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Black History Month Celebrates Trailblazers

For nearly 250 years, America held black men, women and children as slaves. Considered “property,” they worked as servants and on plantations, not by choice and for little compensation.

Today, Black History Month acknowledges the history that contributed to the persistent prejudice and injustice and celebrates African Americans who fought for freedom and civil rights.

A Brief History


The legalized slave trade ended in 1808, but slaves continued to be smuggled into the United States and the millions already held in servitude found no relief. A half-century later, most Northerners opposed the institution of slavery, but Southerners still relied on slaves to work their plantations. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, who opposed expanding slavery, was elected president despite opposition from the South. This resulted in several southern states' withdrawal from the union and their formation of the Confederate States of America.

On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began. Although the war had many causes, in September 1862, Lincoln warned the Confederate states that all slaves would be declared free if the Confederates failed to return to the Union by January 1, 1863.

When the date came, the Confederate States had not returned to the union and Lincoln immediately issued his Emancipation Proclamation. It declared all slaves held by the Confederates "shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves." Slaveholders released few slaves immediately, but two years later, the South surrendered, and the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery. All slaves were finally set free.

Slow Change

Many whites were displeased with the end of slavery. Some even believed whites were God’s chosen people. In 1867, a group called the Ku Klux Klan was formed to intimidate black Americans.

In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified, giving U.S. citizenship to blacks and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. And in 1870, the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act in 1875, guaranteeing African Americans equal rights in public accommodations and jury duty. But the progress was short-lived. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the Act unconstitutional.

During the following decades, change happened gradually. Conservative Southern leaders sought ways to deprive African Americans, creating laws to keep them from voting and legalizing segregation. The Ku Klux Klan took matters into its own hands, capturing and hanging 3,224 men, women and children, mostly black, from 1889 to 1918.

Organizing the Civil Rights Movement

In 1905, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, "We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American—political, civil, social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves but for all true Americans."

Out of his letter came a civil rights organization called the Niagara Movement. It lasted only five years, but it led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910.

Around the mid-1900s, the pace of the civil rights movement took off. In 1948, President Harry Truman created a Civil Rights Commission. He called for an end to school segregation and proclaimed a fair employment policy for federal workers. Over the next few years, state Supreme Court heard school segregation cases. Not all were successful. But on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court ruled school segregation is unconstitutional.

The next decade was turbulent. Many whites refused to accept that black and white children would attend school together. There were bus boycotts and other peaceful demonstrations by blacks and civil rights activists. There were also acts of violence by whites that favored segregation.

Then, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in voting and public accommodations. It also required fair employment practices. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, barring the use of literacy and other tests as a requirement to vote.

Over the past half-century, African Americans have seen continued change and progress in the United States. Still, despite laws to protect their rights, prejudice and discrimination endure.

Blazing the Trail

Dedicated leaders challenged the system and led the way to reform during the past 200 years. We celebrate a few of them here:

Sojourner Truth (1797?-1883) escaped slavery and became a traveling preacher. A talented orator, in 1843, she became the first black woman to speak out against slavery.

Nat Turner (1800-31) led a massive slave revolt, known as the “Southampton Insurrection,” in Virginia in 1831. Nearly 60 white people were killed. Turner and many of his followers were later captured and hanged. Nonetheless, he became a symbol for abolition.

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) escaped slavery in 1849. She helped free more than 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad and served as a spy and a nurse during the Civil War. Later she helped raise funds for African American schools and advocated for women's rights.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) headed and expanded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a college for black students. He believed that black economic independence was necessary to gain social equality. His autobiography, Up from Slavery, was published in 1901.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) founded the NAACP. His goals included ending segregation and the widespread lynching that was taking place in the United States. He also visualized world change and authored many works, including Black Reconstruction (1935).

Thurgood Marshall (1908-93) was the first black United States Supreme Court judge. Before taking the seat, he served as director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Marshall appeared before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education and other monumental civil rights cases.

Rosa Lee Parks (1913-2005) got arrested in 1955 after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. This led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which facilitated the national civil rights movement. In 1979, she won the Spingarn Medal for her courageous contribution.

James Leonard Farmer (1920-99) founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. He and his organization favored nonviolent protests.

Malcolm X (1925-65) became a Black Muslim minister after he converted to Islam. In 1964, he formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated in 1965, presumably by Black Muslims.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) is one of America's most noted civil rights leaders. His leadership included organizing the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the years, he was arrested 30 times for his peaceful civil rights activities. King's extraordinary leadership led to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. He was assassinated in 1968.

Andrew Young (1932) assisted in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also served as the first African American U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

While each of these brave individuals played a crucial role in the movement, they couldn't have done it alone. Millions of Americans throughout history have taken part in the cause. Their cumulative efforts have made an impact—just as the collective contributions of people today can enact change for tomorrow.

Kimberly Blaker is founder and director of KB Creative Digital Services, an internet marketing agency, at