In order to chronicle the African-American’s struggle for civil-rights, one must first touch on the adversity, hardship, and pain that fueled their fire! The struggle for civil-rights was not just a struggle to get the right to vote or to sit at a food counter. It was a fight to be treated as human beings, to be granted the basic human and civil-rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. To demand these basic rights (supposedly guaranteed to all), was to risk one’s very life!
Amendments to the United States Constitution Outlawed Slavery and Gave Blacks the Right to Vote
During reconstruction, the South was forced to accept the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments outlawed slavery, guaranteed due process of the law, and gave the right to vote to males twenty-one years old. Blacks were now a free people, able to vote, which gave them a power they had never known before.
The power of the vote, along with better educational opportunities, allowed blacks to seek and hold public office positions on the local, state, and national levels. Schools, churches, and small businesses were also built at this time. The former slaves were now fully and equally protected under the law, which meant that they could now work toward personal and economic goals.
The Compromise of 1877 Stripped Away the Rights that Blacks had Gained
After the election of 1876, the compromise of 1877 began the decline and stripping away of the rights that blacks had obtained thus far. The South was given free rein over their politics, and so, devised a way to prevent blacks from voting. Literacy tests, proof of ownership of real property, and poll taxes were the means of enacting their plan.
Lynching, rapes of black women, property damage, and beatings were all part of black existence among the white elitists. Black retaliation was uncommon because the laws that once protected them were overturned by the United States Supreme Court. Blacks, realizing that their rights were being taken away, knew that they must either fight back or never realize their dreams of equality.
Seeing that their liberties were rapidly eroding, African-Americans decided that they must become educated and organized, and would need to win support from the Anglo power elites if they were ever to secure their basic rights and freedoms.
Violence and Discrimination were a Way-of-Life for Black Americans
Plagued by violence and discrimination, blacks tried in vein to escape their oppressed situation. Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist and editor, organized the first effective opposition to lynching around 1904. Black women organized the National Association of Colored Women, and black farmers organized a Colored Farmer’s Alliance, which cooperated with the Populist Movement. Needing to present a unified front when negotiating with the all-white administrators at the state and federal levels, black leaders realized the necessity of organization.
1883 saw the first gathering of The National Convention of Colored People, The Black National Baptist Convention, and the start of the National Baptist Publishing House. The major concern of these organizations was racism, which was no longer confined to the Southern states. This prompted The National Negro Convention to adopt a constitution to form an African-American League, which was a nonpartisan civil-rights organization oriented toward legal redress of grievances.
In the summer of 1905, William Edward Burghardt DuBois officially launched his own movement at a meeting held at Niagara Falls, Canada. Although the Niagara Movement did not accomplish much, it did get the attention of America. In addition, the movement laid the foundation for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which merged the forces of white liberalism and black militancy.
Blacks Won their Freedom, but were met with Discrimination in the United States Military
With the coming of World War I, blacks were conscripted into the military but not as fighting men. They were allowed to serve as cooks, food servers, road builders and trench diggers, all jobs reminiscent of their lives as slaves. Blacks who served in the French army were accepted as equals and were even given medals of honor for their gallant fighting efforts.
Eventually, after much pressure from educated blacks, particularly the Central Committee of Negro College Men, Congress allowed black officer training to commence. On May 19, 1917, a reserve officer’s training camp opened in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and on the 15th of June, fifteen black candidates started their training.
Even though blacks were allowed to become officers, they were not allowed to command any white troops during the four years that the United States was involved in the war. Moreover, not a single African American was ever decorated or honored by the United States.
Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, marked the end of World War I and the return home of the American soldiers. Upon returning home, the black soldiers found that attitudes toward them had not improved. In fact, many black soldiers were heinously murdered by angry whites as they were brought home by the military. There were so many lynchings in the South that summer that the black poet James Weldon Johnson called it “Red Summer”.
Blacks Retaliate against White Acts of Violence and Persecution
1919 turned out to be a pivotal year for black people in America. “Black communities were attacked by white mobs, but Blacks were arming themselves and fighting back.” In each riot, the pattern became clear, black retaliation to white acts of violence and persecution. The white perception of the resistance was that it was an organized, premeditated conspiracy to “take over”. This, in turn, unleashed the armed power of white mobs and police.
Lack of governmental support and protection, coupled with economic depression, temporarily inhibited further black protest. The blacks, now in a defensive posture due to the unrestrained hostility of whites, were ready for a new leader. The riots had provided fuel for a separatist movement (a rejection of the rejecters), led by Marcus Garvey, an immigrant from Jamaica.
In 1914, Garvey founded The Universal Negro Improvement Association. Taking advantage of the pessimism, cynicism, and despair of the black urban dweller, Garvey built the first mass movement among American blacks. He [Garvey] stressed the beauty of blackness, black pride, black culture and self-esteem. His organization had a peak membership of six million people. Most of it came from the lower class urban masses. In contrast, the NAACP membership was made up of predominantly middle class people, and numbered only in the thousands.
The Roaring Twenties Epitomized the Negro Renaissance
The Twenties epitomized the Negro renaissance and the beginning of partial acceptance by the white public. This was a period of exceptional creativity by black artists such as James Weldon Johnson, Langson Hughes, Claud McKay and others. Plays based on the problems of blacks were produced by white dramatists such as Eugene O’Neil and Paul Green. They gave black actors like Paul Robeson and Charlie Gilpin rare opportunities to perform in serious dramas.
Ragtime, the pre-war music, evolved into a black rhythmic music called jazz, which gained quick popularity among whites and blacks alike. The famed Cotton Club in Harlem, became the haunt of many a white celebrity coming “uptown” from “downtown” to see Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway or to the Sunset to listen to “Satchmo” [Louis Armstrong] play. Even Ethel Barrymore wore black-face in the play Scarlet Sister Mary. The black American was now in vogue!
The “Great Black Migration” saw the decline of rural -living blacks and the rise of urban-living blacks. The migrating blacks clustered themselves in many of the Northern industrial states. African-Americans were the last to arrive in the big cities, and because they were economically poor, they were forced to live in the inner-city areas.
Racial discrimination still abounded, and the black man found it extremely difficult to find employment. Black women; however, could obtain domestic work. Without gainful employment, blacks were trapped in the inner-cities, dominated by slumlords. With large numbers of black citizens now living in the cities, the power of the vote helped them to finally escape the political isolation that had kept them a largely powerless minority.