Shocking Moments in 20th Century Black History

Looking back, the groundbreaking events that shaped Black history may not seem all that shocking. Through a contemporary lens, it's easy to think that the courts deemed segregation unconstitutional because it was the right thing to do or that a Black athlete's performance had no bearing on race relations. In actuality, there was culture shock each time Blacks were granted civil rights. Plus, when a Black athlete topped a white one, it validated the idea that African Americans were indeed equal to all men. That's why a boxing match and desegregation of public schools made the list of most shocking events in Black history.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

National Guardsmen During The Chicago Race Riots
Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

During Chicago’s five-day race riot, 38 people died and more than 500 were injured. It began on July 27, 1919, after a white man caused a Black beachgoer to drown. Afterward, police and civilians had violent confrontations, arsonists set fires, and bloodthirsty thugs flooded the streets. Latent tensions between Blacks and whites came to a head. From 1916 to 1919, Blacks rushed to Chicago seeking work, as the city’s economy boomed during World War I. Whites resented the influx of Blacks and the competition they gave them in the workforce, especially since economic problems followed the WWI armistice. During the riot, resentment spilled over. While 25 other riots occurred in U.S. cities that summer, the Chicago riot is considered the worst.

Joe Louis Knocks Out Max Schmeling

1939 Cartoon showing Joe Louis beating up Hitler
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

When American boxer Joe Louis faced off against Max Schmeling in 1938, the whole world was abuzz. Two years before, the German Schmeling had defeated the African-American boxer, leading Nazis to brag that Aryans were indeed the superior race. Given this, the rematch was viewed as both a proxy battle between Nazi Germany and the U.S.—the U.S. would not join World War II until 1941—and a face-off between Blacks and Aryans. Before the Louis-Schmeling rematch, the German boxer’s publicist even bragged that no Black man could defeat Schmeling. Louis proved him wrong.

In just over two minutes, Louis triumphed over Schmeling, knocking him down three times during the Yankee Stadium bout. After his win, Blacks across America rejoiced.

Brown v. Board of Education

Portrait of American jurist and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. (circa 1960)

Stock Montage/Getty Images

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that Blacks and whites could have separate but equal facilities, leading 21 states to allow segregation in public schools. But separate didn’t really mean equal. Black students often attended schools with no electricity, indoor bathrooms, libraries or cafeterias. Children studied out of secondhand books in crowded classrooms.

Given this, the Supreme Court decided in 1954’s Brown v. Board case that “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” in education. Afterward lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who represented Black families in the case, said, “I was so happy I was numb.” The Amsterdam News called Brown the “greatest victory for the Negro people since the emancipation proclamation.”

Murder of Emmett Till

A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Aslip, Illinois.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In August 1955, Chicago teen Emmett Till traveled to Mississippi to visit family. Less than a week later, he was dead. Why? The 14-year-old reportedly whistled at a white shop owner’s wife. In retaliation, the man and his brother kidnapped Till on Aug. 28. They then beat and shot him, finally dumping him in a river, where they weighed him down by attaching an industrial fan to his neck with barbed wire. When Till’s decomposed body turned up days later, he was grotesquely disfigured. So the public could see the violence done to her son, Till’s mother, Mamie, had an open casket at his funeral. Pictures of mutilated Till sparked global outrage and kicked off the U.S. civil rights movement.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

A replica of the bus that civil rights activist Rosa Parks rode on.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., for not giving her seat to a white man, who knew it would lead to a 381-day boycott? In Alabama then, Blacks sat in the back of buses, while whites sat in front. If front seats ran out, however, the Blacks were to relinquish their seats to whites. To end this policy, Montgomery Blacks were asked not to ride city buses on the day Parks appeared in court. When she was found guilty of violating segregation laws, the boycott continued. By carpooling, using taxis and walking, Blacks boycotted for months. Then, on June 4, 1956, a federal court declared segregated seating unconstitutional, a decision the Supreme Court upheld.

Martin Luther King’s Assassination

Martin Luther King, Jr
Agence France Presse/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Just the day before his assassination on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. discussed his mortality. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will,” he said during his “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. King came to the city to lead a march of striking sanitation workers. It was the last march he’d lead. As he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, a single shot struck him in the neck, killing him. Rioting in more than 100 U.S. cities followed news of the murder, of which James Earl Ray was convicted. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison, where he died in 1998.

The Los Angeles Uprising

Los Angeles Riots 10th Anniversary
WireImage / Getty Images

When four Los Angeles police officers were caught on tape beating Black motorist Rodney King, many in the Black community felt vindicated. Someone had finally caught an act of police brutality on tape! Maybe authorities who abused their power would be held accountable. Instead, on April 29, 1992, an all-white jury acquitted the officers of beating King. When the verdict was announced, widespread looting and violence spread throughout Los Angeles. About 55 people died during the rebellion and more than 2,000 were injured. Also, an estimated $1 billion in property damage occurred. During a second trial, two of the offending officers were convicted on federal charges of violating King’s civil rights, and King won $3.8 million in damages.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Shocking Moments in 20th Century Black History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2023, April 5). Shocking Moments in 20th Century Black History. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Shocking Moments in 20th Century Black History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).