Most citizens of the United States learn during their school days that their country was at one time “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Abraham Lincoln reminded us of this in the Gettysburg Address (1863).
The new nation of which Lincoln spoke has been kept alive over many years by brave and dedicated men and women. These idealistic, courageous individuals can be proud of the many accomplishments they have made in this country.
The truths that the delegates of the thirteen colonies proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were not new. These truths were “to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness . . .” for the people in the colonies. Even so, there were Americans who were denied these rights for many years after the colonies became the United States.
The United States is a nation of many different minority groups. Groups of people who were enslaved or chose to immigrate to this country. These minorities include Asian Americans, Jews, African Americans, Spanish-speaking Americans (Hispanics), European immigrants and American Indians (Native Americans). Members of these groups often have not had an equal chance for the “truths” in economic, political or social systems in the United States. Members of some minorities have been denied the right to vote. Many have been discriminated against in housing, education, employment and equal access to restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations and facilities. A main goal for many idealistic Americans has been to end such discrimination and guarantee equal rights and opportunities to all citizens of the United States.
African Americans, who make up the largest minority group in the United States, have been denied their rights as citizens (civil rights) more than any other minority group.
African Americans made significant gains in their struggle for equal rights during the Reconstruction, the twelve-year period after the Civil War. The 13th Amendment, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. In 1868, the 14th Amendment made former slaves citizens. It also provided that the states must grant all people within their jurisdiction “equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment, which became law in 1870, prohibited the states from denying people the right to vote because of their race (minority grouping). Congress, the national lawmaking body, passed several other laws to protect African Americans’ civil rights within the Reconstruction period.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, most African American leaders in the United States believed that for African Americans to achieve a better way of life something had to be done. All did not agree as to what the best methods should be in order to eliminate mistreatment of African Americans.
A famous African American educator, Booker T. Washington, believed that the only way African American people could succeed was to learn vocational skills and to work hard for their employers. It was his opinion that if African Americans work hard and earn their money, White Americans would recognize African Americans and willingly allow them to integrate. With this as his philosophy, he earlier founded the Tuskee Institute of Alabama in 1881.
W.E.B. DuBois, an African American historian, argued a different belief. He believed that African Americans would never achieve a better way of life as long as they were victims of discrimination. DuBois thought that African Americans should strive to obtain more skills and education to prepare for intellectual positions beyond Washington’s belief in being a work force that White Americans could not do without. He also promoted the theory that African Americans would have to work together to gain political power, to make laws and to win all rights enjoyed by White Americans.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 by African Americans who agreed with DuBois. This organization, as well as the National Urban League (1911), worked to eliminate lynching and end various forms of discrimination against African Americans. Many times, their lawyers went to court to argue that laws that supported segregation were in opposition to the United States Constitution.
After World War II ended (1945), more African Americans became impatient with the slow rate of progress in achieving equal rights. African Americans had fought gallantly during the war for their homeland, but still faced discrimination when they returned. To them, and many White Americans, this was wrong.
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. This ruling was made in a case known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The case was brought before the Supreme Court by NAACP lawyers. By a vote of 9-0, the Supreme Court reversed its earlier decision in “Plessy v. Ferguson” (1896). It now declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and that African Americans were therefore being denied the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
The Supreme Court’s decision was greeted with mixed feelings in different regions of the United States. Many Whites in the North and nearly all African Americans were delighted at the news. But most White Southerners were shocked and angry. Some of these people sincerely believed that segregation was best for people of both races. It seemed that the federal government (U.S. Supreme Court) was interfering with the rights of the individual states. Many people vowed that they would never allow their children to attend integrated schools.
In some communities, violence broke out when school officials tried to carry out the court’s ruling. One of the most serious of these disturbances took place in Little Rock, Arkansas in the fall of 1957. When nine African American students tried to enroll in high school, they were threatened by angry mobs of Whites. The governor ordered the African American students out of the school. Finally, President Dwight Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops to Little Rock to make sure that integration was carried out. Meanwhile, in many other southern communities, schools were integrated without any disturbances.
Although some progress was being made toward ending school segregation, African Americans still suffered from other kinds of discrimination. This realization indicated that progress towards equality continued to be painfully slow. Many African Americans decided they would need to use stronger measures in order to gain all of their civil rights.
