By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify key events in the history of African American civil rights
- Explain how the courts, Congress, and the executive branch supported the civil rights movement
- Describe the role of grassroots efforts in the civil rights movement
Many groups in U.S. history have sought recognition as equal citizens. Although each group’s efforts have been notable and important, arguably the greatest, longest, and most violent struggle was that of African Americans, whose once-inferior legal status was even written into the text of the Constitution. Their fight for freedom and equality provided the legal and moral foundation for others who sought recognition of their equality later on.
Slavery and the Civil War
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson
made the radical statement that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Yet like other wealthy landowners of his time, Jefferson also owned dozens of other human beings as his personal property. He recognized this contradiction and personally considered the institution of slavery to be a "hideous blot" on the nation.
However, in order to forge a political union that would stand the test of time, he and the other founders—and later the framers of the Constitution—chose not to address the issue in any definitive way. Political support for abolition was very much a minority stance at the time, although after the Revolution many of the northern states did abolish slavery for a variety of reasons.
As the new United States expanded westward, however, the issue of slavery became harder to ignore and ignited much controversy. Many opponents of slavery were willing to accept the institution if it remained largely confined to the South but did not want it to spread westward. They feared the expansion of slavery would lead to the political dominance of the South over the North and would deprive small farmers in the newly acquired western territories who could not afford slaves.
Abolitionists, primarily in the North, also argued that slavery was both immoral and opposed basic U.S. values; they demanded an end to it.
The spread of slavery into the West seemed inevitable, however, following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford
, decided in 1857. Scott, who had been born into slavery but had spent time in free states and territories, argued that his temporary residence in a territory where slavery had been banned by the federal government had made him a free man. The Supreme Court rejected his argument. In fact, the Court’s majority stated that Scott had no legal right to sue for his freedom at all because blacks (whether free or slave) were not and could not become U.S. citizens. Thus, Scott lacked the standing to even appear before the court. The Court also held that Congress lacked the power to decide whether slavery would be permitted in a territory that had been acquired after the Constitution was ratified, in effect prohibiting the federal government from passing any laws that would limit the expansion of slavery into any part of the West.
Ultimately, of course, the issue was decided by the Civil War
(1861–1865), with the southern states seceding to defend their "states’ rights" to determine their own destinies without interference by the federal government. Foremost among the rights claimed by the southern states was the right to decide whether their residents would be allowed to own slaves.
Although at the beginning of the war President Abraham Lincoln
had been willing to allow slavery to continue in the South to preserve the Union, he changed his policies regarding abolition over the course of the war. The first step was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation
on January 1, 1863. Although it stated "all persons held as slaves . . . henceforward shall be free," the proclamation was limited in effect to the states that had rebelled. Slaves in states that had remained within the Union, such as Maryland and Delaware, and in parts of the Confederacy that were already occupied by the Union army, were not set free. Although slaves in states in rebellion were technically freed, because Union troops controlled relatively small portions of these states at the time, it was impossible to ensure that enslaved people were freed in reality and not simply on paper.
In this memorial engraving from 1865 (the year he was assassinated), President Abraham Lincoln is shown with his hand resting on a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation (a). Despite popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation (b) actually freed very few slaves, though it did change the meaning of the war.
At the end of the Civil War, the South entered a period called Reconstruction
(1865–1877) during which state governments were reorganized before the rebellious states were allowed to be readmitted to the Union. As part of this process, the Republican Party pushed for a permanent end to slavery. A constitutional amendment to this effect was passed by the House of Representatives in January 1865, after having already been approved by the Senate in April 1864, and it was ratified in December 1865 as the Thirteenth Amendment
. The amendment’s first section states, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." In effect, this amendment outlawed slavery in the United States.
The changes wrought by the Fourteenth Amendment
were more extensive. In addition to introducing the equal protection clause to the Constitution, this amendment also extended the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the states, required the states to respect the privileges or immunities of all citizens, and, for the first time, defined citizenship at the national and state levels. People could no longer be excluded from citizenship based solely on their race. Although some of these provisions were rendered mostly toothless by the courts or the lack of political action to enforce them, others were pivotal in the expansion of civil rights.
The Fifteenth Amendment
stated that people could not be denied the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This construction allowed states to continue to decide the qualifications of voters as long as those qualifications were ostensibly race-neutral. Thus, while states could not deny African American men the right to vote on the basis of race, they could deny it to women on the basis of sex or to people who could not prove they were literate.
Although the immediate effect of these provisions was quite profound, over time the Republicans in Congress gradually lost interest in pursuing Reconstruction policies, and the Reconstruction ended with the end of military rule in the South and the withdrawal of the Union army in 1877.
