The African American Legacy and the Challenges of the 21st Century


The Millennium Theme: Heritage and Horizons:

The African-American
Legacy and the Challenges of the 21st Century"


"The basic thing I want you to see is that while this period (the protest phase of the civil rights movement) represented a frontal attack on the doctrine and practice of white supremacy, it did not defeat the monster of racism....The roots of racism are very deep in this country." (27) Martin Luther King made that statement in 1968. Perhaps he wondered how long it would be before African-Americans would truly be able to access the civil rights gained through his nonviolent methods of the 1960's.

The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s were great breakthroughs. Not only did they afford African-Americans legal rights that every American should have, they provided for enforcement of some of the laws by the Federal government. By the early 1970s, Federal agencies had followed suit, instituting directives, policies, and training on race relations and equal opportunity.

The national theme for the Millennium Black History Month celebration: Heritage and Horizons: The African-American Legacy and the Challenges of the 21st Century" captures the essence of the struggle for civil rights during the past 40 years. This document is intended to provide an overview of the civil rights movement from its inception to the present day.


  • January 1, 1863 - Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln (26:1)

  • February 12, 1909 - NAACP founded following a race riot in Springfield, Illinois. Scores of African-Americans killed and wounded and thousands forced from the city. (26:1)

  • 1941 - James Farmer, race relations secretary with pacifist group Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), gathers friends and fellow admirers of Mahatma Gandhi to form Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago. (26:1)

  • 1946 - Supreme Court rules segregation on interstate buses unconstitutional. (26:1)

  • December 5, 1946 - President Harry S Truman appoints President's Committee on Civil Rights. (26:1)

  • 1947 - Fair Employment Practices Committee law was presented in Congress. It would outlaw poll taxes and lynching and do away with segregation in interstate transportation. The law was not passed by Congress. (26:1)

  • 1947 - The Journey of Reconciliation, sponsored by FOR and CORE, takes place. A bus ride through the Upper South used to test interstate transportation compliance; some riders spent a month on North Carolina chain gangs for not leaving the bus in which they were riding. (26:1)

  • April 1951 - Ruby Hurley of New York goes to Birmingham, Alabama, to open first permanent NAACP office in the deep South, and was the first professional civil rights worker in the South. (26:2)

  • May 17, 1954 - The Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, rules school segregation unconstitutional.

  • December 5, 1955 - Rosa Parks arrested for violating bus segregation ordinance in Montgomery, Alabama. (26:2)

  • December 5, 1955 - Montgomery bus boycott sponsored by Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., served as president of MIA. (26:2)

  • February 3, 1956 - University of Alabama was ordered by Supreme Court to admit first Black student, Authoring Lucy. (26:2)

  • February 1956 - Lucy suspended from University of Alabama for her "safety" but reinstated by Federal judge. She was then expelled and did not try to return. No African-Americans attend the University until 1963. (26:3)

  • November/December 1956 - Federal Court decision that bus segregation is in violation of the 15th Amendment was upheld by Supreme Court. Buses in Montgomery, Alabama, are integrated and MIA ends 381-day boycott. (26:3)

  • September 25, 1957 . The Little Rock Nine (Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls) represented the collective resistance of nine Black teenagers in the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School. This 1957 event was the most dramatic test of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka. In an effort to uphold state's rights in opposition to Federal law, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the state National Guard to surround central high to prevent entrance of the Black students, but allowed white students to enter. President Eisenhower responded to the use of state troops to prevent integration by sending 1000 federal troops to protect the nine students. Three weeks into September, the Little Rock Nine entered Central, each with a personal guard for protection. (On November 8, 1999, the Little Rock Nine received the Congressional Gold Medal). Ms. Minnijean Brown-Trickey was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior for Workforce Diversity on November 15, 1999

  • 1958 - The Supreme Court decides that facilities at interstate bus terminals must be integrated, no matter who owns the terminal. (26:4)

  • February 1, 1960 - Students protest in 15 cities in five Southern states after African-American

  • September 9, 1957 - President Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The first Civil Rights law since the late 1800s, it established a Civil Rights section in the Justice Department and a federal Civil Rights Commission to explore problematic conditions and recommend action to correct them. This law was a great motivator to African-Americans at the time. Since it had been so long since a Civil Rights law had been passed, there was now hope that if African-Americans' work against discrimination continued, further breakthroughs were possible. (18:107)

  • 1958 - The Supreme Court decides that facilities at interstate bus terminals must be integrated, no matter who owns the terminal. (26:4)

  • February 1, 1960 - Students protest in 15 cities in five Southern states after African American students in Greensboro, North Carolina, hold a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter. (26:4)

