In the face of white supremacist violence and institutional discrimination, various black movements have emerged at various times fighting back for their rights.
In Minneapolis, the ugly face of the American state’s police brutality has resurfaced once more against its long-standing soft target— the country's black community.
Police brutality against African-Americans has a long history in the world’s oldest democracy. In recent years, Americans have seen it escalate across the US from - Baltimore to Ferguson - especially under the country’s first black President Barack Obama.
When President Trump came to power, his elusive pledge to “Make America Great Again”, was interpreted by some Americans to mean that he wanted to make the country white again. Police brutality has worsened since then.
But the country’s black community, backed by liberals and civil rights movement supporters, has resisted both police brutality and its underlying mindset, American racism.
Here is a brief history of repression targeting the African-American community and their most significant human rights movements across US history.
Oppressing Black communities
For many centuries, the economic and political system of colonial America under British rule, and later the independent United States, had largely been based on black slavery and segregation.
The first slaves began coming to the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The state hosted the nation’s founding presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, becoming the first successful British colony in North America which was founded in Jamestown in 1607.
But eventually slavery itself became a controversial issue. It was not based on intellectual grounds but on economic ones for white Americans, and it led to a deadly division between the North and the South.
A brewing anger between the two Americas — one living in the mostly industrialised north, where slavery barely contributed to the economy, and the other living in the rural south where free labour performed by black slaves was the main economic driver — resulted in the American Civil War between 1861-65.
US President Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation for the Blacks in 1862 and the legal end of slavery in 1865, after the North won over the South in the nation’s deadliest internecine conflict.
Despite being free on paper, the Proclamation did not change much for African-Americans in terms of gaining real, tangible freedoms as they continued to experience inequality and segregation in all aspects of civil life.
But with the emergence of both educated and determined black leaders in the 20th century, things began to change.
While there had historically been many individual attempts from Booker T. Washington, as well as others, the first active black social movement dates back to 1905, when a group of African-American intellectuals established the Niagara movement to politically fight racism.
The founder of the movement was W. E. B. Du Bois, a sociologist, who was the first black man to have a PhD degree from the nation’s prestigious Harvard University.
They called themselves the Niagara Movement because they made their first meeting in a Canadian hotel next to Niagara Falls. The meeting could not take place within the US borders because no American hotel would have allowed it. The organisers chose to assemble somewhere on the Canadian side of the Falls.
They called for social and political change for African Americans, demanding an end to segregation and discrimination across American civic life, ranging from education to labour and transportation.
While the movement could not change much practically, it inspired some influential Black civil figures including Du Bois and their liberal white supporters to establish a new front, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
The NAACP, which aims “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination", has become one of the oldest and most influential civil rights organisations in the US.
Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam (NOI), whose connections with traditional Islamic teachings drew controversy, was founded in 1930 by Elijah Muhammad, a son of former slaves, in Detroit.
The movement defended Black separatism based on economic self-sufficiency, advocating the formation of a separate black nation in the US states of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where there has historically been a large African-American population.
Many members of the NOI refused to participate in World War II, and some like Muhammad, wound up in prison for their refusal to serve in the American military.
In the 1950s, the movement had found its most powerful voice in Malcolm X, a charismatic black leader and an articulate orator.
But in 1964, Malcolm X would eventually split from the movement after discovering Muhammad’s alleged wrongdoings and seeking out a more truthful Islamic teaching. The next year he was killed, an act said to have been carried out by NOI followers, during a speech.
After the murder of Malcolm X, which still continues to be a mystery to many, the movement separated into different branches, losing its unity.
Civil Rights movement
While the origin of the civil rights movement goes back to the American Civil War, its revolutionary appeal inspired another large-scale movement in the 1950s.
Although the movement comprised many leaders from diverse backgrounds, it has been mostly identified with Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American intellectual with strong leadership qualities and also faith in non-violent resistance, as articulated by legendary Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi.
The movement’s peaceful gatherings across the US had helped change prevailing perceptions of American racist prejudices, challenging white supremacists in the most racist states like Alabama.
The movement is also credited for the monumental legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended racial segregation as well as employment and voter discrimination.
The movement’s legal efforts also led to several crucial Supreme Court decisions, reforms which have altered racial practices like segregation in schools, transportation and workplaces to be enforced.
Like Malcolm X, King was also assassinated in 1968. His family members believe the US government was behind it.
Black Power & Black Panthers
While the Civil Rights movement was able to change various discriminatory laws and perceptions in the US, some racist practices continued to stay in American social life, particularly, in mostly white-dominated police departments.
In the mid-1960s, under the influence of various Black-dominated movements ranging from the Civil Rights one to NOI, the Black Power movement emerged as police brutality against the Blacks increased across the US.
The Black Power movement was particularly influenced by Malcolm X’s tough rhetoric and direct opposition to white rule. Another inspiration was Robert F. Williams, an NAACP leader, who defended armed resistance against the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
But the movement experienced its most influential period with the formation of the Black Panthers, a Marxist-Leninist organisation which openly defended armed struggle against police brutality in 1966 in Oakland, California. Its leaders at the time were Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
Both men, and their supporters, were armed with weapons and patrolled Oakland’s neighbourhoods in order to monitor the city’s police department. They openly advocated to face police brutality with armed resistance if necessary.
There had been a number of incidents where the members of the group fought with police officers.
This led to killings and woundings on both sides.
The movement also dedicated itself to a variety of community programs, from serving free breakfast for children, to running health clinics and educational institutions.
The movement’s internal conflicts were exploited by the FBI, which saw it as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. With its leadership divided, its support decreased among African-American communities across the country.
The Black Panther Party, the movement’s political wing, terminated itself in 1982.
Black Lives Matter
According to different accounts, Black Lives Matter, which has mostly practiced non-violent tactics, is the latest incarnation of historical American Black movements.
Some have even found similarities between the movement and the Black Panthers.
The movement first emerged in 2013, when the nation’s first African-American President was in the White House. It was around the time that an American court acquitted George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, in early 2012.
The movement has expanded across the US after more police brutality incidents have continued to emerge against Black people, from Baltimore to Ferguson, and now Minneapolis.