Study Guide

A More Perfect Union Timeline

By Barack Obama

Timeline

April 19th, 1775–September 3rd, 1783

American Revolutionary War

Across the pond, the old tea-sipping men in the British Parliament decided to tax the colonies to help settle some war debts, especially those related to the French and Indian War. The colonists didn't agree with such measures—why should a government with horrible fashion sense get to tax them from hundreds of miles away?

The Patriots started to protest the various taxes, and the protests continued to escalate until they hosted a rowdy tea party (and didn't invite the British). The colonists then decided they were donezo with being under Britain's thumb and set up a secret provincial government in preparation for the day when they would be free.

Tensions exploded at Lexington and Concord, near Boston, in April 1775 with "the shot heard 'round the world" that marked the beginning of America's fight for independence. The British surrendered under General Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1783.

May 25th–September 17th, 1787

Constitutional Convention

After the end of the American Revolution, the 13 colonies were no longer under British control.

It was all fine and dandy…except that the new country needed to figure out how to operate.

The Articles of Confederation served as the first constitution, but there were weak spots, particularly that the national government didn't have a lot of authority. For that reason, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, although the intent of many of the delegates was to create something totally new rather than fix what was broken.

The biggest issues centered around representation in Congress and the allocation of executive power. At the conclusion of the convention, the committee produced a final version of what would become the U.S. Constitution, including the opening words, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union." The document was voted on and sent to the states for approval—and done.

1857

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Dred Scott was a slave who lived and worked in Wisconsin, a territory in which slavery was illegal. When his master died, Scott sued for his freedom in a state court because his master's widow refused to allow him to purchase it. He said legally he should be considered free because he and his family had lived for so long in a territory where slavery was banned.

The court ruled in his favor and granted his freedom. However, the Supreme Court overturned the original verdict, and when Dred Scott attempted to sue again, the jury ruled that he couldn't use the federal justice system because he was a slave. And even if Dred Scott was, technically, "free," that status didn't grant him the same rights as U.S. citizens.

Also, because Congress couldn't ban slavery in any territory, he and his family would always be viewed as property. It was a blow to Scott and his family for sure, and it did nothing to suppress rising tensions between the North and the South.

April 12th, 1861–May 9th, 1865

Civil War

Like it or not, slavery was a huge part of the American economy in the 19th century, especially in the South. When territories in the western part of the country started to become states, legalizing slavery in those places became a hugely divisive issue.

Plus, the North and the South had incredibly different customs and social structures—both sides didn't necessarily approve of what motivated the other. Eventually, the South was so unhappy with what was happening that they seceded from the United States and created the Confederate States of America.

Tensions were high, and everything exploded when the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861. It was the bloodiest war in American history, pitting brother against brother, until it came to an end with the Confederate surrender in 1865.

January 1st, 1863

Emancipation Proclamation

Doesn't the very name of this document make your heart flutter? With a determined swirl of his quill (a la Harry Potter, we imagine), Honest Abe freed millions of slaves in the South. It meant that as soon as enslaved peoples escaped the Confederacy, they were legally free.

It caused a lot of issues because slave owners weren't compensated for the "loss," and while it was undoubtedly an important step, it didn't actually outlaw slavery. Plus, Abe didn't have the support of Congress in passing the law—he did it under his authority as commander in chief of the armed forces. There was no way the proclamation could be enforced, either, until the Union army was able to take control of territory belonging to the Confederacy.

1865–1877

Reconstruction Era

After the Civil War ended, the entire country was in shambles. Southern infrastructure had nearly collapsed—a majority of the fighting had taken place there, and the Union victory meant that all slaves were free. It was a huge blow to the Southern economy.

Somehow, things needed to be fixed, and it was up to the federal government to make it happen. Prior to his assassination, Lincoln had designed a plan to reconstruct the country after the war ended.

His successor, Andrew Johnson, had a similarly moderate plan designed to return things to normal ASAP in the Southern states. However, Radical Republicans weren't in the mood to be generous.

