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: 1957 to 1970
In this post, we’ll look at some key events and people from 1957 to 1970 that changed the course of African American history forever.
The Little Rock Nine – 1957
Despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that desegregation in public schools was illegal, most southern states still strongly resisted the ruling and refused to impose it. In 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, African American activist Daisy Bates led nine black students to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, for their first day of class in a desegregated public school. But, Governor Orval Faubus wouldn’t have it, summoning the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school and refusing to allow the students to enter. Not only were the nine students prohibited from entering the school, they were also subjected to tormenting by groups of white supremacists who considered integration to be a form of communism and genocide. News footage of these scenes sparked nationwide outrage, to the point where President Dwight D. Eisenhower had the Arkansas National Guard removed from the scene. Additionally, the president called in 1,000 heavily armed members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne division to escort the brave black students into the building three weeks later. In response, Governor Faubus shut down every high school in Little Rock in 1958, though a federal court overturned this action. The nine students, known as The Little Rock Nine, changed the course of history and were honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1998.
The Greensboro Sit-In – 1960
Even in 1960, many southern establishments still refused to serve blacks. Fully aware of this, four African American college students entered a Woolworth’s and sat down at the lunch counter. Upon being refused service due to the store’s whites-only policy, the students remained in their seats until the store closed. When it reopened the next morning, the four students did the same thing, only this time they were joined by more students. Media coverage of the Greensboro Sit-In inspired peaceful protests across the south and north, with black and white students joining in the fight against segregation in libraries, hotels, beaches, and other establishments. These protests forced Woolworth’s and many other establishments to change their segregation policies.
Freedom Rides – 1961
In May 1961, seven African Americans and six whites boarded two different buses heading from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans, to test if blacks really would experience freedom in traveling after a 1960 ruling called for desegregation in bus terminals, restrooms and other facilities. Not surprisingly, southern states ignored the 1960 ruling, and the federal government failed to enforce it. So, it came as no surprise when the riders were attacked by segregationists in Alabama, where local law enforcement was slow to arrive at the scene. Angered by what he saw, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the state police to provide protection to the “Freedom Riders” (the name the group came to be known as), as they continued their journey. It didn’t take long to encounter more violence, however–this time in Montgomery, Alabama. In response, Kennedy ordered federal marshals to escort the buses to Jackson, Mississippi. Again, widespread coverage of the violence towards the Freedom Riders led to outrage, and by November 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally enforced the ruling that all passengers on interstate bus carriers should be seated without regard to race or color, and that bus terminals would be desegregated. As a result, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they wanted on interstate buses and trains, “white” and “colored” signs were removed from bus terminals, racially segregated drinking fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms serving interstate customers were consolidated, and lunch counters began serving all customers, regardless of race.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington – August 1963
On August 28, 1963 a quarter of a million people–white and black–converged on the nation’s capital to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the largest demonstration Washington, D.C. had ever seen and a historic event in the fight for civil rights. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, more than a dozen prominent civil rights leaders delivered rousing speeches to the rapt audience of 250,000, which stretched to the Washington Monument. But, it was one passionate speaker who would deliver some of the most memorable words in American, if not the world’s history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of continued non-violent protests in the fight for equality. “I have a dream,” he said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Dr. King’s eloquent and galvanizing speech came to a stirring conclusion with the words from a Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” This is perhaps the singular defining moment of the civil rights movement, and one of the most monumental events in the history of the United States.
Birmingham Church Bombing – September 1963
Unfortunately, Dr. King’s words were not heeded by all. By 1963, racial tensions in the south had ereached a boiling point. As integration gradually spread throughout the south, white supremacist and segregationist groups were out in full force. One of their ugliest displays of hate came in mid-September, when they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during crowded Sunday services. Four young black girls lost their lives in the explosion, the third church bombing in an 11-day span following the federal government’s order that Alabama integrate its schools. Alabama became the focal point of the civil rights movement, with a segregationist governor (George Wallace), some of the most violent Ku Klux Klan chapters in the country, and police brutality against African Americans. Images of black citizens being attacked by police dogs and pounded by torrents of water from fire hoses circulated across the country, leading to even more outrage.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
At the time of his tragic assassination, President John F. Kennedy had been working on civil rights legislation amidst the nation’s racial tensions. President Lyndon B. Johnson picked up where JFK left off, signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on national TV, on July 2. Per history.com, “the act gave the federal government more power to protect citizens against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin. It mandated the desegregation of most public accommodations, including lunch counters, bus depots, parks, and swimming pools, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to ensure equal treatment of minorities in the workplace. The act also guaranteed equal voting rights by removing biased registration requirements and procedures, and authorized the U.S. Office of Education to provide aid to assist with school desegregation.” This law, a long time coming, proved to be a pivotal point in race relations during the 1960s.
