During Barack Obama’s youth, being black — or half black — was a vastly different experience than it is today. Obama was born in 1961, one year after four black students held a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest segregation. In the year following his birth, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, an act which led President Kennedy to deploy 5,000 troops to restore peace on campus.
Obama was three years old when Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed following anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Later that year King went on to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to over 200,000 people marching on Washington in support of civil rights. The very next month four little girls were killed by a bomb as they attended Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The poll tax, which prevented many poverty-stricken blacks from voting, was abolished by the 24th Amendment when Obama was four years old. That same year President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a set of legislation that not only prohibited racial discrimination but gave the federal government the power to enforce desegregation.
As Obama prepared for kindergarten, blacks marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, were tear-gassed and beaten by police. Fifty were hospitalized in what eventually became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The violence in Selma motivated passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made it easier for southern black voters to register. Deadly riots swept through Watts, California, the day after the act’s passage. In their aftermath, LBJ issued Executive Order 11246, which created affirmative action.
Obama’s childhood saw other triumphs over racial discrimination, too. He was eight years old when the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, President Johnson signed another Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. He was 10 years old when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved of busing as a way to achieve racial integration in public schools.
While much of these events were happening, Barack Obama enjoyed a childhood virtually unthinkable for most black children. After moving to Hawaii from Indonesia, where he’d lived with his mother, Obama gained a scholarship to the prestigious Punahou School, a private institution whose other notable students have included AOL founder Steve Case and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Obama was the only black student in his class.