Following the army’s removal, political control of the South fell once again into the hands of white men, and violence was used to discourage blacks from exercising the rights they had been granted.
The revocation of voting rights, or disenfranchisement
, took a number of forms; not every southern state used the same methods, and some states used more than one, but they all disproportionately affected black voter registration and turnout.
Perhaps the most famous of the tools of disenfranchisement were literacy tests
and understanding tests
. Literacy tests, which had been used in the North since the 1850s to disqualify naturalized European immigrants from voting, called on the prospective voter to demonstrate his (and later her) ability to read a particular passage of text. However, since voter registration officials had discretion to decide what text the voter was to read, they could give easy passages to voters they wanted to register (typically whites) and more difficult passages to those whose registration they wanted to deny (typically blacks). Understanding tests required the prospective voter to explain the meaning
of a particular passage of text, often a provision of the U.S. Constitution, or answer a series of questions related to citizenship. Again, since the official examining the prospective voter could decide which passage or questions to choose, the difficulty of the test might vary dramatically between white and black applicants.
Even had these tests been administered fairly and equitably, however, most blacks would have been at a huge disadvantage, because few could read. Although schools for blacks had existed in some places, southern states had made it largely illegal to teach slaves to read and write. At the beginning of the Civil War, only 5 percent of blacks could read and write, and most of them lived in the North.
Some were able to take advantage of educational opportunities after they were freed, but many were not able to gain effective literacy.
In some states, poorer, less literate white voters feared being disenfranchised by the literacy and understanding tests. Some states introduced a loophole, known as the grandfather clause
, to allow less literate whites to vote. The grandfather clause exempted those who had been allowed to vote in that state prior to the Civil War and their descendants from literacy and understanding tests.
Because blacks were not allowed to vote prior to the Civil War, but most white men had been voting at a time when there were no literacy tests, this loophole allowed most illiterate whites to vote while leaving obstacles in place for blacks who wanted to vote as well. Time limits were often placed on these provisions because state legislators realized that they might quickly be declared unconstitutional, but they lasted long enough to allow illiterate white men to register to vote.
A magazine cartoon from 1879 ridicules the practice of illiterate, southern whites requiring that a "blakman" be "eddikated" before he could vote. The grandfather clause made such a situation possible.
In states where the voting rights of poor whites were less of a concern, another tool for disenfranchisement was the poll tax
. This was an annual per-person tax, typically one or two dollars (on the order of $20 to $50 today), that a person had to pay to register to vote. People who didn’t want to vote didn’t have to pay, but in several states the poll tax was cumulative, so if you decided to vote you would have to pay not only the tax due for that year but any poll tax from previous years as well. Because former slaves were usually quite poor, they were less likely than white men to be able to pay poll taxes.
According to this receipt, a man named A. S. White paid his $1 poll tax in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, in 1917.
Although these methods were usually sufficient to ensure that blacks were kept away from the polls, some dedicated African Americans did manage to register to vote despite the obstacles placed in their way. To ensure their vote was largely meaningless, the white elites used their control of the Democratic Party to create the white primary
: primary elections in which only whites were allowed to vote. The state party organizations argued that as private groups, rather than part of the state government, they had no obligation to follow the Fifteenth Amendment’s requirement not to deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Furthermore, they contended, voting for nominees to run for office was not the same as electing those who would actually hold office. So they held primary elections to choose the Democratic nominee in which only white citizens were allowed to vote.
Once the nominee had been chosen, he or she might face token opposition from a Republican or minor-party candidate in the general election, but since white voters had agreed beforehand to support whoever won the Democrats’ primary, the outcome of the general election was a foregone conclusion.
With blacks effectively disenfranchised, the restored southern state governments undermined guarantees of equal treatment in the Fourteenth Amendment. They passed laws that excluded African Americans from juries and allowed the imprisonment and forced labor of "idle" black citizens. The laws also called for segregation of whites and blacks in public places under the doctrine known as "separate but equal." As long as nominally equal facilities were provided for both whites and blacks, it was legal to require members of each race to use the facilities designated for them. Similarly, state and local governments passed laws limiting what neighborhoods blacks and whites could live in. Collectively, these discriminatory laws came to be known as Jim Crow laws
. The Supreme Court upheld the separate but equal doctrine in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson
, consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, and allowed segregation to continue.
