History of Black Civil Rights in America

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History of the Atlantic Slave Trade in America (1528-1807)

Frederick Gooddall's "Song of the Nubian Slave" (1863)
This 19th-century painting depicts an Egyptian slave imported from Sub-Saharan Africa. Between the 8th and 19th centuries, colonial powers all over the world imported untold millions of slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa. Frederick Gooddall, "Song of the Nubian Slave" (1863). Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.

"I hear that melting-pot stuff a lot, and all I can say is that we haven't melted." -- Jesse Jackson

The history of black civil rights is the story of America's caste system. It is the story of how for centuries upper-class whites made African Americans into a slave class, easily identifiable because of their dark skin, and then reaped the benefits—sometimes using law, sometimes using religion, sometimes using violence to keep this system in place.

Activists have made incredible progress over the past 150 years, but institutional racism is still one of the strongest social forces in America today. If you'd like to help do away with it, here are some organizations to look into:

"[Slavery] involved redefining African humanity to the world..." -- Maulana Karenga

The Legacy of African Slavery

By the time European explorers began to colonize the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, African slavery had already been accepted as a fact of life. Until the 19th century, white European law and culture was built on the idea that when you see a dark-skinned person, her or his primary purpose is to be a subservient laborer. Mainstream American and European society has only slowly moved away from this dynamic, and as a result we all still live under a disproportionately race-based system of social stratification.

The First African American?

When a Moroccan slave named Estevanico arrived in Florida as part of a group of Spanish explorers in 1528, he became both the first known African American and the first American Muslim. Estevanico functioned as a guide and translator, and his unique skills gave him a social status that very few slaves ever had the opportunity to attain.

Spanish Colonists and the Institution of African-American Slavery

The conquistadors relied on both enslaved American Indians and imported African slaves to labor in their mines and on their plantations throughout the Americas. Unlike Estevanico, these slaves generally labored in anonymity, often under extremely harsh conditions.

Slavery in the British Colonies

In Great Britain, poor whites who could not afford to pay their debts were swept up into a system of indentured servitude that resembled slavery in most respects. Sometimes the servants could purchase their own freedom by working off their debts, sometimes not, but in either case they were the property of their masters until their status changed. Initially, this was the slavery model used in the British colonies against white and African slaves alike. The first twenty African-American slaves to arrive in Virginia in 1619 had all had earned their freedom by 1651, just as white indentured servants might have.

Over time, however, colonial landowners grew greedy and realized the economic benefits of chattel slavery--the full, irrevocable ownership of other people. In 1661, Virginia officially legalized chattel slavery, and in 1662, Virginia established that children born to a slave would also be slaves for life. Soon, the Southern economy would rely primarily on African-American slave labor.

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History of Slavery in the United States (1808-1865)

Harriet Tubman (1911)
A photograph of Harriet Tubman, taken in 1911. Tubman, a former slave herself, was one of the chief architects of the Underground Railroad--a grassroots network of abolitionists who helped hide and shelter escaped slaves as they headed north to Canada. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

"I didn't know I was a slave until I found out I couldn't do the things I wanted." -- Frederick Douglass

Life as a Slave

Slave life as described in Slave Narratives varied considerably depending on whether one worked as a house slave or a plantation slave, and whether one lived in plantation states (such as Mississippi and South Carolina) or more industrialized states (such as Maryland). 

The Fugitive Slave Act

Under the terms of the Constitution, import of slaves ended in 1808. This created a lucrative domestic slave-trading industry organized around slave-breeding, the sale of children, and the occasional kidnapping of free blacks. When slaves escaped from this system, Southern slave traders and slaveowners weren't always able to count on Northern law enforcement to assist them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was written to address this "loophole."

The Dred Scott Decision

When a slave named Dred Scott used his citizenship in one state in an attempt to escape slavery in another, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his very ethnicity prevented him from being a full citizen entitled to the protections offered under the Bill of Rights. The ruling stated the chilling implications of race-based chattel slavery more clearly than any other ruling ever had.

The Abolition of Slavery

In December of 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States. Although conventional wisdom states that the American Civil War began due to complex issues involving state's rights rather than slavery, South Carolina's own declaration of secession belies this claim. "[T]he constituted compact [respecting the return of fugitive slaves] has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States," the South Carolina legislature decreed, "and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation [to remain a part of the United States]."

The American Civil War claimed well over a million lives and shattered the Southern economy. Although U.S. leaders were initially reluctant to propose that slavery be abolished in the South, President Abraham Lincoln finally acquiesced in January of 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all Southern slaves but did not affect slaves living in the non-Confederate states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia. The Thirteenth Amendment, which permanently ended the institution of chattel slavery throughout the country, followed in December of 1865.

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History of the Early Jim Crow Era (1866-1920)

Ex-Slave Henry Robinson (1937)
Photograph of ex-slave Henry Robinson, taken in 1937. Although slavery was officially abolished in 1865, the caste system that held it in place has only gradually dissipated. To this day, blacks are three times as likely as whites to live in poverty. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and the U.S. Works Progress Administration.

