African-American History Timeline: 1980 to 1989

Jesse L. Jackson
The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images / Getty Images

The 1980s saw important firsts for African Americans recognized for their excellence, in the diverse fields of politics, science, literature, entertainment, and sports.


January: American entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson (born 1946) launches Black Entertainment Television (BET).

U.S. politician Willie Lewis Brown, Jr. (born 1934) is selected by the California Assembly to become the Speaker of the state legislature. Brown is the first African-American to hold this position. He serves in this capacity for 15 years and in 1995 is elected as mayor of San Francisco.

May 17–20: A riot erupts in Liberty City, Florida after police officers are acquitted of the murder of an unarmed African-American man. The "Miami Riot" lasted 24 hours and an estimated 15 people were killed. The riot is considered the worst in U.S. history since the Detroit Riots of 1967. 

Novelist Toni Cade Bambara’s (1939–1995) collection of short stories, "The Salt Eaters" wins the American Book Award.


 A national campaign against environmental racism is launched when Reverend Benjamin Chavis (b. 1948) and his congregation block a toxic waste dump in North Carolina.

U.S. journalist Bryant Gumbel (b. 1948) becomes the first African-American to be an anchor on a major network when he joins The Today Show.

Nov. 30: Recording artist Michael Jackson (1958–2009) releases "Thriller." The album will ultimately be considered the bestselling album in music history when it sells 45 million copies worldwide. 


April 18: The novel "The Color Purple," written by poet and activist Alice Walker (b. 1944), wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

April 29: U.S. politician Harold Washington (1922–1987) is elected the 51st mayor of Chicago, becoming the first African-American to hold the position.

Aug. 30: Guion S. Bluford, Jr. (b. 1942) becomes the first African-American astronaut to make a space flight.

Sept. 17: Singer-actress Vanessa Williams (b. 1963) is the first African-American to be crowned Miss America.

Nov. 3: Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday becomes a federal holiday when Ronald Reagan signs the bill.

Newspaper publisher and editor Robert C. Maynard (1937–1993) becomes the first African-American to own a major daily newspaper when he owns the majority of stock in the Oakland Tribune.


Pennsylvania politician W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938) becomes the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson (b. 1941) runs for president in the Democratic primary, the second African-American to run—the first was Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005). During the primary, Jackson wins one-fourth of the votes and one-eighth of the convention delegates before losing the nomination to Walter Mondale (b. 1928).

Carl Lewis (b. 1961) wins four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. His wins match the record set by Jesse Owens (1913–1980).

Sept. 20: "The Cosby Show" makes its debut on NBC. It will become the most successful series featuring an African-American cast in television history.

Def Jam Recordings is established by Russell Simmons (b. 1957).


Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode orders Philadelphia law enforcement agents to bomb the headquarters of MOVE, a black liberation group founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) in 1972. The bombing leaves 250 people homeless and 11 dead.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) becomes the first African-American to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate.


Martin Luther King, Jr.'s national holiday is celebrated across the United States.

Jan 28: Six crew members die when the Challenger space shuttle explodes after it launches from the Kennedy Space Center. One of the crew members is African-American astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair (1950–1986).

March 6: Mike Tyson (b. 1966) becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in the world when he defeats Trevor Berbick (b. 1954).

Sept. 8: The "Oprah Winfrey Show" (1986–2011) becomes a nationally syndicated talk show.


Rita Dove (b. 1952) wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Reginald Lewis (1942–1993) becomes the first African-American CEO of a billion-dollar corporation when he orchestrates the buyout of Beatrice Foods.

Neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson (b. 1951) leads a team of seventy surgeons at John Hopkins University Hospital in a 22-hour operation separating conjoined twins.·         ·  

Anthropologist Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole (b. 1936) becomes the first African-American woman to preside over Spelman College.

American singer and activist Aretha Franklin (1942–2018) becomes the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Novelist and essayist James Baldwin dies from stomach cancer. 


Jesse Jackson seeks the Democratic Presidential nomination for the second time. Jackson receives 1,218 delegate votes but loses the nomination to Michael Dukakis.

The first Ph.D. in African-American Studies is offered by Temple University.

Bill Cosby donates $20 million to Spelman College. Cosby’s gift is the largest ever made by an African-American to a college or university.


Barbara C. Harris (b. 1930) becomes the first woman bishop in the Anglican Episcopal Church.

Ronald H. Brown (1941–1996) becomes the first African-American to head one of the two major political parties when he is elected chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Frederick Drew Gregory (b. 1941) is the first African-American to command a space shuttle by leading the Discovery.

Retired four-star general Colin Powell (b. 1937) is the first African-American to be named Chair of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.

L. Douglas Wilder (b. 1931) is elected governor of Virginia, making him the first African-American to win the popular vote for the governorship.

David Dinkins (b. 1927) and Norman Rice (b. 1943) are both elected mayors of New York City and Seattle respectively and are the first African-Americans to hold such positions.

Former player and broadcaster Bill White (b. 1934) becomes the first African American to be chosen to head the Major League Baseball’s National League.

Former player Art Shell is the first African-American to be hired to be the head coach of a National Football League team when he leads the Oakland Raiders; he is also inducted into the Hall of Fame.