We can celebrate African-American History Month by remembering the contributions made by African-Americans who fought for freedom and civil rights.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The legalized slave trade ended in 1808. But slaves continued to be smuggled into the United States, and the millions already held in servitude found no relief.
By a half-century later, most Northerners opposed the institution of slavery. But Southerners still relied on slaves to work their plantations. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, who opposed expanding slavery, was elected president despite opposition from the South. This resulted in several Southern states’ withdrawal from the union and their formation of the Confederate States of America.
On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began. It was the beginning of the end of slavery. Although the war had many causes, in September 1862, Lincoln warned the Confederate states that all slaves would be declared free if the Confederates failed to return to the Union by January 1, 1863.
When the deadline came, the Confederate States had not returned to the Union, so Lincoln immediately issued his Emancipation Proclamation. It declared all slaves held by the Confederates “shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.” Slaveholders released few slaves immediately. But two years later, the South surrendered, and the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified abolishing slavery. All slaves were finally set free.
Many whites were displeased with the end of slavery. Some even believed whites were God’s chosen people. Therefore, in 1867, a group was formed to keep blacks “in their place.” The Ku Klux Klan’s purpose was to intimidate black Americans.
In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, giving U.S. citizenship to blacks and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Then, in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act in 1875. It guaranteed blacks equal rights in public accommodations and jury duty. But the progress was short-lived. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional.
Over the following decades, change took a gradual pace. Conservative Southern leaders sought ways to repress blacks. They created laws to keep them from voting and that legalized segregation. The Ku Klux Klan took matters into its own hands, from 1889 to 1918, capturing and hanging 3,224 men, women and children, mostly black.
Organizing the civil rights movement
In 1905, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American – political, civil, social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves but for all true Americans.” Out of his letter came a civil rights organization called the Niagara Movement. It lasted only five years, but it led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910.
Around the mid-1900s, the pace of the civil rights movement took off. In 1948, President Harry Truman created a Civil Rights Commission. He called for an end to school segregation and proclaimed a fair employment policy for federal workers. Over the next few years, state Supreme Courts heard school segregation cases. Not all were successful. But on May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court ruled school segregation is unconstitutional.
The next decade was turbulent. Many whites refused to accept that black and white children would attend school together. There were bus boycotts and other peaceful demonstrations by blacks and civil rights activists. There were also acts of violence by whites who favored segregation.
Then, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new Civil Rights Act. It outlawed discrimination in voting and public accommodations, and also required fair employment practices. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act passed. It barred the use of literacy and other tests as a requirement to vote.
Over the last half-century, African-Americans have seen continued change and progress in the United States. Still, despite laws to protect their rights, prejudice and discrimination against them endure.
AFRICAN-AMERICANS WHO TOOK A STAND
It takes dedicated leaders to achieve the kind of change we’ve seen over the last two hundred years. The following celebrated men and women challenged the system and led the way to reform.
- Sojourner Truth (1797?-1883) escaped slavery and became a traveling preacher. She was a talented orator and, in 1843, became the first black woman to speak out against slavery. Later, Truth strove to improve the conditions for black people who settled in Washington, D.C.
- Nat Turner (1800-31) led a massive slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, known as the “Southampton Insurrection.” Nearly 60 white people were killed. Turner and many of his followers were later captured and hanged. Nonetheless, he became a symbol for abolition.
- Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland. She escaped slavery in 1849 and helped to free more than 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as a spy and a nurse during the Civil War. Later she helped raise funds for black schools and advocated for women’s rights. Families can visit the history museum located on the grounds of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Maryland.
- Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) headed and expanded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a college for black students. He believed that black economic independence was necessary to gain social equality. His autobiography “Up from Slavery” was published in 1901.
- W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) founded the NAACP. His goals included ending segregation and the widespread lynching that was taking place in the United States. Du Bois also visualized world change. He was the author of many works, including “Black Reconstruction” (1935). In 1961, he moved to Ghana and joined the Communist Party after becoming alienated from the United States. He later died “in self-imposed exile.”
- Thurgood Marshall (1908-93) was born in Baltimore, MD and was the first black United States Supreme Court Justice. Before taking the seat, he served as director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Marshall appeared before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education 1954 and other monumental civil rights cases.
- James Leonard Farmer (1920-99) was the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. He and his organization favored nonviolent protests.
- Rosa Lee Parks (1913-2005) got arrested in 1955, after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. This led to the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which facilitated the national civil rights movement. In 1979, she won the Spingarn Medal for her courageous contribution.
- Malcolm X (1925-65) became a Muslim minister after he converted to Islam. He became an influential leader. In 1964, he broke away from the movement to form the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated in 1965.
- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) is one of America’s most noted civil rights leaders. His leadership included organizing the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the years, he was arrested 30 times for his peaceful civil rights activities. King’s extraordinary leadership led to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In 1968, he was assassinated.
- Andrew Young (1932- ) assisted in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also served as the first black U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
YOUNG ADVOCATES OF CIVIL RIGHTS
Belinda Rochelle explains in her book, “Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights,” that kids also made valuable contributions.
On April 23, 1951, high school student Barbara Johns led a boycott at R.R. Moton High School over the black school’s poor conditions. The Moton students rode an unheated school bus. They also had to wear heavy winter coats to classes to keep warm. The school’s textbooks and classrooms were also in poor condition. A month following the boycott, a lawsuit was filed against the school district.
Another high school student, Harvey Gantt, was a senior when he organized a sit-in demonstration. He and other black students walked into a segregated diner to be served. Instead, they were immediately taken to jail. Gantt went on to become the first black student to enroll in the segregated Clemson University of South Carolina.
Sheyann Webb was only 8 when she became involved in the movement. On March 7, 1965, the courageous little girl participated in what became known as Bloody Sunday. In this demonstration, 600 people began a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was in response to the death of a black man killed in a fight with police. On Bloody Sunday, officers attacked innocent marchers, including children, during the demonstration. Many were beaten and injured. Sheyann escaped the worst of the day, suffering only from the tear gas she encountered. As an adult, she has traveled the country advocating for education and discussing the civil rights movement.
While each of these men, women and children played a crucial role in the movement, they couldn’t have done it alone. Millions of Americans throughout history have taken part in the cause. Their cumulative efforts have made an impact – just as the collective contributions of people today can bring change for tomorrow.
- “Milestones in Black American History: Forever Free” by Christopher E. Henry
- “Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights” by Belinda Rochelle
- “Profiles: Black Civil Rights Champions” by Kimberly Hayes Taylor
- “An Eyewitness History: The Civil Rights Movement” by Sanford Wexler
- “The New Webster’s International Encyclopedia” revised edition
- “Atlanta, Georgia, 1960-1961: Sit-ins and Student Activism” by David J. Garrow
- “Beneath the image of the Civil Rights Movement and race relations : Atlanta, Georgia, 1946-1981” by David Andrew Harmon.