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Coming of Age in Mississippi | Context

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Black Life after the Civil War

The American Reconstruction period (1865–77), which saw the rebuilding of the Union after the Civil War (1861–65), was a tumultuous time for black Americans. Reconstruction aimed to bring the former states of the Confederacy back into the Union. Slavery was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments gave black males legal equality and voting rights. But their integration into society wasn't simple. The freedmen needed to find work and housing. And not all white Americans were ready to accommodate the recently freed slaves.

Many newly freed black Americans pinned their economic hopes on General William Sherman's 1865 "40 acres and a mule" policy, which gave each freed family 40 acres of land on the coast of Georgia and one of the Union army's mules. With the gift of federal land, the families wanted to achieve independence. But later in 1865 President Andrew Johnson required all federal land to be returned to its original owners. Freedmen on this land now had a choice: leave or sign a labor contract with the land's previous white owners.

Black workers still wanted autonomy. White Southern landowners wanted a labor force. They reached a compromise. Instead of receiving wages, black workers would rent the land for fixed payments. The workers would also give portions of the crops to the landowners at the end of the year. This system, known as sharecropping, dominated Southern agriculture for decades. Since the workers were forced to sign labor contracts, they didn't have much independence, and many ended up deeply in debt. In Part 1 of Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody's parents work as sharecroppers under a similar system. Sharecropping came to an end in the 1940s.

After the war the Southern states didn't immediately adopt an official segregation system. New Orleans, a city friendlier to integration than many Southern cities, had integrated schools until 1877. But most schools and some public institutions, such as train cars, were separated by race.

Jim Crow Laws in the American South

America slowly began to pass laws to segregate public places. Five legal cases known as the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 permitted racial segregation in public accommodations—reversing the integration laws of 1875's Civil Rights Act. Several states passed laws mandating segregation on public transit. In 1890 the Louisiana Separate Car Act required railroads to offer "equal but separate accommodations" for white and black passengers.

In 1892 a black man named Homer Plessy boarded a train car that was restricted to white passengers. Louisiana officials arrested Plessy, charged him with violating the Separate Car Act, and convicted him. He appealed the verdict and lost. The U.S. Supreme Court's final ruling in 1896 on the Plessy v. Ferguson case set a legal precedent for "separate but equal" public spaces in the South. Despite the legal assertion segregated spaces were "equal," facilities for black users were in reality inferior.

The Plessy v. Ferguson ruling is considered the beginning of the South's Jim Crow era of racial inequality. The name came from a white comedian's minstrel song and dance routine called "Jump Jim Crow." Long used as a derogatory phrase to describe African Americans, Jim Crow became shorthand for the wider system of Southern segregation laws, a system lasting until the 1960s.

Segregated spaces included schools, restaurants, libraries, restrooms, drinking fountains, parks, trains, and other public facilities, many designated by "Whites" and "Colored" signs. Though black Americans legally had the right to vote, in practice they were often barred from voting through literacy tests or other criteria in Southern cities and towns. Government officials upheld Jim Crow laws and local enforcers terrorized residents into obeying them.

The segregation of public transit was especially humiliating and inconvenient. According to civil rights activist Diane Nash, the separate facilities implied "blacks were so subhuman and so inferior ... we could not even use the public facilities that white people used."

In Coming of Age in Mississippi Moody writes about her own experiences with Jim Crow laws in Mississippi—both suffering under the laws as a child and fighting them as an adult.

"We Shall Overcome": Nonviolent Direct Action, Student Power, and Protest

Not everyone accepted Jim Crow segregation. Beginning in the early 20th century black and white reformers worked to establish true civil rights for African Americans. Black intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, with other black leaders, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. The NAACP began fighting against lynching in the 1910, successfully blocking the Supreme Court nomination of white supremacist John J. Parker and fighting to pass a federal anti-lynching law by the 1920s. Other racial equality groups partnered with organized labor to increase job opportunities for black workers. The National Negro Congress integrated the United Steel Workers union, while the NAACP worked with the United Auto Workers and a black labor organization called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

In the 1940s civil rights movements picked up steam. Increased numbers of black Americans left the rural South to take jobs in northern cities, increasing the impact of the black vote. Activist A. Philip Randolph introduced the possibility of direct-action protest when he proposed a march on Washington to protest discrimination in war industries and to demand an integration of the armed forces. After black soldiers fought inequality and oppression in World War II (1939–45), they became determined to fight inequality at home.

Then in 1954 another landmark court case signaled the beginning of the end for Jim Crow laws. Through the efforts of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the leadership of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that school segregation was unconstitutional.

Activists were empowered to seek more victories. A year later bus passenger Rosa Parks defied local laws and kept her seat in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks's activism spurred a yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott, a boycott of both buses and businesses. The protest was coordinated by the Montgomery Improvement Association and its president, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King was inspired by Gandhi's principles of nonviolent direct action in India. The bus boycott demonstrated how nonviolent action could prove a point and make a lasting impact. But increased black activism was met with increased white resistance and violence. The courts were slow to pass laws, and young African Americans in the South grew impatient. Direct and immediate protests in their local communities, they decided, would be more effective than challenging laws through the courts. They would create the change they wanted to see.

Four black students sat at a whites-only lunch counter in a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth's store in 1960. When the students were refused service, they didn't leave. The Greensboro sit-in led to similar demonstrations throughout the South, including a sit-in at a Jackson, Mississippi, Woolworth's which Moody describes in Part 4 of Coming of Age in Mississippi. Organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gave students alternatives to the more conservative NAACP, whose members tended to be older. Moody, inspired by the energy and commitment of her peers, says in Part 4 she feels young black people in high school and college are the movement's future.

The years 1960–65 were the peak of the civil rights movement. Freedom Riders were northern blacks and whites who rode buses into the South to integrate racially segregated facilities such as bus terminals, restrooms, and lunch counters. Large Southern cities like Montgomery and Jackson became activist hubs. Angry mobs attacked riders and sometimes burned the freedom buses. This activism worked to challenge segregation and in 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission issued regulations outlawing segregation in bus and train stations on interstate routes. However, local police responded to rallies with water hoses, attack dogs, and mass arrests. Prominent civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Some activists, including Moody, began to doubt the efficacy of nonviolence. Law enforcement and white vigilantes had no moral qualms with violence, and activists feared for their lives.

President John F. Kennedy called for a federal civil rights law in 1963 to end public segregation. However, Kennedy was assassinated before he could sign the bill into law, but his successor Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act called for equal employment opportunity as well as desegregation. The federal Voting Rights Act followed in 1965. These legislative changes were considered hallmark victories for the movement. Activists started focusing on getting black voters to the polls.

But the civil rights movement was beginning to fracture from within. Radical activists like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X championed black power and black nationalism, alienating members of the movement who still believed in nonviolent tactics and integration. The 1965 riots in Watts, a predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood, showed how anger and frustration within the black community hadn't gone away. Financial support for CORE and SNCC dried up as white activists left. And some black activists like Moody left as well, uncertain of the movement's effectiveness in the late 1960s. Moody ends her book wondering if African Americans will ever truly "overcome."

Though civil rights activists did turn the tide and change America, their goals were much broader. Leaders like Malcolm X and Dr. King wanted to redistribute American wealth and topple white supremacy worldwide. The movement's goal was not just the end of discriminatory laws but "a redefinition of American society."

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