  • 1960 - President Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1960. This law made it illegal to flee persecution if a person was accused of a bombing, or did not follow court orders regarding school desegregation. It also gave federal judges the power to appoint a "referee" to mediate disagreements between state election officials and African-Americans who claimed they were not given the opportunity to register and vote. It was hard to require compliance with this new law because prior to appointing a "referee," the Justice Department had to prove that those qualified to vote had been denied due to race or color. (18:107)

  • May 4, 1961 - African-Americans try to ride in White section of interstate buses, called "Freedom Rides." There was violence throughout the rides, including the burning of a bus, and U.S. Marshalls were sent to restore the peace. (26:5)

  • September 30, 1962 - James Meredith is met by violence as he enrolls in the University of Mississippi. (26:5)

  • June 12, 1963 - Mississippi state chairman of the NAACP, Medgar Evers, is killed in Jackson, Mississippi. (26:5)

  • August 28, 1963 - 250,000 march on Washington. Dr. King delivers "I have a dream" speech at Lincoln Memorial. (26:6)

  • July 2, 1964 - President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law encompassed much of what the civil rights proponents had been desiring for so many years: businesses selling food, shelter, fuel, or entertainment were mandated to sell their goods to all people, no matter what their race; discrimination in the hiring or promoting of employees and labor unions was outlawed; federal money provided to any program allowing discrimination could be stopped; the Attorney General gained the power to use the court to enforce the desegregation of public areas; voting rights were furthered by dismissing literacy tests for anyone who completed the sixth grade; and a federal agency was chartered to help communities solve their own racial dilemmas. The most controversial section of the act, which allowed Blacks to use the same public accommodations (bathrooms, water fountains, etc.) as Whites, was the main focus of a three-and-a-half-month filibuster. This section of the law was controversial at the time but ultimately changed the face of our nation. Fearful of being charged with a crime, business owners abided by the new law and African-Americans ate at the same restaurants and used the same bathrooms as White Americans. (18:107-108)

  • July/August 1964 - Riots throughout the Northeast. (26:6)

  • December 10, 1964 - Dr. King receives Nobel Peace Prize. (26:7)

  • August 6, 1965 - President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This momentous law was one of the most memorable and important pieces of legislation passed during the Civil Rights movement. It prohibited educational requirements to vote in those states or counties where less than 50% of those of voting age had not been registered to vote on November 1, 1964, or voted in the 1964 Presidential election. And to make registration fair and easy, this act gave the Attorney General the power to send federal registrars from the Civil Service Commission to enroll voters. A supervisory role was also established, making the federal district courts in Washington, DC, the approval authority of any new voting procedures in affected states or counties until 1975. (18:559) President Johnson said of the law,

    "many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there is no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right."

    At the same time the bill was passed, President Johnson ordered the Attorney General to legally challenge the use of the poll tax in Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia. (25:A1) Even two years later the results were evident--half of the Blacks qualified to register in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina had done so. (8:779)

  • 1965 - Riots in Los Angeles and Chicago. (26:7)

  • 1966/1967 - Riots in more than 67 cities throughout the country. (26:8)

  • October 20, 1967 - Seven men convicted of conspiracy to murder three civil rights workers in 1964 in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The deputy sheriff and a Ku Klux Klansman are included in those convicted. (26:10)

  • April 4, 1968 - Dr. King killed in Memphis, Tennessee. (26:10)

  • April 10, 1968 - Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This act was brought to the forefront only after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and race relations became more strained. The most notable sections of the act include a prohibition against discrimination when renting or selling lodging, and criminal punishment for stopping someone from performing activities considered part of one's civil rights such as voting, going to school, etc. Civil rights workers, when supporting African-Americans while they take advantage of their civil rights, were also safeguarded. (18:109)

  • June 1, 1969 - The Supreme Court decided businesses considered public accommodations, such as recreation areas, cannot discriminate by considering them "clubs" and allowing only Whites while charging a fee.

  • 1970 - Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act. (18:559)

  • 1970 - Almost 35% of African-Americans in the South attended desegregated schools. (8:779)

  • 1971 - The Supreme Court heard Swam v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and, noting the failure in previous attempts to desegregate schools, allowed busing of students to neighborhoods other than their own to ensure educational opportunities were equal. (24:568)

  • 1972 - 9.2% of Southern African-Americans attended all-Black schools. (14:482)

  • 1972 - The Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed. The most important objective of this act was to grant the capability to enforce the prohibition against discrimination, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could now bring an accused discriminator to court. (26:1)

  • February 15, 1972 - The Senate voted 45-39 to deny enforcement power to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (26:13)

  • 1974 - In "An Anniversary Progress Report," written on the tenth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) noted segregated systems of higher education in public post-secondary schools in ten Southern states. HEW directed the ten states to submit plans to the federal government to integrate public colleges and universities. (33:13)

