1928—Poet Maya Angelou is born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Mo. Angelou now ranks as one of the greatest poets in America. But her talents have also been expressed as a playwright, author, producer, historian and civil rights activist.
1967—Civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. formally announces his opposition to America’s war in Vietnam during a speech before the Overseas Press Club in New York City. The speech brought King even greater opposition from the federal government, especially then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. It also alienated some Black leaders who felt it was a mistake to mix domestic civil rights issues with foreign policy issues. But King charged that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
1968—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., as he had embarked on a campaign to focus the Civil Rights Movement on economic and financial betterment issues for Blacks. Riots or urban rebellions broke out in over 100 U.S. cities. At least 50 people are killed as over 20,000 federal troops and 34,000 National Guardsmen are mobilized to put down the disturbances. The official finding was that a lone White gunman, James Earl Ray, was responsible for the assassination. However, suspicions remain until this day that the FBI, led by arch-conservative J. Edgar Hoover, was somehow involved in the killing.
1856—Booker T. Washington is born a slave in Hale’s Ford, Va. He would become one of the three or four most influential leaders in all of African-American history. He was one of the nation’s greatest educators, having founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. However, more progressive Black leaders became critical of him after he delivered the so-called “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895 in which he appeared to offer an acceptance and accommodation to American racism in exchange of greater vocational training of African-Americans.
1976—The infamous COINTELPRO documents are released. In response to an accidental discovery at a warehouse and a freedom of information lawsuit, the FBI is forced to release documents detailing an intensive and extensive campaign to disrupt and destroy civil rights and anti-war organizations and their leaders. Among the documents released was a letter dated August 25, 1967 which made clear that one of the campaign’s chief aims was “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalists …” But the FBI’s definition of “Black nationalist” was so broad that even moderate civil rights organizations and their leaders were targeted to be neutralized. For example, the letter characterized the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) as one of the organizations having “radical and violence prone leaders…” The leader of the SCLC was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1990—Jazz great Sarah Vaughn dies. Vaughn was born in Newark, N.J., in 1924 and went on to become what many considered “the world’s greatest singing talent.” She was known as the “incomparable Sarah Vaughn.”
1798—One of the nation’s most famous and accomplished early Black pioneers, James Beckwourth, is born. The product of a White slave owner and a Black slave mother, Beckwourth acquired his freedom and became a successful fur trader. He would later become a scout for the Rocky Mount Fur Company. However, in 1824, he joined the Crow Indian nation and married a Crow woman. He would later move west where he discovered an important passage way through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The passage was named “Beckwourth Pass,” after him.
1846—Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, first file suit claiming their freedom. The case would eventually lead to Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney’s infamous “Dred Scott Decision” in 1857. Scott had basically argued that by being taken from the slave state of Missouri and living in free states or territories for seven years he was in effect a free man. The case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7 to 2 decision written by 80-year-old Chief Justice Taney, himself a former slaver owner, Scott’s argument was rejected. In one of the most racist Supreme Court decisions ever issued, Justice Taney ruled that neither Blacks nor their descendants could be U.S. citizens and thus had no right to sue for their freedom in U.S. courts. Taney capped off the ruling by saying, “A Negro had no rights a White man was bound [required] to respect.”