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

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1.2 Freedom or Non Freedom

1.2.1 Black Codes and Reconstruction

Andrew Johnson became President after the death of Abraham Lincoln and recognized that it was necessary to reunite the South with the rest of the nation. His aim was to gain Southern loyalty and to offer them control over their own affairs. Nonetheless, Southern preferences were clear. White citizens were resolved to do whatever was necessary to keep former black slaves away from everything that was considered to be white only, and to keep them in their position of inferiority (O’Callaghan 1990: 54).

In accordance with these opinions, the Southern states passed laws known as the Black Codes, which preserved the black inferiority and white supremacy. Blacks would remain without property, education and legal protection. In addition, blacks were denied the right to vote, could not be jury members nor give evidence against a white man. This course of action caused indignation in the North where the United State Congress decided in 1866, in spite of the President’s objections, to pass a Civil Rights Act providing full civil rights for all people born in the United States (Davis). In addition, the Freedmen’s Bureau organization was established, which compelled Southerners to allow blacks to exercise their rights. As a next step, Congress introduced the 14th Amendment to the Constitution confirming the full rights of citizenship on African Americans, including the right to vote. It stated:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. (Constitution)
The southern states refused to accept the amendment which compelled the North in March, 1867 to pass the Reconstruction Act. The South was placed under military rule, and their state governments were dismissed and replaced with reconstruction governments. This action should have improved the situation of blacks in the South, but in effect exacerbated a wave of hatred and racism against blacks. Neither the encouragement of industry nor schooling for black and white children could pacify the southerners. They were utterly resolute in keeping blacks from their rights and employed radical ways of threatening, murdering and lynching with the aim to prevent blacks from asserting their rights (Davis).

The Ku Klux Klan became the most extreme and feared secret society of that time. Wearing white sheets and burning wooden crosses in front of their victim’s houses became symbols of the organization. Intimidation, violence and fear tactics became common in the South and when, in 1877 federal troops were withdrawn to the north, whites again assumed control in all southern states. The fate of blacks was sealed. Although they were freed and enslavement was abolished by law, to be black still meant being a second-class citizen who was limited in his rights. Nor did the 15th Amendment, passed on the 30th of March, 1870 which forbade restricting of the right to vote due to race, color or condition of former servitude could improve the situation of blacks (ibid.).

1.2.2 Summary

The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 (Constitution) and thus nullified black non citizenship declared by the Naturalization Act. Ten years of reconstruction governments enabled blacks to start living as equal citizens with whites. Moreover, the 15th Amendment guaranteed blacks their right to vote. Those ten years, along with the cruel tactics of some whites that were spreading throughout the South were of too short a period for blacks to build up their self-awareness and self-esteem. Before they actually realized that they were free and recognized the possibility of equality with whites, they had been relegated to the bottom of American society. White supremacy in the South was so strong that it caused Northern withdrawal and left African Americans to their fate. White supremacy soon comprehended how to subjugate blacks in defiance of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Segregation laws played a pivotal role for them.

Despite reconstruction, the ratification of the 14th Amendment became a crucial point in the fight of the later Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, it was a shining moment in American history which later led to full equality for all its citizens.

1.2.3 Jim Crow Laws

The end of the nineteenth century for blacks was characterized by segregation and racial separation which became more prominent under the so called Jim Crow laws that individual Southern states passed. Segregated parks, hospitals, public transport, schools, restaurants, theatres and other venues provided whites with safety and protection from contact with blacks. The term Jim Crow is unclear, but it may have its origin with a white man from the 1830s who covered his face with charcoal and performed in a show depicting a silly and illiterate Negro man (Davis). The humiliation and inferior position which such a performance symbolized for blacks is comparable with what they were exposed to under the restrictive laws of the nineteenth century.

The Jim Crow Laws were believed to be legalized in 1890 when disfranchisement provisions appeared in the state Constitution of Mississippi but their origins can be traced back to individual southern states much earlier. Between 1870 and 1884 eleven southern states legally banned interracial marriages. This attitude openly expressed the opinion of whites concerning their supremacy over blacks and galvanized their efforts in maintaining their racial purity. Prior to 1888, segregated schools for black and white children were established and bans on blacks attending white schools and vice versa were passed. A further step was taken in public transportation, namely that railroad cars were separated for black and white passengers. The efforts put forth by whites in segregating restaurants, hotels, theatres, parks, and even cemeteries was not surprising. The intention of white Southerners was to avoid as much as possible their black fellow citizens (ibid.).

All efforts were covered by the phrase separate but equal. In 1896, the Supreme Court heard Plessy v. Fergusson and separate but equal segregation became the law of the land (ibid.). Southern states considered the decision as their victory and began with legal segregation. Harvard Sitkoff mentions that Atlanta passed a law that forbade blacks and whites from visiting the municipal zoo at the same time, while Mississippi insisted on separated taxicabs, and Oklahoma segregated its telephone booths. Florida and North Carolina did not permit white students to use textbooks that had been touched by black students (1993: 5). Sitkoff further states that “there was one hospital bed available for every 139 American whites in the 1920s, but only one for every 1,941 blacks” (ibid.: 6). Governmental action ensured that African Americans were kept at the bottom of the society.

