Skip to main content Accessibility

The Year in Review: Events that shaped 2021

“Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that’s what this is all about. … And we fight, we fight like hell.”

Former President Donald Trump’s speech on January 6 may have set off a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol, but it also framed the mission.

In 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Center entered its fifth decade standing up for the powerless and exploited, focusing on impact legislation in Children’s Rights, Economic Justice, Immigrant Justice, LGBTQ Rights, Voting Rights and Criminal Justice Reform. | SPLC's Top Cases of 2021

While more than a dozen U.S. states, including Florida and Georgia, implement laws that make it harder for citizens to vote – we fight.

While migrants continue to be turned away at the Southern border – we fight.

As verdicts continue to render signs of systemic racism – we fight.

Here are some of the most memorable events in the fight for justice that occurred in 2021.


The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

A mob breached the halls of Congress on January 6 to prevent U.S. lawmakers from certifying the Electoral College vote.

Five people died. About 140 police officers were assaulted during 187 chaotic minutes.

The siege of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., pointed to a troubling trend: While the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked a variety of extremists and far-right and anti-government groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, a large number of those arrested in the aftermath were not affiliated with a specific hate or anti-government group.

Some of the accused insurrectionists include individuals aligned with QAnon, an umbrella term for a spiderweb of right-wing conspiracy theories.

While a Select Committee of Congress attempts to make sense of the mayhem that transpired, federal prosecutors have charged almost 700 people with violent crimes that range from conspiracy to destruction of property.

Challenge to the Guyer Rule

On Jan. 14, Kelvin Silva – one of many Black men held at a remote immigrant prison in Georgia – faced deportation because of an archaic and racially inequitable law known as the Guyer Rule that prevented him from becoming a U.S. citizen as a child, even though his father was a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Were it not for the Guyer Rule, Silva – who was born in the Dominican Republic but grew up in the United States – would have automatically gained citizenship when he was just 11-years-old.

The SPLC and its co-counsel continue to represent Silva in a federal court challenge that claims the Guyer Rule – which since 1940 has prevented U.S.-citizen fathers, but not U.S.-citizen mothers, from passing their citizenship status to foreign-born, nonmarital children – is unconstitutional because it discriminates based on gender and race.


Georgia voting rights

The SPLC, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Georgia, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), and law firms WilmerHale and Davis Wright Tremaine filed a federal lawsuit against Georgia’s sweeping new law that makes it much harder for all Georgians to vote, particularly voters of color, new citizens and religious communities.

The lawsuit challenges multiple provisions in Georgia law S.B. 202 – signed by Gov. Brian Kemp following record turnout of voters, particularly Black voters, for the 2020 presidential vote and 2021 runoff elections.

A federal court in December rejected three motions filed by the State of Georgia, county defendants and intervenor defendants – which include the Republican National Committee and other campaign arms of the Republican Party – to dismiss the case.

The litigation is scheduled to proceed.


Reparation commission

More than three decades after first introduced, a U.S. House committee voted and approved legislation to create a commission to study slavery reparations for Black citizens in the U.S.

The legislation would establish a 13-person commission to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination throughout U.S. history and recommend potential remedies, including compensation. It awaits movement in the Senate.

Reparation efforts have made progress at the local level, including in Evanston, Illinois, which in March became the first U.S. city to institute a reparations program.

Derek Chauvin guilty of killing George Floyd

A jury on April 20 found the former Minneapolis Police officer, who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, guilty on three counts of murder and manslaughter.

The death of Floyd, a Black man, at the hand of a white police officer in May 2020 sparked a national racial reckoning to fundamentally transform policing and end police violence against Black people.

