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 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.
A boycott against the Bristol Omnibus Company in England was launched due to their racist employment policy.
Around 3,000 people of West Indian origin lived in the city of Bristol in 1963, predominantly around the St Pauls area. There was not yet any legislation against discriminating on racial grounds so it was common in both housing and employment, while so-called “coloureds” often suffered violence at the hands of gangs of white Teddy Boys.
In 1955, the same year as the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, the Transport and General Workers Union that represented bus drivers had reportedly passed a resolution that “coloured” workers should not be employed. The management of the Bristol Omnibus Company shared this attitude. Consequently, despite an acute labour shortage in the early 1960s, it was impossible to get a job on a bus crew unless you were white.
A group of West Indian men formed an action group to challenge the situation. In April 1963 the London-accented Paul Stephenson telephoned the bus company and set up an interview for Guy Bailey, a young man of West Indian heritage. He was turned away from the interview because he was black. At a press conference in his flat on 29 April, Stephenson called for people to boycott the bus company until the “colour bar” was abolished.
The boycott, which was supported by people across the city as well as the press, succeeded. On 28 August, the same day that Martin Luther King made his “I Have a Dream” speech, the company’s management announced the end of its discriminatory employment policy. The city’s first non-white bus conductor began work the following month.
On the 4th April 1968, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39. The previous day he had delivered his final public speech, known as the “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” address, in which he made direct reference the many threats against his life.
King was standing on the balcony outside his room at the Lorrain Motel in Memphis when he was hit by a single bullet that shattered his jaw and several vertebrae. Despite being rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital where doctors worked to keep him alive, he was pronounced dead at 7.05pm.
Two months after the assassination an escaped convict called James Earl Ray was arrested at Heathrow Airport in the UK and extradited back to America for trial. Ray confessed to the assassination and was sentenced to 99 years imprisonment, but withdrew his confession a few days later. His attempts to withdraw his guilty plea have fuelled allegations of a conspiracy that used James Earl Ray as a scapegoat.
King’s death was met with riots across America that lasted for two days, reflecting anger that King’s non-violent approach had only been met with violence. However, all was calm at his funeral on April 9th, in which a recording of his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at his own request. He didn’t want people to remember him for his awards and honors, but for trying to “feed the hungry”, “clothe the naked”, “be right on the [Vietnam] war question”, and “love and serve humanity”.
Dred Scott was a slave owned by John Emerson, an army surgeon from the slave state of Missouri. Emerson took Scott with him when he moved to the free state of Illinois in 1834, and to the free Territory of Wisconsin in 1836.
Emerson died in 1843 and his widow, Irene, inherited Scott and his wife and child. Scott later attempted to buy his family’s freedom by offering Irene $300 but she refused. In response the Scotts sued for freedom, with legal advisors arguing that their residence in a free state and a free territory meant they must have been emancipated.
Drawing on the Missouri precedent of “once free, always free” the case was not fully heard until 1850. Although the jury ruled in Scott’s favour, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision after Irene Emerson appealed. She then transferred the Scotts to her brother, John F. A. Sanford, in New York.
In 1853 the case went to the Federal Courts, which found in Sanford’s favour. Scott subsequently appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court, which mis-spelled Sanford’s name due to a clerical error and didn’t deliver the majority opinion until 6 March 1857.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the decision, which said that black people could never be citizens of the United States and so did not have right to bring a case to the Federal Courts. Furthermore, the decision stated that Congress did not have the right to regulate slavery in the territories meaning that, as private property, slaves could not be taken away from their owners. The decision increased tensions within the United States and contributed to both the election of Abraham Lincoln and the outbreak of Civil War.
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.