The African American Civil Rights Movement As a Long Lasting Process of Struggle for Freedom

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1. How it happened

1.1 Enslavement

1.1.1 Conditions of Slavery

From the earliest beginnings, the conditions of Africans on the American continent were not comparable to white servants. Africans were considered by Europeans to be stronger workers and provided more skilful help on plantations than white servants who often escaped due to the miserable conditions of servitude. Many Africans were brought to America after 1619 and by the end of the seventeenth century there were more indentured black servants than white. At first black and white servants worked, played and intermarried. With the increasing number of Africans, however, being brought to the colonies as slaves, poor white servants started to feel that Africans were stealing their jobs. Besides, quite a large number of servants survived their period of indenture and later demanded land from planters once it had ended. Planters recognized that the situation of indentured servitude was untenable and their conviction of dividing black slaves from white servants was encouraged by the Bacon rebellion in 1676 when white servants and black slaves allied and fought against wealthy planters (Race Timeline).

The seventeenth century can be traced as the origin of hatred and racism by whites toward blacks. Race and racism had been unknown to the world thus far. The black colour of slaves’ skins determined their lives. How do I know that you are a slave? You are black. Efforts which appeared in the colonial laws issued between 1639 and 1682 altered the position of blacks from servitude to racial slavery. These laws forbade inter-marriages between whites and blacks and excluded African slaves from governmental protection. White servants took advantage of their skin color in order to gain new job opportunities and were granted more freedoms. To be black meant to be a slave and slaves worked all the time, not only shift work like white servants. White planters saw the advantage in having black slaves because it coincided with the property right to own the slaves’ children as well (Colonial laws).

The year 1705 sealed the Africans’ fate. The Virginia General Assembly issued a declaration that was soon adopted by other colonies:
All servants imported and brought into the Country . . . who were not Christians in their native Country . . . shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion . . . shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master . . . correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction . . . the master shall be free of all punishment . . . as if such accident never happened. (Virginia’s Slave Codes)
With this declaration, Africans and their offspring lost all hope of freedom. Their masters could not be held accountable for the violence they perpetrated on blacks, including death, and what was worse, Negroes were condemned to be no more than the property of their masters and their lives were in the hands of planters.

1.1.2 Naturalization Act

The year 1705 legalized the notion that slaves were their master’s property. Another turning point came in the year 1790, in the form of Naturalization Act that stated that black slaves were not equal human beings within the United States. Racism became legal with the Act because it declared that “a free white person . . . shall be considered as a citizen of the United States” (Statutes). Non citizenship made it impossible for black people to own property, to vote, to bring suit or to testify in court (Race Timeline).

Thinking about this statement leads to the conclusion that though this country is a symbol of freedom and equality it limited certain people from the beginning. Blacks were regarded as inferior to their white masters who were convinced that slavery was the best solution for them.

1.1.3 Abolition of Slavery

The south which was very rich in fertile soil and contained large farms and huge plantations could not imagine how it could be possible to manage them without slave labor. Fortunately not all whites in the United States had the same opinion toward blacks. The north was more temperate, and the farms there were of a more familiar type. Their owners were not dependent on black labor. They were against slavery both for moral, economic and religious reasons. Slaves could be treated like animals, i.e. could be killed if they did not perform well, or could be sold. Moreover, a newborn black baby became the automatic property of its parents’ white master. The American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Philadelphia in 1833 and within two years several hundred of their branches were established throughout the free states. Their goal to abolish slavery did not go unnoticed. Nearly the entire South defended slavery as a necessary good and attempted to prove through scientific and biblical arguments that Negroes were inferior to whites and therefore destined to be slaves (Race Timeline).

Since one half of the country was pro-slavery, and the other half was anti-slavery, a conflict was inevitable. This conflict was personified in the character of Abraham Lincoln. He was against slavery and was a proponent of abolition. In the elections of 1860, he won the presidency. The Southerners threatened to secede from the United States, one of the reasons being that they feared the abolition of slavery in case of Lincoln’s election which indeed happened (O’Callaghan 1990: 48).

The following four years resulted in the bloodiest conflict in American history. What started as a fight for preserving the Union, later transformed into a black struggle for the abolition of slavery which was partially achieved by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. On the 22nd of September he issued a preliminary proclamation which contained “that on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” (qtd. in Franklin and Moss 1994: 617).

The President proclaimed freedom not only for more than three-fourths of the slaves in the United States, but also issued instructions for the executive government to maintain the freedom of these citizens. Furthermore, the right to work for reasonable wages was established as well as the possibility to be accepted into the American army (Franklin and Moss 1994: 618).

Though it appeared a victory, it was not. More than 800,000 people in the border states remained slaves and the newly acquired status of others resulted neither political nor economic freedom. The aim of the Emancipation Proclamation was to aid in the rebellions taking place in many states during the Civil War. Besides, it also gave hope to all slaves that better days would come after the war, and moreover that America could be free for all (ibid.: 208).

After the war’s conclusion the President proposed the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which in effect initiated the permanent abolition of slavery in all states. The Amendment was adopted on the 6th of December, 1865 (ibid.: 218).

1.1.4 Summary

Although Africans were not considered as slaves from the beginning on the American continent, it can be said that their indentured servitude and enslavement had lasted almost 250 years. It was more than adequate time for building certain social structure and dividing society into unequal classes of whites and blacks. Young whites of the 1870s had never met blacks who would not have been slaves. Nor their parents or grandparents would remember it. Blacks were slaves. That was the fact of life. Now they were free. They needed jobs, wages, and a place to live. They had the same rights and needs of white citizens who were horrified by such changes. It sounded to them as if someone told you in front of a prison: Can you see all these useless thieves and dirty murderers? They are free now, and you must accept that they are your equals. Could you accept it? Let’s suppose not. The same occurred in the South. Former slaves were still black, and continued to be considered inferior and unequal. Most blacks were still dependant on white planters, and to live independently after so many years of enslavement was difficult for them. In addition, the South had been defeated. The South was angry and full of hatred. The following years demonstrated how whites managed to exploit their feeling of supremacy in their favor.
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