February is Black History Month, and Nolo is commemorating the occasion with a timeline of landmark legal and political events that have shaped the fight for equal rights for black Americans -- from before the Civil War to beyond the Civil Rights Movement.
This chronological collection of key documents, speeches, laws, and court cases spotlights the many instances in U.S. history when the law has served as a roadmap toward equality -- like the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision and Congress's passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We also cover those infrequent occasions when the rule of law acted as a stern roadblock, including the Supreme Court's siding with slavery in 1856 in Dred Scott v. Sanford and then signing off on racial segregation 40 years later in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Many of the laws and cases in this timeline represent milestones in the long struggle for basic legal rights -- citizenship, voting, freedom from racial segregation, property ownership, and marriage. The collection also includes speeches from orators whose words form distinct snapshots of race issues across more than 150 years, such as Frederick Douglass' "Hypocrisy of Slavery" in 1852 and Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" in 2008.
Browse this timeline, click the links to access the full documents, and then pass this collection on to help Nolo celebrate 2011 African American History Month.
Speaking at a July Fourth celebration in Rochester, NY, the famed abolitionist points out the hypocrisy of celebrating the nation's freedom and independence while millions of blacks are enslaved.
In what many consider to be the High Court's low point, Chief Justice Roger Taney authors a decision declaring that all blacks -- slaves as well as free -- are not, and never can be, citizens of the United States.
This April 13 telegram out of Charleston Harbor lets the world know that the American Civil War has begun in earnest.
1863 -- Emancipation Proclamation
President Lincoln decrees that all slaves held in states that had seceded from the Union "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." The order also allows black soldiers to take up arms and fight on the side of the Union in the escalating Civil War.
This War Department order facilitates the recruitment of black soldiers to lend much needed support to the Union war effort, as the Civil War drags on.
1865 -- 13th Amendment Abolishes Slavery
This constitutional amendment officially abolishes slavery in the United States. It's the first of three so-called "Reconstruction Amendments" meant to expand the rights of former slaves in the wake of the Civil War.
The second of three "Reconstruction Amendments" grants citizenship to former slaves. The 14th Amendment also includes the landmark "due process" and "equal protection" clauses.
This third of three "Reconstruction Amendments" gives every black male citizen the right to vote.
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court rules that segregation in public spaces is not necessarily unlawful discrimination as long as the races are treated equally. "Separate but equal" will stand as valid law for almost 60 years, until the Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
In Shelley v. Kraemer, the U.S. Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional for states to enforce racially discriminatory covenants in property deeds.
Almost 60 years after signing off on "separate but equal," the Supreme Court reverses course in a landmark decision, ruling that separate schools for black students and white students are inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
Issued by President Dwight Eisenhower, this order dispatches federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to prevent local mobs from interfering with the integration of Central High School.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers what is to become one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.
Malcolm X urges African Americans to shrug off their differences and realize that they all have a common problem -- "political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation at the hands of the white man."
This sweeping civil rights legislation represents one of the most significant legal steps toward equal treatment of both blacks and women in the United States.
In Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc., the Court rules that Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a valid exercise of Congress's powers. The Court okays the use of that law to prevent a hotel from refusing to accept black people as guests.
LBJ addresses Congress to introduce voting rights legislation that outlaws balloting practices like literacy tests and poll taxes, which had effectively disenfranchised black voters in the South.
This landmark legislation outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had disenfranchised black Americans since the Civil War. The new law had an immediate effect: A quarter of a million new black voters registered by the end of 1965.
In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Virginia's antimiscegenation statute banning interracial marriages is unconstitutional: "Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."
Presidential candidate RFK delivers a stirring speech at a campaign stop in Indiana, just hours after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The nation's top court looks at the constitutionality of affirmative action and says that a college admission policy that promotes racial diversity is okay, but race-based quotas are not.
Barack Obama, then a candidate for President of the United Sates, gives an impassioned speech on the broad issue of race in America, in part to reconcile inflammatory remarks made by his former pastor.
By David Goguen, J.D.