One such measure had been used in Montgomery Alabama following an incident that occurred on December 1, 1955. That day, Rosa Parks, tired after a long, hard day at work, refused to give up her city bus seat to a White man. She chose to defy the Jim Crow tradition. Her decision inspired 17,000 African Americans and Martin Luther King, Jr. to boycott the city buses. This ignited the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
For a year, nearly all African Americans in Montgomery walked to work or shared rides in cars. They refused to ride the city buses until they could sit where they pleased. The bus company suffered a huge loss of business. Then, in the fall of 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregation in buses was unconstitutional. At last, African Americans who rode buses in Montgomery and other southern cities were free to sit anywhere they pleased.
The success of the bus boycott convinced many African Americans that direct action methods could help them achieve their civil rights goal—to overturn practices that denied African Americans and other minorities equal rights as citizens. In the early 1960’s “sit-ins” became popular in the South. Groups of African American college and high school students—sometimes joined by sympathetic Whites—would go to segregated lunch counters and restaurants. They would sit down and refuse to leave until they had been served. Often the demonstrators were insulted, shoved or spat upon, and sometimes they were arrested. But the sit-ins continued until lunch counters in most southern cities had been integrated. Similar demonstrations were held to protest the segregation of playgrounds, beaches, libraries and churches.
Other kinds of protest demonstrations helped focus worldwide attention on the problems of African Americans. Busloads of African American and White civil rights workers made “freedom rides” through the South to protest segregation in bus terminals. This strategy, called nonviolent or passive resistance, drew attention to unjust laws by refusing to obey them. They also accepted the risk of being arrested for breaking the law.
As a result of the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government passed the first civil rights law since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 set up the Commission on Civil Rights to investigate charges of denial of civil rights. It also created the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice to enforce federal civil rights laws and regulations.
The Commission is an independent agency of the U.S. Government. It works to guarantee the civil rights of women and of American Indians, African Americans and members of other minority groups. Also, it investigates charges of denial of civil rights, studies how federal, state and local policies affect equal opportunities in education, employment, housing and other areas.
During the 1960’s, African American voting rights received increased protection. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 provided for the appointment of referees to help African Americans register to vote. The 24th Amendment, adopted in 1964, barred poll taxes in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests in many southern states. A 1970 federal law made literacy tests illegal in all states. The Supreme Court prohibited poll taxes in state and local elections in 1966.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the strongest civil rights bill in U.S. history. It ordered restaurants, hotels and other businesses that serve the general public to serve all people without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. It also barred discrimination by employers and unions and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce fair employment practices.
In the mid-1960’s the problems of bettering the lot of the disadvantaged outran the progress achieved and underlying frustrations began to surface. Some angry young African American activists turned away from the nonviolent methods of the NAACP and the Urban League to join various militant separatist groups. Black nationalism was encouraged by the Black Muslims, a religious group organized in Detroit in the 1930’s, which had grown to impressive strength under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” campaign of the early 1920’s had stressed the dignity and beauty of being Black. The Muslims seized on this rallying cry and exhorted their supporters to strive for self-sufficiency and more influence in the businesses and institutions in the areas where they lived. Malcolm X, a Black Muslim who broke with Muhammad in 1963 and formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity, was eloquent in articulating the anger of his contemporaries. His following was on the increase, when in 1965, he was assassinated by Black dissidents.
In the long, hot summer of 1965, rioting broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Buildings were burned, stores looted and blacks and whites alike were killed in a tragic manifestation of the explosive forces bred by the oppressive conditions of life in the slums.
Stokley Carmichael, who became leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966, was among the first publicly to advocate “Black Power” as a means of tipping the balance against White establishment which he believed was denying African Americans their constitutional and economical rights. The power was to be expressed by political and economic pressure.
Perhaps the most aggressive of the new militants were the Black Panthers. Starting in Alabama, they came to national prominence in Oakland, California in 1966. The movement spread and attracted many restless, young urban African Americans. Objectives and methods varied with local leadership, and in some places there was violence.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (for motives never satisfactorily explained) as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray, a White Southerner, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. The immediate effect of his death was a continuation of hostile measures.
Major changes in the Civil Rights Movement occurred during the 1970’s. Earlier civil rights efforts had involved lawsuits and other attempts to protect individual rights. The emphasis shifted from individual rights to group rights in the 1970’s. The federal government began to enact laws designed to assure rights for groups that formerly had suffered discrimination. For example, the government began a program of affirmative action. Affirmative action consists of efforts to counteract past discrimination by giving special help to disadvantaged groups. Typical measures included recruiting drives among women and minority groups and special training programs for minority workers. The government required affirmative action plans to be set up by businesses that had government contracts, by many other employers and by all schools receiving federal funds.