car, during which Wilson fired twice. Brown and Johnson tried to leave, Wilson exited his car to pursue them, and at some point Brown turned back around to face Wilson, who then fired 12 shots, six of which hit Brown. Wilson claimed he fired in self-defense as Brown charged him, which Johnson denied. Many have claimed that Wilson warned Brown he would open fire, and that Brown responded with “Don’t shoot!” before he was killed.

The community immediately reacted with rage at the news of 18-year-old Brown’s death. The shooting ignited long-simmering tensions between the majority-Black population of Ferguson and the local police, who were mostly white. Though public opinion was sharply divided, the protests and riots and the response by Ferguson’s heavily militarized police demonstrated the extent to which the relationship between racial minorities in America and the police had frayed. 

Brown’s name, the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot” and the very mention of Ferguson quickly entered the lexicon of the growing Black Lives Matter movement. 

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President Truman ends discrimination in the military

Year
1948
Month Day
July 26

President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9981—ending discrimination in the military—on July 26, 1948. Truman’s order ended a long-standing practice of segregating Black soldiers and relegating them to more menial jobs.

African Americans had been serving in the United States military since the Revolutionary War, but were deployed in their largest numbers during World War II. By December 31, 1945, more than 2.5 million African Americans had registered for the military draft, and with African American women volunteering in large numbers throughout the war the U.S. Armed Forces had become the number one employer of Black people. By the time WWII ended, some 900,000 African Americans had served in the Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Army Nurse Corps.

Black WWII veterans were eligible for a free college education under the Servicemen Readjustment Act of 1944—the GI Bill—as well as other benefits, but most faced discrimination when trying to access their benefits. This led many veterans to re-examine their poor treatment while they were in service.

READ MORE: How the GI Bill’s Promise Was Denied to a Million Black WWII Veterans

After witnessing racism in the service, Grant Reynolds resigned from his commission as a WWII chaplain and joined with the activist A. Philip Randolph to co-chair the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training. By composing letters and telegrams, holding protest rallies and hearings, and threatening to conduct a nationwide draft resistance campaign, the Committee worked with groups like the Committee to End Segregation in the Armed Forces and the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation to demand equal treatment for Black people in the United States Armed Forces.

READ MORE: When Black Nurses Were Relegated to Care for German POWs

The pressure from these groups pushed President Truman to establish a Commission on Civil Rights which, in October 1947, issued a report calling for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, federal anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws, and a bolstering of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Truman urged the U.S. Congress to move forward with the Commission’s recommendations. When Congress rejected his pleas, Truman pushed for many of the proposals on his own. One of his most significant actions was the signing of Executive Order 9981, which states: “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”

READ MORE: Black History Milestones: A Timeline

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Sandra Bland dies in jail after traffic stop confrontation

Year
2015
Month Day
July 13

Only July 10, 2015, Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia pulls over a 28-year-old Black woman, Sandra Bland, for failing to signal a lane change. After a heated encounter, he arrests her and takes her to a nearby jail. Three days later, on the morning of July 13, she is found dead in her cell, apparently by suicide. The circumstances surrounding her death lead many to question how Bland could end up losing her life following a minor traffic stop. 

Bland’s case drew international outrage over the treatment of Black people by white police officers and became a painful case cited in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Encinia’s dashcam and Bland’s phone both recorded partial videos of the incident. Bland refused Encinia’s orders to put out her cigarette and get out of her car, at which point he brandished his Taser and told her, “I will light you up.” Encinia later claimed that Bland kicked him, prompting him to wrestle her to the ground. The alleged fight was not captured on video—save for Bland describing being knocked to the ground and telling Encinia she has epilepsy. Several days later, an officer sent to deliver Bland her breakfast found her dead, and an autopsy concluded she had hung herself with a plastic bag.

Bland’s family and friends immediately questioned not only her treatment but also the official report of her suicide. Bland was reportedly in good spirits around the time of her arrest, excited by the prospect of a new job she was due to start in a few days. Her death—almost exactly a year after the killing of Eric Garner by the New York Police Department—fit into a pattern of police violence and systemic racism in law enforcement that became increasingly visible to the American public over the course of the 2010s. 