  • 1975 - Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act. (18:559)

  • July 26, 1975 - Chairman of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee released a survey of six cities which indicated that when income and credit values are equal, mortgage loans to minorities are denied two times as often as loans to White Americans. (26:14)

  • August 1, 1978 - A report from the Commission on Civil Rights showed that women and minority males were still behind White males in education, employment, earnings, and housing. (26:14)

  • 1980 - Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission underwent a number of changes, from the number of members on the Commission to who appoints each member. Some members of the Commission were also under scrutiny for their statements and actions, all of which diverted the Commission from its focus on Civil Rights. (20:3A)

  • May 24, 1980 - In a Newsweek survey, more than half of the 525 African-American adults questioned thought that riots ultimately hurt the cause of civil rights. About half felt that life for African-Americans had improved over the past five years, and half felt their situation would improve over the next five years. (26:15)

  • 1982 - Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act. (18:559)

  • November 2, 1986 - Martin Luther King's birthday was made a national holiday. In the declaration of the holiday, President Ronald Reagan cited "the majesty of his (King's) message, the dignity of his bearing, and the righteousness of his cause." (1:266) The establishment of this holiday was an important part in recognizing those who worked on the Civil Rights movement and their importance in the history of our nation.

  • 1991 - The Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed. Provisions of the act included: workers may seek monetary damages in civil rights cases; workers who prove they were rejected from gaining employment could win an injunction, attorneys' fees, and court costs; the victorious party in a lawsuit may receive the cost of hiring any experts for their case; and alternate ways to resolve disputes (i.e., mediation, arbitration, etc.) were allowed. The law reversed decisions made in five recent Supreme Court cases. (2:3620-3622)

  • 1993 - 11.2% of African-Americans were high school dropouts this year. In 1970, 22.2% of African-Americans were high school dropouts. (30:174)

Today, some issues continue to be in the forefront of the civil rights struggle while others are new. Here are some selected current issues.


One area where some believe educational opportunities are not equal is in gifted programs. African-Americans appear to be over represented in special education programs, but very few participate in gifted programs. Donna Y. Ford of the University of Virginia believes this is because of the tools used to identify children as gifted and stressors felt by African-American children. The tool used by the vast majority of states (88.5%) to identify gifted students is an IQ or achievement test, which doesn't take into account different learning styles, test anxiety, environment, etc. Ford advocates a variety of different means of identifying gifted students, from teacher involvement to grades. (12:52-60) The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is currently working with the State of Georgia to change the way the state identifies gifted students. Currently, selection is based only on IQ scores. (34:4)

The legislative barriers broken during the civil rights movement have not yet translated into equal accomplishments in education. Since 1960, the number of African-Americans who completed four or more years of high school has more than tripled (from 20% to 73%) yet still lags behind White students (82%). Although this gap is not wide in high school, White Americans complete four or more years of college at twice the rate of African-Americans (22.9% of White Americans and 12.9% of African-Americans). (30:157)


August 6, 1995, was the 30th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and it caused many to reflect. Just a year earlier, there had been a landmark decision concerning redistricting. In Miller v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled five to four to uphold a district court's decision that redistricting resulting in three Black-majority districts was unlawful because race was the determining factor in the make-up of the districts. (28:1A) Justice Anthony Kennedy, citing a precedent case in his statement of majority opinion, wrote:

The idea is a simple one: "At the heart of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection lies the simple command that the Government must treat citizens as individuals, not simply components of a racial, religious, sexual or national class."...When the state assigns voters on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that voters of a particular race, because of their race "think alike..."

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg stated that:

"Legislative districting is a highly political business. This court has generally respected the competence of state legislatures to attend to the task. When race is an issue, however, we have recognized the need for judicial intervention to prevent dilution of minority voting strength." (28:1A)


Housing discrimination stills exists; the question is how widespread it is. A recent special report, "True Colors," by the ABC news show Prime Time with Diane Sawyer, followed two men, one White and one Black, through their test transition to moving to a new city. In their search for housing, hidden cameras made the results very obvious. For example, while an apartment was not available for the African-American, it was available for the other man an hour later. This kind of discrimination was evident over the course of their housing search. John Yinger, a professor of economics and public administration and Associate Director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at the Center for Policy Research at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, has written a book about the costs of housing discrimination. He cites cases involving minorities with equivalent or higher incomes than Whites. In these cases, minorities were shown only the homes for which they expressed interest. The Whites, in addition to being shown the homes for which they expressed interest, were also shown similar homes that were available. This type of discrimination may make it difficult for an African-American to find a home when moving to a new area and greatly affects the quality and desirability of their housing. (35:27-28)


Richard Hatcher, former Mayor of Gary, Indiana, and one of the first two Black mayors of a major American city (23:9), sees the struggle of the future as "silver rights" and "economic empowerment" for African-Americans. (19:185)