When Ulysses S. Grant was elected, his support of radical plans created a vicious backlash that lingered into the late 19th century. This backlash also gave birth to Jim Crow laws and other legalized forms of segregation.

1865–1870

Reconstruction Amendments

Three amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified in efforts to ensure equality and protection for all freed slaves following the end of the Civil War. Supposedly, they would fix the fractured country by uniting all people under the laws of freedom…but you can guess how well that worked out.

Thirteenth Amendment: This amendment, in which slavery was abolished, is the first time slavery is explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

Fourteenth Amendment: Next, all people born in the United States or naturalized here (i.e., freed from the chains of an institution that had kidnapped them from their homes and separated them from their families) were equal citizens of the United States of America.

Fifteenth Amendment: Finally, the U.S. government couldn't deny a person the right to vote based on the person's race or status as a former slave.

1866

Civil Rights Act of 1866

There are a million civil rights acts in our history, beginning with this one at the end of the Civil War. (Okay, so maybe not a million, but the fact that we have more than one speaks to how difficult it was to make any change at all).

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 said that all persons, no matter the color of their skin or their status as a former slave, had the same rights and freedoms under the law. But—shocker—without any active enforcement, nothing really changed.

1871

Civil Rights Act of 1871

The next Civil Rights Act, also known as the Enforcement Act of 1871, centered on the writ of habeas corpus. Wait—what now?

Habeas corpus is a fancy legal way of saying people cannot be subjected to unjust imprisonment. However, in 1871, Congress suspended the writ of habeas corpus in efforts to put an end to the Ku Klux Klan and any other white supremacy organizations. After this act, for the first time, the president was legally empowered to ignore states' rights and do what was necessary to eradicate these kinds of problems.

1875

Civil Rights Act of 1875

Next in line was the Enforcement Act, or the Force Act, under which African-Americans were guaranteed equal treatment on public transportation and in other public places. They also couldn't be excluded from jury duty (which is a pleasure all people should be lucky to have).

The response to this act proves just how sneaky and underhanded our laws can be sometimes. It was contested as being unconstitutional in 1883—and the Supreme Court agreed—because while the 14th Amendment prohibits state governments from legally discriminating against minority populations, the feds don't have the right to outlaw discrimination happening in private organizations.

They also said the 13th Amendment was meant to abolish slavery, but it wasn't supposed to abolish discrimination. Makes you want to spin in circles until you are dizzy and then hit your head against a wall, right? Keep reading—it doesn't end there.

1896

Plessy v. Ferguson

"Separate but equal" is super counterintuitive and a total cop-out, but this Supreme Court case said that it was also constitutional. It upheld states' right to segregate public facilities based on race. It was totally bogus—the justice who handed down the verdict said if it seemed like the decision was implying African-Americans were inferior to whites, it was only because those people were looking at it that way. The decision was just one in a long line of concentrated efforts in the Reconstruction-era South to prevent Blacks from participating on the same level as white populations.

October 1929–September 1939

Great Depression

The legitimately depressing Great Depression was an economic crisis that began with a stock market crash. There was a severe decrease in business activity not just in the United States but all over the world, and millions of Americans were out of jobs.

Some places began to recover in the mid-1930s, but collectively the world didn't bounce back until the start of World War II, when we just had all kinds of different problems to worry about.

January 30th, 1933–May 8th, 1945

The Holocaust

When Adolf Hitler, an angry young man with a severe mustache, was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933, he began instituting a campaign to rid the country of what he called "inferior populations," beginning with the Jews.

His anti-Semitic sentiments led to state-sanctioned boycotts of Jewish businesses, laws forbidding citizens to marry Jews, and eventually the forcing of all persons of the faith to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing.

In the late 1930s, Hitler ordered all Jews to be evacuated from their homes and placed under guard in ghettos. Then, in late 1941, the Nazis began systematically executing Jewish prisoners in concentration camps around Europe, including at Auschwitz and Treblinka. By the end of the war, 11 million civilians had died in the camps, 6 million of whom were Jews.

