e hold these
truths to be self-evident…
Hot, black coffee trickled down the dark skin on Henry Moses’
…that all men are created equal…
“Get out of here, nigger! Go back to your kind!” an angry
White man shouted as he continued pouring.
…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Moses sat silently, keeping his seat at the lunch counter in downtown
…that among these are life…
Lunch counter stools were for White folks only. It had always been that
way. Moses, just 21, knew that.
“It was just a part of their heritage,” he says now. “They
thought that Negroes were filthy… scum. Just somebody you don’t
associate with. You don’t wait on ‘em, you don’t cut
‘em no slack whatsoever. This is just the way that they had been
taught, the way they had been trained.”
…and the pursuit of happiness.
“And we were trying to change it” (“First in News”).
Since the discovery of the new world by Europeans, Blacks--with the
exception of the Native American Indians--have suffered immensely more
than any other group in America. From the time the first African slaves
stepped on American soil, their destiny changed forever. For over four
hundred years, Blacks worked on fields and in homes of their White masters
with no concept of civil rights in their daily lives. It was not until
1863, when President Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation,
abolishing slavery, that civil rights and freedom became a possibility
for millions of African-Americans. Soon the struggle to attain all their
civil rights began as Blacks fought for “life, liberty, and pursuit
of happiness” that had been promised when our forefathers wrote
the Declaration of Independence.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps
it is because he hears of a different drummer”---Henry David
* * * * * *
Between 1865 to 1890, the period known as the Reconstruction Era,
Blacks gained more rights, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment
abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment expanding the guarantees
of federally protected citizenship rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment
barring voting restrictions based on race (Sullivan). For a brief period,
Black power and Black culture flourished. Former slaves took part in
civic and political life throughout the South. African Americans served
in offices at all levels of government, from local to state legislatures
and the United States Congress. There was even a system of universal
free public education. Although there were Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante
groups who protested the progress of Blacks by means of governmental
fraud and violence, Blacks continued to hold offices and vote for representatives
in their communities (Sullivan). Not until 1896, with the Supreme Court’s
Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, did “separate but equal” become
the law of the land.
“We have at last come to the point in our race history,
where we must do something for ourselves and do it now”---
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Gates 185).
* * * * * *
By the dawn of the new century, government and politics had become
“inaccessible and unacceptable to Americans who happened to be
Black” (Sullivan). The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy
vs. Ferguson led many Southern states to develop Jim Crow Laws. Southern
states forged constitutions to restrict the rights of Blacks from voting
and combined those constitutions with local and state segregation laws
(“First in News”). This arrangement left political power
in the hands of White men. From 1900 to 1906 protests against new segregation
laws erupted in organized boycotts in cities all over the Southern states.
At the same time, lynching and other forms of anti-black violence and
terrorism became the means by which Southern Whites supposedly reinforced
their legal structures; nearly 4,500 African Americans were lynched
in the United States between 1882 and early 1950s (“We Shall Overcome”).
Black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and others
continued to find ways to build and sustain Black communities in the
midst of the crushing environment of White racism, while envisioning
a way forward (Sullivan).
Georgia 1918: Eight Black people were lynched, including a
pregnant woman who had cried out against the mob for lynching her husband.
She and her unborn child died together. “She was slowly burned
to death, and as she burned, the infant fell to the ground and was trampled
under a White man’s heel” (Gates 186).
“Life seems to favor those in power, while it seldom rewards
triumphs with good works. The righteous must rely on their faith and
champion Justice even in a seemingly lost cause” (Bell IIX).
* * * * * *
For more effective boycotts, Black leaders and intellectuals in the
communities formed organizations. One of the organizations that later
became a primary force in the struggle for civil rights was the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. By
1914, the entire world was at war. When the United States entered WWI,
many African American men and boys joined the battle to fight for their
“freedom.” Many returned in hopes of receiving their rights
and respect, but returning veterans found that the freedom for which
they had fought was not their own. While hundreds of Blacks fought the
war overseas, those back at home were beginning to migrate from Southern
cites to Northern cities. During the “Great Migration,”
more than 1.5 million Blacks left the South to go North, where much
more freedom existed (Sullivan). Still, in spite of the Great Migration,
the majority of Blacks remained in the south.
“We want the constitution of the country enforced, we want
our children educated”---DuBois (Gates 85).
* * * * * *
In 1932, the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the depths of the
Great Depression, caused rapid changes in American politics. New Deal
programs and legislation expanded federal power and redefined the role
of government and politics in American life (Sullivan). Although Black
Americans had a small number of representatives in the Republican Party,
in no possible way could they influence or shape the government. The
NAACP and Black press worked to get Black officials to represent their
race in the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, Black advisers were serving
in many cabinet offices, with Robert Weaver and William Hastie as the
first African Americans to be hired (Sullivan). Also, during Roosevelt’s
presidency, many Blacks switched from the Republican to the Democratic
Party. Shortly after Roosevelt’s second election, WWII began.