Civil Rights in the Courts
By the turn of the twentieth century, the position of African Americans was quite bleak. Even outside the South, racial inequality was a fact of everyday life. African American leaders and thinkers themselves disagreed on the right path forward. Some, like Booker T. Washington, argued that acceptance of inequality and segregation over the short term would allow African Americans to focus their efforts on improving their educational and social status until whites were forced to acknowledge them as equals. W. E. B. Du Bois
, however, argued for a more confrontational approach and in 1909 founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP) as a rallying point for securing equality. Liberal whites dominated the organization in its early years, but African Americans assumed control over its operations in the 1920s.
The NAACP soon focused on a strategy of overturning Jim Crow laws through the courts. Perhaps its greatest series of legal successes consisted of its efforts to challenge segregation in education. Early cases brought by the NAACP dealt with racial discrimination in higher education. In 1938, the Supreme Court essentially gave states a choice: they could either integrate institutions of higher education, or they could establish an equivalent university or college for African Americans.
Southern states chose to establish colleges for blacks rather than allow them into all-white state institutions. Although this ruling expanded opportunities for professional and graduate education in areas such as law and medicine for African Americans by requiring states to provide institutions for them to attend, it nevertheless allowed segregated colleges and universities to continue to exist.
was pivotal in securing African American civil rights and today continues to address civil rights violations, such as police brutality and the disproportionate percentage of African American convicts that are given the death penalty.
The landmark court decision of the judicial phase of the civil rights movement settled the Brown v. Board of Education
case in 1954.
In this case, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson
as it pertained to public education, stating that a separate but equal education was a logical impossibility. Even with the same funding and equivalent facilities, a segregated school could not have the same teachers or environment as the equivalent school for another race. The court also rested its decision in part on social science studies suggesting that racial discrimination led to feelings of inferiority among African American children. The only way to dispel this sense of inferiority was to end segregation and integrate public schools.
It is safe to say this ruling was controversial. While integration of public schools took place without much incident in some areas of the South, particularly where there were few black students, elsewhere it was often confrontational—or nonexistent. In recognition of the fact that southern states would delay school integration for as long as possible, civil rights activists urged the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision. Organized by A. Philip Randolph
and Bayard Rustin
, approximately twenty-five thousand African Americans gathered in Washington, DC, on May 17, 1957, to participate in a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.
A few months later, in Little Rock, Arkansas, governor Orval Faubus
resisted court-ordered integration and mobilized National Guard troops to keep black students out of Central High School. President Eisenhower
then called up the Arkansas National Guard for federal duty (essentially taking the troops out of Faubus’s hands) and sent soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division to escort students to and from classes. To avoid integration, Faubus closed four high schools in Little Rock the following school year.
Opposition to the 1957 integration of Little Rock’s all-white Central High School led President Eisenhower to call in soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. For a year, they escorted nine African American students to and from school and to and from classes within the school. (credit: The U.S. Army)
In Virginia, state leaders employed a strategy of "massive resistance" to school integration, which led to the closure of a large number of public schools across the state, some for years.
Although de jure segregation
, segregation mandated by law, had ended on paper, in practice, few efforts were made to integrate schools in most school districts with substantial black student populations until the late 1960s. Many white southerners who objected to sending their children to school with blacks then established private academies that admitted only white students.
Advances were made in the courts in areas other than public education. In many neighborhoods in northern cities, which technically were not segregated, residents were required to sign restrictive real estate covenants promising that if they moved, they would not sell their houses to African Americans and sometimes not to Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos, Jews, and other ethnic minorities as well.
In the case of Shelley v. Kraemer
(1948), the Supreme Court held that while such covenants did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because they consisted of agreements between private citizens, their provisions could not be enforced by courts.
Because state courts are government institutions and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the government from denying people equal protection of the law, the courts’ enforcement of such covenants would be a violation of the amendment. Thus, if a white family chose to sell its house to a black family and the other homeowners in the neighborhood tried to sue the seller, the court would not hear the case. In 1967, the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law that prohibited interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia
Legislating Civil Rights
Beyond these favorable court rulings, however, progress toward equality for African Americans remained slow in the 1950s. In 1962, Congress proposed what later became the Twenty-Fourth Amendment
, which banned the poll tax in elections to federal (but not state or local) office; the amendment went into effect after being ratified in early 1964. Several southern states continued to require residents to pay poll taxes in order to vote in state elections until 1966 when, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections
, the Supreme Court declared that requiring payment of a poll tax in order to vote in an election at any level was unconstitutional.
