African American Groups

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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Since the 18th- 21st centuries, African American groups fought against prejudices and racial barriers to establish themselves as a population deserving the “natural rights” granted in the Constitution. In this way, the defined rights that African Americans possess have greatly evolved, impacting their societal and political standing. The shaky establishment of African American civil rights dates back to when blacks were first introduced to America as slaves in 1619. Because they were pragmatic economical “resources”, their population exploded in the South. However, because the North was not as dependent on slaves, controversy concerning slavery was inevitable. Although this “peculiar institution” was eventually abolished, the unjust treatment of African Americans persisted. Even in the 21st century, African Americans continue to face prejudices. During the time period between the 18th and the 21st century in the southern states, African American economic and educational rights remained inferior to other people’s rights, but African Americans made great achievements in regard to gaining societal and political equality.

The introduction of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 triggered the creation of a feudal society that cemented the African Americans’ role in the lowest social class. Prior to this invention, the production of cotton was a cumbersome process, calling for strenuous manual labor to handpick seeds; thus, it was seen as unsustainable and economically impractical. However, Whitney’s invention sped up this process and did the work of fifty men on the field. Contrary to popular belief, the cotton gin did not remove the need for slaves, but rather called for more labor to keep up with the growing demand for cotton. By 1860, the slave population of 200,000 in 1790 grew to about 4 million. The rise of the plantation owners created a sense of dependency on the richer class and stifled the social mobility of the lower classes. Because there was a focus on the success of the gentry domain, this held repercussions on the economic and social lives of lower classes. Thus, economic imbalance was created, with the potent plantation owners wielding the most influence and the slaves succumbing to myths of white superiority.

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As tensions rose between the North and the South regarding the institution of slavery, abolitionist president Abraham Lincoln declared the Civil War in 1861. It concluded with the signing of the Thirteenth amendment in 1865 which established the abolition of slavery. However, though African Americans expected to gain equality after their freedom, they continued to be suppressed by theories of “white supremacy”. The period of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877 intended to rebuild southern societies, but was ultimately seen as a poor attempt to increase the economic rights of blacks. Although president Abraham Lincoln expressed his ideas of expanding their rights during Reconstruction, Lincoln was assassinated shortly after and was succeeded by president Andrew Johnson, a Confederate, who believed the South was to rebuild themselves without government intervention. Because of Johnson’s leniency during Reconstruction, white supremacists saw this as an opportunity to exert their power over the newly free class of blacks. The farmers maintained their economic dominance and wanted to restore a social system similar to what was present with their slave society. Many southerners adopted a notion of exploiting the black laboring class by withholding certain rights, such as the right to quit jobs. In addition to the economic oppression that blacks were facing due to plantation farmers, blacks were also unequal because the federal government was withholding land from free blacks. This directly translated to a capitalist marketplace in the south. Blacks often turned to sharecropping when they dealt with merchants and plantation owners who demanded that their tenants grew cotton, paid for their own supplies, and obtained “first lien” on crops.

Moreover, during Reconstruction, Black Codes were implemented by southerners in order to maintain economic superiority. Mississippi enacted the first Black Code which stated that blacks could not own land in any non-integrated town, and must be supervised at all times. Evidently, economic inequality was reinforced by the forms of these Black Codes, because they placed restrictions on housing and rents. In addition, South Carolina prohibited blacks from holding any occupations other than farming or housekeeping, unless they paid a tax that ranged from $10 to $100 yearly. The plantation owners reduced the job opportunities for blacks so that the blacks could remain economically disadvantaged with little social and economic mobility.

A major goal for civil rights advocates in 1900s was to raise the employment rates for African American workers and establish a better sense of economic equality. During the civil rights movement, several acts were passed in hopes of reaching this goal, like the 1978 Full Employment and Growth Act. This act guaranteed African Americans employment if they were willing, able, or seeking work, and it sought to insure maximum production and purchasing power. However, despite these efforts, the effects of African American economic placement throughout history continues to burden them today. Surveys done in the 21st century have shown that when contrasted to the black poverty rate of 33.5 in 1968, in 2016 the rate was 22 percent, only slightly lower than it was 50 years ago. It is obvious that despite efforts to heighten their economic prosperity, blacks have not made much progress since the 1960s. Furthermore, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the black unemployment rate in 1972, it has always been twice of that of the white unemployment rates. Whites are still more prosperous than blacks in terms of employment, a theme that has been present since the 18th century.

