African-American History Timeline: 1980 to 1989

Jesse Jackson, 1983. Public Domain


  • Willie Lewis Brown, Jr. is selected by the California Assembly to become the Speaker of the state legislature. Brown is the first African-American to hold this position. For 15 years, he serves in this capacity until he is elected as mayor of San Francisco.
  • A riot erupts in Liberty City, Fla. When police officers are acquitted in the murder of an African-American man who was unarmed. Lasting 24 hours, 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 collection of short stories, The Salt Eaters wins the American Book Award.
  • Robert L. Johnson launches Black Entertainment Television (BET).


  •  A national campaign against environmental racism  is launched when Reverend Benjamin Chavis and his congregation block a toxic waste dump in North Carolina.
  • Bryant Gumbel becomes the first African-American to be an anchor on a major network when he joins The Today Show.
  • Recording artist Michael Jackson releases Thriller. The album will ultimately be considered the bestselling album in music history when it sells 45 million copies worldwide. 


  • Vanessa Williams is the first African-American to be crowned Miss America.
  • Harold Washington is elected mayor of Chicago, becoming the first African-American to hold the position.
  • Guion S. Bluford, Jr. becomes the first African-American astronaut to make a space flight.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday becomes a federal holiday  when Ronald Reagan signs a bill.
  • The novel The Color Purple, written by Alice Walker, wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Robert C. Maynard becomes the first African-American to own a major daily newspaper when he owns the majority of stock in the Oakland Tribune.


  • W. Wilson Goode becomes the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia.
  • The Reverend Jesse Jackson runs for president in the Democratic primary. During the primary, Jackson wins one-fourth of the votes and one eighth of the convention delegates before losing the nomination to Walter Mondale.
  • Carl Lewis wins four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. His wins match the record set by Jesse Owens.
  • 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 records is established by Russell Simmons.


  • Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode orders Philadelphia law enforcement agents to bomb the headquarters of MOVE. The bombing leaves 250 people homeless and 11 dead.
  • Gwendolyn Brooks 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.
  • 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.
  • The Oprah Winfrey show becomes a nationally syndicated talk show.
  • Producer and director Spike Lee debuts his feature film, She’s Gotta Have It.
  • Mike Tyson becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in the world when he defeats Trevor Berbick.


  • Rita Dove wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
  • Reginald Lewis becomes the first African-American CEO of a billion dollar corporation when he orchestrates the buyout of Beatrice Foods.
  • Dr. Benjamin Carson, a neurosurgeon leads a team of seventy surgeons at John Hopkins University Hospital in a 22-hour operation separating Siamese twins. ·          ·  
  • Dr. Johnetta B. Cole becomes the first African-American woman to preside over Spelman College.
  • Aretha Franklin 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 a 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 becomes the first woman bishop in the Anglican Episcopal Church.
  • Ronald H. Brown 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 is the first African-American to command a space shuttle by leading the Discovery.
  • Colin Powell is the first African-American to be named Chair of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • L. Douglas Wilder is elected governor of Virginia, making him the first African-American to win the popular vote for governorship.
  • David Dinkins and Norman Rice are both elected mayors of New York City and Seattle respectively and are the first African-Americans to hold such positions.
  • Bill White becomes the first African American to be chosen to head the Major League Baseball’s National League.
  • Art Shell is the first African-American to be hired to be head coach of a National Football League team when he leads the Oakland Raiders.