The just concluded United States presidential election has brought a sharp focus to the history of America. Barrack Obama has become the first Black to win the presidency, altering completely the history of the United States. Particularly, this win is a remarkable hallmark to Americans of Africa descent and puts into spotlight the long journey that has been endured towards this momentous win and broad acceptance of a race that has been at the receiving end of racism. Indeed, history of Africa Americans is colored with sad tales that will remain forever embedded in the memory of Americans. None of the minority groups has suffered more in America than blacks. The history of blacks can be discerned by looking at major issues and events that have paved their path since their forced immigration into the United States. These events are slavery, revolution war, civil war, segregation, civil rights movement and the just concluded 2008 presidential elections. This paper will present an in depth analysis of the history of blacks in the United States paying close attention the above mentioned events that have shaped the destiny and identity of the African American population .
The chronicled history of African American can be traced back to the 17th century at the height of slave trade. Africans were captured mostly from West Africa, shipped to America and sold as slaves to work in the tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations. Due to its prevalence in America, slavery came to be synonymous with blacks and court rulings subsequently emphasized this. A close look at the spread of African American in the days of slavery indicates that most were centered in the southern states. The real reason behind this revolves around economic dynamics. Compared to the northern states, the south was predominantly agricultural and had a huge preference for slave labor more than the north. As it has been observed by most scholars this by observing that “the establishment of slavery in the southern states was accounted for by its superiority in the economic point of view over free labor, in the firm in which free labor existed in America at the time when that continent was settled.” (Slave power, 1863, 48) Indeed there existed structural differences between the south and the north.
Agriculture was the mainstay of the south’s economy and being labor intensive required a huge supply of manpower which was readily being offered by the slaves. Majority of blacks were hence continually channeled towards the south to cater for any labor shortfall. This also explains why most southern states maintained a grip on black slavery which they saw as the lifeline to their economy. The northern states on the other hand had no much use of slaves, although there were traces of slavery, it was nothing compared to the south. Northern states were rapidly industrializing and urban centers were growing. The labor required was for the factories and scholarly analysis disapproved slave labor terming it as not being feasible. In fact at the onset of the civil war, the argument being forwarded was that slavery was becoming expensive to maintain. Its output could not be matched with that of free labor due to incidences of mutiny and sabotage. The logic for this was that “since slaves cultivated in the “miserable, shiftless manner” their use restricted the total production of the south” (Abbott, 1991, 96). This was the major argument that is credited to be behind the abolition calls and may have led to the end of slavery in the north and the agitation for the south to too take heed. The issue of African American slavery indeed has played a major role in shaping the events that have come to influence the destiny of America. The post independence period witnessed the clamor for the emancipation of slaves.
Despite the declaration of independence espousing the ideals of human rights and individual liberty, these principles were not practically embraced. The road to the emancipation of African Americans was paved with blood and immense suffering. A number of slaves joined in the continental army during the revolution war, but the constitution afterwards failed to spell out the rights of blacks. It is the civil war period that would lead to concerted efforts towards blacks’ emancipation. Primarily, a row had been brewing between the northern Free states and the southern slave states. This row was as a result of the insistence by the Free states that the newly acquired territory in the 1850s would be admitted as Free states against a backdrop of the vocal agitation of slave states by the south. This conflict had earlier been postponed by the Missouri compromise and the compromise of 1850. Again the issue of blacks was threatening to tear the nation apart with the south threatening a breakaway. The mutiny was however quelled during the civil war by Abraham Lincoln who was insisting on the rights of the slaves (Nolen, 2001).