September 1939–August 1945

World War II

Adolf Hitler was ornery when it came to the economic state of his country and the way the Germans were punished for their role in World War I.

His actions in response to those frustrations (and, to be fair, the fallout from earlier conflicts and decisions in the years since 1918) angered a lot of people, and the final straw was when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. World War II was the most extensive war in history—more than 30 countries were involved, and by the time it was over, 60 million people had died.

May 17th, 1954

Brown v. Board of Education

After years of separate schools for Black and white children, Brown v. Board of Education was a Supreme Court case that declared creating separate schools for students based on their race was unconstitutional.

This case paved the way for the integration of other community places, although admittedly it would still be a bumpy road. That said, one thing it didn't do was address what should be done to desegregate existing schools, and leaving that kind of room for interpretation was a dangerous omission on the part of the court.

1954–1968

Civil Rights Movement

When the Supreme Court struck down that whole "separate but equal" thing, it was a huge step forward for Black populations across the country. But things didn't get better immediately.

Southern tradition was decidedly against granting African-Americans equal rights in all aspects of daily life—the fight had only just begun. That said, in direct contradiction to the violence with which many activists were treated, African-Americans used nonviolent protests to try and make change. This time period brought fame to many individuals who became the faces of the equality movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X.

November 8th, 1960

John F. Kennedy Elected 35th President of the United States

The election of 1960 was groundbreaking in many different ways, particularly when it came to the important issues: threat of communism, persistent racial conflicts, and Marilyn Monroe's sultry singing. (Okay, so the last one wouldn't happen until after JFK won the election).

We also have that election to thank for those lovely televised debates we look forward to every election season because 1960 was the first time candidates debated live on TV. It was a close race, but the young Democrat made history as the first Catholic president in U.S. history.

July 2nd, 1964

The Civil Rights Act

Throughout John F. Kennedy's three-year tenure as president of the United States, the country faced numerous instances of racially motivated violence, including the riot at Ole Miss in 1962, which resulted in the deployment of the National Guard. In fact, protests sprang up all over the country, and they became increasingly violent.

So, JFK introduced a comprehensive piece of anti-discrimination legislation in 1963, saying that while the United States undoubtedly faced numerous threats from overseas forces, the status of our nation would always be at risk if all citizens were not treated fairly. He was assassinated later that year, but Lyndon B. Johnson didn't let the legislation crumble under severe opposition from southern representatives. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in public places, as well as employment discrimination due to race.

November 9th, 1994–October 3rd, 1995

O.J. Simpson Trial

When Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were brutally murdered at Nicole's home in California, her ex-husband—NFL star O.J. Simpson—was arrested and tried for the killings. The trial lasted for nearly a year, and it was the most publicized criminal trial in American history.

You've probably heard references to the White Bronco or the black glove, especially with the FX miniseries chronicling the trial and its effect on all those involved. The impressive team of defense attorneys included Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, and a guy by the name of Kardashian.

Before long, the case became overwhelmed by lingering racial tensions in California, and across the country. At a certain point, the case became more about O.J.'s status as a Black man and how that classification may have influenced how he was treated rather than about the victims. In October 1995, O.J. Simpson was acquitted, although a jury later found him "responsible" for the two murders after the victims' families filed a civil lawsuit.

September 11th, 2001

9/11 Terrorist Attacks

When the United States was brutally attacked in the early morning hours of September 11th, the entire world changed.

Nineteen hijackers took control of four airplanes and crashed two of them into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; a third plane slammed into the Pentagon; the fourth was headed toward Washington when the heroic passengers fought back and the plane hurtled into a field in Pennsylvania.

More than 3,000 civilians died that day, and it marked an end to a certain way of life in the United States. Airports beefed up security—and we're not talking about those muscly Popeye-looking guys who stand with their hands clasped, looking all intimidating. Passengers went through security screenings prior to their arrival at the airport—it began the moment a ticket was purchased. When you actually got to the airport, serious X-ray machines that feel kind of like a spaceship replaced the usual metal detectors.