The slow rate of progress led to frustration within the African American community. Newer, grassroots organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC), Congress of Racial Equality
(CORE), and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC) challenged the NAACP’s position as the leading civil rights organization and questioned its legal-focused strategy. These newer groups tended to prefer more confrontational approaches, including the use of direct action
campaigns relying on marches and demonstrations. The strategies of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience
, or the refusal to obey an unjust law, had been effective in the campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi
to liberate colonial India from British rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Civil rights pioneers adopted these measures in the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott. After Rosa Parks
refused to give up her bus seat to a white person and was arrested, a group of black women carried out a day-long boycott of Montgomery’s public transit system. This boycott was then extended for over a year and overseen by union organizer E. D. Nixon. The effort desegregated public transportation in that city.
Direct action also took such forms as the sit-in campaigns to desegregate lunch counters that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, and the 1961 Freedom Rides in which black and white volunteers rode buses and trains through the South to enforce a 1946 Supreme Court decision that desegregated interstate transportation (Morgan v. Virginia
While such focused campaigns could be effective, they often had little impact in places where they were not replicated. In addition, some of the campaigns led to violence against both the campaigns’ leaders and ordinary people; Rosa Parks, a longtime NAACP member and graduate of the Highlander Folk School for civil rights activists, whose actions had begun the Montgomery boycott, received death threats, E. D. Nixon’s home was bombed, and the Freedom Riders
were attacked in Alabama.
As the campaign for civil rights continued and gained momentum, President John F. Kennedy
called for Congress to pass new civil rights legislation, which began to work its way through Congress in 1963. The resulting law (pushed heavily and then signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson
after Kennedy’s assassination) was the Civil Rights Act
of 1964, which had wide-ranging effects on U.S. society. Not only did the act outlaw government discrimination and the unequal application of voting qualifications by race, but it also, for the first time, outlawed segregation and other forms of discrimination by most businesses that were open to the public, including hotels, theaters, and restaurants that were not private clubs. It outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or national origin by most employers, and it created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
(EEOC) to monitor employment discrimination claims and help enforce this provision of the law. The provisions that affected private businesses and employers were legally justified not by the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws but instead by Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.
Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a monumental impact over the long term, it did not end efforts by many southern whites to maintain the white-dominated political power structure in the region. Progress in registering African American voters remained slow in many states despite increased federal activity supporting it, so civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King
, Jr. decided to draw the public eye to the area where the greatest resistance to voter registration drives were taking place. The SCLC and SNCC particularly focused their attention on the city of Selma, Alabama, which had been the site of violent reactions against civil rights activities.
The organizations’ leaders planned a march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. Their first attempt to march was violently broken up by state police and sheriff’s deputies. The second attempt was aborted because King feared it would lead to a brutal confrontation with police and violate a court order from a federal judge who had been sympathetic to the movement in the past. That night, three of the marchers, white ministers from the north, were attacked and beaten with clubs by members of the Ku Klux Klan; one of the victims died from his injuries. Televised images of the brutality against protesters and the death of a minister led to greater public sympathy for the cause. Eventually, a third march was successful in reaching the state capital of Montgomery.
The police attack on civil rights demonstrators as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, is remembered as "Bloody Sunday."
The 1987 PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize
won several Emmys and other awards for its coverage of major events in the civil rights movement, including the Montgomery bus boycott, the battle for school integration in Little Rock, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the march on Washington, DC.
The events at Selma galvanized support in Congress for a follow-up bill solely dealing with the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 went beyond previous laws by requiring greater oversight of elections by federal officials. Literacy and understanding tests, and other devices used to discriminate against voters on the basis of race, were banned. The Voting Rights Act proved to have much more immediate and dramatic effect than the laws that preceded it; what had been a fairly slow process of improving voter registration and participation was replaced by a rapid increase of black voter registration rates—although white registration rates increased over this period as well.
To many people’s way of thinking, however, the Supreme Court turned back the clocks when it gutted a core aspect of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder
No longer would states need federal approval to change laws and policies related to voting. Indeed, many states with a history of voter discrimination quickly resumed restrictive practices with laws requiring photo ID and limiting early voting. Some of the new restrictions are already being challenged in the courts.
Not all African Americans in the civil rights movement were comfortable with gradual change. Instead of using marches and demonstrations to change people’s attitudes, calling for tougher civil rights laws, or suing for their rights in court, they favored more immediate action that forced whites to give in to their demands. Men like Malcolm X
, the leader of the Nation of Islam
, and groups like the Black Panthers
were willing to use violence to achieve their goals.
These activists called for Black Power and Black Pride, not assimilation into white society. Their position was attractive to many young African Americans, especially after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Martin Luther King
, Jr. (left) and Malcolm X
(right) adopted different approaches to securing civil rights for African Americans. This occasion, a Senate debate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was the only time the two men ever met.
