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

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2.2 Improvements in Hard Times

2.2.1 Period of Growth and the Great Depression

Despite spreading race riots throughout the country following the war, blacks successfully integrated themselves into various branches of industry. They worked in automobile, glass, clothing, food and tobacco industries, and in paper and bag companies. Others earned their living in transportation and communication. The years after the war were considered years of growth, prosperity, and economic boom and no one noticed that the prosperity was distributed unevenly. Textile and shoe industries, shipbuilding and coal mines were in decline. Thousands of African Americans were without jobs in the middle of the 1920s which was explained away as a common and expected element of a technological age (Franklin and Moss 1994: 383-384).

In the South, black farmers suffered from poverty and bad conditions. Moreover, their crops were destroyed by boll weevils. This natural disaster was so severe that many farms were abandoned, and both black and white rents were dismissed. In fact, the Great Depression had already begun for them. In actual fact, the beginning of the Great Depression is dated to the crash on Wall Street in 1929. Banks failed, mines and various businesses were closed and employees in domestic jobs, personal services and agriculture were dismissed (ibid.).

The Depression deprived nearly eight million people of their jobs by 1931. Pessimism among Americans prevailed, and not only for the reasons of lost jobs, homes or the inability to buy basic goods such as food and clothing. Americans in particular were sorely disappointed with the inactivity of President Hoover and the government. By 1932, twelve million people were unemployed and over 100,000 businesses were closed. More and more Americans became dependant on charity, often standing hours in so called breadlines for a bowl of soup or free bread (O’Callaghan 1990: 98).

African Americans bore the situation much worse. To their great disappointment, even in such hard times for all Americans they still remained segregated, discriminated against and not receiving the same relief as whites. Blacks were excluded from some soup kitchens which were reserved for whites. In addition, whites sometimes receive up to $6 more in monthly aid than blacks. That was the final proof for African Americans that there would never be democracy in the full sense of the word without political change, and in the following years they turned their attention toward their policy more than ever before (Franklin and Moss 1994: 383-384).

2.2.2 An Emerging Power to Change the Status Quo

Despite the same poor conditions suffered by blacks in the North and South, Northern Negroes were not entirely defenseless against the injustices of municipalities and governments, because their right to vote had not been curtailed as severely as in the Southern states. The possibility to alter their status quo through political action lay in the hands of black Northern voters.

In 1928, for the first time in the century an African American Congressman was elected. The Republican Oscar De Priest became a symbol for all black Americans in the United States and a sign of hope. His presence in Congress provided blacks with new courage. In 1934 he was replaced by Arthur W. Mitchell who became the first African American to be elected to the United State Congress as a Democrat. By that time Negroes rated the same importance as white voters and politicians had to be wary of what they expressed in their opinions on race, employment, foreign policy, etc. since it influenced not only white voters but black voters as well. After 1932, black legislators were elected more frequently than ever in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. In these states, they could use their influence in decisions concerning black citizens. Nevertheless, this successful situation was limited only to Northern states (Franklin and Moss 1994: 384-401).

An increasing interest by blacks in politics could be seen in their monitoring of statements by individual Congressmen, distinguishing those who opposed full citizenship for blacks or in other ways supported restriction of their rights. Such politicians were considered enemies and the black power base was strong enough to remove them from their positions in elections by voting as a block. At first they fought against those who obstructed the federal Anti-lynching bill in the Senate, and also to judges of the Supreme Court who expressed antagonism towards blacks. Time and again they helped to defeat such Congressmen and judges in elections (ibid.).

During the Great Depression African Americans turned their indignation against President Hoover who was ineffectual in solving the enduring economic crisis in the country and in addition supported the lily-white Republican movement spreading through the South since 1928. With their contribution in the elections of 1932, Hoover was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt who obtained strong black support in part due to his physical handicap but above all due to the strength that he employed in tackling problems. He displayed an understanding for the problems of ordinary people and he was resolved to help the country and its inhabitants. His New Deal provided millions of people with useful work in jobs that were beneficial for the communities they were living in. The New Deal also helped people with housing, provided better living conditions, stimulated industries, and improved conditions in agriculture (ibid.).

Notwithstanding the great impact of the New Deal, actual improvement in the unemployment rate came in 1939. By that year, ten million people were still without jobs. With the beginning of the Second World War, American factories were filled with workers producing weapons for countries fighting Hitler. By 1941, when the United States entered the war, unemployment had entirely disappeared (O’Callaghan 1990: 103).

2.2.3 Summary

The Great Depression during its first years touched nearly all Americans’ lives. As it continued, blacks comprehended that even such a crisis could not change the white approach towards them. Separate but equal was functioning the same way as usual, and relief supplies were divided unevenly between whites and blacks. Despite this, Roosevelt’s New Deal ensured improving of social and economic conditions for most Americans, including blacks.

During the hard times of the Great Depression, African Americans completely understood that if they desired equality, it had to be given to them by law. If laws were to be changed, political influence would be a necessity. More than ever before blacks realized how vital their suffrage was. Only Northern blacks could go to the polls. Victories that they had won were not breathtaking, but contributed to the belief that change in the United States was attainable, and became an inspiration for other African Americans. It brought hope to Southern blacks whose situation was much more desperate. Paradoxically, the period of Great Depression enabled blacks to rise from the bottom of the heap and strengthen their self-awareness of being on the same level in American society as whites.

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