But even more exhausting than that whole process? Racial tensions flared up across the country, with innocent Muslims falling victim to acts of hate sparked by a super intense fear of the unknown. Things went so crazy that the government created a new division to ensure our safety, called the Department of Homeland Security. In some cases, that has meant removing certain rights from POWs and persons suspected of affiliating with groups of people determined to hurt us.

October 7th, 2001–Present

Conflicts in the Middle East

In the weeks following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the entire nation was moving through each day wide-eyed and wobbling, trying to run on sand to get back to solid ground. We were out for blood—9/11 was the largest terrorist attack on our soil in the nation's history, and the perpetrators were not going to get away with killing so many people.

On October 7th, 2001, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in efforts to find Osama bin Laden and eradicate al-Qaida once and for all. The conflict, originally supported by NATO and other Western allies, was overwhelmed by President George W. Bush's decision to send more American forces into Iraq in March 2003.

He supposedly had reliable intelligence that dictator Saddam Hussein had provided monetary support for 9/11 and was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The military action in Iraq lasted until 2011 and forces left Afghanistan in 2014, but in many ways, the damage was done. Americans were disillusioned by a decade of conflict with few tangible achievements, especially when the centuries-old conflicts in the region, inflamed by Western action and subsequent withdrawal from the area, gave birth to new types of terrorist groups.

March 2008

Reverend Jeremiah Wright Controversy

In early 2008, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a longtime friend and pastor to Barack Obama, came under fire for a number of inflammatory statements he made concerning the United States government and its actions abroad.

He spoke about the perpetual mistreatment of African-Americans, insisting that the government gave them drugs only to build bigger prisons for the same population. He went as far as to say the United States was responsible for the 9/11 attacks because the country had done similar things in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

You can check out some of the comments he made here.

November 4th, 2008

Barack Obama Elected 44th President of the United States

After another drawn-out election season filled with awesome impersonations by Tina Fey, Barack Obama was elected president over John McCain. It was a historic election: Obama was the first African-American president in the nation's history, and it proved he could overcome the kinds of critiques born from controversies like that with Reverend Wright.

October 9th, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to Barack Obama

So, even though no one ever really holds a shampoo bottle in the bathroom and pretends to give a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it's still a pretty big deal.

In 2009, less than a year after he was sworn into office, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize because of the work he was doing to fix racial conflicts in America and around the world. He recognized the controversy in being awarded a prize for peace because his country had been fighting overseas for an entire decade. (Not to mention the controversy over the fact that he had been president for, like, five minutes, and some people were super confused about how he was even eligible for the award.)

But, as is typical of President Obama, he addressed those issues and spoke confidently and charismatically about war and peace. He actually defended the necessity of war when it happens in effort to protect and/or free oppressed populations.

March 23rd, 2016

HB2—Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act

HB2, also known as House Bill 2, appears at first glance to be a non-discriminatory bill designed to protect states' right—and on the surface, we suppose that's true.

However, it also says local governments can't pass laws to protect individuals who identify as LGBTQ. In other words, those people are no longer protected from discrimination under North Carolina law and cities interested in changing that don't have the right to try.

April 5th, 2016

HB1523—Mississippi's "Religious Freedom" Bill

Mississippi passed a law allowing private businesses, including certain health care providers, to deny service to gay couples due to the religious beliefs of the proprietors. They also can deny service to straight couples who are having sex outside of marriage.

It's the kind of action that makes you scratch your head a bit…because how can a government take action that will make it legal to discriminate against a group of people simply because of whom they love? They can call it whatever they want—protecting individual religious freedom from "government discrimination" is decidedly not noble when that small protected population suddenly has the right to go all preachy on everyone else. We have seen where it ends, and it ain't good—a lack of acceptance can only have pretty dastardly consequences.

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