A Brief History: Racial Justice Across the Eras in August

While February is designated as Black History Month—a time for celebration, reflection, and observance of Black-influenced contributions—it may not be as widely known that August is one of the most prolific in terms of important moments in Black history that have shaped American society. This is especially significant concerning the struggle for racial justice across the eras. One of our core goals is to democratize knowledge by distributing accessible and relevant information to the public. As part of an ongoing history collaboration with Stanford Libraries, we’ve compiled a brief snapshot of several moments occurring historically in August—some triumphant, many tragic—that are worthy of reflecting upon:

  • A Brief History: Racial Justice Across the Eras in August 2

    August 1619 marks the starting point for American slavery through the transport of the first enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. This overlooked history was chronicled by the New York Times in their Pulitzer-prize winning The 1619 Project, whose goal was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The project began as a magazine issue and has since expanded to a comprehensive, best-selling book.

  • On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a revolt by enslaved people in Virginia, led to the massacre of up to 200 Black people and stiffened pro-slavery legislation that persisted until the Civil War.
  • On August 22 and 23, 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law Convention in New York rallied an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people to call for “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as a growing anti-slavery movement. Famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass chaired the meeting.
  • On August 28, 1955, the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till served as a crucial moment in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Till, a Chicago teenager visiting Mississippi, was brutally murdered after being accused of offending a white woman. Photos of the open casket funeral insisted by his mother, Mamie Bradley, widely dispatched the violence perpetrated against Black people, particularly in the Jim Crow South. The Till murder, which did not result in a conviction from an all-white jury, still has a ripple effect today. In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti Lynching Act into law. Just this week, a grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict the woman who made accusations against Till nearly 70 years ago, leading to his death. The testimony was based on an unserved arrest warrant for the woman discovered by Till’s family members.
  • A Brief History: Racial Justice Across the Eras in August 1

    On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 demonstrators participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the Nation’s Capital—most famously known as the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s words that day continue to inspire, and the March helped set the stage for President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to initiate strong federal civil rights legislation. The March celebrates its 60th anniversary next year.

  • Sparked by a violent incident between police and a 21-year-old Black man during a traffic stop, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted in rebellion from August 11 to August 16, 1965. All told, the uprising led to 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, nearly 4,000 arrests, and $40 million in property damage. Dr. King also intersects with this seminal moment, as the MLK Research and Education Institute at Stanford notes the importance of King’s arrival to Los Angeles on August 17. Of the Watts aftermath, King said, “The economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes teeming in Northern and Western ghettos are the ready seeds which give birth to tragic expressions of violence.”
  • On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death led to multiple days of protests, calling attention to racial tensions with police in Ferguson and the country at large—a sign of what would elevate in subsequent years, most notably in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.

A Brief History: Racial Justice Across the Eras in August 3

More recently, the confluence of significant events in the month has even generated its own designation in mainstream news publications and on social media—Black August. This Stanford Libraries resource guide showcases various points of entry for Black August, which originated as a historic marker of Black resistance after the death of George Jackson, a member of the Black Panthers and co-founder of the Black Guerrilla Family. Jackson, an activist and author, was killed on August 21, 1971 while escaping as part of a prison rebellion at San Quentin in California.

Though Black August has emerged as a more common term since 2020, it is still not a well-known tradition and resources are scarce, said Felicia Smith, Racial Justice and Social Equity Librarian at Stanford. However, as the designation has since come to include many of the August moments listed above, its origins with freedom fighters and Black resistance has a common link to contemporary racial justice causes.

Photo credits: The 1619 Project, Wikimedia Commons, and Center for Constitutional Rights

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