Others, such as Georgia State Representative Tyrone Brooks, echo his ideas:

"We've won the battle for the right to vote, we've won the battle against segregation, we've won the battle to go to schools of our choice. We have not won the battle in terms of money, the economic challenge." (10:5A)

In 1994, approximately a third of all Black families were below the poverty level, while less than one-tenth of all White families were below the poverty level. (30:48)


If the civil rights movement has achieved its goals, why do so few African-Americans feel they do not have the same opportunities as Whites? An Associated Press poll conducted in 1998 showed that six out of ten White persons believed African-Americans have an equal opportunity. Seven of ten African-Americans polled did not agree. In the same poll, one of every three people thought the United States has not done enough since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. (9:15A)

An article about the costs of integration in the Oakland Post states that when African-Americans moved into White neighborhoods, many African-American businesses could not follow and had to close. Also, when African-Americans all lived in the same neighborhoods, young African-Americans had a variety of role models day after day. Today, some poor, young African-Americans don't see other African-Americans who have attended college. According to the article, this has brought about a "generation of alienated and hopeless youth." The last point relates to integration in schools. According to the article, African-American children have lost much of the African-American history previously taught when the class was only comprised of African-Americans. (21:4)


The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, originally established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, still exists and has expanded its scope. Founded to act as a "fact finding" body, its new mandate includes preparing public service announcements and advertisements to discourage discrimination. (32:1) It now includes eight commissioners picked by Congress and the President. (18:111)

In a 1996 report approved by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the federal government was found lacking in its enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The report cites the Justice Department for "extensive deficiencies" in enforcement of the law in order to "ensure nondiscrimination in all federally funded programs and activities." (31:1)


A well known tragic event in the Civil Rights movement was the killing of civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964. The three men had come to Longdale, Mississippi, to look into the firebombing of a Black church where voter registration had taken place. At a ceremony commemorating the event 25 years later, Rita Schwerner-Bender said, "The only appropriate memorial to the men and women who have participated in this struggle is its continuation." At that same ceremony, Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus reflected,

We acknowledge that dark corner of our past...My heart is full because I know that if James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were to return today, they would see a Philadelphia and a Mississippi that--while far from perfect--are closer to being the kind of place the God who put us here wants them to be. And they would find--perhaps to their surprise--that our trials and difficulties have given Mississippi a special understanding of the need for redemption and reconciliation and have empowered us to serve as a beacon for the nation. (7:57)

Elizabeth Cobbs is a relative of Robert Chambliss. Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was the only person convicted in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church that killed four girls. She remembers sewing the white robes he sometimes wore. But in 1965, she became an informant and risked her life and the lives of her family by cooperating with the FBI. At the time the case wasn't prosecuted, and two other informants were murdered. In 1977, the case was pursued by the Alabama Attorney General's Office and Chambliss was convicted. In Cobbs' book about the case, she says she has learned from her experiences that a person must hold others accountable for their actions and demand honesty from government officials. She states, "For this is the essence of freedom, the very definition of democracy, and our only hope against oppression." (4:15)

Most people believe that Rosa Parks did not intend to start the Civil Rights movement by refusing to give her seat to a White person, she just did not want to get up that day. Not true, says Northwestern University sociologist Charles Payne. He wrote a book about the Civil Rights movement called the Light of Freedom. "Rosa Parks," he says, "was a civil rights activist who so frequently defied jim crow [sic] laws that some Montgomery bus drivers drove right past her rather than allow her to board their buses." (3:20)

Today, when people young and old reflect on the movement, often their views differ, but they retain the same theme. In a recent survey by the Michigan Chronicle, people were asked "What do you see as the greatest contribution of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 60s?" Some responses:

The civil rights movement helped us understand that while racism will probably never go away, we still have the right, no matter what color we are, to be whatever we want to be in life - even President of the United States.

-- Ronald Richardson, 21

I just shake my head in shame sometimes when I see that lack of appreciation and respect that young people have for the folks who paved the way for them. But then again, I can kinda understand because they really can't understand because they were not a part of it. So they can't really appreciate the fight. But I was part of it, and I'd do it all over again because civil rights are something that everybody is entitled to.

-- David McLoughlin, 82

Although I was not born during that time, I realize that it was then that we first began to learn how to cooperate and come up with peaceful and effective solutions to our problems. But one of the things that bothers me most about our generation is that we seem to be abusing those privileges that participants in the civil rights movement fought so hard for.

-- Aaron Holley, 22 (5:1-A)


Can we expect to ever live in a perfect world? Racism may never be fully eliminated from our society. But it would never have been challenged if those who took part in the Civil Rights movement did not have the courage and desire to make all of our lives better.

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