In our previous blog, Historical Legal Cases & Acts – Black History, we outlined important cases along with the U.S. Constitution Amendments that brought legislative changes supporting equality and voting rights. Even with cases and legislation trending toward civil rights, states and businesses created ways to continue discrimination. While highlighting important and groundbreaking civil rights litigation and decisions that have shaped America, it is important to recognize the groups, organizations, and important figures that have pushed these decisions into the political forefront and public agenda.
From the inception of the United States of America, the rights of those within it have always been under question. Post Revolutionary War, those brought to the U.S. under indentured servitude, slavery, as well Native Americans, struggled to find freedom in the country that made it its motto.
The Abolitionist Movement is the first of these struggles to gain momentum and become organized. Abolitionists in northern U.S. states helped people escape from the south. This was made possible through a network of homes and stops along the way ensuring safe passage into “free territory”, later known as the Underground Railroad.
Although there were states in which slavery was outlawed, the lines were blurred as Scott v. Sandford ruled that enslaved peoples were in fact NOT citizens.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln, the South seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, rallying around the fear of losing their cotton cash crop labor force. The Civil War led to The Reconstruction, as well as the passing of the 13th Amendment which officially abolished slavery nationwide.
After the Civil War, the federal government did little to protect the now “free” black community from backlash and the South began enacting laws to suppress the black community. Jim Crow laws were established at local levels and legalized racial segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson further cemented the Jim Crow laws by upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Upon realizing they were not equal citizens, many believed the only way for them to exist was separately. Writers such as Booker T. Washington encouraged their communities to take up trades that made the black community less dependent on the system.
With growing frustration over the lack of progression, rights and access in the United States, W.E.B Du Bois formed a group that would be known as the Niagra Movement and joined with the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The group fought against segregation and sought federal enforcement of the amendments which were supposed to protect their rights. The NAACP brought attention to continued inequality and still does today.
Today and every day, the NAACP is at the forefront of the movement to build political power and ensure the wellbeing of black communities.NAACP.org
In the early 1920’s the Harlem Renaissance was burgeoning with black artists, musicians, writers and politicians appealing to the American public in ways that had not reached previously reached America’s mainstream. Some groups used the uprise of the black community to cast and attribute blame for the coming Great Depression. Groups such as the NAACP began to focus on hardships and social programs to help political and economic issues faced by many black communities.
During WWII the black population signed up for duty hoping to retrieve a “Double V”, victory at home (against racism) and away (against foreign enemies). The Tuskegee Airmen were founded, saw action and gave the black community a source of pride for generations to come. However, after being exposed to a lifestyle not related to the color of their skin, they returned home to oppressive institutions such as separate-but-equal. Overseas, they could save a white man on the field of battle, while being restricted within the U.S. from eating in the same restaurant as him.
This led to Executive Order 9981, Freedom to Serve, stating “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” But alas, with more integration came spite and anger over the rising social status of African-Americans.
“Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome’ … while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?”– Malcom X in response to Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech via history.org
After integrating into systems like Major League Baseball (think: Jackie Robinson), Brown v Board of Education ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This victory advanced the idea of equality and thus set the stage for important follow up movements:
Freedom Rides were implemented to ensure the public use of transportation and to memorialize the rights bestowed to people of color. Again, these steps forward were met with violence, such as the Birmingham Church bombing.
Demonstrations and protests from groups such as Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by Martin Luther King Jr against segregation led to the March on Washington and Dr. King’s highly influential “I Have a Dream” speech, which galvanized many Americans who then stood on the side of equality.
“this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
President John F. Kennedy proposed ending segregation in public places along with banning discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
During the Selma to Montgomery March, participants were attacked as they were approaching the state capital in Montgomery. The group was met by an attack from state troopers, on television. After being subjected to the images of what the black community was facing across the country, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by Congress.
After the assassinations of several prominent civil rights leaders, many began to follow and find solace in the rising Black Power Movement led by Stokely Carmichael who popularized the term “Black Power”.
We want Black Power!Chant led by Charmichael at Mississippi rally
In 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party.
The Civil Rights movement continued, and the rise of political and public figures from the black community led many to believe the United States’ had achieved a state of equality for all persons. But this was a thin veneer that has cracked over time.
Events such as the L.A. Riots (1992), sparked by the beating of Rodney King and acquittal of the officers involved, and the Million Man March (1995) have shown us that equality has not been reached for black America and POC. The disproportionate rate at which people of color are incarcerated, as well as the rate of mortality of POC from police interactions confirm the that true equality is not available to all.
The Black Power and civil rights movements live on in the global Black Lives Matter Movement.
Influencing prominent figures throughout politics, television, and sports have stood up and made the call for social justice. Events highlighting inequality remain far too common: the deaths of Tamir Rice, Atatiana Jefferson, Micheal Brown, Danny Thomas, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Freddie Gray, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Samuel Dubose. These horrific episodes have taken place in the digital age of immediate web-based communication and social media, caught on camera, and have helped to spread the Black Lives Matter movement into the hearts and minds of people all over the world.
With the corona virus surging, political tensions soaring high and people glued to their televisions, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police inspired emotion, protests, action and, hopefully, change.
The path is still unclear. How will we reach true justice and equality? THe United States was founded on revolution for equality. This principal is as important today as ever and is woven through the efforts of abolitionists and BLM. All persons within the United States are granted equality in writing through our laws. The future of our country must demonstrate that equality exists — not on paper — but in reality.
By Twylla Vennum, February 26, 2021.