January 15th, 1991
Supreme Court Ends School Integration Order in Oklahoma City
In 1972, a federal court ordered the Board of Education of Oklahoma City Schools to adopt a bussing program to desegregate the city's public schools in compliance with the United States Supreme Court's desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The school board complied for five years and then filed a motion to lift the order. The federal court found that integration had been achieved, granted the motion, and ended the bussing program.
In 1984, the school board adopted a new student assignment plan that significantly reduced bussing and re-segregated Oklahoma City schools. Local parents of African American students initiated litigation challenging the new assignment plan and asking for reinstatement of the 1972 bussing decree. In 1989, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reinstituted the decree, and the school board appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
On January 15, 1991, the Court declared in a 5-3 decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist that federal desegregation injunctions were intended to be temporary. Despite troubling evidence that Oklahoma City schools were re-segregating under the district's new plan, the Court sent the case back to the lower federal court for assessment under a less stringent standard, which ultimately permitted the school board to proceed with the new plan. Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, argued in dissent that a desegregation decree should not be lifted when doing so recreates segregated "conditions likely to inflict the stigmatic injury condemned in Brown."
March 3rd, 1991
LAPD Officers Caught on Tape Beating Rodney King
In the pre-dawn hours of March 3, 1991, California Highway Patrol officers in Los Angeles, California, attempted to pull over a driver for speeding. The driver, a 26-year-old black man named Rodney King, tried to evade the officers to avoid arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol but was stopped by several police cars after a brief high-speed pursuit.
Mr. King exited the car and Los Angeles Police Department officers used physical force and tasers to force him to the ground. Instead of arresting him, the officers continued to kick and beat him with wooden batons, causing severe injuries. Officers then restrained his arms and legs and dragged him to the side of the road to await emergency medical treatment. Mr. King suffered a fractured facial bone, broken right ankle, and multiple bruises and lacerations.
Nearby resident George Holliday was awakened by the beating and, from the window of his apartment, filmed the violent encounter using a personal video camera. He contacted police but received little information about what he had witnessed and decided to take the footage to the media. Local KTLA News broadcast the video in its entirety, creating a sensation and making police brutality a national issue. The incident, which might have been forgotten and ignored if not for the video evidence, would result in both civil and criminal trials and a period of city-wide violent unrest.
April 30th, 1992
Los Angeles Police Officers Acquitted in Rodney King Beating, Sparking Riots
In March 1991, Los Angeles, California, police officers stopped Rodney King for driving under the influence and evading arrest and severely beat him with batons, causing broken bones and other significant injuries. A bystander recorded the violent assault on video and public outcry in response to the graphic video led many to demand that the officers face criminal charges. Mr. King, a black man, soon became a polarizing symbol of racialized police brutality.
LAPD Sergeant Stacey Koon and officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno were charged with excessive force and, after a change of venue, were tried in Ventura County. On April 29, 1992, more than a year after the beating, a jury of ten whites, one Latino, and one Asian acquitted Sergeant Koon, Officer Wind, and Officer Briseno, but deadlocked on a charge against Officer Powell. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley expressed disbelief at the verdict and forcefully declared the officers "did not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD." Thirty minutes after the acquittals, a crowd of 300 began protesting at the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Additional protests at the police department and other locations escalated to looting, vandalism, and violent assaults, including mob beatings of passing motorists.
On April 30, 1992, widespread fires and heavy looting continued throughout Los Angeles. In the absence of police, armed Korean American storekeepers engaged in shootouts with looters. Police and the state national guard organized a response by the afternoon, and Mayor Bradley imposed a city-wide dusk-to-dawn curfew. Several more days of riots lay ahead.
May 4th, 1992
Worst of Los Angeles Riots Ends
The 1992 Los Angeles Riots erupted on April 29, 1992, after police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King, a black man, during a traffic stop were acquitted of criminal charges. Initially peaceful protests grew larger and turned violent, as crowds looted from nearby stores, vandalized vehicles, and set fires.
Television news helicopters broadcasted much of the riots, including the violent beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver dragged from his vehicle while stopped at an intersection and severely beaten by an angry mob of black residents. Police and 2000 California national guard troops responded to continued unrest, looting, and fires on April 30, but by May 1 order still had not been restored and state officials sought federal help.
