The African American Struggle for Freedom Post Civil War
Since the beginning of America, people of color have faced racial segregation and inequality despite all of their efforts to be seen as equal citizens. Beginning with the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to deny citizenship and constitutional rights to all African Americans. This ruling by the Court caused a setback to racial equality however, it did not stop the fight. It was not until during the end of America’s second year in the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”[footnoteRef:1] In the following years came the establishments of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, all of which guaranteed equal opportunities for recently emancipated slaves. The combination of these gave African Americans hope of a nation that would soon reach the point of equality. Fast forward to the 1900s, African Americans still lived in a society of segregation. It was not until the mid 1950s that African Americans organized the civil rights movement in their efforts to gain equal rights under the law. [1: Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863; Presidential Proclamations, 1791-1991; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.]
As many white southerners became intimidated by the growing efforts of African Americans during the Reconstruction era, white supremacy groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, began to emerge. In an article titled “What the Klan Does Not Stand For,” by O. V. Davis, his sixth point illustrates that the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan will not tolerate…the installation of racial equality, into the heads of the colored races. This tends to create strife, in that the colored man in many instances is ignorant enough to believe that such should be, and consequently attempts to take a place with the white man in social and political affairs.”[footnoteRef:2] The desires of these white supremist organizations were to reestablish white supremacy. Such groups did so by coercing blacks through harassment, intimidation, and violence. Similar constraints began in 1865, when the Southern states passed the black codes as a way to enforce their control and to limit the freedoms over black citizens, they took away their voting rights, controlled where they lived, and took away their children and used them for labor purposes. The legal system was unjust, and many African Americans fell victim to the black codes. Just as black codes were put into place as an attempt to reinstall slavery, Jim Crow laws aimed to deprived African Americans of their power.
The Jim Crow laws legalized the separation of whites from peoples of color in most all public facilities, including parks, theaters, restaurants, busses, trains, and even went as far as separating water fountains. As stated by Chas E. Hall, “The ‘Jim Crow’ law is but a symptom of a deeper malady pervading the entire body politic, prejudicing the rights of American citizens.”[footnoteRef:3] It would be anticipated that after the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments had been ratified that African Americans would begin to be seen as equals, however, despite their efforts, this still wasn’t the case. The U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson challenged the limitations of the 14th Amendments commitment of full and equal citizenship to African Americans. In the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which stated that as long as both groups are provided with feasibly equal conditions, the equal protection clause was not being infringed upon. For decades to come, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case continued to be the overriding judicial precedent in civil rights cases until the Supreme Court retracted their verdict in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. [2: Davis, O V. “What the Klan Does Not Stand For.” Watcher on the Tower, 1923. 13] [3: Hall, Chas E. “The Appeal.” Chronicling American Newspapers, 1889. vol. 4, no. 39, 4.]
The Brown v. Board of Education decision was a prominent turning point of racial inequality in the United States. Made up of four class-action suits, brought forth to the Supreme Court by the NAACP, the Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools infringed the equal protection clause. Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”[footnoteRef:4] The Court’s decision applied not only to public schools, but also suggested that other segregated public facilities were deemed unconstitutional as well. In Southern states, the decision threatened many white supremist, causing massive resistance and ultimately lead up to the Southern Manifesto. Signed by nearly one-fifth of Congress, the Southern Manifesto signalized the Souths resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision. In the Manifesto, Southerners proclaimed “we pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”[footnoteRef:5] Southerners did not hesitate to fight the Courts decision. Since the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Brown v. Board of Education case did not specifically identify the ways in which schools should be integrated, the Court issued a second opinion in the case. Known as Brown v. Board of Education II, the Court decided to allow the lower federal Courts to deal with future desegregation cases.
As the civil rights movement continued to grow, more and more people began to show their support through their participation in boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter-registration drives. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) played a crucial role in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. The NAACP was formed in response to the ongoing violence African Americans faced around the country. As stated in a NAACP pamphlet, “the association is truly a crisis organization, constantly on the alter to combat unfair race practices wherever they occur.”[footnoteRef:9] Its mission was to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health of all persons. Many prominent progressives took part in the NAACP’s reform movements. Thurgood Marshall, a civil-rights attorney and head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was responsible for contending the Brown v. Board of Education case to the court. Rosa Parks, former NAACP Branch Secretary, sparked the Bus Boycott in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s well-known “I Have A Dream” speech took place at the March on Washington, a monumental protest that the NAACP helped organize which aimed to attract attention to the challenges and inequalities African Americans faced on a day to day basis. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 demonstrated the growing expansion of the civil rights movement.
The march began at the Washington Monument and ended at the Lincoln Memorial where a large group of civil rights leaders peached to the crowds calling for actions to be taken regarding voting rights, equal employment opportunities, and the end of racial segregation for blacks. In his famous speech, “I Have A Dream,” Dr. King challenges Americans to acknowledge the founding fathers promise of a nation of freedom and opportunity for all. He also warns Americans that “it would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning…There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”[footnoteRef:10] As he repeats “I have a dream” King is offering hope to African Americans of a world that one day might grant all citizens equal rights. His speech prompted increased support of the civil rights movement and ultimately contributed to the ratification of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prior to his assassination, President John F. Kennedy initiated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The act gave African Americans many of the freedoms they had been fighting to gain for so long, to name a few, it guaranteed equal voting rights by removing biased registration requirements and procedures, prohibited segregation or discrimination in public facilities, banned discrimination by trade unions, schools, or employers, among many more. [9: NAACP Its Program and Objectives, recruitment brochure, May 1956] [10: King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963]
African Americans have fought a long time for equality and desegregation. The ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments fueled African Americans anticipation for a nation that would soon be free of inequality. However, the freedoms they dreamt for did not come as easily nor as quickly as they had anticipated, and it was not until the mid 1900s that African Americans had begun their efforts to gain equality under the law through their organization of the civil rights movement. Their fight lasted decades, as it was difficult for a nation so stubborn in their beliefs to change what they had been taught was true: that whites and blacks were not equal. In the beginning of the civil rights movements, many laws were passed that deprived African Americans of their powers and rights, through control and segregation in attempts to defeat them. The NAACP played a crucial role in aiding African Americans in their fight for justice. After decades of facing inequality and racial segregation, African Americans were finally given their rights of freedom under the law.
- Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863; Presidential Proclamations, 1791-1991; Record
- Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.
- Davis, O V. “What the Klan Does Not Stand For.” Watcher on the Tower, 1923. 13
- Hall, Chas E. “The Appeal.” Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, 1889. vol. 4, no. 39, 4
- Warren, Earl, and Supreme Court of the United States. U.S. Reports: Brown v. Board of Education, 1953. vol. 347 U.S., 492
- The Southern Manifesto, March 1956; 102 Cong. Rec. 4515-16; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (2), May 31, 1955; U.S. Supreme Court, vol. 349 U.S., 294
- Daisy Bates to NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins on the treatment of the Little Rock
- Nine, December 17, 1957. Typed letter. Page 1. NAACP Records, Manuscript Division,
- Library of Congress (112.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP
- NAACP Its Program and Objectives, recruitment brochure, May 1956
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963