The Black Lives Matter movement is not new. It has been going on since before the United States was founded. To understand why it is so hard for attitudes to change in the US, it might help to understand its history. The following is a summary of some of the key events leading up to the current Black Lives Matter campaign.
1526 – 1775: Colonial Period
Around 1526 Spanish brought first African slaves to what would later become Georgia.
1606 The founding of the Thirteen British Colonies in America started in 1606. The New England colonies in the north were founded based on religious beliefs. The others further south were based on business and farming. Colonies in the south were largely agricultural and depended on slaves.
1619 Arrival of White Lion pirate ship in Virginia with about 20 Africans is the first documented arrival of African slaves in America.
1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first legal code enacted within the English colonies dealing with slavery. It prohibited slavery in many instances but allowed it in some others.
1672 King Charles II rechartered the Royal African Company as an English monopoly for the African slave and commodities trade.
1680s Slave trade increased dramatically.
1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery condemned slavery within Pennsylvania.
Early 1700s England became the world’s leading slave trading nation. Also during this period England became part of Great Britain.
1735 Georgia became the first colony to make slavery illegal. It was still legal in the other 12 British colonies. This law was reversed in 1750 because Georgia was unable to secure enough indentured servants as laborers.
1775 – 1783: War of Independence from Britain
Both sides in the war offered freedom to slaves who fought for them.
Many slaves escaped due to the disruption of the war. Some joined the British forces in New York.
At the end of the war the British evacuated many ex-slaves who had been freed.
1788: First US Constitution
The words “slave” and “slavery” do not appear in the Constitution, although several provisions clearly refer to it. The Constitution did not prohibit slavery and it was implicitly permitted through provisions such as Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, commonly known as the Three-Fifths Compromise which dealt with how slaves would be counted when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxing purposes.
Article IV Section 2 prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled to them from another state, and required the return of chattel property to owners.
1788 – 1861: Abolition Movement
Slaveholders dominated United States politics throughout this period and the slave-cultivated crops of the South had a strong influence on the economy. Abolitionism was the movement which sought to end slavery immediately.
1780 – 1804 The courts in most Northern states ruled that slaves had a constitutional right to freedom, followed by laws in their state governments abolishing slavery.
Some slaveholders in the South freed their slaves, moved by the revolutionary ideals of equality.
Nevertheless slavery was still legal in the South and there was a strong movement to defend the institution and fight against the abolitionist movement in the North.
1791 Haitian Revolution organized by self-liberated slaves against French rule. Most white men, women and children were killed. Slave owners in Southern states and elsewhere were afraid of a repetition in America.
1800 – 1850 Several unsuccessful revolts of slaves and others partly inspired by Haitian Revolution.
1805 By this date, all Northern states had abolished slavery in some way.
1807 Britain abolished the slave trade.
1808 Importing slaves became a federal crime in the United States. However they were no longer needed since slaves reproduced at a sufficient rate to more than replace those who died.
Breeding of slaves as if they were farm animals was a lucrative business. Selling slaves became a major source of income. Many white slave owners raped their female slaves to produce children they could sell.
1820 Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy. It made importing slaves into the United States an offense punishable by death.
1831 William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the weekly newspaper The Liberator.
1830s saw a shift of attitude in Northern states supporting freeing all slaves. People joined groups such as the American Anti-Slavery Society.
1841 Frederick Douglass gave first speech. Meets William Lloyd Garrison and begins to give lectures.
1845 Douglass publishes Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave which was influential in the anti-slavery movement.
1850 Fugitive Slave Act
It required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to those who claimed to be their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. A suspected slave was not eligible for a trial. This resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery.
1860 Abraham Lincoln won the election on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery. Seven states broke away to form the Confederacy.
1860’s A terrorist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan, flourished in the Southern states. It sought to overthrow the Republican state governments in the South by using voter intimidation and targeted violence against African-American leaders. It died out in the 1870s only to be revived several times later.
1861 – 65: Civil War
1861 The civil war began primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people. War broke out in April 1861 when secessionist forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina shortly after Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as the President of the United States. The loyalists of the Union in the North, which also included some geographically western and southern states, proclaimed support for the Constitution. They faced secessionists of the Confederate States in the South, who advocated for states’ rights to uphold slavery.
1862 Emancipation Proclamation
Presidential proclamation and executive order issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln.
It changed the legal status under federal law of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the secessionist Confederate states from slave to free. However it did not take effect in most Southern states until the end of the Civil War.
1863 Due to Union measures such as the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war effectively ended slavery, even before the institution was banned by constitutional amendment.
1865 End of Civil War. Confederate generals surrendered. The Confederacy collapsed, slavery was abolished, and four million black slaves were freed.
