On the 1st December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama after the white section of the bus became full. Her refusal led to her being arrested for civil disobedience, after which her act became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. Three days later, plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott were announced.
Rosa Parks was already active in the Civil Rights movement, having been elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP at the end of 1943. Outside this role she worked as a housekeeper and seamstress to Clifford Durr, a white lawyer with a history of taking cases that challenged the government.
At approximately 6pm on the 1st December, Parks boarded a bus on her way home from work. She took her seat in the segregated “colored” section, but before long the white section of the bus filled up. The driver, James F. Blake, moved the “colored” sign to the row behind where she was sitting and insisted that the black people sitting on the row give up their seats for the newly-boarded white people.
Although the three other passengers got up, Parks remained in her seat. After Blake asked her again to move she apparently replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” In response he called his supervisor before then calling the police to arrest her for breaking Chapter 6, Section 11 of the city code which specified that passengers had to obey the driver’s seat assignments. That evening, the Women’s Political Council became the first group to endorse a boycott.
On the 29th November 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong threw the first of at least 132 African slaves overboard in a massacre intended to allow them to cash in their insurance policy. When the insurers refused to pay, the ensuing court cases found that the killing of slaves was legal in some cases. At the time the massacre and the subsequent legal rulers had little impact, but within just a few years it became a central example of the horrors of the Middle Passage and stimulated the abolitionist movement that expanded in the years following.
The Zong was originally a Dutch slave ship that was captured by a British gunship in February 1781. Having been sold to a syndicate of Liverpool merchants, it departed from Accra in modern day Ghana on the 18th August. 442 slaves were on board the ship at this point – more than twice the number that it was capable of safely transporting.
By the third week of November drinkable water was running low, but the problem was not identified until after a navigational error meant the ship had sailed 300 miles past its destination of Jamaica. With death from thirst a high likelihood, the ship’s crew voted purposefully drown some of the slaves in order to ensure the survival of the ones remaining on board.
The massacre began on the 29th November and continued for two more days. Due to deaths from disease and malnutrition, in addition to the wilful mass murder, the ship arrived at Jamaica with only 208 of its original 442 enslaved people on board.
Bridges was born in 1954, the same year that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. Although the court ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed”, there was significant opposition and some local school districts placed further legal obstacles in the way of segregation.
Despite her father’s initial reluctance to expose his daughter to the potential trouble that integration was expected to cause, six year-old Ruby Bridges was put forward for an academic entrance test to determine whether she should be allowed to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School. The school was situated just five blocks from her home in New Orleans, yet Bridges had previously needed to attend a segregated kindergarten a number of miles away.
Having passed the entrance exam, and with the school district unable to delay integration any longer, Ruby Bridges and her mother were driven the short distance to the school accompanied by four federal marshals. Crowds of protesters lined the streets and, with the threat of violence hanging over the young girl and her family, she spent the entire first day in the principal’s office.
Only one teacher at William Frantz Elementary agreed to teach Ruby and, although some white families that had boycotted the school slowly returned to classes, for an entire year Ruby was taught on her own. Outside school the Bridges family also experienced hardships including Ruby’s father being made redundant, but other members of the community rallied round to support them.
Davis was born in Washington D.C. and, although his army records and gravestone claim that he was born in 1877, his biographer has found a census document that suggests he was actually born three years later and falsified his birth year in order to join the army.
Davis first entered military service following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and later served as Professor of Military Science and Tactics at both Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee University in Alabama as well as serving tours of duty around the world. Having been assigned to the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard in 1938, he later took command of the unit and was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 25 October 1940.
During the Second World War, Davis was an influential member of the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. Having been tasked with improving race relations and securing the morale of black soldiers in the European theatre, he lobbied to end segregation and introduce full racial integration. Davis was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) on 22 February 1945 for his ‘wise advice and counsel’ that ‘brought about a fair and equitable solution to many important problems which have since become the basis of far-reaching War Department policy.’
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. died on 26 November 1970 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., had already followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming the first African-American general in the United States Air Force.
On the 4th September 1957 a group of nine black schoolchildren were prevented from entering the previously segregated Little Rock Central High School by the Arkansas National Guard acting on the orders of Governor Orval Faubus. The Little Rock Crisis gained national attention, and was only resolved when President Eisenhower intervened and sent troops from the 101st Airborne Division to protect the nine students.
The desegregation of American schools began after the United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to segregate public schools on the grounds of race in the historic ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954. Little Rock School District declared its intention to begin integrating Little Rock Central at the start of the 1957 school year under the terms of the Blossom Plan, drawn up by school superintendent Virgil Blossom. However, Governor Faubus claimed that there was danger of “tumult, riot and breach of peace and the doing of violence to persons and property” if the black students who had enrolled were allowed into the school. Consequently he ordered the National Guard to prevent them from entering, effectively overruling the Supreme Court.
Almost three weeks later, on September 23, President Eisenhower issued proclamation 3204 that ordered the National Guard to stand down. However, the order was ignored and so Eisenhower removed control of the National Guard from the state and placed it in the hands of the federal government. The 101st Airborne Division were sent to Little Rock the next day, and on the 25th September the nine students were finally able to enter the school for good.