"I had crossed the line. I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land." -- Harriet Tubman

From Slavery to Freedom

When the United States abolished chattel slavery in 1865, it created the potential for a new economic reality for millions of African-American slaves and their former masters. For some (especially elderly slaves), the situation did not change at all--the new free citizens continued to work for those who were their masters during the slavery era. Most of those who did escape slavery found themselves without security, resources, connections, job prospects, and (sometimes) basic civil rights. But others adapted immediately to their newfound freedom—and thrived.

Lynchings and the White Supremacist Movement

Some whites, upset by the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy, created new posses and organizations--such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League--to maintain whites' privileged social status, and to violently punish African Americans who did not fully submit to the old social order.

The Black Codes

After the war, several Southern states immediately took measures to see to it that African Americans were still subjected to their masters (now called "employers"), who could still have them jailed for disobedience, arrested if they tried to escape, and so forth. Newly freed slaves also faced other drastic civil rights violations. Laws creating segregation and otherwise limiting the rights of African Americans soon became known as "Jim Crow laws." Read more: Overview of the Reconstruction

The Fourteenth Amendment

The federal government responded to the Black Codes with the Fourteenth Amendment, which would have banned all forms of prejudicial discrimination if the Supreme Court had actually enforced it.

A Worthless Supreme Court

In the midst of these discriminatory laws, practices, and traditions, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently refused to protect the rights of African Americans. In 1883, it even struck down the federal Civil Rights of 1875--which, if enforced, would have ended Jim Crow 89 years early.

The Jim Crow Years

For a half century after the American Civil War, Jim Crow laws ruled the American South--but they would not rule forever. Beginning with a crucial Supreme Court ruling, Guinn v. United States (1915), the Supreme Court began to chip away at segregation laws.

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History of the Early Civil Rights Movement (1921-1953)

Waldorf Negro Elementary School in Charles County, Maryland
Before school desegregation, most black students were educated in exclusively black schools. Today, 70% of black students are still educated in predominantly black schools. School desegregation, mandated in theory, has not yet been achieved in practice. Class of Waldorf Negro Elementary School, Maryland (1941). Image courtesy of the National Archives.

"We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom." -- Mary Bethune

Early NAACP Victories

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909, and almost immediately became the United States' leading civil rights activist organization. Early victories in Guinn v. United States (1915), an Oklahoma voting rights case, and Buchanan v. Warley (1917), a Kentucky neighborhood segregation case, chipped away at Jim Crow. But it was the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as head of the NAACP legal team, and the decision to focus primarily on school desegregation cases, that would give the NAACP its greatest victories.

The Senate Blocks Anti-Lynching Legislation

Between 1920 and 1940, the U.S. House of Representatives passed three pieces of legislation to fight lynching. Each time the legislation went to the Senate, it fell victim to a 40-vote filibuster, led by white supremacist Southern senators. In 2005, 80 members of the Senate sponsored and easily passed a resolution apologizing for its role in blocking anti-lynching laws--though some senators, most notably Mississippi senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, refused to support the resolution.

The Scottsboro Trials

In 1931, nine black teenagers had an altercation with a group of white teenagers on an Alabama train. The State of Alabama pressured two teenage girls into fabricating rape charges, and the inevitable death penalty convictions, which featured every dirty trick from judicial bias to jury roll forgery, resulted in more retrials and reversals than any case in U.S. history. The Scottsboro convictions also hold the distinction of being the only convictions in history to have been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court twice.

The Truman Civil Rights Agenda

When President Harry Truman ran for reelection in 1948, he courageously ran on an openly pro-civil rights platform. A segregationist senator named Strom Thurmond (R-SC) mounted a third-party candidacy, pulling away Southern Democrats who were perceived as essential to Truman's success. The success of Republican challenger Thomas Dewey was regarded as a foregone conclusion by most observers (prompting the infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline), but Truman ultimately prevailed in a surprising landslide victory. Read more about the Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Services

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History of the Civil Rights Era (1954-1968)

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - August 28, 1963
On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom assembled in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. The march, which was attended by 250,000 protesters, was a crucial milestone in the American civil rights movement. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

"We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

The Supreme Court Stands Up

With the Brown decision, the Supreme Court finally applies the Fourteenth Amendment to the public school system.

The Murder of Emmett Till

A black 14-year-old whistled at a white woman and was brutally murdered--and the killer got away with it.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

A black woman refused to give up her seat--and changed the country.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the SCLC played a vital role in the civil rights movement.

The Little Rock Nine

Handing down the Brown ruling was one thing. Enforcing it was another.

James Meredith at Ole Miss

In 1962, one black student went to Ole Miss. In 2006, over 1,200 did.

Sit-Ins and Picketing

The civil rights movement was driven by small acts of courage.

The Freedom Rides

Despite facing violence, a few hundred activists confronted Southern governments--and won.

The Assassination of Medgar Evers

In 1963, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP was murdered.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The astonishing power of the American civil rights movement was made visible on one day in 1963.

