A Timeline of Racial Progress in the U.S., and the Lack of It, Through the Years

George Floyd BLM Protest
A protester holds a sign reading "I Can't Breathe" outside the District Attorney's office during a peaceful demonstration over George Floyd’s death on June 3, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama/Getty

It seems like it takes something truly horrible, like the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, George Floyd , Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, to remind Americans how persistent and pervasive racism is in America.

It shouldn't be a surprise. Slavery and racism are woven into the history of our country. Even the U.S. Constitution, perhaps the most profound and foresighted political document in human history, required an awkward workaround to deal with slavery—agreeing to count slaves as 3/5ths of a human. It's impossible to look at that compromise with modern eyes and not be revulsed. It took the bloodiest war in American history to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery. And a century and a half later we're still arguing about whether to take down the Confederate battle flag.

Here are some, not all, of the seminal events in America's journey toward racial fairness. It shows progress that has been frustratingly slow and painfully hard-won. For example, the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King occured in the same week. It seems as if it's a case of two steps forward, then one back, or perhaps even a step and a half forward, then one back.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction came the nightmare of Jim Crow, with segregation, lynchings and race riots of white men attacking African-American communities. There was tremendous progress from World War II through the sixties, followed by a backlash during the seventies and eighties. The election of Barack Obama created optimism that we'd become a post-racial society. But as with so many times before, recent events show we're not there yet. With retirement of the Mississippi flag, the Stars and Bars no longer flies over a statehouse. Although as always, there's work left to do—six state flags with Confederacy symbology still fly.

While Black Americans are mindful of the role of racism in America, most would also agree that meaningful change has occurred. The 13th , 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, Brown v. Board of Education, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the War on Poverty, and other acts, signify that Americans have tried to ameliorate some of the awful and wretched things that African-Americans have confronted.

Moreover, despite the serious flaws inherent in the American project, it is also the case that we believe America can do better. Otherwise, why push toward freedom and justice?

Here are some of some of the important events—good and bad—on the long march for racial justice in America.

Racial Progress Timeline
Racial Progress Timeline Images by Getty

Carolyn Calloway-Thomas is Chair of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington; Sam Hill is a Newsweek contributor, author and consultant.