The civil rights movement in the United States happened in much the same way a character in the Ernest Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises went bankrupt: gradually then suddenly.
Seminal moments in the struggle of black Americans like the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the lynching of Emmett Till, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred within a span of just 19 months in the mid-1950s.
In the same way videos of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have ignited a wave of unrest and protest in 2020, images of the mutilated corpse of 14-year-old Emmett Till had a similar effect in the fall of 1955. Till was abducted and lynched by two men in Mississippi after the white proprietor of a grocery store alleged he whistled at her and uttered obscenities. At his funeral in his hometown of Chicago, Till’s mother insisted on an open casket to show the world what the two men had done. The images were printed in African-American publications the Chicago Defender and Jet, and were soon picked up by the wider mass media. Till’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury but later admitted to killing him under the protection of double jeopardy. His accuser admitted to fabricating parts of her story.
On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in the segregated city of Montgomery, was riding a public bus and sitting in the front row of the “colored” section at the back of the bus. When the white section filled up, the bus driver ordered Parks and other black passengers to vacate their seats for white passengers. Parks refused and was arrested and fined $10. In response, a boycott of Montgomery’s buses—whose ridership was 75% black—was organized by the NAACP, black church leaders, and other black community groups. A legal challenge to the segregation of buses was mounted, and a federal court ruled the bus segregation unconstitutional under the equal rights clause of the 14th Amendment, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in December 1956. A day after the decision, on Dec. 21, black residents ended the bus boycott after 381 days.
Emerging as a leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott was 26-year-old pastor Martin Luther King Jr., who was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and soon after formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to unify other black churches to end segregation across the South. On May 17, 1957, King’s status as a leader of the civil rights movement was cemented with his “Give Us the Ballot” speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom—a demonstration held to urge the U.S. government to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education ruling across the country, on the third anniversary of the decision.
“Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights…Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law…Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill…Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy…Give us the ballot and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954.” —Martin Luther King Jr.
Six years later, at the March on Washington, King would deliver his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” before a crowd of 250,000, which included an estimated 60,000 white allies to the cause of black Americans. King’s speech, which invoked the words of the founding fathers, Lincoln, and the U.S. Constitution, was broadcast live on television and radio. Afterward, King and other march leaders met with President John F. Kennedy to discuss civil rights legislation. Kennedy would be assassinated before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
Freedoms won under the the act included the end of segregation in public places, and the outlawing of employment discrimination based on sex, race, religion, or national origin. But many Southern states still obstructed black people from voting. In February 1965, while peacefully protesting black disenfranchisement in Selma, Ala., a young Baptist deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten by state troopers and shot dead by state trooper James Bonard Fowler. In response, three marches were held in March 1965 along the 54-mile highway from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. The first march, organized by the SCLC’s James Bevel and Amelia Boynton Robinson, would come to be known as Bloody Sunday as the protesters who crossed Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge were met by state troopers and possemen on the other side who beat them with billy clubs and used tear gas. The Selma to Montgomery marches were considered instrumental to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prevented states from restricting access to the ballot box.
From Jesse Owens embarrassing the Nazis, to Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, to Muhammad Ali refusing the Vietnam draft, sports have always been political. Nowhere was that more visible than at the 1968 Olympic Games held in Mexico City where American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested racial injustice back home. During the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race, Smith—who set a world record and won gold—and Carlos, who took bronze, donned black gloves, bowed their heads, and raised their fists during the national anthem. The pair left the podium to boos and were expelled from the Games. Facing a hostile reception back home, the men have been honored in the decades since and set a template for athletes peacefully protesting at major events.
For five months in 1978, hundreds of Native American activists and their supporters walked from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to take a stand against the backlash to American Indians gaining rights to tribal lands and levels of self-governance. Speaking at a rally in Washington, D.C., at the end of the walk was actor Marlon Brando, who five years earlier rejected the Best Actor Oscar in protest of the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began in the early 1980s, was largely ignored by the American government for most of the decade, with members of the Reagan administration dismissing it as “the gay plague.” It wasn’t until 1985 that Reagan would publicly mention the disease, by which point 24,000 Americans—mostly gay and/or from communities of color—had died from it. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in New York City in 1987 to fight for funding research and access to experimental treatments and to fight discrimination against people with HIV.
In March 1991 construction worker Rodney King was severely beaten at the hands of 14 Los Angeles Police Department officers following a high-speed chase on suspicion of drunk driving. King would have been just another black victim of police brutality were it not for a nearby witness videotaping the assault and sending it to a local news station. The videotape caused a furor and pushed Los Angeles prosecutors to try four of the officers involved. But in April 1992, three of the four officers were acquitted, and the jury could not agree on one charge for the fourth. This lit the fuse for black communities in Los Angeles who saw it as another sign that the justice system would not protect them, even when a police assault was captured on video. Six days of rioting saw 63 people killed, more than 2,000 injured, and more than $1 billion in damage to property.
The Million Man March was a gathering of black men held on Oct. 16, 1995. Organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who was joined by Christian and secular black civil rights leaders, the march aimed to “convey to the world a vastly different picture of the black male.” Speakers included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, as well as Farrakhan himself. Two years later, a Million Woman March was held in response to criticism that the original march excluded black women.
Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black high school student, was walking through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., when he got into an altercation with armed neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman, who shot him dead. Claiming self-defense, Zimmerman was not charged initially, sparking widespread protests across the country, and prompting President Barack Obama to call for a full investigation into the shooting. Zimmerman was eventually charged but was acquitted at trial, with the jury accepting he acted in self-defense. In response to the acquittal, community activist Alicia Garza posted on Facebook: “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter…Our lives matter,” thus coining the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
In 2016, following the highly public deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and too many more to name, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to protest the U.S. national anthem as it was played before preseason NFL games. Initially Kaepernick sat on the bench during the anthem, but after a conversation with a former Green Beret, he chose to kneel as a sign of respect for the military while also protesting injustice in the country. He was joined by teammate Eric Reid, and soon hundreds more across the league would follow suit and kneel throughout the season. Kaepernick’s protest would contribute to the end of his NFL career with no team picking him up after he opted out of his contract with the 49ers in 2017.
Which brings us to the moment we’re in now. In the crucible of quarantine, brewing unrest over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Louisville was ultimately ignited by the video of George Floyd being killed by police in Minneapolis. People have taken to the streets under the banner Black Lives Matter, demanding the redirection of police resources as well as an end to qualified immunity for police officers.
As part of ongoing rallies in support of Black Lives Matter, protesters gathered outside Brooklyn Museum in New York City to proclaim that Black Trans Lives Matter. Trans people, especially black trans women, are disproportionately murdered in the United States.
More coverage on the intersection of race and business from Fortune:
- Working While Black: Stories from black corporate America
- Why making Juneteenth a company holiday is a powerful statement
- Stacey Abrams: Safeguarding voting rights fights the “virus” of systemic racism
- Fortune survey: 62% of CEOs plan policy changes in response to current calls for racial justice
- How Sean “Diddy” Combs is helping black-owned businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic