5 Times Black People Changed The Course Of American History
From the nation’s founding to current struggles for equal rights, Black Americans have been at the forefront of major shifts in the United States and beyond.
February 28, 2023 at 2:38 pm
February is Black History Month, a time to acknowledge Black Americans’ accomplishments and recognize how we have shaped the history of the United States. Recognizing the centrality of Black people to the story of America is especially important this year, as concerted efforts are underway to deny the importance of our collective history. With that in mind, here are five instances to remember when Black people changed the very course of history in this country.
Crispus Attucks became a martyr for all of America and especially for Black freedom seekers
The first martyr of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks was a Boston-area sailor of Black and Native American origin whose life ended as the first of five sailors killed by British soldiers in a confrontation in 1770. Though few details are known about his life, his death caused outrage within the Massachusetts colony, highlighting the injustice of British rule. In addition to helping to spark the American Revolution, Attucks has remained a symbol of Black resistance throughout American history. Black freedom fighters and campaigns from Frederick Douglass to the Black Lives Matter movement have evoked the memory of Attucks to stand up for freedom.
Frederick Douglass helped secure freedom for Black people and for women
Frederick Douglass was, in his time, one of the most famous people in America and perhaps the leading voice for the abolition of slavery. His public persona, passionate oratory and compelling life story pushed the abolitionist movement to new heights. Douglass’ harrowing memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, quickly became a best seller. During the Civil War, Douglass even showed up uninvited to the White House to personally tell off Abraham Lincoln about the treatment of Black soldiers during the war. Douglass was also a strong supporter of women’s rights from the earliest stages of that movement. At the Seneca Falls Convention, considered the beginning of the women’s rights movement, Douglass – one of the few men in attendance and the only Black person at the conference – passionately advocated for the campaign to push for the women’s right to vote, a position that others thought too radical. Douglass’ side ultimately won, and the women’s suffrage movement was born.
Rosa Parks started a movement that had been a long time coming
The civil rights or Black Freedom movement had no shortage of legendary figures, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael and more. But in many ways, Rosa Parks kicked off the era of civil disobedience by refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, AL, in 1955. And while Parks was a tired seamstress trying to get home that day, she was also a longtime member of the local NAACP and part of a network of local activists seeking ways to challenge segregation in the city for some time. Whether planned or spontaneous, her simple refusal to get up put her community into action. In the end, the movement she started tore down the system of segregation that attempted to put her in her place that day.
Barack Obama changed the direction of the U.S. and the world
From Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in the Democratic primaries of the 1980s to fictional portrayals in movies and television shows, the United States had been considering the idea of a Black president for some time. Yet an inexperienced, multicultural politician with the name Barack Hussein Obama seemed like an unlikely candidate to achieve that accomplishment. But Obama’s personal story, oratory and message of hope and change all resonated with a country tired from war, fears of terrorism and economic collapse. So Obama set about changing the course of America and realigning its relationship with the rest of the world. This agenda won him a Nobel Peace Prize, among other accolades. And though his presidency had its ups and downs, he left the country a different place than when he started and changed the expectations and dreams for the generation of Black people who grew up in a world where a Black president was not only a possibility but a reality.
Black Lives Matter continues to lead a racial reckoning across the globe
In 2013, three Black women — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi — attempted to make sense of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of killing Trayvon Martin. Their conversation spawned a hashtag that became a slogan and movement’s name: Black Lives Matter. Growing in prominence in places like Ferguson, Missouri, the movement brought national attention and local reforms to issues of police violence, particularly the killing of Black people under unjust circumstances. The campaign took on new significance after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter resurged across the U.S. and grew into a global reckoning against racism. As more atrocities like the killing of Tyre Nichols continue, BLM remains a potent force in demanding justice, accountability and reform in the U.S. and inspiring other movements worldwide.
As Nikole Hannah-Jones said in her Pulitzer Prize-winning lead essay for the 1619 Project, “our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible…the United States simply would not exist without us.”
These are just a few of the many ways that statement proves true, showing how Black Americans have changed our destiny and that of the country as a whole.