Malcolm X’s Assassination – February 1965
Malcolm X was one of the more polarizing figures of the civil rights movement. While in prison in the early 1950s, Malcolm Little joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and renounced his former name, replacing it with an X. With his charisma, eloquence, and intellect, Malcolm X soon became one of the leading figures within the NOI. Outspoken and controversial, Malcolm X opposed the mainstream civil rights movements led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Rather than peaceful protests, Malcolm urged the NOI to defend themselves against white racism “by any means necessary.” His brashness led to friction between him and Elijah Muhmammad, founder of the NOI. By 1964, tensions boiled over to the point where Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and spoke out against the group and its founder. That same year, Malcolm X visited Mecca and was compelled to convert to Sunni Islam, which rejected many principles of the NOI and subscribed to a more inclusive approach to the civil rights movement. By this time, because of his departure and subsequent disparaging comments about the NOI, Malcolm X had a long list of enemies. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was speaking to a group at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, when he was shot and killed at the podium by members of the NOI. Three men were arrested and convicted, but to this day, the identity of the actual killer or killers isn’t a certainty. Malcolm X left behind quite a legacy, with many of his views forming the basis of the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Selma to Montgomery March – March 1965
With a white supremacist governor and a large population of white segregationists, Alabama was quite a difficult place for African Americans to register to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) aimed to change that. After an Alabama state trooper shot a young black protester in February, the SCLC organized a protest march from Selma (where only 2% of eligible black voters were actually registered to vote) to the state capital of Montgomery. On March 7, having barely made it outside of Selma, the group of 600 marchers was met by state troopers armed with whips, night sticks, and tear gas. The group was brutally attacked by the troopers, with the footage captured on camera and shown to an outraged nation. On March 21, a U.S. district court ordered the state of Alabama to allow the march. So the group of now 2,000 protestors (this time protected by U.S. Army troops) made the three-day trek to Montgomery, where they were met by an incredible turnout of 50,000 supporters, both black and white.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 – August 1965
Immediately following the bloody events of Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for federal legislation to ensure the protection of voting rights for African Americans. Passed in August, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enforced the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, eliminated any remaining barriers interfering with blacks’ rights to vote. This proved to be a historic moment in the civil rights movement, helping to dramatically close the gap between the number of white voters vs. black voters. In Mississippi alone, the number of registered black voters skyrocketed from 5% to 60% by 1968. This also helped boost the number of elected African American officials, giving black citizens a voice in the government.
Black Power – 1966
Despite advancements in civil rights, many African Americans were angered by the lack of socio-economic and political equality. In the eyes of many, and similar to Malcolm X’s beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam, non-violent protests were not enough. Some blacks still felt themselves to be considered inferior in many ways, and the government was not doing enough to fix the problem. These frustrations led to the rise of the Black Power Movement, coined by Stokely Carmichael, in 1966 which called on African Americans to stop waiting for the predominantly white government to fix the situation, and to take on the initiative themselves. It was this philosophy that spurred two students from Oakland, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, to create the Black Panther Party. Originally designed to be a patrol group of sorts to protect black neighborhoods from white brutality, the Black Panthers morphed into an aggressive group that urged African Americans to arm themselves and demand full employment, satisfactory housing, and community control. This aggression led to battles with police and in 1967, Huey Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for killing a police officer. By the late 1960s, the Black Panthers were about 2,000 strong before the movement gradually faded in the 1970s.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated – April 4, 1968
Shockwaves were sent throughout the whole world on April 4, 1968, when the most prominent civil rights leader in history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed, at just 39 years of age, in Memphis, Tennessee. In Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike, Dr. King was shot on his hotel balcony, allegedly by a white man named James Earl Ray. Dr. King’s death further opened the racial gap between blacks and whites, as African Americans saw this assassination as a flat rejection of all the civil rights progress that had been made, particularly by Dr. King. Riots, looting, and fire plagued dozens of cities across the country after his death, which is still shrouded in secrecy to this day. While Ray was quickly tried and convicted, many suspected that this was a cover-up by the FBI, whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, was allegedly not a fan of Dr. King’s. There are conspiracy theories (bolstered by some very interesting evidence) that the FBI had Dr. King murdered, and subsequent events, such as Richard Nixon’s election as president as well as known segregationist George Wallace receiving a surprising 13% of the presidential vote, do nothing to dispel the conspiracy notions. This all added up to the growing perception (and even reality) among African Americans that all of the good that came from the civil rights movement was gradually being erased. The loss of such a great leader was a huge blow to African Americans and the world as a whole. To this day, Dr. King’s legacy as an influential figure lives on and will never be forgotten.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 – April 1968
The final historic piece of legislation of the civil rights movement occurred when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law on April 11, 1968. This act prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, or gender. However, this new legislation did not decrease housing segregation, and violence was common as blacks sought housing in white neighborhoods. During this time, African Americans had steadily been moving into urban areas as white people were leaving the cities for suburban homes and taking many employment opportunities with them. This led to urban areas with high unemployment rates and crime, something still prevalent today.
With the height of the civil rights movement now in the past, we’ll move on to the 1970s in the next blog post, and take a look at black history through the turn of the century.