On May 1, Rodney King held a press conference urging peace. That evening, President George H.W. Bush gave a national, televised address denouncing the riot's "random terror and lawlessness" and announcing that he had directed the Justice Department to investigate possible federal prosecution of the acquitted officers. Many national guard and military troops flowed into Los Angeles over the next two days and the violence was mostly under control on May 2 when 30,000 people attended a local peace rally.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lifted the emergency dawn-to-dusk curfew on May 4, 1992, acknowledging the official end of the riots, but scattered violence continued for several days and the city maintained a military presence for weeks. The riots resulted in approximately 58 deaths, more than 3000 buildings destroyed, and upwards of $1 billion in property damage.
November 11th, 1993
Disney Announces Plan for Virginia Amusement Park to Recreate Slavery
On November 11, 1993, the Walt Disney Company announced plans for a new theme park, Disney’s America, which would “allow guests to celebrate the diversity of the nation, the plurality and conflicts that have defined the American character” on a 3000 acre site in Prince William County in northern Virginia. Plans for the park, located near the Manassas Civil War battlefields, included a Civil War fort, a Native American Indian village, and a Civil War era village. Describing the park’s proposed attractions, Bob Weis, vice president of Disney’s creative division, said, “We want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what it was like to escape through the underground railroad.”
In the small town of Thoroughfare, near the location Disney intended to construct exhibitions depicting slave life, grandchildren of slaves continued to live and work the land their ancestors had inherited following the end of the Civil War. In response to Disney’s plans, Courtney Gallop-Johnson founded the Black History Action Coalition, comprised of “African Americans who share a grave concern with Disney's plan to portray slavery as part of a theme park.” Said Ms. Gallop-Johnson of the proposed slavery exhibitions, “We don't think that it is a historically dignified or accurate portrayal, or suitable fare for an amusement park.” Disney’s then-chairman, Michael Eisner, responded to such criticism by saying that they were not “going to put people in chains.”
In September 1994, facing opposition from critics who were concerned that the park would vulgarize history, pollute the surrounding area, and detract from nearby historical sites, Disney decided to abandon its plans for the Virginia park.
May 19th, 1994
Justice Department Sues After Principal Threatens to Cancel Prom Due to Interracial Couples
On February 24, 1994, Hulond Humphries, principal of Randolph County High School in Wedowee, Alabama, announced at a student assembly that the school's prom would be canceled if interracial couples attended. When a biracial student stood and asked whom she was allowed to date, Mr. Humphries reportedly told her that her conception had been a mistake and that he hoped to prevent others from making the same error as her parents. Mr. Humphries's threat and remarks divided the community along racial lines, with most African American residents calling for his removal and many whites defending his position.
School board members declined to formally investigate the principal's conduct and parents of African American students at the high school called on the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to intervene. On May 19, 1994, after several weeks of investigation, DOJ filed a lawsuit against the Randolph County School Board, citing its repeated violation of a racial desegregation order in place since 1970. DOJ's investigation uncovered a pattern of racial discrimination by school administrators that extended beyond the school's extracurricular activities into its student disciplinary practices and hiring and promotion decisions.
In January 1995, DOJ settled the case after the school board agreed to address its discriminatory practices and suspended Mr. Humphries from campus for two years. The settlement did not require the school to dismiss Mr. Humphries and, to the dismay of many African American community members, he continued to work as a school district administrator. In July 1997, one month after his suspension ended, Mr. Humphries was elected Superintendent of the Randolph County School Board.
May 25th, 1994
Denny's Restaurant Pays Historic Settlement in Racial Discrimination Suit
During the early 1990's, Denny's Restaurants (particularly franchises located in Southern California) were accused of widespread discrimination against black customers. Complaints alleged racially segregated customer seating and forcing black customers to pay for their meals before eating. With the assistance of the Justice Department and then-Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick, more than 4000 individuals filed claims in federal court.
The plaintiffs alleged that their rights had been violated under the provisions of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Known as the Public Accommodations Act, Title II was developed specifically to end segregation in hotels and restaurants. The law had not been applied widely in class-action suits, where charges of discrimination are usually made by employees and not paying customers.
Fearing the negative publicity associated with widespread accusations of racial discrimination, Denny's settled the lawsuits collectively without litigation. On May 25, 1994, Flagstaff Companies, Denny's parent organization, agreed to pay $54.4 million - the largest settlement ever reached under federal public accommodation laws - to settle the pending federal lawsuits.
The case represented a significant victory for civil rights advocates, and $28 million was earmarked to compensate victims of Denny's discriminatory policies. Although Flagstaff Companies did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement, it did agree to retain an independent civil rights monitor to prevent future discrimination.
