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Syndicated Talk Show - Los Angeles Riots - Million Man March - Colin Powell - Barack Obama Becomes 44th U.S. President

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Oprah Winfrey Launches Syndicated Talk Show, 1986

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the success of the long–running sitcom The Cosby Show—featuring popular comedian Bill Cosby as the doctor patriarch of a close–knit middle–class African–American family—helped redefine the image of black characters on mainstream American television. Suddenly, there was no lack of educated, upwardly mobile, family–oriented black characters for TV viewers to look to, both in fiction and in life. In 1980, entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), which he later sold to entertainment giant Viacom for some $3 billion. Perhaps the most striking phenomenon, however, was the rise of Oprah Winfrey.

Born in rural Mississippi to a poor unwed teenage mother, Winfrey got her start in television news before taking over a morning talk show in Chicago in 1984. Two years later, she launched her own nationally syndicated talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which would go on to become the highest–rated in TV history. Celebrated for her ability to talk candidly about a wide range of issues, Winfrey spun her talk–show success into a one–woman empire—including acting, film and television production and publishing.

She notably promoted the work of black female writers, forming a film company to produce movies based on novels like The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, and Beloved, by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (she starred in both). One of the most influential individuals in entertainment and the first black female billionaire, Winfrey is also an active philanthropist, giving generously to black South Africans and to the historically black Morehouse College, among other causes.

Los Angeles Riots, 1992

In March 1991, officers with the California Highway Patrol attempted to pull an African American man named Rodney King over for speeding on a Los Angeles freeway. King, who was on probation for robbery and had been drinking, led them on a high–speed chase, and by the time the patrolmen caught up to his car, several officers of the Los Angeles Police Department were on the scene. After King allegedly resisted arrest and threatened them, four LAPD officers shot him with a TASER gun and severely beat him.

Caught on videotape by an onlooker and broadcast around the world, the beating inspired widespread outrage in the city’s African American community, who had long condemned the racial profiling and abuse its members suffered at the hands of the police force. Many demanded that the unpopular L.A. police chief, Daryl Gates, be fired and that the four officers be brought to justice for their use of excessive force. The King case was eventually tried in the suburb of Simi Valley, and in April 1992 a jury found the officers not guilty.

Rage over the verdict sparked the four days of the L.A. riots, beginning in the mostly black South Central neighborhood. By the time the riots subsided, some 55 people were dead, more than 2,300 injured, and more than 1,000 buildings had been burned. Authorities later estimated the total damage at around $1 billion. The next year, two of the four LAPD officers involved in the beating were retried and convicted in a federal court for violating King’s civil rights; he eventually received $3.8 million from the city in a settlement.

Million Man March, 1995

In October 1995, hundreds of thousands of black men gathered in Washington, D.C. for the Million Man March, one of the largest demonstrations of its kind in the capital’s history. Its organizer, Minister Louis Farrakhan, had called for “a million sober, disciplined, committed, dedicated, inspired black men to meet in Washington on a day of atonement.” Farrakhan, who had asserted control over the Nation of Islam (commonly known as the Black Muslims) in the late 1970s and reasserted its original principles of black separatism, may have been an incendiary figure, but the idea behind the Million Man March was one most blacks—and many whites—could get behind.

The march was intended to bring about a kind of spiritual renewal among black men, and to instill them with a sense of solidarity and of personal responsibility to improve their own condition. It would also, organizers believed, disprove some of the stereotypical negative images of black men that existed in American society.

By that time, the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” had sent a disproportionate number of African Americans to prison, and by 2000, more black men were incarcerated than in college. Estimates of the number of participants in the Million Man March ranged from 400,000 to more than 1 million, and its success spurred the organization of a Million Woman March, which took place in 1997 in Philadelphia.

Colin Powell Becomes Secretary of State, 2001

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993—the first African American to hold that position—the Vietnam veteran and four–star U.S. Army general Colin Powell played an integral role in planning and executing the first Persian Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush. After his retirement from the military in 1993, many people began floating his name as a possible presidential candidate. He decided against running, but soon became a prominent fixture in the Republican Party.

In 2001, George W. Bush appointed Powell as secretary of state, making him the first African American to serve as America’s top diplomat. Powell sought to build international support for the controversial U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, delivering a divisive speech to the United Nations regarding that country’s possession of weapons material that was later revealed to be based on faulty intelligence. He resigned after Bush’s reelection in 2004.

In another history-making appointment, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s longtime foreign policy adviser and the former head of the National Security Council, succeeded Powell, becoming the first African American woman to serve as secretary of state. Though he largely stayed out of the political spotlight after stepping down, Powell remained an admired figure in Washington and beyond.

Though he continued to brush off any speculation of a possible future presidential run, Powell made headlines during the 2008 presidential campaign when he broke from the Republican party to endorse Barack Obama, the eventual winner and the first African American to be elected president of the United States.

Barack Obama Becomes 44th U.S. President, 2008

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States; he is the first African American to hold that office. The product of an interracial marriage—his father grew up in a small village in Kenya, his mother in Kansas—Obama grew up in Hawaii but discovered his civic calling in Chicago, where he worked for several years as a community organizer on the city’s largely black South Side.

After studying at Harvard Law School and practicing constitutional law in Chicago, he began his political career in 1996 in the Illinois State Senate and in 2004 announced his candidacy for a newly vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. He delivered a rousing keynote speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention, attracting national attention with his eloquent call for national unity and cooperation across party lines. In February 2007, just months after he became only the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

After withstanding a tight Democratic primary battle with Hillary Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, Obama defeated Senator John McCain of Arizona in the general election that November. Obama’s appearances in both the primaries and the general election drew impressive crowds, and his message of hope and change—embodied by the slogan “Yes We Can”—inspired thousands of new voters, many young and black, to cast their vote for the first time in the historic election.


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