Throughout history, African Americans resisted slavery and later second-class citizenship. Opposition took many forms, from the passive resistance of slaves who performed poor work for their masters, to slave revolts, to slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad, to African-Americans’ participation in the abolitionist movement and their joining the Union Army during the Civil War. During this trying period African Americans preserved their heritage and social institutions.
Following the Civil War this country moved to extend equality to African Americans. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865) outlawed slavery. The 14th Amendment (1868) made citizens of all persons born in this country and afforded equal protection of the laws to all citizens. The 15th Amendment (1870) provided the right to vote to all citizens, regardless of race. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified giving women the right to vote. This promising start soon faltered during the tensions of Reconstruction (1865–1877) when federal armies occupied the South and enforced order.
The genuine reform impulse of Reconstruction was the “first” civil rights movement, as the victorious North attempted to create the conditions whereby African Americans could freely and fully participate in this country as citizens. It was a noble experiment in bi-racial harmony and, had it succeeded, there probably would have been no need for a “second” civil rights movement.
Exhausted by the efforts and divisions of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the longing for the country to reunite, the white advocates of equality were overcome by the forces of reaction, and the fate of African Americans was turned over to the individual states. Many states adopted restrictive laws which enforced segregation of the races and the second-class status of African Americans. The courts, the police, and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan all enforced these discriminatory practices.
African Americans responded in a variety of ways. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the early 20th century’s leading advocate of black education, stressed industrial schooling for African Americans and gradual social adjustment rather than political and civil rights. The charismatic reformer Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) called for racial separatism and a “Back-to-Africa” colonization program. However, it was a different path, one that emphasized that African Americans were in this country to stay and would fight for their freedom and political equality, that led to the modern civil rights movement.
The Need for Change
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country . . . But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant ruling class of citizens . . . Our Constitution is color-blind . . . In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law . . . It is, therefore, to be regretted that this high tribunal . . . has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a State to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race . . .We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations . . . will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.—Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
The “wrong this day done” to which Justice Harlan referred was the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Adolph Plessy, an African American, had boarded a train in New Orleans and seated himself in a “whites-only” car. When he refused to move, he was arrested for violating the “Jim Crow Car Act of 1890.” The incident led to the Supreme Court case in which all but Justice Harlan voted against Plessy, affirming the right of states to enact segregation laws.
The “separate but equal” ruling set the stage for the rampant racial discrimination that followed in the Deep South. In many cities and towns, African Americans were not allowed to share a taxi with whites or enter a building through the same entrance. They had to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms, attend separate schools, and even swear on separate Bibles and be buried in separate cemeteries. They were excluded from restaurants and public libraries. Many parks barred them with signs that read “Negroes and dogs not allowed.” One municipal zoo went so far as to list separate visiting hours.
African Americans were expected to step aside to let a white person pass, and black men dared not look any white woman in the eye. Black men and women were addressed as “Tom” or “Jane” but rarely as “Mr.” or “Miss” or “Mrs.” A black man was referred to as “boy” and a black woman as “girl”; both often endured insulting labels of “nigger” or “colored.”
Voting rights discrimination was widespread. In Tennessee, as the Justice Department’s John Doar discovered on a self-appointed tour of rural Haywood County, black sharecroppers were being evicted by white farmers for trying to vote. In Mississippi, names of new voter applicants had to be published in local newspapers for two weeks before acceptance, and voters had the right to object to an applicant’s “moral character.”
Black applicants, many of whom were illiterate or poorly educated, were also required to pass literacy tests and to interpret sections of the state constitution to the satisfaction of the registrars. These tests were not applied to illiterate whites. In Alabama, many registration centers were only open two days a month; voting registrars often arrived late and took long lunch hours. In 1957, the town of Tuskegee gerrymandered black residents outside the city limits to make them ineligible to vote. In nearby Macon County, to limit the number of eligible black voters, voter registration boards used discriminatory practices such as these:
• holding black applicants to a higher standard of accuracy than whites;
• allowing white applicants to register in their cars and in their homes; and
• processing black applicants last, even when they were first in line.
Some counties in the Deep South resorted to harsher means of preventing local blacks from voting. They jailed black applicants and firebombed places where voter education classes had been conducted, such as Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Georgia. They threatened, beat, and in some cases, murdered black applicants.
Southern blacks who resisted segregation, particularly those in rural areas, lived in constant fear— fear of their employers, who vowed to fire them; fear of white “citizens’ councils,” who adopted policies of economic reprisal against demonstrators; and fear of white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, who exerted an often-unchecked reign of terror across the South, where lynching of African Americans was a common occurrence and rarely prosecuted. Nearly 4,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and the early 1950s.
Resistance to racial equality in the Deep South came not only from extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and white “citizens’ councils.” It occurred at all levels of government and society—from federal judges to state governors to county sheriffs to local citizens serving on juries.
Governor Orvil Faubus of Arkansas used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent school integration, and Governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama physically blocked school doorways. E.H. Hurst, a Mississippi state representative, stalked and killed a black farmer for attending voter registration classes. Laurie Pritchett, Albany, Georgia’s police chief, thwarted student efforts to integrate public places in the city. Birmingham’s public safety commissioner Eugene T. “Bull” Connor advocated violence against freedom riders and ordered fire hoses and police dogs turned on demonstrators. Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Alabama, loosed his deputies on “Bloody Sunday” marchers and personally menaced other protestors. Police all across the South arrested civil rights activists on trumped-up charges. All-white juries in several states acquitted known killers of local African Americans.
1. Which of the following is an example of a slave’s passive resistance in the time of the Civil War?
a. joining the Union Army
b. leading a group of runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad
c. organizing a revolt
d. doing sub-par work to purposely anger a plantation owner
2. A law that was not passed within the first five years after the end of the Civil War was that which
a. made slavery illegal.b. gave voting rights to women.c. gave voting rights to black men.d. awarded citizenship to every child born in the United States.
3. Which of the following enforced discrimination, violence, and even terror in the post-Civil War South?
a. the Ku Klux Klanb. the policec. the courtsd. all of the above
4. Booker T. Washington believed that African Americans should be integrated slowly into society. He thought that a good place for them to start would be to attend vocational schools to learn jobs skills that would allow them to find work. His approach could best be described as
5. Marcus Garvey believed that African Americans should separate themselves from the white society that had treated them so poorly. He advocated a return to the African homeland. His approach could best be described as
a. practical.b.radical.c. ridiculous.d.unfeasible.
6. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of “separate but equal” meant that segregation was
a. illegal.b.legal but unacceptable.c. legal.d.illegal but acceptable.
7.Give three examples of legal segregation. Then explain how these examples illustrate the “separate but equal” ruling. Possible answers may include the facts that African Americans had to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms, go to separate schools, use separate taxis and entrances in buildings, be buried in separate cemeteries, swear on separate bibles, and eat in separate restaurants. These examples do not illustrate the “separate but equal” ruling because the “separate but equal” ruling does not make sense. Something cannot be separate and equal at the same time. In separation is inequality.
8. Why do you think such resistance in the Deep South continued unchecked? One possible answer: Racism in the South, especially in the Deep South, was rampant and intense. The “separate but equal” ruling seemed to justify even the most blatant acts of racism. It wasn’t just extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but regular citizens and the local government who colluded to maintain the unfair systems. Racism had been ingrained into the very core of southern existence. Given this reality, who was going to do anything to put an end to it?
9. According to the passage, what was Reconstruction? Why was it not successful? Explain why, if it had been successful, another civil rights movement would not have been necessary.