On the 28th August 1963, American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The sixteenth of eighteen speeches given by different people as part of the March On Washington, ‘I Have a Dream’ is regularly described as one of the best speeches of the Twentieth Century.
Designed to demonstrate mass support for President Kennedy’s Civil Rights legislation, the March on Washington saw approximately 250,000 people from across the United States converge on the National Mall. Taking place on the centenary of President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in which he declared the freedom of slaves, Martin Luther King’s speech paid homage to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which had reiterated the Declaration of Independence’s principals of human equality.
Claiming that America had not fulfilled the promises made in the Declaration of Independence towards black people, it is the ideal of an integrated and equal America that made up the ‘I have a dream’ refrain. King had already included this refrain in a number of earlier speeches, and hadn’t intended to make it part of his speech in Washington. However, he chose to deviate from his prepared speech when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had performed I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned directly before King’s speech, called out “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Extensive media and television coverage of the march meant that the speech was witnessed across the nation and encouraged Kennedy’s administration to push forward with its Civil Rights legislation.
On the 5th August 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested near the South African town of Howick and imprisoned facing charges of inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without a passport. He wasn’t released for nearly 28 years.
Mandela was a leading figure of the anti-apartheid movement and protested peacefully against the racist system. However, having been imprisoned after being found guilty of treason, he adopted more militant tactics on his release and soon became a wanted man. His arrest came after he spent 6 months travelling in disguise around Africa and to London in order to win support for the movement.
The trial began on the 15th October, with Mandela representing himself and using his defence speeches as a way to promote the African National Congress’ “moral opposition to racism”. In his “black man in a white man’s court” speech, for example, he said he would serve the sentence handed down by the court but would continue to fight against racial discrimination.
Having been sentenced to five years imprisonment Mandela was jailed in Pretoria, Robben Island, and Pretoria again within a 9 month period. Shortly after his return to Pretoria he and nine other defendants were charged on four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government and put on trial in what became known as the “Rivonia Trial”. The trial brought international attention to the anti-apartheid struggle but, having been found guilty, Mandela and his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was finally released in 1990 after 27 years, six months and five days.
On the 1st August 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act came into force in the United Kingdom, although it had received royal assent a year earlier. The Act outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire, although there were some exceptions such as in areas controlled by the East India Company.
Although Parliament had outlawed the slave trade itself in the Slave Trade Act of 1807, that Act only served to stop the creation of new slaves. It did not address the issue of existing slaves working in the colonies. It was these existing slaves that the new Act sought to address, and although it did abolish slavery the impact took a long time to be felt.
A key problem facing the government was what to do with the former slaves. The Act addressed this issue by stating that former slaves over the age of six became ‘apprentices’ and continued to work on largely the same plantations in largely the same conditions as before. Many of them were only fully emancipated six years later in 1840.
The former slave owners themselves were also dealt with in the Slavery Abolition Act. It’s important to remember that the Act effectively stripped slave-owners of their property. The logic therefore went that the slave-owners needed to be compensated for their loss of property, so the Act established the Slave Compensation Commission who awarded the equivalent of £17bn in today’s money – funded by the taxpayer – to 46,000 slave owners. A searchable online database of every slave-owner who was awarded compensation is available to view at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
On the 15th June 1215, Magna Carta – one of the most famous documents in the world – was approved by King John when he added his seal to it in a field at Runnymede near Windsor in England. Latin for ‘the Great Charter’, Magna Carta was issued to deal with the political crisis facing John due to a group of rebellious barons.
Magna Carta is so celebrated because, for the first time in English law, it confirmed the principal that everyone – including the king – was subject to the law of the land and gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. This sounds incredibly progressive, but the reality is that at the time many people in England were not free men – they were villeins who could only seek justice from their lord.
Furthermore, although many people celebrate the 1215 Magna Carta, it ultimately failed to solve the dispute between John and the barons. Just 10 weeks later Magna Carta was declared ‘null and void of all validity for ever’ by Pope Innocent III in a papal bull. This led to the First Barons War, a civil war that erupted in September and that was still being fought when John died a year later.
Magna Carta was reissued many more times by subsequent monarchs, and the 1225 version was finally entered onto the statute roll in 1297. Although almost all of its clauses were repealed or superseded in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Magna Carta is still regarded as a symbol of individual freedom against despotic rulers.
On the 2nd July 1964, American President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law at the White House. The Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and is consequently viewed as a landmark piece of civil rights legislation.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act originated in the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, who had shared the statistics of racial inequality with the American people, such as the fact that life expectancy for an African-American was seven years less than that of a white American. It was also a time when Civil Rights protests were growing in size and number. In a televised speech on the 11th June 1963, Kennedy made clear his intention to introduce a law that would end segregation and increase equality for all Americans.
Kennedy’s assassination on the 22nd November 1963 led to Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as President, and he immediately took up the cause with a speech saying that the passage of the Civil Rights Act would serve as a lasting memorial to Kennedy. However opposition to the bill remained high, especially in southern and border states, whose representatives in both the Congress and the Senate did what they could to sabotage the bill. Despite such attempts to disrupt it, various behind-the-scenes deals eventually helped the bill to pass through each house with the required two-thirds majority.
The Act was referred to by Martin Luther King as a “second emancipation” and laid the foundations for later laws that expanded the legal right for all Americans to be treated equally.