The United States of America – land of the brave and free – has a dark, sordid past that is entirely different from its present dedication to upholding human rights and supporting equality and democracy throughout the world.
Despite the so-called “black advancement” following the victory of the North in the Civil War, loopholes and other evil means were employed to keep the African-Americans free yet entirely disenfranchised. They suffered humiliation, segregation, discrimination and – most terrifying of all – socioeconomic oppression.Slavery had been abolished, yet African-Americans remained chained to poverty because of the lack of opportunities for education and economic growth. By the 1950s, laws demeaning to African-Americans and keeping them entirely separate from their white counterparts still remained. Lynching had been outlawed, yet violence against a person for the color of his skin was not unh...
eard of. Jim Crow laws remained in place, and few African-Americans dared defy the supremacy of the white majority, no matter how demeaning or undignified these laws left them.
Though certain sectors of white Americans – particularly students – already recognized the inhuman nature of racism and segregation, it would take the African-American community and these advocates more than another decade to witness the end of these practices. This paper asserts that African-Americans suffered racial discrimination and segregation prior to 1950, leading to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955. The years prior to the Civil Rights Movement were filled with violence, hatred and legal discrimination based on one's color.The travails suffered by the African-American community – from slavery to incomplete emancipation, poverty, discrimination and segregation – prior to the year 1950 served to strengthen their resolve
and their eventual fight for equality and true democracy.
The study shall cover the timeline beginning with Emancipation up to 1950. This period encapsulates the continued discrimination and segregation suffered by the African-American community even after their freedom from slavery. Focus is given to this period as it presents the injustice that remained ingrained in society despite some attempts at legal reform and the formal end of slavery.The period is specifically representative of the era that combines racism and the awakening of the disenfranchised African-Americans. The build-up of collective anger during this period served as the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement that broke out in 1955.
The period, therefore, can be considered the most significant era in the history of the African-American community prior to 1950. The negative and unfair practices against the African-American community prior to 1950 can be divided into two: segregation and discrimination based on the color of their skin.Both contributed to a multitude of problems for the African-American community, including the lack of opportunities for educational and economic advancement. Poverty, legal racism and violence are some of the effects of segregation and discrimination. All these contributed to the eventual eruption of the social volcano – the African-American community could no longer stand back and abide by the inequality and disenfranchisement they suffered in the hands of the majority and – in some instances – supported by the government.
From Emancipation to 1950 – A Brief BackgroundBy 1865, African-Americans were officially free. How free they actually were, however, was ironic, given the many hopes and promises that grew following the defeat of the South at the end of the American Civil
War. In the three years after 1865, the government sought to reform the laws regarding African-Americans, primarily with regards to their freedom and right to suffrage. The promises, unfortunately, fell flat.
The defeat of the Southern troops did not mean that the North could easily erase years of habit and the persistence of the white supremacy concept.Despite legal support for the Emancipation of the African-Americans, achievements were largely nominal and few members of the community could claim to have complete and total freedom from their former white masters. Economic dependence remained, as the Reconstruction did not exactly plan for the livelihood problems of the newly emancipated slaves. African-Americans were freed from the bondage of slavery yet did not have any means to support themselves financially.
As such, most of them remained in abject poverty, agreeing to provide cheap labor to plantation owners despite the dismal work conditions and lack of any glimmer of hope for advancement. The situation, financially speaking, remained oppressive for many of the newly freed African-American slaves. They were no longer considered “property” and could no longer be sold or traded as wished, yet they remained incapable of escaping the dire fate of a lifetime of poverty. Educational advancement was also a difficulty during the period, despite legal attempts to make opportunities available to all.Segregation, a result of the “separate but equal” concept in Plessy v. Ferguson, led to inferior schools for African-American children.
Moreover, educational facilities were largely unavailable to the community. Public libraries in the country were reserved for white Americans , effectively limiting the access of young African-Americans to educational resources and an opportunity to improve their lots in life.
The consequences of the government's inability to follow through with its promises in the years following Emancipation led to the worsening of living conditions of the African-American community.This was despite the general development of the African-American community as a major contributor to American causes.
In 1946, after the Second World War, veterans in Mississippi seeking to exercise their suffrage were met with hostility by an armed mob. Though they had fought for the United States against both Germany and Japan, the response to them within the country remained hostile. In 1955, following the murder of an African-American teenager for being “fresh”, Anne Moody, a young woman around the same age as the murdered teen, wrote, “now there was a new fear known to me – the fear of being killed just because I was black”.Though these were not necessarily the norm during the period, it was undeniable that segregation, discrimination and violence existed and threatened the African-American community during this era. Segregation By 1890, the achievements post-Reconstruction had all but evaporated. Integration was waning and again segregation became the status quo.
Whereas the years prior to 1890 saw interracial interaction and even cooperation, the regression of racial equality soon became apparent. Lynching became notorious once more, as the number of victims rose annually.The Northerners, initially the greatest supporters of the emancipation and equality of African-Americans following the Civil War, soon mimicked the Southern race policies of old, slowly reinforcing the practices of segregation and racial discrimination through legal means. Soon, racial segregation was back with a vengeance – bolder and more violent than before. One of the most prominent cases on segregation is Plessy v.
Ferguson, which made the term “separate but equal” popular.
The case was focused on race segregation on railway accommodations, particularly the arrest of Homer Plessy in 1892.It was a planned protest, with Plessy – an African-Creole – tasked with trying to sit in the white patrons' car on the East Louisiana Railroad after announcing his race. Plessy was considered “colored” because of his mix race, and was supposed to be seated in a section especially for people designated “colored” because of the segregation in place. His insistence on getting a seat in the whites section was a planned stunt that would bring attention to the battle against segregation in New Orleans. Plessy was arrested and jailed.
