The American Civil Rights Movement: Background


Figure 1.--This school in Washington, D.C. in the early 20th century was segregated. At the time, schools in most northern states were not segrgated, although neigborhood schools oftn meant de facto segregation. There were legally imposed school segregation in the southern states. Few southern schools were as well equipped at the schools in Washington. The dictomy in the quality of the black and white schools in the South made a movhery of the Suoreme Court Plessy dictum of 'seperate, but equal'.

The suppression of black Americans and the denial of the civil rights was of course the aftermath of slavery, an institution which has a continuing impact on American society. The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. The issue was never resolved poltically, but was in fact finally settled by the Civil War--the greatest blood letting in American history. It was not The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, and the increasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. The Civil War was the defining epoch of the American nation. After the Civil War, the Federal Government began a process of Reconstruction. The Federal Government despite Southern critics, persued a soft peace. White southerners attepted to intoduce a legal system which kept the freed slaves in a state of servitude. Their primary instrument was the Black Codes (1865). White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. Radical Republicans in Congress persue a policy aimed at protecting southern Blacks. The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. The gains achieved by blacks were gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and precented them from voting. >No group in America were more adversely affected by the Depression than Blacks. Few Blacks had any financial savings to coution them from the full affect of the Depression. Blacks who had difficulty getting jobs in prosperous times had ever more problems as competition for a dwindling number of jobs intensified. As a result, while the New Deal did not address lynching and other issues of great concern to Black-Americans, many Blacks bnefitted from the the overall New Deal relief programs. American factoiries began expanding production when war broke out in Europe creating many new jobs. At first Blacks were excluded from most of these jobs. A. Philip Randolph, heads of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, began planning a march on Washington for jobs in 1941. He used the threat of such aarch to get President Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting racial descrimination in the expanding war industries. [Bass] The United States went on to fight World War II with a seggregated military. The Roosevelt Administration is often criticised for its lack of action on Civil Rights. But in fact great steps were taken. A priority of the New Deal was bring the South back into the national economy and mainstream. The Administration's Civil Rights record has to be assessed with the need to hold southern democrats in the New Deal coalition. A push on Civil Rights in the 1930s would have failed and it would have threatened the many accomplishments of the New Deal.

Racism

America from the arrival of the fitst Africans at Jamestown (1619) developed as a racist society. Even after the Resvolution when slavery was gradually abolished in the northern states, most Americans held rasist views. Racism was even prevalent among many abolistionists. The view that Blacks were inferior was widespread among White Americans before and after the Civil War. After the Emancipation of Blacks most White Americans continued to view Blacks as inferior in a wide range of human endevors. A new doctrine became increasingly popular in America and other countries--Eugenics. Eugenics provided what was though to be scientific grounding for racist doctrines. Eugenics did not specifically target Blacks. Generally speaking, however, a dominant racial group usully finds spperior attributes from itsown group. That was precisely what happened in America. Laws were passed in many states that used eugenics theories to steralize substantial numbers of mostly Black and poor Americans. Eugenics was later adopted by the NAZI as a pseduo-scientific justification for anti-Semitism.

American Slavery

The first blacks arrived in what is now the United States soon after the English and Dutch colonies weee established along the eastern seabord. There was considerable uncertainty about their legal status. Initially they were treated more lkike inentured servants, an important institution in early colonial America. The fitst southern colony where blacks appeared was Jamestown which became Virginia. They were brought by Dutch traders. (1619). They were then introduced to Duth New Amsterdam (1624). The Dutch played an important role because of their Aftrican trading posts. The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Because of the insistence on slavery by the southern colonies, a comprise was reached. Slavery was not codified into the Federal Constitution, but it was also not prohibited. American donestic politics in the first half of the 19th century was dominated by the issue of slavery. America was unable to find a political solution to slavery. The primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. It was the War that utimately ended slavery in America. President Lincoln in practical terms ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). The proclamation based on executive authority was on limited and tenuous grounds. Thus the abolition of slavery was only ultimately achieved with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865).

The Debate Over Slavery

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as three-fifths (3/5s) of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. Subsequent history was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). This worked for over three decades until promoted by Seator Stephen Douglas Congress undid it with the Kansas-Nebrasks Act (1854). The result was rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last a breakdown of comprosise and civil war.

