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Black Civil Rights Movement

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    African-Americans faced many inequalities in America which made many conduct the black civil rights movement to achieve justice and equality. Racial segregation was a system the white Americans put in place to keep African Americans to a lower social status, denying them equal access to public facilities, and keeping them separate from whites. During the era of slavery, most African Americans were in the South rural areas. In that time segregation wasn’t necessary as the boundaries between the whites and the slaves were clear. After the civil war, white supremacy was threatened. In 1865 slavery was abolished and the fourteenth amendment was changed in 1868 to extend citizenship and equal protection of the law to African-Americans. In 1883 the supreme court of the United States declared the statute unconstitutional for regulating. Racist government took hold in the South while the Federal Government had minimalized its strong enforcement of black civil rights.

    With white controlled government back in power, the rights of Southern blacks slowly deteriorated. From this period on segregation became a ridged legal system separating the races. In this essay we will look at the issues African American’s faced, who was involved in the movement, the traditional heritage of blacks and how the public responded to the participants in the movement. There were many reasons why the African-Americans rose to the challenge of gaining civil rights. The issue was that African-Americans were fed up with the racial discrimination and racism against them. The constitution included the right for everybody to: have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to due process of the law and the right to equal protection under the law1. The constitution was meant for everybody but African-Americans were still not protected by it2.The US constitution created a federal government with rights and power being divided between the federal and state governments3.This meant that the state governments could create rules to exploit the African-Americans any way they wanted to while hardly being contested by the Federal Government. In 1896, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’, was legal4.This meant that many African-Americans were taken off the electoral process, they were unable to participate fully in the economic sphere and were subjected to violence5. Many whites thought and treated African-Americans as dogs, dogs were even treated better, and many whites believed strongly that they couldn’t mix with lower nations6.

    A historian, Steven F. Lawson stated, “Segregation was intended to lower African-Americans, stripping them of their dignity, reinforcing their inequality and maintaining them as a submissive agricultural labour force”7. The Jim Crow laws could be viewed as a system of ‘disease control’, quarantining the blacks from the whites. It prevented them from infecting whites with the social and cultural impurities associated with inferior African-Americans8. Blacks endured the physical and social effects of white supremacy in its form of racial restriction and violence. The Jim Crow laws cut across the boundaries of North and South America, African-Americans in the North were better off than the blacks in the South but they were both still oppressed. Between 1940-60, 6 million African Americans were moved to industrial centres in urban North and West America, they were restricted to domestic and retail service work9. In North America blacks had no segregation or discrimination by law, but the North wasn’t without discrimination10. There were other ways of ensuring segregation into Northern society, by ‘redlining’ the property market. It was illegal for banks to give mortgages on property that was seen as a risky investment. It only took one black family to buy a house to label a whole neighbourhood as an ‘unacceptable risk’ to the banks. It was impossible for blacks to get mortgages, regardless of their financial status. White house owners fought to stop blacks coming to their neighbourhoods, as there was the fear that if an African-American was living in the area when a white person wishes to sell their house, the bank won’t give loans to prospective buyers11.

    African-Americans had no freedom to choose where and how they lived, due to the state laws which made it nearly impossible for a black person to rent, own or lease a house. These restrictions were placed on the private real-estate sales and public housing provisions. As there was an absence of a ‘free’ housing market, black residents found themselves earning the lowest wages and paying the highest prices for the worst housing in stock. Neighbourhood school districts were redrawn in unorthodox ways so that white students could have the best facilities and keep them all white12. In daily life, employers would pick white applicants before black ones, certain hotels wouldn’t accept African-Americans, landlords, restaurants, private schools and many other public facilities would discriminate against African-Americans13. They had separate schools for primary and secondary, African-Americans had to sit in certain seats on public transport and waiting rooms. Banned from certain parks and swimming pools, black facilities were always inferior to whites14. Despite the 15th amendment, many blacks were prevented from voting. It’s important for people to vote as it allows people to elect public officials that best represents what the person values and cares about which would improve the lives of that individual or group. South America fully embraced segregation, they didn’t want equality and the Governor of Alabama publicly said that “segregation cannot be stopped”15.

