What was the Civil Rights Movement?
- In the 20th century, several African Americans united with progressive white Americans in the United States of America in an event called the Civil Rights Movement.
- The civil rights movement was a struggle to gain equal rights for all black people and other racial minorities who had faced slavery, racism, and other types of suppression at the hands of white Americans.
- African people had been transported to the United States of America to perform labor-intensive activities on the plantations of the white owners.
- They were not paid and were not even treated as fellow human beings. Even though the founding fathers spoke of equality and independence, they did not extend the same values for the other races present in America.
- The subjugation of Black people in America was total and it was described as chattel slavery wherein even the children of the slaves were considered slaves.
- They had no freedom and were paid nothing for their hard labor. The white plantation owners reaped the profits of the African American’s work and still treated him worse than an animal.
- Many African Americans tried to escape or fight for their freedom but the white Americans dominated them with the help of organized military and weapons.
- From 1861 to 1865 the Northern Americans and Southern Americans fought the American Civil War.
- The main reason for this war was the issue of slavery. The southerners believed that slavery was moral and the Northerners believed that slavery was immoral.
- Abraham Lincoln led the Union forces and defeated the Confederates in one of the most expensive and deadly wars that led to the freedom of the African American slaves.
- However, the southerners did not give up their control over the African American community and continued to suppress their freedoms and rights in unconstitutional and often violent ways.
- During the 1950s and 1960s, the African Americans had decided that they had suffered enough and formed a movement known as the civil rights movement.
- The movement was based on the principles of civil disobedience and non-violence and successfully ended the disenfranchisement and institutionalized racism in the United States of America.
- Over 4 million African people were transported to America in horrible conditions by slave traders for the express purpose of slavery.
- They were sold to white people who used them for growing labor-intensive crops such as cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco.
- Several atrocities were inflicted on them if they refused to work. They were beaten, raped, and sometimes even murdered if they failed to obey their masters.
- They had absolutely no human rights and their slavery was often justified by the white people as sanctioned by god.
- The Black people were the sole reason for the profits the white plantation owners gained due to the sale of the cash crops.
- They were even forced or manipulated to fight wars on behalf of the white men for little to no compensation.
- A few white Americans objected to the institution of slavery but they were made quiet by threats of secession by the southerners.
- The southern states depended on the slaves entirely as their economy was mainly based on agriculture.
- If they gave up their slaves they would not have labored on the farmlands and hence earned no profits.
- So they employed all tactics that they could find to continue the suppression of the Black people in America.
- Only white people were allowed to vote and only white people could become citizens of the United States of America.
- However, during the 1860s the opinion of Americans especially the ones from the northern states shifted radically against the institution of slavery.
The American Civil War
- The election of Abraham Lincoln further strengthened the views of Americans against what was referred to as ‘the peculiar institution’.
- This led to the secession of seven southern states from the United States of America and the formation of the Confederate States of America.
- South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas formed what came to be known as the secessionist slave states.
- They believed in the supremacy of the white race and justified the institution of slavery as moral and allowed by the bible.
- The United States of America did not recognize the secession which led to the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 by the Confederate forces.
- The American Civil War thus began and was mainly fought in the American South. Both sides raised volunteer and conscription armies to defeat one another.
- African Americans joined the war effort on the Union’s side to fight for their own independence along with many white Americans who believed in equality for all.
- The war was fought for 4 years and resulted in the death of 750,000 soldiers on both sides.
- The war also killed an unknown number of civilians and caused substantial destruction of the southern infrastructure.
- After 4 years of non-stop battles, the war finally ended when the Union forces invaded all the southern states.
- Robert E Lee officially surrendered on April 9, 1865, to Union General Ulysses Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House.
- Even though the Proclamation of Emancipation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, the slaves were not freed in the South until the end of the war.
- Even then, the African Americans who attempted to assert their new rights were tortured, terrorized, and lynched in public.
- The shortage of federal troops in the south meant that the southerners could still force African Americans to remain slaves.
- However, slowly this changed when the number of federal troops increased in the south, and new amendments were made to the constitution.
The Reconstruction Era
- The Reconstruction Era began in 1863 and is one of the most important chapters in the history of African Americans.
- This was the first time civil rights amendments were made to the constitution of the United States of America.
- Three new constitutional amendments were made that not only abolished slavery from the USA but also guaranteed civil rights to African Americans.
- The Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution outlawed slavery except as a punishment for a crime.
- The Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution gave citizenship rights and equal protection of law to all citizens of America irrespective of race or previous conditions of servitude.
- The Fifteenth Amendment provided voting rights to all and prohibited any discrimination based on race or color.
- However, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth led to ineffective enforcement of these amendments.
- Vice President Andrew Johnson was not as keen as President Lincoln to abolish slavery.
- He was more concerned with uniting the southern states with the Union and gave the southern states permission to deal with their slaves as they preferred.
- The Republicans fought against Johnson’s lenient policy toward the southern states and made efforts to ensure that freed people gained their rights.
- Freedmen’s Bureau was created as a U.S. government agency to assist the newly freed people in negotiating labor contracts with the plantation owners.
- They were also made responsible for providing food and shelter to the refugees and formed churches and schools to assist the African Americans in beginning a new life.
- Many northerners moved to the south to serve as teachers, lawyers, priests, and businessmen, however, they were resisted by the southerners and often mocked as ‘carpetbaggers.
- During the Reconstruction Era, three visions appeared as a result of the American Civil War.
- The Reconcialianist vision mainly focused on coping with the destruction caused by the war, the White Supremacist vision enforced racial segregation in the south and the emancipationist vision fought for the constitutional equality of African Americans in the United States.