In response, he – with the support of the Citizens' Committee – filed a case against the East Louisiana Railroad because of its inhuman practice of segregation that went against the rights promised by the 14th Amendment. The case was brought all the way to the Supreme Court, all culminating in the Plessy's defeat. The courts upheld the concept “separate but equal”, noting that the segregation did not mean unfavorable conditions in the coaches available for African-Americans. As Kelly pointed out, however, circumstances were often separate and unequal.The additional burden of having a separate compartment was often a problem for railroad companies, so these so-called “Jim Crow” cars were, more often than not, mere compartments with no decent seating and a single restroom for both men and women. The railroad service was not the only institution that enforced segregation.
Central to this segregation were the so-called “Jim Crow” laws that upheld the concept of “separate but equal”. The term “Jim
Crow” did not develop after the Plessy v. Ferguson case.In fact, it was a commonly used phrase to perpetrate the African-American stereotype of the dangerous yet comically buffoonish interloper.
The concept of “Jim Crow” began with a black-face minstrel named Thomas Rice – a white performer who introduced the character Jim Crow to his audiences as a representative of the runaway slave who wanted nothing more than to disrupt the lives of good white Americans. Jim Crow was a disruptive character, and segregation was done mainly to prevent potential problems arising from the interaction of whites and African-Americans. As such, segregation continued and slowly became part of the legal culture.In 1904, interracial schooling was outlawed in Kentucky, forcing Berea College – an interracial institution – to comply with its segregationist requirements. Though the decision in court was far from completely supportive of segregation in schools, it also refrained from addressing the issue in a general manner. Moreover, segregation was so widespread that African-Americans were not allowed to enter public places such as restaurants, hotels and even pools designated for the use of white Americans.
The result was two of everything. There were doors for African-Americans and for whites – two means of entry for people because of their race.Washrooms were designated “men”, “women” and “colored”. Lines were separated according to the color of skin. People of different races were not allowed to ride in one vehicle, unless the vehicle is traveling a long distance and contains more than seven passengers. The result was not “equal” at all, despite the contention in Plessy v.
Ferguson. Circumstances were not equal at all, particularly in terms of opportunities
for education, travel, leisure and career advancement. These were some of the results of segregation that further contributed to the oppressive poverty of African-Americans. DiscriminationIn 1965, an official definition of racial discrimination was published by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life”. As such, the line between segregation and discrimination becomes less pronounced, as one issue bleeds into the other.
To a certain degree, segregation is the action equivalent of discrimination, particularly in the legal arena. It is because human beings are classified according to color that they are forced to operate in separate forms of the same object. Apart from segregation, however, there are other forms through which racial discrimination became highly apparent during the era. Suffrage, for one, was a serious problem.
Though the Reconstruction period has given African-Americans the right to vote, it did not protect them from the threats lobbied by white supremacists who refused to let them into the polling booths.Violence was indeed a serious threat to African-Americans, with some Southern states admiring the Ku Klux Klan as a legitimate organization protecting decency and peace. Intermarriages were also considered unacceptable, though white men could secretly conduct sexual relationships with African-American women. More over, discrimination in terms of occupation also occurred. Since few African-Americans were allowed to hold positions other than manual labor,
a drop in agriculture led to their exodus, thereby causing the mushrooming of ghettos in urban areas.Few choices in jobs were available to these newly transported ghetto dwellers, hence the abject poverty that ravaged them and their children.
Though these African-Americans managed to escape their agricultural masters in the South, the Northern cities offered little by way of consolation, thus continuing the cycle of poverty. The Response – Celebrated African-Americans in the Fight for Equality As the migration of African-Americans to the North continued, slowly more opportunities became available to them in terms of education and occupation, though largely only when they abided by the rules of segregation.This is the cause of a sharp divide in the concepts of several prominent African-American leaders. Booker T. Washington was supportive of bowing to white supremacy not in a manner of subservience, but of peace. It was, according to Washington, best if African-Americans avoided friction with whites and instead focus on improving their lot in life through education.
His speech, “Atlanta Compromise”, sought to help young African-Americans gain equality and respect through education and other livelihood programs – all to be completed without antagonizing the white Americans.This concept was criticized by W. E. B.
Du Bois, another prominent African-American leader. Du Bois supported public demonstrations and legal means against white supremacy. He found Washington's accommodationist policies unacceptable, insisting instead on legal equality strictly enforced by the government as the only means through which African-American's can improve their lot in life. Du Bois sought political and civil rights for his fellow African-Americans, resisting Washington's self-help and non-confrontational concept.Du Bois is one of the founders of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Another leader of the African-American community of the period was Marcus Garvey – a controversial figure who advocated ethnic entrepreneurship. His goal was to provide new opportunities for career advancement for African-Americans. Rather than rely on white Americans who clearly disdained the community, Garvey thought that establishing an all-Negro community would be the best way to establish independence.Schools, churches, hospitals, businesses – all will be under African-American rule.
This, he believed would make the community self-sufficient and, in due time, autonomous. He believed in a pan-African community that would bring the disenfranchised African-Americans pride an joy in their race. Conclusion African-Americans may have found freedom from slavery after the Civil War was won, yet they remained enslaved by poverty, the lack of opportunities and old social norms that refused to conform with the progressive times.They faced segregation and discrimination, violence and denigration. African-Americans found themselves once again disenfranchised and voiceless, with no means of protecting themselves from random violence based only on the color of their skin. As late as the 1950s, lynchings were cheered in some areas in the United States.
It is this climate of fear, anger and repression that eventually exploded, leading African-American leaders to present varying solutions and methods through which the community may finally find itself truly free.
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