Indeed the clamor for the emancipation of slaves and the civil and political rights of the slaves gave rise to a number of key figures whose prominence has remained to date. Booker T. Washington and D.E.B Dubois made huge contributions. Controversy however has always arisen over each of these leaders approach to the emancipation. Washington was propagating for the acquisition of economic rights first arguing that civil and political rights would eventually be gained later. In the famous Atlanta Address of 1895, Washington outlines a number of demands that were being seen as striking a compromise between the poor blacks’ demands and what the whites were willing to accord to the blacks. He was advocating for economic and education empowerment believing they were the two key steps to emancipation. He was against political rights claiming there were more urgent matters to be addressed. Du Bois was the worst critic of Washington referring to him as the greatest accommodator. Du Bois has been particularly seen as a vocal agitator of political and economic rights for African Americans. He was opposed to the compromise reached at by Washington and the whites seeing him as a sellout. As the founder of NAACP, he formed a strong forum through which African Americans could present their grievances. NAACP up to date has been a strong instrument of mobilization and played a key role in the civil rights reforms in the 1960s (Dailey, 2000).
Indeed, a look at the history of the African Americans indicates that is has been shrouded by various grievances. African Americans have been victims of endemic systemic discrimination right from the days of slavery to the 1960s after the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts. Immediately after the emancipation and the reconstruction period the Jim Crow’s laws were enacted. These laws were advocating for segregative policies. Black Americans during this era remained hugely disenfranchised and had no voting powers. The whites and the blacks in the United States were accessing varied facilities depending on the color of the skin. One core grievance against this was centering on the fact that whites were accessing far much superior facilities than the blacks. The Jim Crow era is one of the most abhorred periods in the history of African Americans. Cruelty and skewed policies were being blatantly pursued by the government. The public also took to lynching of blacks with no indictments for the perpetrators. This lynching and the discriminative policies were cruelly applied in the southern states and resulted to massive influx of blacks to the northern states in the 1910s. This movement and awareness was producing a new wave of black intellectuals who started agitating for their rights. Their involvement in the Second World War was a sign of thing to come and aroused commitment towards the relentless agitation of civil rights movement (Horton, 2005)
The mention of the civil rights movement brings into mind a number of key personalities such as Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin amongst others. The most prominent figure that has been touted as taking the movement to a new level was Martin Luther King Jr. His ability to mobilize and unite the blacks has been unequalled. He was able to captivate thousands through his eloquence and was a big thorn in the flesh of the administration. The events of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom have been well chronicled. It is this march that was used to present blacks grievances to the leadership and to the world in general. The monumental speech of I have a Dream has been an inspiration to millions and continues to reverberate in the minds of blacks across the world. The movement he initiated led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Martin Luther king Jr. may have been prematurely killed by an assassin bullet preventing him from reaping some of the benefits of his legislation but the seeds he plated have up to date continued to bear fruits and his dream is being realized each and every day as racial discrimination is slowly diminishing (Loevy, 1997).
The importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cannot be underestimated as it marked an important step in the century’s old agitation of civil rights and equality. Racial segregation in public places including job opportunities was outlawed bringing an end to the oppressive Jim Crow laws that had been a big impediment to the rights of African Americans. John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have been seen as important figures in this fight as the civil rights bills were introduced during their presidency in spite of the monumental opposition from some southern white supremacists.
Indeed the recent election of president as the 44th American president is an indicator that African Americans have come a long way and that what has been achieved in the past centuries has not been in vain. As has been indicated the history of blacks in America has been a long and painful experience. They suffered in the hands of the slave masters and then faced systemic discrimination that continues to scar their social, political and economic well being. These experiencing however have continued to shape relations in America and led to the enactment of important legislations that have impacted not only on the African Americans but on all minority groups.
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Wilma A. Dunaway, Maison des sciences de l’homme (2003). The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. Cambridge University Press
Richard H. Abbott (1991). Cotton & Capital: Boston Businessmen and Antislavery Reform, 1854-1868. Univ of Massachusetts Press.
By James Oliver Horton (2005) Landmarks of African American History. Oxford University Press US.
Claude H. Nolen (2001).African American Southerners in Slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction. McFarland.
Robert D. Loevy (1997) The Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Passage of the Law that Ended Racial Segregation. SUNY Press,
Jane Dailey, Jane Elizabeth Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Bryant Simon (2000).
Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights. Princeton University Press