The Civil War (1861-65)

The American Civil War has been called the first modern war because of the number of men involved, the sweeping movements, the use of trains and telegraphs, and the increasing sophistication of the weaponery including rifled artillery, repeating weapons and iron-clad ships. The Civil War was the defining epoch of the American nation. It has been extensively studied in American history, but except for military scholars little noted outside the United States. The Civil War, however, had profound consequences for world history that were not immediately apparent in 1865. The losses and disruption of the war was staggering. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other war America has fought--including World War II. This was in part because military tactics had not yet adjusted to the increasing leathality of weaponry. The South was devestated and the economic and social impacts were felt well into the 20th century. The industrial expansion of the north, however, was strongly promoted by the War. We do not know, however, of a major fashion change associated with the war. Military styled outfits such as Zouave outfits were popular, but lasting impacts on boys' fashions seem hard to detect. The Civil War does appear to be the watershead between the first and second half of the centuries. In a general way it also divides the period when long pants were common to the later era when kneepants dominated.

Reconstruction

After the Civil War, the Federal Government began a process of Reconstruction. The Federal Government despite Southern critics, persued a soft peace. Southern soldeiers were allowed toi simply return home after afirming loyalty. Lee's soldiers after surrender were not even interned. The same was true of Johnston's soldiers in North Carolina who surrendered soon after. Blacks for the future. White southerners attepted to intoduce a legal system which kept the freed slaves in a state of servitude. Their primary instrument was the Black Codes (1865). They resstricted the rights of Blacks and limited economic and educatioinal opportunities. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. Radical Republicans in Congress persue a policy aimed at protecting southern Blacks. Here the quarled with President Johnson (1864-69). President Grant was more supportive (1869-77). The central step taken was the passage of the 13-15 amendments which abolished slavery and guaranted the civil rights, including the right to vote, of the freed slaves and guaranteed the equal protection of the law. (The Emancipation proclamationThere was an execyive order and open to legal challenge.) The slaves were freed, Reconstruction brought great hope for change in the South. There were some considerable gains made. Schools were established and Blacks elected to public office. The Freedman's Bureau was established. After President Hayes (1877-81) withdrew Federal troops from the South, the white majority began to take away the civil rights that the freed slaves had briefly experienced.

The Lost Cause

"The Lost Cause" was a historical myth which persisted for many years in American history. The Civil War in the minds of most northerners had bee fought to preserve the Union, not free the slaves. Racism was not a belief prevalent only in the South. After Reconsnstruction there was no real Federal action to protect the rights of Black citizens in the South or to prevent terroist activities perpetrated by the KKK. The KKK was even established in northern states like Indiana. Southern historians with anti-Black bias established the Lost Cause myth. This was largely accepted even in the North, in large part because of the widly held rascist attitudes of most white Americans at the time. The historical myths went largely unchallenged except by scholars like W.E.B. Dubois, who was not given scholarly recognition at the time. The historical myths of the Lost Cause were not seriously chasllenged by academics until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Jim Crow

The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. State Governments enactted what became known as Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was an a popular antebellum minstrel show character. The gains achieved by blacks during Reconstruction were gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and prevented them from voting in any significant numbers. They were no longer slaves and this in essential was a substantial imprvoment, in many ways--not the least in freedom of movement and stability of family relatinships. They were, however, denined basic civil rights and as a result any substatial economic opportunity.

Black Life in America (1860s-40s)

The Civil War was not fought because abolitionist sentiment dominated the American Republic, but President Lincoln turned abolition into a major goal of the War. The idea of black civil rights had even less support, but Republicans in Congress turned this into a reality with the the 14th and 15th Amendments. Reconstructon in the South tried to integrated the new freed blacks fully into American society. Terrorism persued by the Ku Klux Klan effectivly denied these rights to blacks in the southern states. Thus while blacks wee emancipated, many faced very restricted opportunities. Problems existed throughout the country, but were most severe in the southern states. There are relatively few photographic images of slaves. Daguerotypes were relatively expensive. The new CDV and cabinets cards were much less expensive, but only became available in the 1860s as the slaves were being liberated by the Civil War. Thus we have many more images of blacks in America after emancipation. These images provide fascinating insights into life for blacks in the period from Emancipation (1863-65) to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement after World War II.

