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

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2. Precursors of the Movement

Everything that occurred in the United States during the twentieth century could be considered as significant events that contributed to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The years of enslavement, along with the following Jim Crow laws pervaded much of American history. Whites were masters who governed and determined the lives of American citizens. Blacks were considered inferior, unequal and were held at the bottom of society. They could not expect that white Americans would grant them freedoms by their own accord. Blacks knew that the laws were on the side of whites who inherited hatred for them, passed from generation to generation.

Much had to be done before white America was prepared to accept changes in the status of African Americans. The events of the twentieth century helped foster this change. The Great Migration of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, increasing empowerment of black suffrage, and the beginning of the Cold War were significant events before the movement could erupt in all its power.

2.1 Defenseless Blacks and the Defense of Democracy

2.1.1 The Great Migration

At the end of the nineteenth century, more than ninety percent of African Americans lived in the Southern states and their conditions there were generally much worse than those in the North. The system of sharecropping that had spread throughout the South required blacks to work in the fields, often resulting in an uncertain future and, of course, debts in case of poor crops. Between 1890 and 1910, nearly 200,000 sharecroppers fled to the North, while others returned to Africa (Sitkoff 1993: 6).

Black women played an important role during this period of upheaval. Their dreams were far from the reality they were experiencing. Days spent in the fields displaced their roles as wives and mothers, forcing them to spend their nights cooking, cleaning or washing. Gone were their ambitions to live on family farms where they would care their husbands and children. Many of them, being widows or single mothers left the rural areas and moved to southern cities. Tens of thousands exploited the postwar situation and escaped to the north where they accepted jobs as domestics. In most cases the responsibility for earning a living rested with women who could more easily earn money. Boys who were forced from their early childhood to work in the fields lacked education, while jobs in industry were often staffed with white immigrants (Davis).

By 1900 black women were generally better educated because they were more likely to finish grade school than black men. They often worked for white families, both in the North and the South and giving encouragement to each other raised their spirits. Black women founded clubs for mutual help where they openly defied the lynching of black men, encouraged suffrage for women and higher education for both sexes. They felt less threatened by the terrorist practices of white mobs due to their gender. In addition, most black teachers were women which enabled them to defend their blackness, to become leaders, to express pride in themselves and to teach youngsters about their own self-awareness (ibid.).

As mentioned above, the end of the nineteenth century witnessed the first migration of blacks which continued after 1916. Floods and natural disasters were not the only reason for this. European migration to the United States was restricted which offered new job opportunities for African Americans. Another reason was the labor shortage experienced during the War along with the persistent anger and rage of Southerners which added to the exodus of blacks moving North. The years from 1916 till 1919 are known as the Great Migration when over half a million blacks fled the South. Similarly, another million left the South during the 1920s. African Americans hoped to find a more tolerant society than existed in the South (ibid.).

The North represented for them “The Promised Land” as Nicholas Lemann entitled his book but here they encountered segregation and discrimination as well. Here, they were similarly exploited in education, housing and job opportunities as they had been in the South. Moreover, Northerners did not feel disposed to accept such an influx of African Americans into their cities and lives (ibid.). While the NAACP, with the cooperation of the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes were helping blacks to adjust to the mainstream of American life, the migration was plagued by race riots induced by white mobs (Franklin and Moss 1994: 320-321).

2.1.2 Consequences of the First World War

Going to Europe and fighting for peace in pursuit of democracy meant much for African Americans. In a real sense they saw it as a chance to achieve democracy for themselves as well. President Wilson considered the war as a chance “to make the world safe for democracy, the war to end all wars” (qtd. in O’Callaghan 1990: 90).