Continuing Challenges for African Americans
The civil rights movement for African Americans did not end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act
in 1965. For the last fifty years, the African American community has faced challenges related to both past and current discrimination; progress on both fronts remains slow, uneven, and often frustrating.
Legacies of the de jure
segregation of the past remain in much of the United States. Many African Americans still live in predominantly black neighborhoods where their ancestors were forced by laws and housing covenants to live.
Even those who live in the suburbs, once largely white, tend to live in suburbs that are mostly black.
Some two million African American young people attend schools whose student body is composed almost entirely of students of color.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, efforts to tackle these problems were stymied by large-scale public opposition, not just in the South but across the nation. Attempts to integrate public schools through the use of busing—transporting students from one segregated neighborhood to another to achieve more racially balanced schools—were particularly unpopular and helped contribute to "white flight" from cities to the suburbs.
This white flight has created de facto segregation
, a form of segregation that results from the choices of individuals to live in segregated communities without government action or support.
Today, a lack of high-paying jobs in many urban areas, combined with persistent racism, has trapped many African Americans in poor neighborhoods. While the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 created opportunities for members of the black middle class to advance economically and socially, and to live in the same neighborhoods as the white middle class did, their departure left many black neighborhoods mired in poverty and without the strong community ties that existed during the era of legal segregation. Many of these neighborhoods also suffered from high rates of crime and violence.
Police also appear, consciously or subconsciously, to engage in racial profiling: singling out blacks (and Latinos) for greater attention than members of other racial and ethnic groups, as FBI director James B. Comey has admitted.
When incidents of real or perceived injustice arise, as recently occurred after a series of deaths of young black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland, many African Americans turn to the streets to protest because they believe that politicians—white and black alike—fail to pay sufficient attention to these problems.
The most serious concerns of the black community today appear to revolve around poverty resulting from the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. While the public mood may have shifted toward greater concern about economic inequality in the United States, substantial policy changes to immediately improve the economic standing of African Americans in general have not followed, that is, if government-based policies and solutions are the answer. The Obama administration recently proposed new rules under the Fair Housing Act that may, in time, lead to more integrated communities in the future.
Meanwhile, grassroots movements to improve neighborhoods and local schools have taken root in many black communities across America, and perhaps in those movements is the hope for greater future progress.
One of the major controversies regarding race in the United States today is related to affirmative action, the practice of ensuring that members of historically disadvantaged or underrepresented groups have equal access to opportunities in education, the workplace, and government contracting. The phrase affirmative action originated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 11246, and it has drawn controversy ever since. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in employment, and Executive Order 11246, issued in 1965, forbade employment discrimination not only within the federal government but by federal contractors and contractors and subcontractors who received government funds.
Clearly, African Americans, as well as other groups, have been subject to discrimination in the past and present, limiting their opportunity to compete on a level playing field with those who face no such challenge. Opponents of affirmative action, however, point out that many of its beneficiaries are ethnic minorities from relatively affluent backgrounds, while whites and Asian Americans who grew up in poverty are expected to succeed despite facing many of the same handicaps.
Because affirmative action attempts to redress discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, it is generally subject to the strict scrutiny standard, which means the burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate the necessity of racial discrimination to achieve a compelling governmental interest. In 1978, in Bakke v. California, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action and said that colleges and universities could consider race when deciding whom to admit but could not establish racial quotas.
In 2003, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Bakke decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which said that taking race or ethnicity into account as one of several factors in admitting a student to a college or university was acceptable, but a system setting aside seats for a specific quota of minority students was not.
All these issues are back under discussion in the Supreme Court with the re-arguing of Fisher v. University of Texas.
Should race be a factor in deciding who will be admitted to a particular college? Why or why not?
Following the Civil War and the freeing of all slaves by the Thirteenth Amendment, a Republican Congress hoped to protect the freedmen from vengeful southern whites by passing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, granting them citizenship and guaranteeing equal protection under the law and the right to vote (for black men). The end of Reconstruction, however, allowed white Southerners to regain control of the South’s political and legal system and institute openly discriminatory Jim Crow laws. While some early efforts to secure civil rights were successful, the greatest gains came after World War II. Through a combination of lawsuits, Congressional acts, and direct action (such as President Truman’s executive order to desegregate the U.S. military), African Americans regained their voting rights and were guaranteed protection against discrimination in employment. Schools and public accommodations were desegregated. While much has been achieved, the struggle for equal treatment continues.
- What were the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
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