The year 2020 was a year like no other. Amid a pandemic that brought the world to a standstill, Americans watched George Floyd being murdered at the hands of police as he cried out for his mother. Over the next few months, additional reports of Black lives cut down too soon became all too frequent. Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain joined the growing list of Black victims of police brutality.

On a 2018 tour reaching out to Black and women voters in rural Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown speaks at a church in Warner Robins, Ga. In 2020, efforts by Brown and organizer Stacey Abrams to empower Black voters resulted in the election of the first Black U.S. senator from Georgia. John Bazemore/Associated Press, File

The events of 2020 made John Lewis’ assertion that “the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society” all too clear. Frustratingly, it seems that little has changed since 2012 when Black Lives Matter emerged in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin.

But out of the horrible events of 2020, there was hope. A grassroots movement of organized protests against racial injustice spread across the country on a scale unheard of since the civil rights movement.

So, what are we to make of the year 2020? What lessons can history teach us about the present racial climate of the United States? Is there any comfort or wisdom we can take from looking at the past? As an historian, I say the answer is “yes.”

The flurry of conversations about race in the past year has demonstrated that racism is insidious. Overtly racist acts like lynching or deaths at the hands of police are symptomatic of a larger systemic problem plaguing the nation.

While police brutality was the catalyst for the upwelling of protests last summer, it was not the only grievance protesters raised. The gross disparity in COVID-19 deaths of people of color put racial inequities in sharp relief. These protests opened up conversations about inadequate housing and health care, inequities in labor, voter disenfranchisement and unequal access to public accommodations for people of color. Unfortunately, these issues are not new. During the civil rights movement, activists mobilized for the right to vote and to end segregation, but they also advocated for equitable housing, economic justice and an end to police brutality.

Certainly, the civil rights movement should be celebrated for achieving the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but these laws have been chipped away at in subsequent years and require constant vigilance to protect the rights of marginalized Americans. The more progressive demands of the movement remain to be realized. As we celebrate Black History Month, there is still much more important work to be done.

Then-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock, right, bumps elbows with Stacey Abrams at a campaign rally last Dec. 15 in Atlanta. Heeding the example of civil rights activist Ella Baker, Abrams and Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown worked to elect Warnock by giving voters a voice in their community. Drew Angerer/Getty Images via TNS

In light of that assertion, it can feel as though our actions are making little or no progress. But history shows that the agency and actions of individuals have the power to transform the world around us.

Take, for example, the actions of three enslaved men in Virginia in May 1861. Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend fled from slavery to Union lines at Fort Monroe. These men convinced Union Gen. Benjamin Butler to not abide by the Fugitive Slave Act and return them to their enslaver. As a result, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which deemed enslaved people to be “contraband of war” that would not be returned to enslavers who were in rebellion against the federal government. The actions of these three men, and the thousands of enslaved people that followed in their footsteps, turned Fort Monroe into “Freedom Fort” and helped to transform a war to preserve the Union into a war for the emancipation of 4 million enslaved people.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from history is the importance of education, empowerment and leadership. Civil rights activist Ella Baker said that her primary objective “was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence.”

Baker cautioned against putting too much stake in national leaders and was a strong proponent of grassroots activism, of empowering local people to advocate and become leaders in their communities. Baker believed in the power of ordinary people to change the world. In the summer of 2020, and in the November election, the power of individuals and local communities was on full display. The wisdom of Ella Baker’s organizing strategy was apparent in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams’ and LaTosha Brown’s dogged efforts to empower Black voters at the polls led to the election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, the first Black senator to represent Georgia.

History teaches us that if we are to make lasting change, we need to continue to cultivate relationships, build coalitions and empower individuals to action. Part of that empowerment comes from education and learning about the history of slavery and racism in the United States. In the wake of the unrest of 2020, Americans have begun to reconsider the histories we privilege and national myths we tell about the past. The removal of Confederate monuments following Floyd’s death is evidence of this. Confronting the history of white supremacy in the United States and acknowledging the vital contributions of African Americans to American history, not just in February, but all year long as well, is an important step in achieving permanent change.


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