Derek Chauvin, 45, was sentenced to serve a prison term of 22 years, six months. A federal civil rights trial for three other Minneapolis police officers – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao – charged in connection with Floyd’s death is expected to begin in January 2022. Chauvin pleaded guilty on Dec. 15 to the federal charge, possibly extending his imprisonment by 2 ½ years.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which bans chokeholds and ends qualified immunity – the legal protection that limits victims’ ability to sue police officers for misconduct – awaits further action in the Senate after gaining approval in the House in March.

illustration of George Floyd
People continue to lay flowers on April 6, 2021, at the George Floyd Mural in Houston’s Third Ward, where Floyd grew up. (Credit: Sipa USA/Alamy Live News)


Ahmaud Arbery: Citizen’s arrest law

About 15 months after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was chased and gunned down while jogging through a neighborhood in south Georgia, state lawmakers repealed a Civil War-era law used to defend the white men charged with his murder.

The law allowed any citizen to arrest another if a crime was committed “within his immediate knowledge.” It was replaced by a new law, with specific language for citizen detainment under specific circumstances and prohibits the use of deadly force unless in self-defense.

Gregory McMichael; his son, Travis; and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted in November of killing Arbery, who was not armed. A graphic video showing how the three men followed Arbery and caused his death was made public following prosecutors’ initial dismissal of the case under the “citizen’s arrest” law.

One former prosecutor, Jackie Johnson, was indicted in September on charges she violated her oath of public office.

painting of Ahmaud Arbery
Small oil on canvas portraits, like this one of Ahmaud Arbery in Detroit, are part of the Healing Wall installation created by artist Carol Morisseau for the Soul of Black Folks exhibition, curated by the artist Donna Jackson’s partnership with Scarab Club in Detroit. The photograph of the oil painting was taken on Feb. 4, 2021. (Credit: USATNSYNDICATION)

COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act

Following a rise in violence and discrimination against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent amid the coronavirus pandemic, Congress on May 20 passed a bill that creates grants for state and local governments to combat hate crimes and supports a national incident-based reporting system. It also provides for additional penalties for hate-crime offenses.

The bill incorporated portions of the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act, which was previously introduced in response to high-profile attacks on the LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim and other communities.

The bill was named in honor of Khalid Jabara, who was killed in 2016 after months of racially charged animus directed at him and his Lebanese-American family; and Heather Heyer, who was killed in 2017 while protesting the “Unite the Right” white supremacist gathering in Virginia.

Changing school names

In 2021, the SPLC identified more than 300 public schools named for Gen. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders – the majority in the South. But that is changing.

More than a year after Montgomery, Alabama, officials moved to rename three public schools linked to members of the Confederacy, a committee made up of community leaders and students took on the daunting effort of narrowing the chosen favorites from nearly 2,000 public submissions. That may be the simplest task.

The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 forbids public schools 20 years or older from being renamed without a waiver from the attorney general, with violations incurring a $25,000 fine.

The three schools in Montgomery were named for Lee, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Sidney Lanier, a Confederate soldier.

Upstate in Huntsville, city school officials have sought guidance from the state for renaming a high school named for Lee that was relocated in 2012.

Similar efforts have taken place across Georgia, Florida and Louisiana.

In November, however, Georgia’s public university system ignored the recommendations by an advisory group convened by the Board of Regents to rename 75 buildings and colleges that bear the names of Confederate leaders, segregationists and proponents of slavery.

In a statement rejecting the proposal, the board said, “The purpose of history is to instruct. History can teach us important lessons, lessons that if understood and applied make Georgia and its people stronger.”

Like in Alabama, a 2019 law in Georgia outlaws the removal or defacing of monuments to the Confederacy.


Florida voting rights

Fair Elections Center and the SPLC filed a lawsuit to challenge Florida Senate Bill 90, an omnibus voting rights bill that, among other things, requires civic organizations engaged in voter registration activities to provide misleading information to voters that the organization “might not” submit their registration application on time and to direct voters to the online registration portal.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses its registration efforts on new voters, particularly youth, communities of color and returning citizens.

The complaint challenges the new law’s misleading disclaimer and disclosure requirements and alleges that the new law is void for vagueness under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, compels speech in violation of the First Amendment, and prevents organizations from exercising their First Amendment expressive and associational rights.

Juneteenth a federal holiday

Spurred by advocates and the Congressional Black Caucus, on June 15, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing Juneteenth (June 19) as a federal holiday.

It was the first national holiday established since Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 1983.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Its name stems from June 19, 1865, when — more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, finally received word that they were free from bondage.