Nearly one million African Americans fought to defend the one country
that refused to accept them as equal. When they returned home, they
were once again denied the freedom for which they had put their lives
on the line. The end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War heightened
the fight for freedom, democracy and self-determination. Black leaders
sought for an end to discrimination. In response to the call for civil
rights reform, President Harry S. Truman called for sweeping federal
action against Jim Crow Laws. He also issued an executive order desegregating
the armed forces (Sullivan).
By the 1960s, 85 percent of all White people
felt that the pace for Civil Rights progress was too fast.
“Oh, they are so forward. If you give them your finger, they’ll
take your hand”—Sandra Sayle 22, Virginia.
“They’re asking for too much all at once. They should try
installment plan. People don’t adjust that quickly”---55-year-old
man in Michigan.
“They are trying to force themselves on us. Rome wasn’t
built in a day. They’ve come from cannibals in a short time”---housewife
in California (Brink 120-121).
“The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color
line; the relation of the dark to lighter race of men in Asia and Africa,
in America and the islands of the sea”---DuBois (Gates 185).
* * * * * *
In the late summer of 1955, fourteen-year old Emmett Till and his
cousin Curtis Jones left their homes on Chicago’s Southside to
spend a two-week vacation with Till’s great-uncle Moses Wright,
a sharecropper and preacher who lived in a shack outside the small town
of Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till never made it back. On August 24,
the Black eighth-grader supposedly whistled at a local White woman named
Carolyn Bryant and then said, “Bye, baby.” Five days later,
he was found dead in the Tallahatchie River, his body weighed down by
a cotton-gin fan. He had been beaten and shot to death (Gates 181).
The murder of this young boy marked the beginning of the Civil Rights
Movement in Mississippi and increased movements already in action in
the Southern states.
“If your skin is black, you are worth nothing”---Charles
C. Diggs, Jr. (Gates 182).
* * * * * *
In December of 1955, a local NAACP leader, Rosa Parks, refused to
give up her bus seat for a White man in Montgomery, Alabama. This incident
sparked a boycott of Montgomery buses that lasted 381 days. Martin Luther
King, Jr., a local minister who later became a national leader for the
Civil Rights Movement, was elected to be the leader of the Montgomery
Improvement Association (MIA). Only twenty-six years of age, King, along
with other strong, educated leaders, led the MIA organization to sue
to end segregation. Hundreds of African Americans walked each day to
and from work. Many White community members protested against this movement
through indictments, injunctions, and bombings (Sullivan). NAACP, MIA,
and many other organizations fought for desegregation in schools, jobs,
communities, public transportations, and so on. Just a year before,
in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas
Board of Education that the doctrine of “separate but equal”
as applied to public education was unconstitutional (Sullivan).
In 1957, on the first day of class at Central
High school in Little Rock, Arkansas, eight of the Little Rock Nine
went to school together; they were turned back at the door by Arkansas
National Guardsmen. Elizabeth Eckford did not get the message to travel
with the others and tried to enter alone at another end of the building.
A jeering White mob was on the point of attack when a White woman hastily
escorted her to safety (Gates 194).
“Negro America must bring its power and pressure to bear
upon the agencies and representatives of the Federal Government. We
loyal Negro Americans demand the right to work and fight for our country”---A.
Philip Randolph (Gates 189).
* * * * * *
By 1955, only four percent of the states’ eligible Black voting-age
populations were registered. Many did not attempt to vote because of
fear of losing their jobs and other forms of economic intimidations.
In 1957, the first Civil Rights Act was passed. Although it lacked strong
enforcement provision, it created a Civil Rights Division in the Justice
Department authorized to prosecute registrars who hindered the rights
of Blacks to vote (Sullivan). The United States Civil Rights Commission
was also established. The Commission was in charge of gathering facts
about voting rights violations and other civil rights infringements.
It also encouraged voter registrations in many Southern states. When
the sixties rolled around, new forms of actions were being taken to
stop discrimination. Young college students began to hold sit-ins at
restaurants and other places that discriminated against Blacks. These
college students formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC), an organization involved in the moment for social changes. They
sought to empower Black people at the local level (Sullivan). College
students, both Blacks and Whites, participated in the “direct
action” movement, which included conducting sit-ins at public
facilities and becoming freedom riders on buses.
On May 2, 1963, children and young adults from
age six to eighteen gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
and marched to downtown Birmingham. The police arrested more than nine
hundred of them and carried them to jail. The second day, more than
a thousand young people stayed out of school and assembled at the church
to march. Someone threw a rock, and immediately the police turned dogs
and hoses on the demonstrators as they left the church. The pressure
of the hoses, which was strong enough to strip the bark off trees, slammed
children to the ground and sent others, sailing over parked cars
“If Negroes could vote, there would be no more oppressive
poverty directed against Negroes, our children could not be crippled
by segregated schools, and the whole community might live together in
harmony”---Marin Luther King Jr. (Button 3).
* * * * * *
Turning fire hoses on children shocked the nation and the world. It
marked a turning point for the Kennedy Administration and its relationship
to the movement. A month after the event, on June 12, 1963, President
John F. Kennedy addressed the nation and told Americans that they could
no longer ask Black citizens to “be content with the counsels
of patience and delay.” He pledged that he would urge Congress
to act on “the proposition that race [discrimination] has no place
in American life and law.” Just two days after his address, he
requested legislation from Congress that could ban segregation in public
facilities, broaden the powers of the Justice Department to enforce
school integration, and extend federal protection of voting rights (Sullivan).