    In Alabama only 10% of blacks were registered in the electoral roll. Whenever African-Americans tried to enrol, they had to answer impossible questions like ‘how many bubbles are on a bar of soap’ or ‘say all the words in the constitution’. The voting districts were cut through black neighbourhoods to undermine the possibility of political power. “The civil rights movement was a grand struggle for freedom extending far beyond the aims of the legal rights and protection”16, to get equal the movement was made to get equality in voting rights and to desegregate the country. Throughout America, many African-Americans were involved in the black civil rights movement. Men, women, children and elderly people united to spread their movement. Some white people joined the cause but they did it at their own risk. White supremacists would deem these whites as traitors and would often be abuse physically, threatened and sometimes killed. The main spark that set off the civil right movement was the incident involving Rosa Parks. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

    The rules were that blacks sit at the back of the bus and whites sit at the front. When bus was full then African-Americans had to give up their seat for boarding white passengers17. Since she refused to follow the rules, the police were called and she was arrested and jailed. There was outrange in the African-American community, they had a meeting at a local church and decided to call upon the black community to stage a boycott, meaning to refuse to use the bus service until black passengers cease to be segregated. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, a 26 year old pastor decided to lead the boycott18. Many African-Americans participated in direct actions like taking matter to court, to protests and boycotts to armed self-defence, freedom was in the air in ways that challenged white authority and contested the black ways of doing things19. Martin Luther King was son of a Baptist minister, he earned his doctorate in philosophy from Boston University. He was impressed by non-violent resistance to evil and how religious thinkers stressed that Christians were to fight for social justice. “King urged his followers to be ready to suffer, to endure blows and to be arrested, to bring about change for them better”20. The bus boycott lasted a year, Montgomery’s African-Americans walked to work and organised car pools to avoid using buses. The Supreme Court declared Jim Crow laws on public transport unconstitutional. On 21st of December, King and other African-Americans boarded a bus and sat in the front21. The Little Rock School in 1957 approved the desegregation of the school.

    On 23th September of that year nine African-Americans arrived at the school to start their studies after two weeks of problems from anti-desegregation protestors, despite the hostility and abuse they graduated22. Kings non-violent example inspired others. February 1st 1960, four students in North Carolina started a method called ‘sit-ins’23. The students went into a whites-only diner and sat down at the counter waiting to be served. They were refused service, the following day they returned, an article in the New York Times Increased support for the protest, every day more people black and white joined them at the diner24. Across the nation many others were inspired and as a result many restaurants were desegregated within six months, was also done to desegregate hotels, libraries and beaches25. Another form of protest was ‘freedom rides’, the aim was to stop segregation on inter-state bus lines.

    Groups of black and white students travelled on buses through Southern states choosing to sit where they pleased and used ‘white’ restrooms. Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most segregated cities in the 1960’s. African-American’s men and women participated in ‘sit-ins’ when refused service and ‘kneel-ins’ on church steps when refused entry26. The highly publicised confrontations of non-violent protesters including school children with the brutal police force using clubs, fire hoses and police dogs gained Northern sympathy27. There were many marches, 28th August 1963, thousands of people came to Washington and peacefully marched up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial28. The Selma to Montgomery march, around 53 000 supporters came from across the country29. Due to the constant beatings or civil rights workers and marchers, many young blacks departed from Martin Luther King’s non-violent protests30. The riot in 1965 Los Angeles left 34 dead, thousands arrested and millions of dollars in damage. It took 15 000 National Guardsmen to break up the violence between blacks and police. These militant groups were created as many people were sick of living in crowded, crime ridden ghettos.

