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Although the 15th Amendment passed in 1870 legally prohibited denying black men the right to vote, major efforts to disenfranchise black voters promoted the passage of the Voters Rights Act in 1965. Prior to its ratification, black voters were subject to literacy test, false voting dates, and physical violence.
Additionally, little more than 50 years ago, black Americans were banned from attending the same schools or using the same facilities as white Americans. With that in mind, it's hard to image that half a century later America would have its first black president. In order for Barack H. Obama to make history, other blacks in government had to pave the way. Naturally, black involvement in politics was met with protests, harassment, and on occasion death threats. Despite obstacles, black Americans have found many ways to make strides in government.
E.V. Wilkins (1911-2002)
Elmer V. Wilkins received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from North Carolina Central University. After completing his schooling, he became involved in the education system, first as a teacher and eventually as the principal of Clemmons High School.
Like so many of history's most famous Civil Rights leaders, Wilkins began his career in politics fighting on behalf of the local black community for improved transportation rights. Frustrated that the black students of Clemmons High School didn't have access to school buses, Wilkins began raising money to ensure that his students had transportation to and from school. From there, he got involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to file a lawsuit so that black Americans had voting rights in his local community.
After years of community involvement, Wilkins ran and was elected to Ropers Town Council in 1967. A few years later, in 1975, he was elected the first black mayor of Roper.
Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)Constance Baker Motley with James Meredith, 1962. Afro Newspaper/Getty Images
Constance Baker Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1921. Motley became interested in civil rights matters after she was banned from a public beach for being black. She sought to understand the laws that were being used to oppress her. At an early age, Motley became a civil rights advocate and was motivated to improve the treatment received by black Americans. Soon after she became the president of the local NAACP youth council.
Motley received her Economics degree from New York University and her law degree from Columbia Law School - she was the first black woman to be accepted into Columbia. She became a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall in 1945 and helped draft the complaint for the Brown v. Board of Education case - which lead to the end of legal school segregation. During her career, Motley won 9 of the 10 cases she argued before the Supreme Court. That record includes representing Martin Luther King Jr. so he could march in Albany, Georgia.
Motley's political and legal career was marked by many firsts, and she quickly cemented her role as a trailblazer in these fields. In 1964, Motley became the first black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate. After two years as a senator, she was elected to serve as a federal judge, again becoming the first black woman to hold that role. Shortly thereafter, she was appointed to the federal bench of the Southern District of New York. Motley went on to become chief judge of the district in 1982, and senior judge in 1986. She served as a federal judge until her death in 2005.
Harold Washington (1922-1987)Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images
Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois. Washington began high school at DuSable High School but did not receive his diploma until after World War II - during which time he served as first sergeant in the Air Army Corps. He was honorably discharged in 1946 and went on to graduate from Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) in 1949, and Northwestern University School of Law in 1952.
In 1954, two years after beginning his private practice, Washington became an assistant city prosecutor in Chicago. Later that same year, be was promoted to precinct captain in the 3rd Ward. In 1960, Washington began working as arbitrator for the Illinois Industrial Commission.
Not long after, Washington branched into national politics. He served in the Illinois Legislature both as a state representative (1965-1977) and a state senator (1977-1981). After serving in the U.S. Congress for two years (1981-1983) he was elected the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983 and was reelected in 1987. Sadly, later that year he died of a heart attack.
Washington's impact on Illinois' local politics lives on in the city's Ethics Commission, which he created. His efforts on behalf of city revitalization and minority representation in local politics have continued impact in the city today.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for presidential nomination. Courtesy Library of Congress
Shirley Chisholm was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, where she lived for most of her early life. Shortly after graduating from Brooklyn College in 1946, she went on to receive her Master's from Columbia University and began her career as a teacher. She then went on to serve as director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center (1953-1959) and later as an educational consultant for New York City's Bureau of Child Welfare (1959-1964).
In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress in the United States. As a representative, she served on many committees, including the House Forestry Committee, Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Education and Labor Committee. In 1968, Chisholm helped found the Congressional Black Caucus, now one of the most powerful legislative bodies in the United States.
In 1972, Chisholm became the first black person to make a bid with a major party for president of the United States. When she left Congress in 1983, she returned to Mount Holyoke College as a professor.
In 2015, eleven years after her death, Chisolm was awarded the distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honors an American citizen can receive.
Jesse Jackson (1941- )Jesse Jackson, Operation Push Headquarters, 1972. Public Domain
Jesse Jackson was born on October 8, 1941 in Greenville, South Carolina. Growing up in the Southern United States, he witnessed the injustices and inequalities of Jim Crow laws. Embracing the common axiom in the black community that becoming “twice as good” would get you half as far, he excelled in high school, becoming class president while also playing on the school's football team. After high school, he was accepted to the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina to study sociology.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Jackson became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, joining Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). From there, he walked alongside King at nearly every significant event and protest leading up to King's assassination.
In 1971, Jackson separated from the SCLC and started operation PUSH with the goal of improving the economic position of black Americans. Jackson's civil rights efforts were both local and global. During this time, he not only spoke out on black rights, he also addressed women's and gay rights. Abroad, he went to South Africa to speak against apartheid in 1979.
In 1984, he founded the Rainbow Coalition (which merged with PUSH) and ran for president of the United States. Shockingly, he came in third place in the Democratic Primaries and ran and lost again in 1988. Though unsuccessful, he laid the pathway for Barack Obama to become president two decades later. He is currently a baptist minister and remains very involved in the fight for civil rights.