The Niagara Movement (1905)

A meeting of 29 black intellectals occurred in Niagara, Canada in 1905. They tried to meet in Niagara, New York, but were denined th right to register by the hotels there. The group was led by W.E.B. DuBois, at the time a professor at Atlanta University. They prepared a statement on race an inequality. The Niagara Movement was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Inter-Racial Marriage

A major component of the slave system was a prohibition on inter-racial marriage. This began during the slavery era. Maryland was the first colony to ban inter-racial marriage (1664). Slavey was ended by the 13 Amendment, but the laws and national obsession on inter-racial marriage were unchanged. State laws and court rulings continued to ban inter-racial marriage well into the 20th century. The initial bans were reinforced in the 19th century by notions of Social Darwinism. Learened men spoke, inckluding men considered to be scientists, eloquently of natural law. Religious leaders insisted that there was Biblical and moral support for these bans. The curious aspect of this national obsession was that while the effort to ban inter-racial marriage was not accompanied by any special interest in protecting balck women from being preyed on by white men. Even men who championed these laws and the Segrigtionist system are known to have relations with blavk women. The most notable example here is Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond championed the Dixiecrat Movement (1948) and served as both governor and senator. He sset the record in the Senate for fillibusters in his efforts to block civil rights legislation.

The Depression (1930s)

No group in America were more adversely affected by the Depression than Blacks. Few Blacks had any financial savings to coution them from the full affect of the Depression. Blacks who had difficulty getting jobs in prosperous times had ever more problems as competition for a dwindling number of jobs intensified. As a result, while the New Deal did not address lynching and other issues of great concern to Black-Americans, many Blacks bnefitted from the the overall New Deal relief programs. Mrs. Roosevelt in particular was concerned about the special difficulties encountered by racism. She worked to make sure that Black Americans were included in and benefitted by New Deal programs. For the first time since Reconstruction, Black Americans began to feel they had friends in the White House. As a result, Blacks in the North began voting strongly Democratic for the first time. Blacks in the South were still largely prevented from voting by a variety of legal subterfuces (such as the "grandfather clause" and poll taxes) an extralegal terror.

Marian Anderson (1938)

The brilliant opera singer Marion Anderson was acclaimed in Europe, but little recognized in America. The Daughter's of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Constitution Hall. Mrs. Rooosevelt resigned her membership. NAACP leader Walter White suggested she sing at the Lincoln Memorial on the mall in Washington on Easter Sunday, 1939. This not only made a powerful statement, but Anderson who had not actively participated in the movement helped to create "a format for mass politics" tha was to be a hall mark of the Civil Rights movement. [Janken]

World War II

American factoiries began expanding production when war broke out in Europe creating many new jobs. At first Blacks were excluded from most of these jibs. A. Philip Randolph, heads of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, began planning a march on Washington for jobs in 1941. He used the threat of such aarch to get President Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting racial descrimination in the expanding war industries. [Bass] The United States went on to fight World War II with a seggregated military. Blacks and Whites kept in separate units. Blacks were normally used in support roles. Segregationists advanced the theory that Blacks were not capable soldiers. Elenor Roosevelt stringly supported an experiment forming two units of Black airmen, known today as the Tuskegee Airmen, after the Alabama college where they trained. Althoiugh Southern Congressmen tried to kill the program, the two units proved to be in part two of the most effectuive units in the Army Air Corps. This was in part because the opponents of the program, put such strict limits on it that the men involved were of especially high caliber. Many Black soldiers wondered about fighting racist NAZI Germany when they faced racism at home. (Many of the early NAZI actions against the Jews in Germany were based in on American Seggregation laws.)

President Roosevelt

Thee Roosevelt Administration is often criticised for its lack of action on Civil Rights. But in fact great steps were taken. A priority of the New Deal was bring the South back into the national economy and mainstream. The Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) was a major part of that effort. Blacks of course benefitted from this as they did from other New Deal programs. Blacks were also giveen access to the war jobs, for many the first decent paying jobs they ever held. Military programs like the Tuskee Airmen paved the way for desegregation after the War. The Administration's Civil Rights record has to be assessed with the need to hold southern democrats in the New Deal coalition. A push on Civil Rights in the 1930s would have failed and it would have threatened the many accomplishments of the New Deal. While the President's hands were tied by the need to retain Southern Democratic votes in Congress, Elenor was a passionate spokesperson for Civil Rights. For the first time since Reconstruction, many Black Americans felt they had a friend in the White House.

Sources

Bass, Patrick Henry. Like a Mighty Stream: The March on Washington, August 28, 1963 (Running Press).






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Created: 5:36 AM 12/26/2004
Last updated: 6:01 AM 1/11/2009