In addition to just being disadvantaged economically, African Americans have also been deprived of educational rights from the 18th to the 21st century. In the 1700s, many plantation owners worried that if slaves were to have access to education, they could develop skills to plan escapes, rise to higher positions in societies, and gain economical rights that could thwart the influence of the gentry. Thus, in the 1700s, states like South Carolina passed acts that stated that any person who was caught teaching a slave would have to pay a fine of one hundred pounds. Southerns took many efforts to curb the education of African Americans, and laws like these rendered African Americans uneducated and illiterate laborers.

In 1837, however, groups of Quakers in Pennsylvania formed the Philadelphia Board of Education to embrace theories of “universal education.”Robert Vaux was the president of this “board of controllers” and had a goal for making education free to all children. However, because there was a wave of rebellion and a decline of total enrollment in the schools which had a composition of mixed races, the board of education decided to open a primary school for African Americans alone. Thus, a segregated school system was introduced.

Segregated school systems deteriorated the mental health of African children, and in some cases, such systems were no less beneficial than having an absence of schooling. They planted ideas of “white superiority” in the minds of black children and made them feel inferior. However, this school segregation was lawfully permitted due to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court supported the “separate but equal” doctrine because it claimed segregation still abided by the Fourteenth amendment, since “equal” rights would be given, but separately. However, these separate schools that were established for black children were far from equal to whites. These schools often lacked the appropriate faculty and materials necessary for the functionality of a school, and often taught skills focusing on agricultural and domestic services, clearly restricting other subjects of education which were taught to white children.

The Plessy v. Ferguson court case set a precedent for segregation in school systems in many southern states and was also used in numerous court cases succeeding it. In Article XIII, section I of the Georgia state constitution, it stated that schools were free to all children, bu they must be separated between colored and white. Clearly, many states embraced this opportunity to exert “white supremacist” ideas by segregating schools on the basis of being “equal,” though they inherently were not. In the Berea College v. Kentucky Case in 1908, the Kentucky legislation passed the Day Law prohibiting African Americans to attend a white school and the legislation was charged a fine of $1000. However, when this case was taken to the Supreme Court, it stated that the Kentucky Law should be upheld, using the principles established in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Thus, a system of segregated schooling dwelled among the southern states for a period of 60 years, claiming to be “equal,” although it actually offered whites more educational opportunities than blacks.

In 1954, the concept of “separate but equal” was finally debunked in the Brown V. Board of Education case. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, realizing that segregation established a sense of “educational superiority” in one race. Despite this stride toward equal rights to education, however, blacks were still treated unjustly. In the situation of the Little Rock Nine when nine black children were to enter an all white high school, Governor Orval Faubus announced on September 2, 1957 that he would call the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the 9 children from entering the high school. This resistance can be credited for the gap in educational opportunities leaking into the 21st century, despite the Brown v. Board of Education trial. Because blacks lacked high quality education throughout history, effects have rippled through generations of black Americans and still affect them today. Black parents, most of whom are less educated than whites, consequently have low expectations for their children. This creates a ripple effect across society, and it can be seen that when all grade levels are combined, blacks are three times more likely to be held back than whites. In addition, 91% of white children were able to read somewhat fluently from ages 3-5, compared to only 72% of black children. It can be stated using this evidence that clearly, blacks are still disadvantaged when comparing their educational rights to whites, due to the detrimental effects of segregation and a denial of proper schooling in past years.

In comparison to their economic and educational rights which have stayed relatively unchanged throughout history, African American segregation laws have greatly improved over time. In the 1870s, Jim Crow laws were passed to separate colored persons in public transport, parks, cemeteries, theaters, and restaurants. Whites saw these laws as necessary in order to maintain their superior status. From 1887 to 1892, nine states passed laws that required segregation on public transport systems. Five southern states charged criminal fines or imprisonment for passengers who tried to sit in cars which strictly prohibited people of their race. The South had obviously cultivated a strictly segregated society through laws and cruel forms of punishment.