March 16th, 1995
Mississippi Ratifies Thirteenth Amendment 130 Years After its Adoption
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution declares: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Formally abolishing slavery in the United States, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865. Three-fourths of the states needed to ratify the amendment before it could become part of the Constitution, which was achieved when Georgia ratified on December 6, 1865. Mississippi, with an economy rooted in slavery, was one of many Southern states that refused to ratify the amendment at that time.
In 1994, Gregory Watson, a clerk in the Texas legislature, discovered that Mississippi still had not ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. He notified each of the African American members of the Mississippi legislature and sent them a draft of a resolution that Mississippi could adopt in order to rectify the situation. On March 16, 1995, the Mississippi legislature ratified the Thirteenth Amendment 130 years after it was initially proposed and rejected, becoming the final state in the country to do so.
However, state officials failed to send the necessary documentation to the federal register and the ratification was not formally filed as required. Nearly twenty years later, in late 2012, Mississippi residents Dr. Rajan Batra and Ken Sullivan discovered that the ratification was not yet official. Mr. Sullivan notified the Secretary of State, who agreed to do the necessary filing. On February 7, 2013, Mississippi's ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment became official.
May 3rd, 1995
Alabama Brings Back Prison Chain Gangs
Chain gangs were implemented across the South as a solution to violence and abuse that prisoners endured in the system of convict leasing in which white land owners and for-profit companies were allowed to purchase prisoners to work in cotton fields and in mines. During Reconstruction, Southerners embraced chain gangs as a way to repair the South's economy and infrastructure. Following years of complaints of the abuse that prisoners suffered in the system, chain gangs were abolished in every state by the late 1950s.
On May 3, 1995, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) reinstated chain gangs at Limestone Correctional Facility. Four hundred men were shackled together at the ankles with leg irons in groups of five, guarded by prison officers armed with shotguns, and forced to work on Alabama highways. If inmates refused to work on the chain gain, they were tied to a hitching post and denied access to water or bathrooms. ADOC Commissioner Ronald Jones and Alabama Governor Forrest “Fob” James defended the decision to reinstate chain gangs, by arguing that the punishment would deter other people from committing crimes in Alabama. Seven states followed Alabama's lead and reintroduced chain gangs in their penal systems.
In 1996, after an inmate on a chain gang was shot and killed by an officer and amid growing reports of injures and safety concerns, the Alabama Department of Corrections agreed to permanently ban chain gangs. However, prisoner work crews continue in Alabama and individual inmates may have their legs chained together. In 2012, Alabama passed a law expanding prison labor; that same year, one prisoner working on a road crew was struck by a car and killed, while another prisoner was severely injured. Several other states, including Florida and Arizona, continue to use some variation of prisoner work crews.
August 18th, 1995
NAACP Protests Uncovering of “Faithful Slave” Monument
On August 18, 1995, the NAACP sent a letter of protest to the Department of the Interior to protest the uncovering of a decades-old monument in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.
In October 1859, white abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the Harper’s Ferry Armory in what is now West Virginia, in hopes of launching a massive rebellion of enslaved black people. The raid was put down and Brown and many of his followers were convicted and hanged, but the Civil War followed soon after and the Confederacy’s loss led to widespread emancipation. A generation later, descendants of Confederate soldiers and former slave owners began efforts to create a monument at Harper's Ferry dedicated to the first casualty of the raid: Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who worked for the local railroad.
Mr. Shepherd was not enslaved; other details about his life and politics are unknown. Nevertheless, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1905 found him a fitting subject for a so-called “faithful slave monument” that would promote the message that “the white men of the South were the Negro's best friend then.” In 1920, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the UDC agreed to jointly fund construction of the monument.
After a number of sites refused to host the monument, it was completed and dedicated in 1932 at a ceremony where speakers justified and praised slavery. The monument’s inscription in part praised “the character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races.” Writing in 1932, black scholar and activist W.E.B. Dubois sharply criticized the monument and its dedication ceremony as a “pro-slavery celebration.”
When the National Park Service took responsibility for the Harper's Ferry site as a national historic landmark, the Hayward Shepherd monument was removed during construction. When it was returned in 1981, a plywood box covered the lengthy inscription. Following several years of complaints and pressure from the SCV, UDC, and Southern congressmen, including North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the superintendent of the site ordered the covering removed on June 9, 1995. The West Virginia NAACP protested the decision and condemned in its August 1995 letter the monument’s implication that “all slaves were satisfied to be whipped, raped, tortured, torn away from their families and sold.”