- Despite the provisions granted by the Reconstruction Amendments the white supremacists regularly blocked the Black people from exercising their civil rights.
- Violence broke out between the two races on several occasions. The most notable clashes were the Memphis Riots of 1866 and the New Orleans Massacre of 1866.
Jim Crow Laws
- The southern states introduced the Jim Crow Laws between 1888 to 1908, to legalize the disenfranchisement of African Americans and suppress the Black community.
- The Jim Crow Laws restricted the voting rights of Black people based on their ability to pay poll taxes, to own property, or to read and interpret documents.
- There were moral character tests that were impossible to pass and also a test that required the African Americans to prove that their grandfather was not a slave.
- The Jim Crow Laws were essentially designed to keep the whites and the blacks separated in public places.
- The African Americans were segregated in most public places and were often subjected to violence.
- The name Jim Crow came from a song and dance caricature where Thomas Rice painted his face black and mocked Black people.
Civil Rights During World War II
- Even though the African Americans were freed they still performed the same jobs as they did when they were slaves. They were not allowed to join the war effort and benefit from the war-related jobs.
- Many African Americans threatened President Franklin Roosevelt that they would march on Washington if the government failed to give them equal employment opportunities.
- As a result, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which provided defense jobs to any and all Americans irrespective of their race, color, or nationality.
- The African Americans faced segregation and discrimination even during the war, however, they served their duties as equal Americans and broke racial barriers by fighting side by side with their fellow white Americans.
- The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators and received 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
- President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 to put an end to discrimination in military service.
Civil Rights Movement
- The segregation laws in Alabama required African Americans to occupy only the designated seats on public transport.
- Rosa Parks had followed the segregation law and was seated in the designated seat on a Montgomery, Alabama Bus.
- However, she and three other Black passengers were told to vacate their seats when a white man could not find an empty seat for himself.
- When Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat she was immediately arrested. Her arrest sparked controversy and she was called the mother of the civil rights movement.
- The segregated seating was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court when Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and other community leaders staged a boycott of the Montgomery Bus system.
President Dwight Eisenhower
- When the Supreme Court announced that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in 1954, nine Black students known as the Little Rock Nine decided to begin classes in a school that was segregated.
- When they came for their first day at Central High School, they were stopped and terrorized by the Arkansas National Guard.
- They did not give up and tried going to school again but their safety was under threat and hence failed to attend classes.
- President Dwight Eisenhower commanded the federal troops to accompany the Little Rock Nine to school but this did not stop the bullying and harassment.
- Several protests were staged for desegregation of all schools and brought much-needed awareness on the issue across the states.
- Despite the civil rights guaranteed during the reconstruction era, African Americans could not vote due to impossible tests concerning literacy, morality, and heredity.
- To overcome this challenge presented by the southern states, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to prevent discrimination based on literacy.
- He also set up a commission whose chief purpose was to investigate any frauds related to the voting rights of African Americans.
Sit-Ins and Nonviolent Protests
- On February 1, 1960, Woolworth’s lunch counter refused to serve food to 4 Black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina.
- The students refused to leave the counter until they were served and this led to the Greensboro Sit-Ins where hundreds of protestors joined the cause of the 4 Black students.
- They boycotted lunch counters that practiced segregation until the 4 Black students were given food by Woolworth’s lunch counter.
- This event inspired several other sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
- The phrase Black Power was coined by Stokely Carmichael when he joined the SNCC.
- The Freedom Riders were another group of nonviolent activists who rode the Greyhound bus from Washington D.C. all the way to the American South to protest segregated bus terminals.
- In Anniston, Alabama, a mob got on their bus and threw a bomb at them that set the bus on fire.
- The Freedom Riders were able to escape the fire but they were badly beaten by policemen and white protestors. They also could not get a driver to take them further on their journey.
- The images of the burning bus drew national attention and forced the U.S. Attorney General Robert F Kennedy to provide them with another driver.
- However, Robert Kennedy had to send Federal Marshals when the Freedom Riders were attacked again in Montgomery.
- The nonviolent demonstrations of the Freedom Riders shed light on the discrimination Black people faced in interstate transit terminals.
- As a result, the Interstate Commerce Commission had to enforce stricter rules and regulations against segregation.
Martin Luther King Jr
- On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr made the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in front of over 200,000 people in Washington D.C.
- The primary reason for this peaceful march was to force the government to establish job equality for everyone and bring more civil rights legislation.
- The march was successful as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed by President Lyndon B Johnson which guaranteed equal employment for all.
- James Bevel along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized the Selma to Montgomery Marches only to be met by resistance from the county police.
- At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the police shot tear gas at the protestors and trampled them with their horses. This event was publicized as the ‘Bloody Sunday’.
- After this event, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which banned the literacy tests altogether and also declared the state and local poll taxes as unconstitutional.
- The Civil Rights Movement claimed the lives of many activists and political leaders.
- Abraham Lincoln was killed right after the end of the American Civil War and President John F. Kennedy was killed right before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965 and so was Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968.
- But this did not stop the civil rights movement and the last law to be enacted during this era came through within days of King’s assassination.
- It is called the Fair Housing Act and prohibited any kind of discrimination based on race, religion, color, or nationality.
P.S. If you enjoyed what you read and are a teacher or tutor needing resources for your students from kindergarten all the way up to high school senior (or even adults!), check out our partner sites KidsKonnect, SchoolHistory, and HelpTeaching for hundreds of facts, worksheets, activities, quizzes, courses, and more!