However, when Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus to give up her seat for a white man on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, this was monumental. Her refusal led to her arrest, which angered many blacks. They formed Montgomery Improvement Association and organized a boycott of the Montgomery Bus system on December 5th. Led by Martin Luther King Jr., this boycott consisted of 40,000 African Americans who demanded changes in segregation laws, the hiring of black drivers, and a first-come, first-serve seating policy on busses. At last, on June 5, 1956, the Alabama legislature ruled that segregation in transportation was unconstitutional as it violated the Fourteenth amendment. When the boycott ended 381 days later and the systems were finally equal to all, this set the precedent of integration in public areas.

Other acts passed during the Civil Rights Movement also removed policies of segregation in public areas; Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, was a major stepping stone in abolishing all forms of social divide in public settings. This act stated that all people were entitled to equal enjoyment in any public place without regard to race, and it is credited for the richly diverse and integrated society in the United States in the 21st century.

Not only have black segregation laws changed over time, but political rights have too. At first, during the era of Reconstruction, African American suffrage was targeted by the Grandfather Clause in the Jim Crow laws. When the 15th amendment was ratified in 1870, it allowed any male citizen to vote regardless of color, race, or previous conditions of servitude. This greatly angered southerners, who consequently tried to create obstacles for blacks who wanted to exercise their right to vote.Established in 1898, the Grandfather Clause as well as poll taxes forced African Americans to take extremely challenging literacy tests and pay taxes of $1.50, a sum worth about $25 today, whereas most white voters were exempt from these requirements. Furthermore, the literacy tests that African Americans were required to take in order to vote asked questions that were nearly impossible to answer. In the Louisiana literacy tests of the 1950s, a series of 30 questions would be asked to the participant and if they made one incorrect answer within the time limit of 10 minutes, it would denote failure of the test. Even if a black citizen miraculously passed these literacy tests, they would be fired from their jobs when they registered to vote. Thus, this action of voting was seen as risky to many black families; consequently, these barriers blocking voting essentially achieved their purpose of reducing African American influence.

However, as the age of civil rights in the 1960s dawned on American history, there was great change to the suffrage policies of black men. In the Civil Rights Act of 1957, President Eisenhower proposed to give federal departments the power to obtain court injunctions against the barriers to vote. Furthermore, this legislation proposed to protect African Americans from being coerced or threatened when trying to exercise their voting rights. This proposal was a precedent for the future civil rights acts hat focused on voting rights. The Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 1965, is considered to be one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation, which ultimately banned all literacy tests and called for federal oversight in areas where the black voting population was more than 50%. This guarantee of their 15th amendment right was extremely effective in bringing back African American influence in southern politics. Voter turnout drastically increased due to this, as seen in Mississippi where it rose from 6% in 1964 to 59% in 1969. In addition, compared to the 6 African American members in the house of representatives in 1965, there were 13 members in 1971. The Voting Rights Acts passed during the civil rights movement clearly brought drastic change and power to the black minority when compared to the minimal influence that they wielded in the 1700s.

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In the 21st century, the African Americans have achieved higher standings in regard to politics. The election of Barack Obama, the first black president, in 2009 was symbolic for the advance of black representation in government. This event was cherished by many African Americans across the nation and was a big moment to showcase their achievements throughout history after long periods of fighting for representation. In addition, in 1965, there were no blacks in the U.S. Senate, but as of 2019, 12% of the House of Representatives are black, which is accurately representative of the black U.S. population overall for the first time in history. It is evident that African Americans are continuing to break records and fight for change in politics to allow for a greater influence in government.

As evidenced by their struggles, African Americans have fought to break prejudices regarding their stance in society. Evidently, inequality still remains when one considers their roles in the economy and their educational opportunities — this is an impediment that African Americans have battled throughout history. However, through the outstanding acts of heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, African Americans have made great strides to achieve goals that once seemed unfathomable. Presently, African Americans make up a larger portion than ever seen before in the U.S. government history, and there is little to no segregation in public settings by law. These are great accomplishments that have helped this minority group gain a larger voice in society. African Americans have a complicated history and they have fought for the current state of social rights in the United States. They are the paragons of community, determination, and strength.

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African American Groups. (2019, Mar 30). Retrieved from