February is Black History Month, a time to honor and remember important African American people and events. There are too many to mention in one blog post, so throughout February we’ll commemorate various individuals and happenings to celebrate Black History Month.The people and events listed here are so vital to American history and make fascinating and important history lessons for your homeschooling.
Pivotal Events and Key Figures: 1972 to Present
In this post, we’ll look at some key events and people from 1972 through today that have changed the course of African American history forever.
Shirley Chisholm’s Presidential Bid – 1972
Before Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, there was Shirley Chisholm. By 1972, the advances of the civil rights movement had combined with the feminist movement to form an African American women’s movement. Shirley Chisholm, a driving force behind the movement, was the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968. A founder of the National Women’s Caucus, Ms. Chisholm decided to use her political standing as a Representative of New York to make a run at the presidential nomination. Though she did not win a primary, she did collect more than 150 votes at the Democratic National Convention, a surprising and very respectable number. Ultimately, George McGovern went on to win the Democratic candidacy (and lose to Richard Nixon in the election), but Shirley Chisholm helped pave the way for both African Americans and women in the world of politics.
Affirmative Action – 1978
In the 1960s, the term “affirmative action” had a somewhat different meaning than it does today. Back then, the term “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 term in 1961, as he sought to get more African Americans working in the federal government. This initiative to diversify the workforce made its way to college campuses across the country by the 1970s, as many universities looked to hire more women and minorities for faculty positions. The University of California at Davis went as far as to designate 16% of its medical school’s admissions to minorities. Affirmative action soon became controversial, however, when a white student named Allan Bakke applied twice to UC-Davis’s medical school and was rejected both times. He sued the university, claiming “reverse discrimination” because his grades and test scores were better than some minority students who were accepted. 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.” The ambiguity of the ruling opened the door for controversy in the coming years, as opponents of affirmative action argued that due to racial equality, African Americans no longer needed the special consideration of affirmative action to obtain jobs or be accepted into schools. Subsequently, many states have since banned racially-based affirmative action.
Jesse Jackson – 1984
Jesse Jackson was a young man when he decided to leave college and join Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He became quite close with Dr. King and was even by his side when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. Mr. Jackson continued Dr. King’s civil rights legacy by creating the Rainbow PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) Coalition in 1971. PUSH aimed to inspire more self-reliance in African Americans and looked to establish racial parity in the financial and business communities. By the early 1980s, thanks in part to his larger-than-life persona and unique speaking style, Jesse Jackson had become a de facto spokesperson for African Americans and urged them to be more politically active. He helped lead the campaign for Harold Washington, who became the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. The following year, Mr. Jackson decided to see how far his political influence reached and made a run for president. Boosted by an impressive showing of black voters, Jesse Jackson placed third in the Democratic primaries. He tried again in 1988 and had even more success, gaining 24% of the total primary vote and winning seven states, but ultimately finishing second behind Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Mr. Jackson still remains a highly visible political figure today, dedicating his time to the betterment of black communities.
African American Rule the Airwaves – 1986
By 1986, many African American actors had established themselves as TV stars. But no one, regardless of race, ruled the airwaves like Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey. The Cosby Show debuted on NBC in September 1984 and was an instant hit, earning a #3 spot in the Nielsen ratings. The following season, The Cosby Show soared to #1 and remained at the top of the ratings until 1990. According to TV Guide, The Cosby Show “was TV’s biggest hit in the 1980s, and almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre and NBC’s ratings fortunes.” The show, which combined comedy with serious real-life situations, broke from racial stereotypes by portraying the Huxtable family as an upper-middle-class, loving family unit, which was a departure from the way most African American families were depicted on TV and in the movies at the time. The Cosby Show paved the way for numerous successful black sitcoms to follow, including A Different World, Living Single, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, and many others.
Also in 1986, a new talk show debuted without much fanfare. After all, its host wasn’t a star, though she had made a name for herself in the news world, serving as youngest anchor and first black female anchor of Nashville’s WLAC-TV news, and then as a 6 o’clock news co-anchor at WJZ-TV in Baltimore. In 1983, Oprah Winfrey moved to Chicago to take over as host for the low-rated 30-minute morning talk show, AM Chicago. Within months, AM Chicago not only improved its ratings, but it overtook talk-show titan Phil Donahue as the most-watched talk show in The Windy City. Oprah signed a syndication deal with King World, expanded the show to an hour, and renamed it The Oprah Winfrey Show. The rest is history. Oprah’s new national show took the country by storm, and she soon surpassed Donahue as the #1 daytime talk show in America. Oprah’s everywoman charm, positive attitude, sympathetic ear, and overall down-to-earth and friendly personality made her a media sensation. Her show ran in syndication until 2011 and remained a pop culture phenomenon throughout its 25 years on the air. But Oprah became much more than just a talk show host. She’s a successful actress and producer. She has created her own TV networks, her own production company, a magazine, and a satellite radio station. She’s written five books. She has interviewed some of the biggest and most powerful figures in the world. She’s been called one of the most influential and powerful women in history by news outlets like CNN and Time. She holds honorable degrees from Duke University and Harvard University. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She has a net worth of nearly $3 billion as of late 2019, making her one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, African American in history.
Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots – 1991, 1992
What may have begun as a routine traffic stop in March 1991 quickly turned into one of the biggest race-related stories in American history. Rodney King was driving while intoxicated on a Los Angeles freeway, when he was signaled to pull over by California Highway Patrol officers. Instead, King led the police on a high-speed chase before finally giving up and pulling over. By then, several other police officers had joined the scene. Claiming that Rodney King threatened the officers and resisted arrest, King was tased and severely beaten by multiple officers. The problem for the LAPD in this case is that a bystander videotaped the entire incident, which quickly made its way onto local and national news broadcasts. For African Americans in L.A., this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as black citizens had suffered for years at the hands of what they saw as blatant racial profiling among the LAPD. So, African Americans were understandably outraged at the incident and demanded justice. The case went to trial in 1992, but justice is not what the African American community would receive. In April 1992, a jury found the officers not guilty, and what happened after the verdict’s announcement is something no one could have prepared for.
The L.A. Riots of 1992 consisted of four days of brutal crime and violence that swept over Los Angeles. Businesses were looted and burned to the ground. People were assaulted and even murdered. By the time order was restored, it was reported that 55 people had died, 2,300 were injured, and more than 1,000 buildings had been torched and destroyed. The damages totaled an estimated $1 billion. The following year, a measure of justice was handed out–two of the four officers were retried and found guilty of violating Rodney King’s civil rights, and King was awarded nearly $4 million by the city. But the damage had been done, and police/African American relations in L.A. remain tenuous to this day.
The Million Man March – October 16, 1995
Organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, The Million Man March saw hundreds of thousands of African American men rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on October 16, 1995. This was to be, as described by Farrakhan, a “day of atonement” for “a million sober, disciplined, committed, dedicated, inspired black men.” Though he often preached a controversial form of black separatism, Farrahkan created this march as a peaceful demonstration intended to instill black men with a sense of solidarity and personal responsibility to improve their own situations, including poverty, unemployment, and urban blight. Organizers also sought to dispel some of the myths and negative stereotypes of black men in America, particularly in the media. Notable speakers that day included Farrakhan, civil rights hero Rosa Parks, renowned author Maya Angelou, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III, all of whom called on participants to “settle disputes, overcome conflicts, put aside grudges and hatreds” and unite in an effort to create a productive and supportive black community that fosters in each person the ability to “seek the good, find it, embrace it, and build on it.” The march’s leaders challenged participants and their families at home to “expand [our] commitment to responsibility in personal conduct…and in obligations to the community.” It’s been estimated that the march drew between 800,000 and 900,000 attendees, though the march’s organizers believe that figure is closer to 1.5 or 2 million.
In conjunction, a national Day of Absence was organized by female leaders for all African Americans. This event encouraged women and men to stay home from work, school, and any other obligations and use the day as one of self-reflection and spiritual reconciliation. A Million Woman March was also organized and took place in Philadelphia on October 26, 1997. Nearly half a million black women attended the rally.
Prominent African American Politicians – 2001, 2004
President George W. Bush made history in 2001 when he appointed General Colin Powell as his Secretary of State, the first African American to serve in that position. General Powell’s time as Secretary of State was not without controversy, as he was a leading voice in the United States’ decision to invade Iraq in 2003. He resigned from the position upon President Bush’s re-election in 2004 and was replaced by Condoleezza Rice, who became the first African American woman to hold the position.
The First Black President – 2008
The 2008 Presidential election was a historic one, as it produced the country’s first-ever African American President, Barack Obama. The 44th President of the United States, Mr. Obama grew up in Hawaii and later attended Harvard Law School before moving to Chicago and becoming involved in the community. In 2006, Mr. Obama became only the third African American since the Reconstruction period to be elected to the U.S. Senate. And only months later, the Illinois Senator announced his candidacy for President. He narrowly beat out Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and went on to defeat John McCain in the general election that November. During his two terms in office, President Obama overhauled the country’s healthcare system, led a Wall Street reform, and helped pull the country out of “The Great Recession”, among other accomplishments. Like any other U.S. President, Obama had his detractors, but his presidency is generally considered favorable among historians. While that may be debatable to some, the fact that he is a pioneering, historic figure is hard to argue.
Black Lives Matter and The Resurrection of White Nationalism – 2010s
Just as it seemed race relations might be making real progress, the 2010s saw a reopening of racial wounds that could take decades to repair. Several notable police shootings of African Americans gave birth to the Black Lives Matter social justice movement, which protests against violence and systemic racism against blacks. Recalling some of the racial horrors of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the civil rights movement to spark change, the Black Lives Matter movement was officially born on July 13, 2013, when Florida police office George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking from his father’s house to a convenience store when he was shot by Zimmerman. The outrage from the verdict led to nationwide protests, but things were about to get even worse between law enforcement and African Americans, as the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, and Atatiana Jefferson made international headlines.
Incidents like these are what fueled and continue to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. Celebrities protested, the most prominent being former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem, stating he could not respect a country that oppresses black people. As more racially sensitive incidents occur, the movement remains strong.
The history of blacks in America is one filled with many difficulties and challenges, but also many triumphs along the way. As African Americans continue the fight for equality, we celebrate Black History Month by recognizing the efforts, the heroes, and the pivotal moments (both good and bad) that define the history.