The jail where Bland died was found to have been ignoring protocols regarding prisoner observation, and in 2017, Texas passed the Sandra Bland Act, which attempts to educate police officers about mental illness and de-escalation and mandates that jails divert people with mental health or substance abuse issues into treatment. 

Bland’s name became known across the country shortly after her death and was chanted at racial justice protests for years.

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The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter first appears, sparking a movement

Outraged and saddened after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed a Black teenager in 2012, Oakland, California resident Alicia Garza posts a message on Facebook on July 13, 2013. Her post contains the phrase “Black lives matter,” which soon becomes a rallying cry and a movement throughout the United States and around the world.

Garza said she felt “a deep sense of grief” after Zimmerman was acquitted. She was further saddened to note that many people appeared to blame the victim, Trayvon Martin, and not the “disease” of racism. Patrice Cullors, a Los Angeles community organizer and friend of Garza, read her post and replied with the first instance of #BlackLivesMatter.

As the hashtag became popular on Facebook and Twitter, Garza, Cullors and fellow activist Opal Tometi built a network of community organizers and racial justice activists using the name Black Lives Matter. The phrase and the hashtag were then quickly adopted by grassroots activists and protests all across the country, particularly after the subsequent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and a number of other African Americans at the hands of police officers or would-be vigilantes like Zimmerman. 

Simple and clear in its demand for Black dignity, the phrase became one of the major symbols of the protests that erupted after Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. While polling showed that a majority of Americans disapproved of the Black Lives Matter movement when it first began, in the years following, support for its central arguments grew. 

After the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis unleashed a nationwide protest movement against police brutality and racism, support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased by a 28-point margin in two weeks—almost as much as it had in the preceding two years, according to the New York Times

Perhaps more than any other phrase since “Black Power,” “Black Lives Matter” became a singular rallying cry for the American and global racial justice movements.

READ MORE: Black History Milestones: Timeline 

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Members of the Niagara Movement meet for the first time

Year
1905
Month Day
July 11

Niagara Movement members begin meeting on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls. This all-African American group of scholars, lawyers and businessmen came together for three days to create what would soon become a powerful post-slavery Black rights organization. Although it only lasted five years, the Niagara Movement was an influential precursor to the mid-20th century civil rights movement.

Scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois was a founding member of the Niagara Movement. Twenty-nine men showed up for the group’s initial meeting, which discussed establishing an organization to fight racial segregation and promoting the full incorporation of African Americans into U.S. society.

Du Bois was determined to pit this new group in opposition to the platforms put forward by the Tuskegee Institute’s famed Booker T. Washington—then the nation’s foremost spokesperson on Black issues.

Washington had famously declared in his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech that Black people should remain in the South and work alongside white citizens, even in the face of Jim Crow segregation and race-based violence.

The Niagara Movement opposed Washington’s ideas of appeasement. Members coordinated the creation of several state-level chapters and vowed to agitate for Black voting rights, better health care, education, employment opportunities and civil liberties.

Despite continuing to meet annually around the country, membership in the Niagara Movement only reached a high of 170. A large part of its lack of support was due to its opposition towards Washington, who wielded enough influence to limit publicity about the organization. By 1910, the Niagara Movement had completely disbanded, but its principles lived on in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. 

READ MORE: Black History Milestones: Timeline

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Activist Bree Newsome removes Confederate flag from South Carolina State House

Year
2015
Month Day
June 27

On the morning of June 27, 2015, activists posing as joggers signal to one of their comrades that the police have momentarily turned their attention away from the flagpole outside the South Carolina State House. Having received the signal, Brittany “Bree” Newsome scales the pole, takes down the Confederate flag that was flying there and is placed under arrest. Newsome’s actions reverberated across the nation and eventually resulted in the state of South Carolina permanently removing the flag from its capitol.

