The 19th century was an era that set the precedence for a tumultuous African American Civil Rights Movement that would span at least another century. 1865 saw the end of the American Civil War and the end of slavery, so at last by 1870 all American citizens including black people could vote, however, black people were often discouraged from doing this with threats and violence. It was certainly not an equal time for all – court cases such as Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 introduced a series of deeply oppressive Jim Crow laws which lead to the segregation of everything, from schools to busses – black people were always second class citizens. 1901 and 1930 also gave birth to the NAACP and KKK parties which spread their racist rhetoric throughout the United States and incited violence against the African American population.
The 1940’s saw a boom in the middle class, GNP growth like never before, wages nearly doubling and an overall enormous wave of economic expansion. This Golden Age era was one of consensus that everything was OK and not to be changed, but only if you were white. Things were great for you if you were a regular blue collared white worker, but this was hardly a period of opportunity for African Americans. By the 1950’s 50% of black people were living in poverty and when they could get regular jobs, black workers had less ranking in a company than white people, meaning that their jobs were less stable. Rigid segregation was the rule for most of the country, either by law or by custom, meaning that black people didn’t get the same education because of poor standards in their schools.
All over the country, every place from stores to libraries donned “no coloured” signs. It wasn’t as though before the 1950’s African American people weren’t fighting for their rights, but the 50’s were a significant decade as black people started instead to win the fight. This decade would certainly allow the civil rights movement to become much more established. By the end of the 1950’s fewer than two percent of black students attended integrated schools in the south, but the modern civil rights movement had begun.
To set things off for the fifties, in 1947’s court case of Mendez vs. Westminster, the Supreme Court ruled that Orange County had to desegregate their schools allowing black and white students to learn together. This paved the way for other landmark trials such as 1954’s Brown vs. The Education Board in Topeka – California’s governor Earl Warren signed a state order that repealed all school segregation in the state.
Although this lead to the first integrated school to open in 1955, unfortunately these events spawned massive resistance in the south, making many schools close instead of allowing integration. In fact, numerous states appropriated funds for white students to join “private academies”, however a foundation for the civil rights movement in education had nonetheless been laid.
In December 1955, when Rosa Parks “the first lady of civil rights” famously refused to obey a bus driver to stand up and let a white passenger sit down, her arrest resulted in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This became a vital fragment of United States history which resulted in a Court decision showing that segregated buses were not constitutional. Boycotting busses put the young Atlantan Pastor, Martin Luther King Junior into the limelight. Martin Luther helped organise boycotts from his church, showing the necessity of black churches in civil rights movements. This was only the start for Martin Luther, who began by founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which played a large role in the American Civil Rights Movement.
The SCLC had to fight tough in a country whose president Eisenhower was at best lukewarm about the issue of civil rights at the time. However at least Eisenhower played up when forced to, for instance when The governor of Arkansas sent in the national guard in order to prevent the integration of nine black students in a central high school, nicknamed the Little Rock Nine, Eisenhower ordered in the 101st airborne military division to walk African American children to walk children to school for a whole year. Despite the school closing soon after, this act allowed government workers to see that they weren’t entitled to ignore the orders from court and the constitution. It worked! Following the Mississippi Riot in 1962, which was organised after a black man wasn’t allowed to attend an all white school, James Meredith became the first man to have a federal court to approve his case allowing him to attend. This became a cornerstone in the movement and other universities soon began integrating.
The 60’s was a time for the culmination of the movement plus a whole new wave of activism and support. Martin Luther King was in full swing and Malcolm X’s Black Panther Party rose to prominence advocating a more radical and militant approach for the African American population to take. In the 1960’s president John F. Kennedy even provided crucial support for the Southern Freedom Movement which lead to other pivotal historical events, the greatest being the March on Washington of 1963 with an estimated 250,000 participants – truly an awe inspiring milestone of the Civil Rights movement. Who could forget Martin Luther King’s call to end racism which his most defining “I have a dream” speech, beautifully referencing the Emancipation Proclamation which lead to the freedom of slaves in 1863. In this speech, Martin Luther King reminded all that a hundred years later, the “Negro still is not free”. Despite the deeply troubling wave of assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King in 1968, the 60’s was a critical time or the Civil Rights Movement. In this same year of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Bill was approved by congress which would strike down discrimination and just two years later the 1965 voting rights act was passed, allowing African Americans to begin voting and standing for congress.
So did the end of the 1960’s mark an end for the Civil Rights Movement once and for all? Arguably the movement is still going on today. Many years later, the divide between black and white populations still persists and is commonplace, albeit in much less obvious and troubling way. Many issues that have remained the result of a systemic wave of racism are still around, such as disparities in black and white voting rights, employment and poverty. In fact, new burdens are rife with racist tendencies existing within the legal system in America, leading to new age movements such as “Black Lives Matter”. However, since the 60’s, progress has undoubtedly been made and progress is likely to continue. In today’s times, we may look at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008 as a reminder of past struggles and perhaps a culmination of centuries of work in favour of racial equality and the African American Civil Rights Movement. Former president Obama famously mentioned that his rights and the rights of other African Americans would not have not existed in the past but exist today.