1. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919
During Chicago’s five-day race riot, 38 people died and more than 500 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.
When 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 face off between the U.S. and Nazi Germany 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.
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.”
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.
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.