Deepen Your Understanding Of Black History With These 10 Essential Terms

Some essential terms to understand Black history

We learn about terms like Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in history class. We hear about words like Juneteenth on the news. We see hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter on social media.

But, we should always ask ourselves, how well do we know what they mean? How well do we know their history and origins, their role in the Black experience, their place in the language of American life and culture?

Black history is American history, and it’s vital we always continue or revisit our learning all year round—and not only during Black History Month. So we hope you’ll join us in this roundup of some important terms in Black history, past and present.

Why is February Black History Month? Learn more about the history behind Black History Month here!

Emancipation Proclamation

From the earliest colonial days to 1863, Black people—especially from western and central Africa—were captured by Europeans and forced to live and work as slaves in the United States.

On January 1 that year, in the thick of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a landmark executive order that freed slaves in the Confederate states.

From a Latin root, emancipation means “setting free,” as a slave from bondage. And, the president has the power to issue directives, including proclamations (an official announcement of a policy).

Many don’t know that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t immediately end all slavery in the US, where it remained in Union border states (as well as in Confederate states that rejected the order or refused to inform their slaves about it).

The order did help boost Union ranks, as it permitted former slaves to join the army. It also helped turn public perception of the Civil War from a fight about unification into a moral fight over freedom.

The full abolition of slavery across the US came with the 13th Amendment, which was ratified on December 9, 1865 after the Civil War ended.


Even though Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took several years for some Black enslaved communities to learn of their freedom.

The abolition of slaves, notoriously, wasn’t announced in Texas until June 19, 1865. This date is now celebrated in Black communities throughout the United States as Juneteentha combination of the words June and nineteenth.

Also known as Freedom Day, Juneteenth features celebrations that include prayer, gathering, and, for some, a pilgrimage back to Galveston, the city where their emancipation was announced in Texas in 1865.

Festivities often feature red food and drink (e.g., strawberry soda, barbecue, and red velvet cake). The color is said not only to represent the blood shed by slaves but may also be connected to the powerful symbolism of red in some West African cultures, where many slaves were taken from.

Jim Crow laws

Though the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, the struggles of Black people certainly did not end there, as they faced—and continue to face—other forms of oppression, violence, and racism.

In 1890, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law requiring that Black and White citizens use separate cars when traveling on a train, a decision cemented by the 1896 Supreme Court under the ruling of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson.

This decision opened the doors to a wave of restrictive laws all across the southern US to curb the rights of Black people. By 1899, one such law in North Carolina had been called the Jim Crow lawJim Crow was the name of a fictional character—a repugnant caricature of a Black slave—played in blackface makeup by white actor Thomas D. Rice in minstrel shows in the early 1830s. Rice’s Jim Crow may have been taken from a song he heard an older Black man sing.

In the 1800s, the popularity of these shows across the country turned the name Jim Crow into an ethnic slur against Black people—and it became enshrined into what we now call Jim Crow laws, or sometimes simply Jim Crow. The Jim Crow system of legalized segregation didn’t officially end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, although barriers for Black Americans persist. Some use the term New Jim Crow, for example, to refer to the mass incarceration of Black males in the US.



One way white people terrorized Black people under Jim Crow was through lynching.

The origins of the word lynching are disputed. Some claim it is named for Captain William Lynch, the head of an informal tribunal in Virginia in 1780 that punished suspected British Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War. This process was described as “Lynch’s law.”

Others claim that the name comes from a different Virginian active around the same time, one Charles Lynch, who is also associated with a “lynch law” similarly connected to the suppression and incarceration of Loyalists. Whatever its exact origin, Lynch law is found by the 1810s, and lynch and lynching by the 1830s.

By the turn of the 19th century, lynching was specifically referring to the murder of Black people and other minorities blamed for some crime by white mobs without any official legal authority. One of the first lynchings recorded as such occurred in 1835 in St. Louis, when a Black man accused of killing a deputy sheriff was chained to a tree and burned to death publicly in front of a crowd. By the end of the 19th century, the term was widely used to describe mob rule and public execution by hanging, particularly in the South.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, 3,446 Black people were lynched between 1882 and 1968.

In 2018, the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act was introduced to make lynching—at long last—a federal crime. In April that year, a National Memorial for Peace and Justice was opened in Montgomery, Alabama to commemorate Black lynching victims.