Newsome’s civil disobedience came just ten days after a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans in a bible study at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Newsome heard President Barack Obama‘s eulogy for one of the victims, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, as she drove to Columbia. In preparation, she practiced climbing and received advice from Greenpeace activists with experience scaling trees. As she held the flag in her hands, a police officer ordered her to come down, to which she responded, “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” She recited Psalm 23 as she was taken to jail.

READ MORE: How the US Got So Many Confederate Monuments 

Although the flag was flying again within an hour, Newsome’s actions had an immediate and lasting effect. Civil rights leaders and other prominent cultural figures spoke out against the flag and in support of Newsome, with NBA star Dwayne Wade and filmmaker Michael Moore both offering to pay her bail. The protest drew attention to the many Confederate symbols that still held places of public prominence across the American South, and this attention ultimately forced the state of South Carolina to act. 

On July 9, the Republican-dominated legislature of South Carolina passed a bill permanently removing the flag from the capitol building, and Republican Governor Nikki Haley quickly signed it. Newsome later connected her actions to acts of civil disobedience from the first Civil Rights era, equating it to the way “that it demonstrated power and agency for the Greensboro Four to go and sit down at the Woolworth’s counter. ‘You’re saying we can’t sit here? We’re going to sit here.’ You’re saying we can’t lower this flag? We are going to lower this flag today. It was just a feeling of triumph.”

WATCH: Bree Newsome and Diane Nash in Conversation

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Harriet Tubman becomes the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp


Year
1978
Month Day
February 01

Antislavery crusader and Civil War veteran Harriet Tubman becomes the first African American woman to appear on a U.S. postage stamp, the first in the Post Office’s Black Heritage Series. Tubman’s appearance on stamps was emblematic both of the progress made in recognizing African Americans’ contributions to American history and of the ongoing effort to put abolitionists on equal footing with slaveowners in the nation’s historical canon.

Tubman was a singular figure of the abolition movement, a slave who escaped captivity in Maryland and made at least 19 trips back to free more slaves. Tubman is estimated to have helped several hundred slaves find freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad and is said to have “never lost a passenger.” During the Civil War, she freed 700 more when she led Union forces on a raid on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina. In her later life, though she had little money of her own, Tubman worked to house and feed the poor and became an important figure in the fight for women’s suffrage. Despite these extraordinary efforts, which earned her the epithet “the Moses of her people,” Tubman did not receive a pension for her services in the war until 1889 and died with little to her name.

READ MORE: 6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad

Her deeds were not forgotten, however, and in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements there was a push to recognize overlooked figures like Tubman. Her inclusion in the Black Heritage Series put her alongside figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington and Jackie Robinson and spread her image around the country. In 2016, following years of calls from activists, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Tubman’s face would replace that of President Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner and avowed white supremacist, on the twenty-dollar bill. The following year, however, Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, cancelled the switch, saying, “We’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.” In response, a grassroots movement began to stamp Tubman’s image over that of Jackson.

READ MORE: Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist

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Civil rights icon Rosa Parks is born


Year
1913
Month Day
February 04

Rosa Louise McCauley—known to history by her married name, Rosa Parks—is born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913. A lifelong Civil Rights activist, Parks’ name has become synonymous with her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in 1955, a defining moment of the civil rights movement.

Parks was born and raised during the Jim Crow Era, a time of ubiquitous and strictly-enforced racial segregation in the South. As a young girl, she watched white students ride to school on a bus while she had to walk. “The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world,” she later recalled. After moving to Montgomery, she married Raymond Parks, a barber who was heavily involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and became involved with the nascent Civil Rights struggle. In 1943, due largely to her being the only woman at the meeting, she was elected Secretary of the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter. In this role, Parks dealt with the local media, corresponded with other NAACP chapters and processed the many reports of injustice which the organization received.