Not only sharing of public facilities with blacks represented a threat for white citizens. Their concern over the possible increasing power base of black people caused them to establish poll taxes and literacy tests, along with requiring them to understand selected portions of the state constitution. White primaries, where “only whites could vote in the Democratic Party primary contests” (Davis), and the grandfather clause were also used to manipulate potential black voters. These actions had the active support of the KKK and were widespread. Southern states recorded decline of nearly fifty percent registered voters which continued until the Voting Rights act of 1965 (ibid.). Sitkoff reports for instance, that “black voter registration plummeted 96 percent in Louisiana between 1896 and 1900” (1993: 5). In a similar manner the number of black voters fell in Alabama so around 3,500 and in Mississippi fewer than a thousand. For comparison, the adult black population of these two states was more than 300,000 each (ibid.).

The 14th and 15th Amendments should have ensured the citizenship of African Americans with no restrictions due to race or color concerning the right to vote. Two Civil Rights Acts enacted in 1866 and 1875 should have guaranteed civil rights to all persons born in the United States and equal rights for blacks in public places. Finally, three Enforcement Acts of the early 1870s directed against racial discrimination and cruel behavior on the part of whites against blacks should have added further protection (Davis).

1.2.4 Life under Jim Crow

Meeting a black man or woman in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century presented the same picture. They would neither look into the face of a white citizen nor start speaking first. They would give a white man space on the pavement when passing. Black boys were taught not to touch, even by accident, a white woman. African Americans comprehended that they would neither be served in a shop first nor be addressed by whites with Mister, Misses or Miss. They were used to hearing the words boy, girl, uncle, auntie and most often nigger. White Americans considered them inferior, uneducated and lazy (Davis).

Society at the end of the nineteenth century offered very little to blacks yet they still managed to exploit it in their own favor. The situation helped lead to the establishment of black ghettos. If they had not been wanted in the white society, they created their own communities and social places. Various self-help associations such as social clubs, lodges or volunteer fire departments were organized in many cities and they provided places to escape from the white world. In addition blacks could live here in dignity and without rejection. Other places where they could express their black independence and resistance to Jim Crow included all-black colleges whose foundations were encouraged by mainly white philanthropists in the North (ibid.).

African Americans enjoyed their freedoms for a short decade but it was again curtailed after 1877. Ten years of Reconstruction, when they could exercise their rights, were still living in black souls and they had not stopped thinking of ways to get them back. With a good education African Americans could rise from the bottom of society and improve their situation. Yet the journey to equality was long because they could not openly resist the violent tactics of whites. Peaceful, quiet and patient behavior had to be practiced so as not to irritate whites too much. They could not display their actual characters and their real feelings had to be hidden.

Churches that they built for themselves became an essential place where they could express their feelings and combat the white man’s unjust behavior through their songs and stories. Religion provided hope, an escape, provided recognition and gave power. Moreover, the most impoverished blacks were accepted there and were provided with help. Religion rendered relief to black souls as well as satisfying the material needs of its members. Sick and elderly people were treated in congregations, and others could expect assistance when seeking jobs. Religion became a synonym for solidarity, added to group cohesion, improved self-respect and underscored black history and its own traditions (ibid.).

As mentioned above, churches brought African Americans together. It was no surprise that besides black churches shops and services designed to serve black people began to develop as well. Stores, restaurants, banks, insurance companies, barber and beauty shops, funeral parlors and law offices provided a base for emerging black neighborhoods. By 1900 American society was divided between black and white citizens with their separate places to live, work, visit or enjoy. Still, differences remained between the South and North. Preachers and leaders of black neighborhoods in the North could more openly challenge the system and encourage black social feeling. By contrast, southern blacks could not speak openly because, as already stated, it could have had disastrous consequences for them (ibid.).

1.2.5 Summary

Could African Americans have fought for their rights? Could they have defended their freedoms? As mentioned above, laws were on their side but there was no one who would enforce their compliance. Southern states’ governments consisted of whites who were themselves interested in persecuting blacks, and the federal government did not feel like involving itself in the situation. If there were no suitors, then there was no need for judging or intervention. Constant persecution by whites, along with the terror tactics of the KKK, including lynching murders kept blacks on the defensive. The increasing number of laws against blacks only caused the situation to deteriorate.

The fact that whites underestimated blacks was their mistake. African Americans were not silly people without dignity. It was true that before they gained their freedom, whites had deprived them of it. Thirty years of living under Jim Crow, however, provided blacks with time to review the course of their lives and to realize that Abraham Lincoln had desired a different future for them than what they were receiving. African Americans wanted to exercise their self-confidence and they longed for equality and an appreciation for their work. The desire to nurture their children in a society which would fulfill the words freedom and equality was strong, but it had to remain buried deep in their souls.

Blacks had never experienced anything else than refusals and humiliation. They were painfully aware of almost certain death in case of showing defiance against Jim Crow. The fact that there was no one who would punish or judge whites for their racial hatred and connected behavior, only convinced them of the correctness of their actions. Tactics practiced by the KKK verged on extreme insolence and, as described below, along with whites’ mob violence contributed to the emergence of black self-awareness as well as to forming of the first organizations to defend black rights and freedoms.

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