In response to Kennedy’s action, Civil Rights leaders planned
a march on the nation’s capital for jobs and equal opportunity.
On August 28, an estimated quarter of a million people, Blacks and Whites,
from all parts of the nation assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial
in what was, at the time, the largest peacetime gathering in America.
The day culminated with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I
Have a Dream” (Sullivan).
Mississippi, 1963--Price of Freedom: Reverend
George Lee of Belzoni, was murdered when he refused to remove his name
from a list of registered voters, and farmer Herbert Lee of Liberty,
was killed for having attended voter education classes. Michael Schwerner,
James Chancy, and Andrew Goodman—three “Freedom Summer”—were
shot down for their part in helping Mississippi Blacks register and
organize (“We Shall Overcome”).
“There comes a time that people get tired. We are here this
evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired—tired
of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked about by the
brutal feet of oppression. When the history books are written in the
future generation, the historians will pause and say, ‘There lived
a great people—a Black people—who injected new meaning and
dignity into the veins of civilization”---Martin Luther King
Jr. (Gates 196).
* * * * * *
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new bill into
law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public
facilities and employment; it authorized lawsuits to enforce school
integration; and it slowed the withholding of federal funds to noncomplying
schools (Sullivan). It soon expanded to include the protection of the
rights of women and other minority groups who experienced discriminations.
A year after the Civil Rights Act in August 6, 1965, President Johnson
also signed the Voting Rights Act. It provided federal supervision of
voter registration practices and opened polls to African Americans throughout
the South for the first time since the end of Reconstruction Ear (Sullivan).
These laws guaranteed full citizenships for Blacks and brought an end
to Jim Crow Laws in the South. The numbers of Black voters grew rapidly,
and desegregation of public facilities was accomplished quickly. The
desegregation of public schools also gradually took place with the help
of the federal government.
“We went up to the registrar and [the
elderly man] began to write in a very unsteady way--- the registrar
said, “Now you’re going across the line old man. You failed
already, you can’t register, you can’t vote. You just get
out of line.” The old man looked at him and said, “I own
a hundred and forty acres of land. I’ve got ten children who are
grown and many of them are in a field where they can help other people.
I’ve got a man who’s a preacher and a man who’s a
teacher---and I took these hands that I have and made crops to put them
through school. If I am not worthy of being a registered voter, then
God have mercy on this city”---eyewitness
in Selma, Alabama (Adams, February 1).
"The forward movement of a social group is not the compact
march of any army, where the distance covered is practically the same
for all, but is rather the struggling of a crowd, where some of whom
hasten, some linger, some turn back, some reach far off goals before
others even start, and yet the crowd move on”---DuBois (Gates
* * * * * *
When most people hear about the Civil Rights Movement, non-violent
acts such as boycotts, sit-ins, and marches come to mind, as do great
leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks, and numerous others.
Although the changes in the status of Black Americans occurred in the
late fifties through the sixties, Blacks have been fighting civil rights
from the time they first stepped on American soil. For centuries, African
Americans placed themselves and their families on the front line in
the struggle for freedom. Harriet Tubman, Idea B. Wells-Barnett, Roy
Wilkins, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Jesse Jackson--all these great
people fought for justice and led the way for Blacks today and for the
generations to come. It is because of these people and their courage
and will to fight for what they believed in that my family, and myself,
and all Blacks in the United States today are able to attend a public
facility freely. It’s because of them that I am able to use public
transportation without having to give up my front seat, go to a school
filled with other races and most importantly, be able to live freely
and pursue happiness. The Civil Rights Movement was the catalyst, the
march, that ignited the flame of justice in the twentieth century. It
coerced America as a nation to reevaluate itself, to reevaluate what
it stood for, to reprioritize, and rid itself of racial injustice. It
got America to look at itself and admit how inhumane and ruthless it
had been to its own children.
“Their cause must be our cause, too. Because
it’s not just Negroes, but it’s really all of us who must
overcome the Crippling legacy of [prejudice] and injustice. And we shall
Adams, Janus. Freedom Days: 365 Inspired Moments
in Civil Rights History. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Bell, Derrick. Afrolantica Legacies. Chicago:
Third World Press. 1998.
Brink, William and Harris, Louis. Black and White.
New York: Simon and Schuster. 1967.
Button, James W. Blacks and Social Change: Impact
of the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern Communities. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1989.
“First in News.” The Jackson Sun.
6 Nov. 2002. <http://www.jacksonsun.com/civilrights/lesson-plan_mahaffy3_hs.shmtl>.
Gates, Henry Louis, et al. African American: Voices
of Triumph. Alexandria Time Life Books, 1993.
Sullivan, Patricia. “Civil Rights Movement.”
Africana: the Gateway to the Black World. 10 Nov. 2002. <http://www.African.com/Articles/tt_199.htm>.
“We Shall Overcome.” The National Park
Services: Links to the Past. 6 Nov. 2002. <http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrihts/>.