READ MORE: Before the Bus, Rosa Parks Was a Sexual Assault Investigator

It was partially because of her contributions to the movement and standing in the community that local leaders chose to rally behind Parks when, on December 1st, 1955, she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Parks, like several other women that year, was arrested and fined for violating Jim Crow laws, but it was her action that set the Montgomery Bus Boycott into motion. Civil Rights activists in Montgomery, including the young Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been waiting for the appropriate moment to challenge the city’s segregated transit system. They succeeded in organizing the African American community of Montgomery to boycott the buses for over a year, until a court ruling officially desegregated them on December 20, 1956. The boycott and the triumph of its organizers received nationwide coverage and have gone down as one of the major early victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

READ MORE: Rosa Parks’ Life After the Bus Was No Easy Ride

Parks remained a civil rights advocate for the rest of her life. She moved to Detroit not long after the boycott, but returned to Alabama for the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches and made appearances around the country. For years, she served in the office of Rep. John Conyers, a pioneering congressman from Detroit, acting as a liaison between his office and the community while advocating for housing and economic justice. When Parks died in 2005, she became the first American who was not an elected official to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. A recipient of numerous medals and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Parks continues to hold a hallowed place in the pantheon of American leaders.

READ MORE: Rosa Parks: Her Life and Legacy

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Martin Luther King, Jr. born


Year
1929
Month Day
January 15

On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. is born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. King received a doctorate degree in theology and in 1955 helped organized the first major protest of the African-American civil rights movement: the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott. Influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, he advocated civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to segregation in the South. The peaceful protests he led throughout the American South were often met with violence, but King and his followers persisted, and the movement gained momentum.

A powerful orator, King appealed to Christian and American ideals and won growing support from the federal government and Northern whites. In 1963, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph led the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the event’s grand finale was King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Two hundred and fifty thousand people gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial to hear the stirring speech. 

In 1964, the civil rights movement achieved two of its greatest successes: the ratification of the 24th Amendment, which abolished the poll tax, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public facilities. Later that year, King became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In the late 1960s, King openly criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam and turned his efforts to winning economic rights for poor Americans. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Martin Luther King, Jr

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The first Miss Black America pageant takes place

Year
1968
Month Day
August 17

At nearly three in the morning, Saundra Williams walked across a stage with a cream rhinestone cape around her shoulders, a sash across her torso and a scepter in her hand, ready to be crowned as pageant royalty. Though it was the same night as the Miss America pageant, Williams’ crowning wasn’t just about beauty. It was about protest.

She was the first Miss Black America, and her message was clear: Black is beautiful, too. 

A year before Williams took the stage, J. Morris Anderson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, asked his two young daughters what they wanted to be when they grew up. They gave an answer that most girls at the time would: they wanted to be Miss America. But he knew that the racist standards would keep them from even being considered for the crown. It was then that he decided to do something—to show his girls they could be Miss America, too.

Phillip H. Savage, then director of the Tri-State NAACP, helped the groundbreaking—but then taboo—pageant get national coverage. They decided to hold it the same night, and in the same city, as the Miss America pageant. They chose to start their so-called “positive protest” at midnight, in hopes that newsmen would drop by when they left Convention Hall after the conclusion of the other pageant.

The 19-year-old winner from Philadelphia grew up in a middle class home and said she never experienced racism until she went to college at Maryland State College. For the first time, she walked into a restaurant and was refused service. That’s when she became an activist in the Black Awareness Movement, leading a silent protest march to attempt to integrate that very same restaurant.

For talent, Williams performed a traditional African dance and, during the Question and Answer segment, she shocked the crowd by saying men and women should do equal housework because she thought “the male is getting awfully lazy.”

The men in the audience booed, but it wasn’t enough to cost her the crown, a trip to Puerto Rico, a modeling contract and a trophy.

Williams said being ordained with this crown was even better than winning Miss America. She wanted this to be the first of many positive messages to Black women.

“There is a need to keep saying this over and over because for so long none of us believed it,” she said. “But now we’re finally coming around.”

Sixteen years later, Vanessa Williams would be crowned Miss America. She was the first Black woman to win the honor. The Miss Black America pageant continues to this day.

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