Those on the home front had opportunities to work in truck, automobile and ammunition productions, to help with food conservation or in the meat-packing industry. The labor shortage during the war opened doors to African Americans in various jobs including iron and steel production, or coal mines in Alabama, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. The United States was dependant on black laborers who believed that their indispensability during the war would improve their postwar position. The Great Migration that was connected with the war, however, stymied black expectations. The expansion of race clashes both in the South and the North led the President to make a strong public statement against lynching and mob violence. Meanwhile, Germany invoked racial incidents to discourage black soldiers from fighting for something they did not have at home. It had, however, no effect on black American soldiers who supported the war enthusiastically encouraged by a belief in their own better tomorrows (Franklin and Moss 1994: 339-345).

At the end of the war, African American troops were welcomed in Northern U.S. cities like heroes and celebrations of their bravery in Europe filled the streets. Unfortunately it did not last long. Black soldiers and citizens expected new freedoms in their homeland whereas the rest of the United States desired to return to the prewar order and not to accept change. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan again revived and refused to give first-class citizenship to blacks. During the first year after the war, more than seventy black soldiers were lynched by mob violence and fourteen Negroes were publicly burned. Southern and South-Western states symbolized the everyday fear of blacks for their lives once again. More than two hundred incidents involving Klan practices were recorded in twenty-seven states within ten months. It was not only the burning of wooden crosses in front of houses that terrified blacks. In Texas, Negroes were forced to work in fields picking cotton for ridiculous wages. This was a new tactic used by the Klan. Northern blacks were alarmed too, because of new Klan cells being established there. The year 1919 was especially bloody. Race riots were at their peak and from June to the end of the year twenty-five outbreaks of racial violence disturbed the lives of Americans. James Weldon Johnson named it the Red Summer because it was a period of strong violent conflicts that the American nation had rarely ever witnessed. The opportunities for jobs were diminished after the war and segregation in urban cities continued (ibid: 346-349).

When African Americans realized that everything was returning to the old orders, they showed the most resolute resistance they could in their inferior position. Their willingness to defend themselves was the strongest in their history and the riots of that year could be compared to a war. It affected the whole country, from South to North and from East to West. Fighting and dying in self-defense were typical features of riots that started in Longview, Texas and continued in Chicago that became a destination for the black migration. Chicago had the biggest settlement of blacks who were entering white neighborhoods which resulted in a month of terror there. Franklin and Moss comment that “thirty-eight people had been killed, including 15 whites and 23 blacks; of the 537 injured, 178 were white and 342 were black. There is no record of the racial identity of the remaining 17. More than 1,000 families, mostly black, were homeless as a result of the burnings and general destruction of property” (ibid.: 351). For several weeks riots occurred in other states, including Knoxville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; and Elaine, Arkansas. White Americans attributed the black willingness to fight back to influences caused by war, and their goal was to maintain the black status quo where it was. All riots were judged by white juries, white policemen operated in the streets, and white governments decided the fate of black lives. Disillusionment, despair and helplessness settled in black souls and the only things they had were their utterances of criticism. African Americans comprehended that if they desired change, they needed better organization, planning and political power (ibid.: 349-352).

2.1.3 Summary

The Great Migration was very important for the later Civil Rights Movement because it meant a shift from rural to urban areas for thousands of African Americans. Despite the same poor conditions in cities, blacks could gain a better education and jobs there. Black ghettos and neighborhoods in cities were quite large and provided more convenient places where African Americans could gather, plan and organize their struggle as opposed to rural areas.

Women’s involvement in the Great Migration can be recognized as a beginning of their later influence in the movement. With better education and easier access to jobs, their self-confidence rose. Their desire to offer their children a better future encouraged them to fight. Women represented a large number of the NAACP membership, and their courage was not less than those of men.

During the First World War, African Americans for the first time in their history had equal footing with whites. Of course, this equality was based on separate but equal, but in the name of the United States they could defend democracy for others. Consequently, they expected that it could bring a change for them too. The disappointment that came after the war’s conclusion strongly affected them.

The war had increased black self-awareness and self-respect. On the other hand, the way they chose to defend their new self-confidence revealed that it was necessary to search for alternative means. Race riots accompanied by property damage, injuries and deaths, by both whites and blacks directed hatred towards blacks instead of gaining sympathizers.

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