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

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1.3 Resistance at the Turn of Century

1.3.1 Lynching and Race Riots

Nearly everything a black man did in the street could be considered as a crime against a white man or a woman. The predominated opinion of whites in the South and the Midwest was that lynched or murdered Negroes either violated or raped a white woman or robbed a white man. Often the victims of mob justice, the perception of crossing an imaginary color line became crucial in the lives of African Americans. The real causes for their deaths could be different, such as walking down a street with a head held high, talking back instead of being quiet, or being successful in the same business as a white man in the neighborhood. Moreover, to have a relationship with a white woman, even if affection was returned, could result in death (Davis).

The last sixteen years of the nineteenth century recorded approximately 2,500 people being lynched, most being African Americans, for various reasons and alleged offenses as described above. Between 1900 and 1915 over a thousand cases of lynched black men were recorded (Sitkoff 1993: 5).

When the incidence of lynching began to slightly decrease, cases of mob race riots became more frequent. Neither men, women, nor even children of any age could feel safe in their homes and cities. White Americans were impatient for trial decisions and often took the law into their hands and attacked blacks. Blacks could rightly fear being hanged, shot or burned in their houses. It would be mistaken, however, to think that the rioters were punished. African Americans called for justice but no one listened to them. The riots started first in the South, including Statesboro, Georgia in 1904, followed by Lebanon Junction, Kentucky and Atlanta in 1906. Northern riots occurred in connection with black migration into cities, for example Philadelphia, when the hostility of white Northerners erupted. Other cities, namely Syracuse in Ohio and several towns in Indiana forbade blacks to settle within their boundaries entirely (Franklin and Moss 1994: 312-315).

1.3.2 Foundation of the NAACP

The turn of the century brought two contradictory attitudes into play. The first was represented in the personality of Booker T. Washington who was born into slavery. He exhibited moderate views concerning segregation. He was horrified by the race riots spreading both in the South and North and he counseled black people that “the best course to pursue in regard to civil rights is to let it alone; let it alone and it will settle itself. The only answer to it is for colored men to be patient, to make themselves competent, to do good work, to give no occasion against us” (qtd. in Sitkoff 1993: 7). He saw in this approach the only way to avoid the violence and rage of white mobs. The second attitude demonstrated much more openly against segregation. W.E.B Du Bois, the leader of this line of thinking, insisted on the right to vote for blacks, openly defied Jim Crow and encouraged educated talented people into leading the masses (Davis).

With the help of Du Bois, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, abbrev. NAACP, was founded during 1909 and 1910. Despite its relatively few successes in the first two decades of its existence, it later became the essential core of the Civil Rights Movement. Its goal was aimed at ending segregation, ensuring equal education both for white and black children and providing enfranchisement to all African Americans based on the 14th and the 15th Amendments. Early first branches were formed, first in Chicago and in two years in nine other cities. By 1921, more than four hundreds branches existed all over the United States. They worked at the local level and cooperated with the parent organization (Franklin and Moss 1994: 318-320).

The first success for the NAACP came in 1915 in the case of Guinn v. United States when they reversed Oklahoma’s and Maryland’s grandfather clause. The clause enabled poor and uneducated whites who could not ballot because of the poll tax or pass literacy tests to become registered voters. The condition was based on the fact that if a male had been entitled to vote prior to a certain date, in Louisiana for example the year 1867, then his sons and grandsons were free from meeting other requirements. The aim of the clause was clear. As no blacks were entitled to vote prior to this date, the exception could be applied only to whites (Davis). Another major victory came in 1917 in the case of Buchanan v. Warley when Louisville’s covenants concerning the segregation of blacks from certain districts of the city were cancelled (Franklin and Moss 1994: 318-319).

Rather than solving individual cases the NAACP focused its aim on helping African Americans who might become victims of lynching. The Association pushed for the Federal anti-lynching bill, which had never been passed, in spite of three attempts by the House of Representatives in 1922, 1937, and 1940. These bills unfortunately never made it through the Senate. In addition, the Association solved various cases of discrimination, such as the lower salaries paid to black public school teachers, alleged crimes committed, the exclusion of blacks from juries, and defended black civil liberties (ibid.).

In the 1930s, their work became more focused on desegregating schools. Harvard Sitkoff reports in his book that “the eleven Southern states in 1916 spent an average of $10.32 per white public-school student, and only $2.89 per black pupil” (1993: 6). Lower courts were forced to rule on the unequal conditions of segregated schools and other forms of discrimination represented by Jim Crow. The NAACP demanded either the same conditions for blacks and whites or the abandonment of Jim Crow. The 1930s were the years of the Great Depression and equalizing black facilities to white ones presented problems. In the following twenty years the NAACP engaged in legal processes aimed at individual states, counties, or municipalities who were increasingly required to abrogate Jim Crow (Davis).

1.3.3 Summary

Blacks experienced each and every day of their lives the injustice of living in the United States. Entrenched opinions on blacks’ inferiority from the times of slavery had blinded whites’ consideration for equality that should have been based on the same freedoms for all and not being judged by the mere color of skin.

Increasing numbers of lynching and mob violence could not permit blacks to stay calm. Even an animal that is beaten and treated badly would stand up against its master. African Americans were not slaves any more, and the turn of the century showed that they realized this. Many of them studied at black colleges, and others were anxious to do whatever was possible to change their inferior status. There was, however, great fear. Fear of being lynched or killed by a white mob did not allow individual blacks to defy the system.

The foundation of the NAACP was an important milestone in African American history. The NAACP neither represented an extreme violent organization nor encouraged violent actions. Leaders of individual branches comprehended that the way to bring change lied in the laws; hence their main interests were put in legal processes.

Cooperation by grassroots forces operating at the local level with the parent organization functioning at the national level became in the following years a typical and vital feature of the civil rights movement. For the time being, however, the organized leadership remained the crucial point that was missing. It needed time to mature. Before the movement could expand, it needed time for planning, to gather courage, to obtain enough followers and wait till the time was ripe to expand.

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