    Everything was rundown, many people poorly educated and many unable to get jobs. In 1965, 8.5% African-Americans were unemployed, twice of whites31. ‘Nation of Islam’ or ‘Black Muslims’ turned on Christianity because ‘how can you love your enemy? Whites were seen as blue eyed devils’. Malcom X was the most significant follower of this group and became a prominent speaker32. After Kings Assassination a major riot happened in hundreds of cities. There was large scale looting, 34 killed, 1072 injured, 4 000 arrested and 977 buildings damaged33. African-Americans expressed their feelings directly through protest and other means, but they also did this by expressing their views culturally. African-Americans believed strongly in their African heritage, by practicing their cultural traditions, values and beliefs. African-Americans have a creative culture that continues to impact on mainstream American culture and world culture. Their culture was developed separately from mainstream American culture because Africans wanted to practice their own traditions but also because segregation was put in place to keep the blacks from exposing their traditions to whites34. African-American preachers conduct sermons differently from white Christians. They perform rather than speaking, the emotion of the subject is carried through the speakers tone, volume and movement35. Their voice goes to many levels, from low to high, reaching a climax then descending. Song, dance, versus and structured pauses are placed into sermons which highly involve the audience.

    The ‘Black Power’ movement from the 1960’s to 70’s promoted racial pride and ethnic integration. This inspired many literary and artistic expressions, ‘black arts movement’36. Some songs that were popular included Nina Simone’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, and The Impression ‘Keep On Pushing’37. Poetry, fine arts and literature reflected the growing racial and political consciousness. There was an increased occurrence of traditional culture that had been supressed and devalued to meet European culture. Certain hairstyles became popular, like the afro, braids and dreadlocks. Male African-Americans tended to keep facial hair, referred to as the ‘soul patch’. Cultural dress started to appear more from the 1960’s, such as the dashiki as well as traditional dress’s being mixed with modern fashion to create a unique African-American style38. The use of music served to pass on history, lessons, to ease suffering and send messages. They would typically sing ‘Lift every voice and sing’ in addition to America’s national anthem. Performed on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, it continues to be a popular way for African-Americans to recall past struggles and express ethnic solidarity. A symbol of the movement the black clenched fist. It represents solidarity and support. It represents the unity of the people to be able to win and overcome.

    A slogan for the civil rights movement was ‘we shall overcome’, delivered by Martin Luther King, which was popular and was derived from a song that many blacks would sing, even in their jail cells39. African-Americans did everything they could to get their messages across to the whites and the public, because of this there were many reactions from people who supported and didn’t support the movement. There were many reactions to the civil rights movement, from the white public, the government and the law enforcement. Many white citizens believed that blacks were demanding decent housing, job security and education immediately40. Whites thought that the blacks were seeking unfair advantages. “We build this city, not burn it down” a white worker declared.1964, 34% though blacks were seeking too much too fast, but in 1966, 85% though this during the time of ‘black power’ and urban riots41. The Ku Klux Klan was notorious for harassing anyone associated with the movement. They preached white superiority and resistance to progress of black civil rights.”90 Southern congressmen proclaimed their resistance to desegregation”42. They claimed the Supreme Court and Federal Government had no authority to compel states and local authorities to change traditional practices. There are also many examples of brutality towards African-Americans. In 1957, 9 students attempted to enter the Little Rock University in Arkansas, the Arkansas Governor called that states National Guard to prevent the admission of the black students.

    President Eisenhower reluctantly ordered National Guard troops to escort the children to the school past mobs or white of taunted them and screamed at them. One morning a bomb exploded at a home of one of the students43. Communities tried to avoid desegregation by other means, when bi-racial schools were becoming reality, white parents who could afford to do so would withdraw their children from public schools and sent them to private ones. By 1962 fewer than half of the black children in the South were attending integrated schools44. When the Supreme Court declared segregation was to end, schools buses were desegregated, which caused problems. Black students were hit with stones and whites students were stabbed by blacks. This is why parents sent their kids to private school to avoid blacks45. The Liberals tried to help desegregation happen faster by introducing legislation but Southern Democrats and the Conservative Republicans combined to prevent significant action. While the government battled to get legislation through, many other incidents were arising from the newly enforced desegregation of some facilities. President Kennedy sent US marshals and soldiers to help James Meredith register at the University of Mississippi. “Alabama’s governor George Wallace literally stood in the entrance of the university to prevent the two African-Americans from enrolling”. During ‘sit ins’ protesters were abused by white spectators were cursed at, spat at, received blows and had food tipped all over them but protesters kept their self-control46. During ‘freedom rides’ mobs of whites waited for them. Southern Governments refused to take action against the increasingly violent mobs. In Brimingham the major southern business centre major civil rights demonstrations were held. In May 1963 demonstrators had to deal with the cities brutal police commissioner ‘Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor’, he ordered police dogs and fire hoses against the peaceful demonstrators. 3000 were arrested including Martin Luther King Jr47. Because of the brutal and violent response from the Southern officials and mobs, Americans were starting to fully see what was going on and the injustice towards African-Americans.

