September 15, 1963: Members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four young girls, Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14. The blast also injured 23 others. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of 8,000 at the girls’ funeral service,
“The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to the city.”
The bombing became a turning point in generating broad American sympathy for the civil rights movement. That same day, in response to the killings, James Bevel and Diane Nash began the Alabama Project, which later grew into the Selma Voting Rights Movement.
September 15, 1964: Frankie Muse Freeman was appointed as the first black woman on the United States Civil Rights Commission, a federal fact-finding body that investigates complaints alleging discrimination. Freeman was reappointed by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter and held the position until July 1979. Freeman was the lead attorney on the landmark NAACP case Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority, which ended legal racial discrimination in public housing with the city. In 1982, she helped create the Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights. In 2007, Freeman was inducted in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site for her role in the Civil Rights Movement. Freeman has been a practicing attorney in state and federal courts for over 60 years.
September 16, 1837: William Whipper, a wealthy Negro from Lancaster County, Pa., published “An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression” in The Colored American, outlining his commitment to a nonviolent response to the evils of slavery. Whipper edited a newspaper, The National Reformer, a publication of the American Moral Reform Society, and furnished food and transportation to fugitive slaves who reached Pennsylvania.
September 16, 1925: Riley B. King was born in Itta Bena, Miss. He went on to music fame under the name of B.B. King, winning more than a dozen Grammys as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Both Time and Rolling Stone magazines ranked him as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
September 17, 1787: The U.S. Constitution was ratified. It provided for the continuation of the slave trade for another 20 years and required states to aid slaveholders in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It also stipulated that a slave counted as three-fifths of a man for purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives.
September 17, 1957: Louis Armstrong, the famous African-American jazz musician, balked at participating in a U.S. government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union. He had been furious over recent developments in Little Rock, Ark., where white mobs had tried to block the entrance of nine African-American students into the all-white Central High School.
September 17, 1968: Diahann Carroll starred in the title role in Julia, as the first African-American actress to star in her own television series, garnering an Emmy nomination in the first year. In 1995, she became the first African American to play the role of Norma Desmond in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Sunset Boulevard.
September 17, 1983: Vanessa Williams became the first African-American named Miss America. Her crown was later taken away when nude photos of her appeared in an adult publication. She went on to a successful career in singing, Broadway, and movies, receiving Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award nominations. The Miss America Pageant has since apologized to her.
September 18, 1850: As part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required any federal official to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. The law also levied harsh penalties against those who interfered with the apprehension of runaway slaves.
September 18, 1895: Booker T. Washington delivered his Atlanta Compromise address at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. He allayed concerns of his all-white, Southern audience by telling them his race would content itself with living “by the productions of our hands.” His advice to African Americans? “Cast down your bucket where you are.”
September 18, 1899: Scott Joplin copyrighted the Maple Leaf Rag, which went on to sell more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Joplin was buried in a pauper’s grave in New York City in 1917. More than six decades later, his music was rediscovered and popularized by the 1973 movie, The Sting, which won an Oscar for the music. In 1976, he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his special contribution to American music.
September 19, 1966: After 300 members of the white community in Grenada, Miss., called for “an end to violence,” hundreds of African-American schoolchildren were allowed to integrate into the local public schools.
September 20, 1830: The National Negro Convention, a group of 38 free African Americans from eight states, met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the express purpose of abolishing slavery and improving the social status of African Americans. They elected Richard Allen president and agreed to boycott slave-produced goods.
September 20, 1850: The District of Columbia abolished the slave trade, though slavery itself was not outlawed. Washington became a haven for free African Americans, and by 1860, they outnumbered slaves nearly four-to-one. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln freed the nearly 3,000 slaves remaining.
September 20, 1958: Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed in New York City. He was signing his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, when Izola Curry, an African-American woman suffering from mental illness, stabbed him in the chest. King was hospitalized and recovered.
September 21, 1866: The U.S. Army regiment of Buffalo Soldiers formed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The nickname eventually became synonymous with all of the African-American regiments. The Buffalo Soldiers later participated in the 1898 Spanish-American War in Cuba, earning Medals of Honor in both that war and the Civil War.
September 21, 1955: Mose Wright, Emmett Till’s great-uncle, took the witness stand and identified J.W. Milam as one of his nephew’s abductors. “It was the first time in my life I had the courage to accuse a white man of a crime, let alone something terrible as killing a boy,” Wright said later. “I wasn’t exactly brave and I wasn’t scared. I just wanted to see justice done.”