October 12th, 1995
Three Brentwood, Pennsylvania, Police Officers Kill Unarmed Black Motorist During Traffic Stop
Jonny Gammage, cousin and business partner of Pittsburgh Steelers football player Ray Seals, was detained during a traffic stop while driving Mr. Seals’s Jaguar in the working-class suburb of Brentwood on the morning of October 12, 1995. According to testimony, Lt. Milton Mullholland pulled Mr. Gammage over for tapping his breaks and called Officer John Votjas for backup. The officers later claimed that Mr. Gammage, who was 5'6" and 165 pounds, pointed an object at the officers – which turned out to be a cell phone – and struggled. Mullholland and Votjas, along with Officer Michael Albert, Sgt. Keith Henderson, and Officer Sean Patterson, ultimately pinned Mr. Gammage face-down on the pavement; he asphyxiated and died after several minutes.
On November 27, 1995, Mulholland, Votjas were charged with third degree murder, and Albert was charged with involuntary manslaughter. The charges against Mullholland and Votjas, were later reduced to involuntary manslaughter. Henderson and Patterson were not charged in the incident.
Officer Votjas was acquitted by an all-white jury and, a year later, promoted to sergeant; Judge Joseph McCloskey dismissed charges against Mulholland and Albert after two trials resulted in mistrials. In January 1996, Brentwood police chief Wayne Babish, who had called for a complete investigation into Mr. Gammage’s death, was fired by the Brentwood City Council for failing to support the charged officers.
Multiple public protests were held in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, calling for “Justice for Jonny” and federal intervention. However, in 1999 the Department of Justice declined to file civil rights charges, stating that there was not enough evidence that unreasonable force had been used.
November 27th, 1995
False Myth of the "Super-Predator”
On November 27, 1995, the Weekly Standard published an article by Princeton University political science professor John Dilulio, entitled “The Coming of the Super-Predators,” in which he predicted there would be 270,000 violent youth in the United States by 2010. He reasoned that growing rates of “moral poverty” caused aggressive behavior among poor and minority youth.
“Super-predator” language came to be commonly used in conjunction with dire predictions that a vast increase in violent juvenile crime was occurring or about to occur. Theorists suggested that we would soon see “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and who “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Much of the frightening imagery was racially coded. For example, Dilulio in "My Black Crime Problem, and Ours," City Journal (1996), warned about “270,000 more young predators on the streets than in 1990, coming at us in waves over the next two decades . . . as many as half of these juvenile super-predators could be young black males”.
Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” children led nearly every state to enact legislation mandating automatic adult prosecution for children, permitting sentences of life without parole or death for children, and/or allowing children to be housed with adult prisoners.
The predictions proved wildly inaccurate. Lower rates of juvenile crime from 1994 to 2000 despite simultaneous increases in the juvenile population led academics who had originally supported the “super-predator” theory to back away from their predictions, including Dilulio himself. In 2001, the United States Surgeon General labeled the “super-predator” theory a myth.
Efforts to reverse the policies that grew from the "super-predator" myth have seen some success in the Supreme Court, which in 2005 decided in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty is unconstitutional for juveniles. In 2010, the Court in Graham v. Florida prohibited life imprisonment without parole sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes. And in 2012, the Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama invalidated mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide. Meaningful implementation of these decisions, as well as further reform, remains an ongoing effort and challenge.
February 4th, 1999
Four NYPD Officers Fatally Shoot Amadou Diallo 41 times
In the early morning hours of February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old West African immigrant from Guinea, was shot and killed by four New York City police officers while standing outside his apartment building in the Bronx. Mr. Diallo, who was unarmed, was shot 41 times.
Mr. Diallo was standing outside his building after returning home late from a meal when four white, plain-clothed New York City police officers pulled up in a sedan. The police later said that they thought Mr. Diallo fit the description of an armed serial rapist they were seeking.
When the police approached, Diallo backed up toward the building vestibule and the officers yelled at him to show his hands. As Mr. Diallo reached into his jacket to take out his wallet, one of the officers yelled gun and the four officers fired. Two of the officers unloaded their guns, firing sixteen shots each; the other two officers fired five and four shots respectively. Amadou Diallo was struck by nineteen bullets. Only a pager and his wallet were found in his pockets.
A Bronx grand jury later indicted the four officers on second degree murder charges. After the court held that media and public outrage surrounding the case would make it difficult for the officers to get a fair trial in the Bronx, proceedings were moved to the less racially-diverse location of Albany, New York, where a jury acquitted the officers of all charges on February 25, 2000. The shooting and subsequent verdict sparked widespread outrage and protests against the NYPD for racial profiling and police brutality.