    This caused the Kennedy Government to take action, Kennedy agreed with the movement using television he said that legislation cannot fully solve the problem of inequality but it can be solved in every home in America. In 1961 in South America a state legislator shot and killed an African-American who tried to register to vote, blacks were fearful of asserting their rights48. A case of the KKK’s actions are when two blacks are arrested for speeding, when released the KKK trailed them then murdered them. One last example is during the March from Selma to Montgomery, peaceful protesters were met by police with tear gas and clubs. Violence was shown on national television and revolted many Americans. There were many different reactions to the civil rights movement many using violence to oppose the movement and to stop blacks getting equality, but did African Americans achieve their goals? Did they overcome?. The consequences of the civil right movement, with its triumphs and tragedies have transformed America. 1983, Congress took official notice of the movements contributions and now on the 15th of January Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday. His church in Montgomery, Alabama is now a national landmark. There was finally an outlaw of the Jim Crow laws especially in the South even though some rural communities still conduct old customs of segregation.

    African-Americans can now sit where ever they want on transport, by mid-1970’s the two races were sitting in the same classroom in more than 80% of the public schools in the South. African Americans are now graduating to college, the number quadrupled, along with thousands holding high positions, becoming Mayor, governor, high positions in the military and so on. Blacks mainly votes for republicans but changed to democrats as they were more willing to use Government resources on them. An African-American to become president would have been impossible without the civil rights movement, and now as we see Barrack Obama is now president of the United States. African-Americans can now benefit from better education and less discrimination, many more are entering into middle class life. But many African-Americans are still in poverty and hardship. They now have a greater standing in the arts, entertainment (bands, film, advertising, television commercials). Although they are not so equal in sport, black quarterbacks and basketball coaches are very few. Not many have managerial positions in sport organisations. There are still some discrimination going on, and example is the Texaco Company in 1996 where they were sued for discrimination against several black employees. The white company executives were sued for 140Million, largest settlement ever. Churches and social clubs are generally white or black, as well as the KKK is in serious decline but they are still present. Injustice towards blacks by law enforcement is still present, using excessive force is common.

    Due to the worsening situation of economy, black ghettos line the inner cities. Unskilled factory work is their primary employment, 60% unemployment is found in these areas. No president since Johnson has tried to fix inner city problems. Because of the urban underclass, they are very poor, have no way to escape poverty. By them enduring high rates of unemployment, violence, crime, drug addiction and family break downs are very common today. They survive on welfare cheques, but even these have been cut back and regulations put in place when allowing benefits to people. So in the end the African-Americans got their way in the eyes of the law, being able to vote, work, have mixed families and just be able to live life as they want, being able to do everything whites can do. But in the minds and acts of people, some are still racist and are discriminant.


    John Salmond, The Civil Rights Movement in the American South 1945-1968 and Beyond, 1992,Melbourne

    Year 11 Twentieth Century History Resource Book

    Peoples Century: Skin Deep

    Steven F.Lawson, Davarian L. Baldwin, Trinity College,

    Michael Weber, Causes and Consequences Of The African-American Civil Rights Movement, 1997, Evans Brothers Limited, England Jennifer Rosenburg, History1900’’s/gt/what-did-Rosa-Parks-Do.htm www.historyon


    Noah Adams, William Dudley, The 1960’s, 1996, Greenhaven Press, Sand Diego, California…/February-African-Culture


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