The story of African Americans in the United States is one of both immeasurable suffering and soaring hope. Two and a half centuries of slavery and segregation prevented black men and women from exercising the rights of citizenship taken for granted by their white counterparts.
African Americans who fought for freedom from tyranny abroad, helping to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany in World War II, for example, returned to the United States and were denied the right to register to vote—and some were beaten or killed while attempting to do so. In much of the country, blacks were forbidden to inhabit the same spaces—including schools, public transportation, and recreational facilities—as whites. And measures were taken to prohibit African Americans from living near whites. Nevertheless, African Americans persevered, building universities and achieving heights in all spheres of activity, from arts and entertainment to aviation and science.
One century ago, in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed with the aim of abolishing segregation and discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting, and transportation and securing for African Americans their constitutional rights. The struggle for freedom was long and difficult and included, among other tactics, litigation, marches, and sit-ins. It was also almost universally nonviolent, a reflection of the spirit of the leader who came to personify the American civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The years 2008 and 2009 rank as momentous years in the history of the United States and African Americans, years marking major anniversaries of the civil rights movement and the realization of those dreams at the highest level, with Barack Obama's election as the first African American president.
On April 4, 2008, the United States observed the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, an act that enraged many African Americans, who rioted in urban areas throughout the country—though not in Indianapolis, Indiana, where Robert F. Kennedy bade a largely African American audience to honour the memory of Dr. King by shunning violence.
On August 28, 2008, precisely 45 years after Dr. King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech at the March on Washington, Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States—becoming the first African American to be nominated by a major U.S. party.
January 15, 2009, marked the 80th anniversary of Dr. King's birth. Five days later, on January 20, Americans celebrated one hard-won step in the fulfillment of his dream: Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.
Indeed, this event signaled the start of a new era in the civil rights movement, one in which all children can imagine the freedom to excel at anything and the possibility of being judged, to echo Dr. King, by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
We offer Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Black History to provide a context for this significant milestone, to examine the entirety of the African American experience, and to celebrate the achievements of many individual African Americans.
Copyright, Blaise APLOGAN, 2008, © Bienvenu sur Babilown