I Have a Dream

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered four of the most important words in all of American history: I have a dream.

He was speaking during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which over 250,000 people converged on the National Mall to draw public attention to inequalities that Black Americans faced—and still face to this day—as part of the broader Civil Rights Movement.

A soaring vision of racial equality, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech brilliantly employs a device called anaphora. Anaphora is “the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive sentences, poetry stanzas, or clauses within a sentence.”

King intoned I have a dream eight times, driving home his message with repeated imagery and rhythm. What’s more, according to King’s adviser Clarence Jones, this part of the speech was actually improvised.

King had prepared a speech using the metaphor of a “bad check,” but in the midst of his talk, gospel singer and Civil Rights activist Mahalia Jackson called out “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” She was referencing an earlier draft of the speech—and apparently helped changed the course of history.

Get inspired by taking a closer look at the artistry and effects of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Remember that Civil Rights Act we talked about earlier? Well, after decades of protest, the Civil Rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in voter registration, employment, and public accommodations, including officially ending racial segregation in schools.

The phrase civil rights itself is recorded in a translation of the Odyssey by George Chapman in 1614. Civil, here, means “concerning a citizen,” and derives from the Latin civis, “citizen.” We can find examples of civil rights in history, from the Roman Republic to the English Bill of Rights in 1689, a framework for the US Bill of Rights.

Today, civil rights refers to “the personal liberties established by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution and other Congressional acts, especially as applied to an individual or minority group, specifically Black citizens.” This use of the phrase dates back to at least the 1940s.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not put an end to discrimination, it paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which outlawed discriminatory voting practices) and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (against discriminatory housing policies), and helped lead to the expansion of civil rights for other Americans, including people with disabilities.

Black Panthers

As we mentioned, civil rights legislation in the 1960s didn’t eradicate discrimination against Black people in the United States—and so the movement continued, including in the efforts of the Black Panthers.

The Black Panther Party (BPP) was a Black, far-left, revolutionary party founded to combat racism and empower Black people in the United States. Influenced by the likes of Malcolm X, it was formed on October 15, 1966 in Oakland, California by activists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. They created the party as a response to violence and intimidation against Black people during the Civil Rights Movement.

Newton devised the black panther name and mascot from an independent party organized in 1965 Alabama to ensure the voting rights of Black citizens there, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO).

According to documents in UC Berkeley’s H.K. Yuen’s Social Movement Archives, the LCFO chose a black panther as its mascot to be a symbol of “courage, determination, and freedom” and “as an appropriate response to the racist Alabama Democratic Party symbol, the white rooster and its slogan ‘White Supremacy / For the Right’.”

Some people have used (and continue to use) the term Black Panther to disparage what they see as more militant aspects of Black political activism and the Black power movement. However, the term is also embraced by Black people who will proudly identify as a Black Panther or as part of its legacy.

Black Lives Matter

In February 2012, George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager. In the aftermath of this development, Black organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” to mobilize and organize over the violence, oppression, and racism Black people face.

The Black Lives Matter website explains: Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. #BlackLivesMatter spread (in part promoted by Black Twitter) as a national movement starting in 2013 following police brutality and shootings of unarmed Black men and women. Protests spread worldwide in 2020 as a response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.

The movement is a powerful example of how social media—and hashtags—continue the cause of civil rights.

Black Girl Magic

Slavery, racism, oppression, and injustice have wreaked unconscionable violence on Black people throughout the history of the US.

And yet—in spite of it, because of it, through it, beyond it—Black culture has defined so much of America and the world, from its music and literature, its science and art, its thought and sport, its fashion and food, its language and life.

So, as we remember the past, we must also celebrate Black contributions to American life. One way some Black women do it is under the banner of Black Girl Magic, often used in the hashtag “#blackgirlmagic.”

Emerging in the 2010s, it was created to sing out the accomplishments and general amazingness of Black women, and it is used as an expression of positivity and empowerment.

Similar hashtags include “#blackjoy” and “#blackexcellence,” celebrating everyday moments of the greatness of Black people, life, and culture as an act of resistance against oppression.

Discover the magic of Black wordsmiths by reading this collection of stirring quotes from significant Black voices, past and present.

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