1865 President Lincoln assassinated.
1865 Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President. A southern politician he opposed the Fourteenth Amendment which gave citizenship to former slaves. He supported the Southern states in their Black Codes which deprived the freedmen of many civil liberties. Eventually he was impeached by the House of Representatives.
1863 – 1877: Reconstruction Era
During this period Southern state governments were reconstructed
1865 Following the Union victory in the Civil War, slavery was made illegal in the United States upon the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.
1870 The Fifteenth Amendment (Amendment XV) to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government and each state government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It was the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.
As a result, black politicians were elected but resistance against black political leadership grew in the Southern white populations.
1870 – 1871 Three Enforcement Acts were passed protecting Black American’s right to vote and allowing the federal government to intervene if state governments failed to do so.
1871 Third Enforcement Act also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. It strengthened the President’s powers in his fight against the Ku Klux Klan.
1877 – 1965: Racial Segregation Era – Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. All were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Democratic-dominated state legislatures to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by blacks during the Reconstruction period. The Jim Crow laws were enforced until 1965.
1877 As the last troops were withdrawn from Southern states at the end of Reconstruction, Southern states began to introduce laws to segregate black people from white populations. Such laws are often called Jim Crow Laws.
1873 Colfax Riot. Many black people were killed by white Southerners in Colfax, Louisiana. But the US Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1870 Enforcement Act did not apply to actions of individuals, only to state governments. Consequently white paramilitary groups, such as the White League, began a campaign of intimidation, murder and voter suppression of black people.
1895 Black people began to move north. Black refugees increased during the war of 1812 between the United States and Britain.
From 1890 to 1910, southern states adopted new state constitutions and enacted laws that raised barriers to voter registration. This resulted in most black voters and many poor white ones being disenfranchised by poll taxes and discriminatory literacy tests, among other barriers to voting, from which white male voters were exempted by grandfather clauses. A system of white primaries and violent intimidation by white groups also suppressed black participation.
1896 The U.S. Supreme Court laid out its “separate but equal” legal doctrine for facilities for African Americans.
Racial segregation was extended to public facilities and transportation. Facilities for African Americans were consistently inferior and underfunded compared to the facilities for white Americans; sometimes, there were no facilities for them. As a body of law, Jim Crow institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African Americans living in the South.
Public schools, spaces, transportation, restrooms, restaurants, drinking fountains, the U.S. military and federal workplaces were all segregated for whites and blacks.
1909 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed.
1915 – 1930 The terrorist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan, re-emerged and grew in the South. It took inspiration from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, which mythologized the founding of the first Klan. It died out towards the end of the 1920s.
1930s and 1940s. Numerous boycotts and demonstrations against segregation occurred. The NAACP engaged in litigation cases to combat laws that disenfranchised black voters across the South.
Some of the early demonstrations achieved positive results, strengthening political activism, especially in the post-World War II years. Black veterans demonstrated against employment discrimination, impatient with social oppression after having fought for the United States and freedom across the world.
1954 – Today: Civil Rights Movement
1954 – 1964 Segregation of public schools (state-sponsored) was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
1950s to today: The terrorist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan, re-emerged and still functions as numerous independent groups. In addition there are many white supremacist groups.
1950s and 1960s. Racial integration of all-white collegiate sports teams was high on the Southern agenda. Teams needed top players needed to win high-profile games.
1955 On separate occasions in Montgomery, Alabama, two black schoolgirls, Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, refused to give up their bus seats to white men. This violated Jim Crow laws. Martin Luther King Jr. and others led a campaign to boycott the busses. The boycott lasted for 385 days and the situation became so tense that King’s house was bombed. King was arrested during this campaign, which concluded with a District Court ruling that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. King’s role in the bus boycott transformed him into a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.
1957 Little Rock Central High School. Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent entry of nine African-American students who had sued for the right to attend an integrated school, Little Rock Central High School. After the school year was over Little Rock closed its public school system completely rather than continue to integrate.
1957 Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, with Martin Luther King Jr as president. Only a few churches had the courage to defy the white-dominated status-quo by affiliating with SCLC, and those that did risked economic retaliation against pastors and other church leaders, arson, and bombings. Social activism in favor of racial equality faced fierce repression from police, White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan.
1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act overruled the remaining Jim Crow laws.
2013 Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a movement advocating non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality against Afro-American people. It began on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in 2012. BLM is a decentralized network and has no formal hierarchy.
2020 during nationwide demonstrations over racism and police brutality, President Donald Trump shared tweets depicting Black people as violent and asked why people weren’t protesting over it. This is not new. Business Insider wrote “Trump leaned on racism and xenophobia to garner support during his 2016 campaign, and he’s employing a similar approach as the US gets closer to Election Day.”
African American History: A Captivating Guide to the People and Events that Shaped the History of the United States by Captivating History
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Douglass
Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass: An American Life
US National Archives
Jim Crow and America’s Racism Explained