Freedom Summer

In 1964, a group of activists traveled to Mississippi to register black citizens to vote. Read more: Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation in public accommodations, and with it the Jim Crow era.

The Voting Rights Act

Extensive "literacy tests" were used to discourage prospective black voters from registering, but the Voting Rights Act put a stop to them.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4th, 1968, the leader of the American civil rights movement was murdered. Read more: The Conscience of the King

The Civil Rights Act of 1968

The last major Civil Rights Act officially banned housing discrimination.

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History of the Civil Rights Backlash (1969-1992)

Ronald Reagan Accepts the 1980 Republican Party Presidential Nomination
Reagan announced his presidential candidacy at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, where he spoke in favor of "states' rights" and against the "distorted ... balance" created by federal law, a reference to desegregation laws like the Civil Rights Act. Ronald Reagan at the 1980 Republican National Convention. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

"I've finally figured out what 'with all deliberate speed' means. It means 'slow.'" -- Thurgood Marshall

Busing and White Flight

Large-scale school integration was mandated by way of busing in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), as active integration plans were put into effect within school districts. But in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that busing could not be used to cross district lines--giving Southern suburbs a massive population boost. White parents who could not afford public schools, but wanted children to socialize with others of their race and caste, could simply move across the district line to avoid desegregation. The effects of Milliken are still being felt today. In Mississippi, wealthy, 92.5% white Madison has the highest high school graduation rate in the state. Immediately across the district line is 81% black Canton, which has the lowest high school graduation rate in the state. Under the original Swann ruling, busing could have potentially been used to resolve these race-based disparities; under Milliken, school segregation remains unchallenged. To this day, 70% of African-American public school students are educated in predominantly black schools.

Equal Opportunity

Under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created to investigate claims of job discrimination, and affirmative action initiatives began to be widely implemented.

Civil Rights in the Reagan-Bush Years

President Reagan announced his 1980 candidacy in Neshoba County, Mississippi, voting to fight federal encroachment on states' rights--an obvious euphemism, in that context, for the Civil Rights Acts. True to his word, President Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, which required government contractors to address racial employment disparities in their hiring practices; Congress overrode his veto with a two-thirds majority. His successor, President George Bush, would struggle with, but ultimately choose to sign, the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots

March 2nd was a night like many others in 1991 Los Angeles, as police severely beat a black motorist. What made March 2nd special was that a man named George Holliday happened to be standing nearby with a new videocamera, and soon the entire country would become aware of the reality of police brutality.

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History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement (1993-)

NAACP Rally Outside Supreme Court - December 4, 2006
Protesters rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court building during oral arguments on two major school desegregation cases on December 4, 2006. The black civil rights movement has changed in recent decades, but it remains strong, energized, and relevant. Photo: Copyright © 2006 Daniella Zalcman. Used by permission.

"The American dream is not dead. It is gasping for breath, but it is not dead." -- Barbara Jordan

Black Poverty and White Privilege

Black Americans are statistically three times as likely to live in poverty as white Americans, statistically more likely to end up in prison, and statistically less likely to graduate from high school and college. But this is hardly new; every long-term form of legally mandated racism in the history of the world has resulted in social stratification that outlived the original laws and motives that created it.

Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion applies: In society, as in physics, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. It is no longer necessary for the law to mandate segregation and oppression; after 480 years, it has taken on a life of its own. In order to fight this old tradition of social stratification, we must embrace and promote the contemporary civil rights agenda. Read more about institutional racism.

Challenges to Affirmative Action

Affirmative action programs have been controversial since their inception, and they remain so. But most of what people find objectionable about affirmative action isn't central to the concept; the "no quotas" argument against affirmative action is still being used to challenge a series of initiatives that don't necessarily involve mandatory quotas.

Race and the Criminal Justice System

In his book Taking Liberties, Human Rights Watch co-founder and former ACLU executive director Aryeh Neier described the criminal justice system's treatment of low-income black Americans as the single greatest civil liberties concern in our country today. The United States currently imprisons over 2.2 million people--about one quarter of Earth's prison population. Approximately one million of these 2.2 million prisoners are African-American.

Low-income African Americans are targeted at every step of the criminal justice process. They are subject to racial profiling by officers, increasing the odds that they will be arrested; they are given inadequate counsel, increasing the odds that they will be convicted; having fewer assets to tie them to the community, they are more likely to be denied bond; and then they are sentenced more harshly by judges. Black defendants convicted of drug-related offenses, on average, serve 50 percent more time in prison than whites convicted of the same offenses. In America, justice isn't blind; it isn't even color-blind.

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Head, Tom. "History of Black Civil Rights in America." ThoughtCo, Sep. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/civil-rights-history-101-4122747. Head, Tom. (2017, September 28). History of Black Civil Rights in America. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/civil-rights-history-101-4122747 Head, Tom. "History of Black Civil Rights in America." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/civil-rights-history-101-4122747 (accessed December 14, 2017).