A FEW FACTS
Slavery in the USA was abolished in 1865, but black Americans did not have equality:
- The Ku Klux Klan beat up and lynched [lynch: To kill someone, usually by hanging, without holding a legal trial.] black people.
- Black people were not allowed to use white public facilities such as schools and parks. This was called ‘segregation’.
There had been successful attempts to improve the status of black people before the 1950s – for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), set up in 1909.
However, it was in the 1950s and 1960s that the civil rights movement – led by Martin Luther King – challenged white supremacy:
- In 1954, Rev Brown won the right to send his child to a white school.
- In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person, inspiring the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
- In 1957, nine black students, with military protection, went to a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
- In 1963 – after campaigns of restaurant sit-ins, Freedom Rides on interstate buses and bloody civil rights marches – a quarter of a million people marched to the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.
The civil rights movement gave black Americans legal equality:
- The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed segregation in schools, public places or jobs.
- The Voting Rights Act (1965) gave all black people the vote.
- The Fair Housing Act (1968) banned discrimination in housing.
However, black Americans did not achieve economic equality, and still remain a socially disadvantaged group.
‘Jim Crow’ laws were passed in the southern states. They denied black people equal rights. Black people and white people were segregated. Black people were not allowed to use ‘whites only’ public facilities. In this streetcar terminal in Oklahoma water coolers are marked for ‘colored’ or white use.
Many pictures that illustrate segregation can be found on the internet.
Slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865, after a bloody civil war.
Life didn’t improve for ordinary black people in America:
- ‘Jim Crow’ laws were passed in the southern states. They denied black people equal rights. Black people and white people were segregated [segregation: Keeping groups, particularly racial groups, apart.] . Black people were not allowed to use ‘whites only’ public facilities such as schools and parks.
- Ku Klux Klan was formed. It was set up in 1865 to frighten, beat up and lynch black people.
- Poverty was a major problem. Black people occupied the worst jobs in society. Many black women worked as servants to white people.
- Race riots flared up. Occasionally white people would riot and attack black people such as happened in Detroit in 1943.
Gradually, black Americans began to challenge their second-class status:
- In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was set up to oppose discrimination by challenging it in the courts.
- In the 1920s and 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance celebrated black culture and declared ‘black is beautiful’. Jazz music and dances like the Charleston became popular.
- In the Second World War, black Americans were just as brave as white Americans. They came home demanding respect. The US military finally allowed black and white soldiers to serve next to each other in 1948.
- In 1942, James Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge segregation by non-violent direct action.
- In 1957, Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to fight for civil rights by peaceful marches and demonstrations.
The path to civil rights
1954: Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark case. With the help of the NAACP, Rev Brown won the right in the Supreme Court to send his child to a white school.
Again many pictures can be found on the internet to illustrate the following events:
1955: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Black people in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, refused to use the buses until the Town Council abolished segregated buses.
1957: Nine black students exercised their right to go to a white school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mobs threatened the students. Even the governor of Arkansas tried to stop them by sending in the National Guard. President Eisenhower eventually took charge and used soldiers to protect the students.
1960: Sit-ins took place when black students went and sat in white restaurants until they were attacked and thrown out.
1961: Freedom Riders were black and white activists who travelled together on interstate buses – many were badly beaten by white mobs.
1963: A civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama, was attacked by police and white racists.
1963: The Washington Freedom March took place when a quarter of a million people marched to the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.
- In 1964, Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize. The third Monday in January in America is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday.
- White violence forced the US government to step in to give black people their rights:
- The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed segregation in schools, public places and jobs.
- The Voting Rights Act (1965) made it illegal to do anything that might limit the number of people able to vote. Some states had used a literacy test to try and prevent black people from voting as many black people had limited access to education.
- The Fair Housing Act (1968) banned discrimination in housing.
- In 2008, a black American, Barack Obama, became President of the United States.
- Civil rights did not give black Americans prosperity or jobs. Black Americans – particularly in the ‘black ghettos’ in the towns – remained poor and angry.As a result, more extreme black leaders such as Malcolm X, and more radical groups such as the Black Panthers, were set up – black protests in the 1970s became more violent.
- Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
- Black poverty, and violence and discrimination against black people, continues.
Many of the historians who wrote in the 1960s and 1970s about the civil rights movement had taken part in it. They focused on heroes of the movement, such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and the national campaigns which led to the civil rights laws.
Many of these books portrayed civil rights as a struggle between the bigoted white segregationists [segregation: Keeping groups, particularly racial groups, apart.] of the south and idealistic civil rights workers from the north.
This interpretation has provided thrilling stories for Hollywood films, such as Mississippi Burning (1988) and The Long Walk Home (1990) and most recently Selma..
In the 1980s, local studies overturned this ‘heroic’ interpretation of civil rights history. They showed how the civil rights movement was built ‘bottom up’, out of thousands of local actions by black churches and community organisations from which a few issues, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, became national news.
In the 1990s, historians began to realise that the civil rights movement involved more than ‘evil whites fighting noble blacks’. They also began to pay more attention to different kinds of black activism – eg environmental and union campaigns – and the role of black women, and of other disadvantaged groups such as the Native Americans and Hispanic and Latino Americans.
Recent studies have shown that black challenges to discrimination did not spring into existence with Martin Luther King in the 1950s, but began as early as the 1860s.
What is your interpretation of the American civil rights movement? Was it something special or part of a longer process of protest and progress? Was it ‘the Martin Luther King show’, or part of a wider movement? Was it is a success or a failure?
Watch on Mojo.com the history of civil right history of the civil rights movement
One step forward…..
A post to come will focus on African Americans in the USA today .