Black Lives Matter flag in class

Amy Donofrio – a 13-year, nationally recognized educator – was banned from her Jacksonville, Florida, classroom in March after declining to remove a Black Lives Matter flag above her classroom door at Riverside High School, which until recently was named Robert E. Lee High School in honor of the Confederate States Army leader who was an enslaver and white supremacist.

In April, the SPLC and Scott Wagner and Associates, P.A. filed a lawsuit against the Duval County Public Schools seeking to reinstate Donofrio to her teaching position and requested a court order banning school policies that prevent educators from exercising their First Amendment rights. The district settled in August, but Donofrio’s contract was not renewed.

Amy Donofrio
Teacher Amy Donofrio stands outside Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida. (Credit: Evac Movement)


Massive Confederate statue removed

A 12-ton statue of Confederate States Army leader Robert E. Lee that was erected in Richmond, Virginia, in 1890 was removed to the celebratory cheers of activists.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam had ordered the statue’s removal a year earlier amid the nationwide protest movement, but litigation halted plans until a state Supreme Court ruling allowed its removal.

The statue, listed since 2007 in the National Register of Historic Places, was one of the largest Confederate monuments remaining in the United States. Symbols of the Confederacy have been identified in 36 states and the District of Columbia as well as Puerto Rico. See our map.


John Lewis Voting Rights Act

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Aug. 24 would have updated the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to strengthen sections of the 1965 law that were gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision that required the U.S. Justice Department preclearance before some states could change voting laws.

This year, 19 states have passed 33 laws making it harder to vote.

On Nov. 3, U.S. Senate Republicans voted to block debate on the bill and prevent it from receiving a floor vote.

Kyle Rittenhouse verdict

Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an AR-style automatic rifle, said he went from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to protect property during a night of protesting there in the summer of 2020 over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer. But Rittenhouse, then 17, said he came under attack, and fearing for his life, shot three men.

Rittenhouse, now 18, was charged with homicide, attempted homicide and reckless endangerment for killing Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, 27. Rittenhouse, like his victims, is white.

After nearly 3 1/2 days of deliberations, a jury on Nov. 19 cleared Rittenhouse of all charges.

“The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse will add fuel to the fire of armed radicalization of America,” said SPLC president and CEO Margaret Huang. “That a while male youth can travel across state lines, armed with an assault rifle, and engage in armed confrontation resulting in multiple deaths without facing criminal accountability, is the all-too-familiar outcome in a country where systemic racism continues to rot the system.”

Reaction outside Kenosha, Wisconsin, courthouse to Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal
People react to the verdict in the murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Nov. 19, 2021. (Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Unite the Right decision

A jury in Virginia found organizers of “Unite the Right,” a 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, liable for damages and ordered them to pay more than $25 million to victims.

The nonprofit organization Integrity First for America (IFA) brought the lawsuit against 24 individuals and organizations, who unapologetically acknowledged their racist and antisemitic beliefs but denied a conspiracy. A few cast the trial as a referendum on First Amendment rights.

“Unite the Right,” a planned protest over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee that was to feature one of the largest gatherings of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and “alt-right” adherents in decades, never got off the ground.

Among those held accountable was James Alex Fields, a neo-Nazi, who was found guilty in 2018 of murdering 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer by driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters following the rally. Serving a sentence of 419 years plus life, he was ordered to pay $12 million in damages.


‘Remain in Mexico’ policy

Soon after taking office in January, President Joe Biden ended the Trump-era policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in an attempt to take a more humane approach to immigration. In August, a federal judge ruled the administration’s efforts did not follow proper procedure and ordered the policy's reinstatement, forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. immigration hearings.

The SPLC and immigration advocates filed an amended complaint in a class action lawsuit challenging the continuing effects of the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which restarted on Dec. 6 at one border location and will eventually be adopted at seven entry points, including San Diego and the Texas cities of Laredo, El Paso and Brownsville.

Photo at top: Cutouts of activists and protestors combined along with the victims of injustice they supported throughout 2021. (Credit: SPLC)