The history of African Americans in the United States tells a story of both immense sufferings, as well as unending hope. Americans of African descent endured many years of slavery and segregation, which prohibited black people from enjoying the rights of citizenship. The black people in America suffered oppression, denied citizenship, and those, who tried to fight, endured beatings or were just killed. In most of the country, blacks were prohibited from sharing spaces with the white community, such as schools, public transport, and even recreational amenities, while stiff measures were enforced to ensure that they did not live near whites. However, despite this suffering, black people persevered and rose up to fight for their rights even in situations, where it appeared useless. In the face of racism, the African American community rose up to educate themselves, study literature, compose songs and made a huge contribution to the development of American society. This paper explores black discrimination, segregation, and the way black movements rose to fight for freedom that they enjoy today, as well as their contribution to the development of American society.
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The Reconstruction Era 1865-1877
The reconstruction era emerged in the period between 1865 and 1877, which followed the American Civil War. This period tried to address the inequalities that had been created by slavery in order to better the lives of black people. Practically, in 1866, slavery died after the Civil War as the Thirteenth Amendment formally eradicated slavery in all states and regions. Additionally, the African American males attained the right to be protected and the right to vote through the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, respectively. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 ensured that blacks gained the power to vote, sue, serve in public offices, and other legal rights. In 1867, the South, which had strict slave measures, divided into five conquered districts, and each remained under the control of the military.
However, despite the changes in the United States (US) Constitution, the white people’s attitude towards the black people did not change. The black community had only faced bondage before the war, and after the war, they faced the problem of building their lives in a community that saw them as second class citizens. The Southern whites ensured that freed slaves received minimal rights by passing a series of black codes. The black codes denied the black people rights to create contracts, testify against whites, intermarry with whites, gain employment, as well as loitering in the public areas. Additionally, a white supremacy band called Ku Klux Klan came into being and committed acts of aggression, such as beatings and murder towards blacks. In 1871, Congress had to pass the Ku Klux Klan Act, which forced the military to provide protection to the black community.
In 1877, the US military withdrew its hold on the South, and this means that the white had rapidly returned to power. Many black people returned to a state of bondage and discrimination called sharecropping. In sharecropping, the blacks leased pieces of land from former masters and in return, they received a small percentage of the crop yield. By the end of 1880, approximately 80% of the black people from the south turned to sharecroppers as a means of survival. Sharecropping became a problem for the blacks because of demeaning renting and the high cost of seeds, which left many black people in debt to the white farmers.
Jim Crow 1878-1920
After the reconstruction era, when the military withdrew from the South, the black people did not have protection from the white supremacy. This led to the rise of the Jim Crow system, which came into place from 1878 towards the end of the 1950s. The Jim Crow laws allowed segregation of white from black in a situation, where whites tried to ensure their supremacy over the black community. The laws ensured that whites and blacks remained separated in public schools, restaurants, transport systems, cinemas, public bathrooms, and hotels among others. There are states that declared that marriage between black and white would not be permitted in any instance. The Jim Crow laws got to be tested initially in 1896 when Homer Plessy got convicted for riding in a railway car only allowed to whites. The segregation of races became legalized under the Constitution as long as the amenities remained “separate but equal”.
By the 1890s, racism against the blacks had reached new heights, as a law created in Mississippi prohibited blacks from voting, managed to pass. Most southern states only allowed voting to the blacks who owned property, could read, those, whose ancestors had voted before, and those, who they believed had “good character”. The entire country experienced Jim Crows, as it spread to ensure that blacks remain inferiors to the white power. In South Carolina, black and white textile employees could not use the same room, while in Richmond black and white could not share the same street. By 1914, Texas had six major towns where blacks were not allowed to stay or live.
However, despite the discrimination, the blacks continued to fight for their rights and freedom against white exploitation. In the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) focused on eliminating segregation in buses and trains. In 1956, African Americans led by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks organized a successful yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black people refused to ride on buses even though most of them had always used it, and chose to walk or share rides with fellow blacks. In 1952, the Supreme Court declared that the separation of white and blacks in the state railways was unconstitutional according to the Fourteenth Amendment.
Harlem Renaissance 1919 -1930s
The deep segregation in the South that oppressed the African Americans led to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance became a time of huge migration of African Americans to cities such as Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York, in search of better lives. This period became explosive from 1919 to 1930s, where writers, singers, and artists of African American heritage came together to pursue their dreams. Once World War I ended, the shortage of workers in the American industries encouraged many blacks to go in search of better opportunities in these cities. The migration of black people to the cities in order to concentrate on their works became a huge success, which led to the development of black cultural, social, and artistic prowess.
The Harlem Renaissance promoted various black artists including Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Arna, Bontemps, and Countee Cullen among others. W.E.B Du Bois encourage black artists to leave the South to share their creative works with the world. In essence, this period focused on celebrating African American heritage and offering them the opportunity to grow economically. This idea heightened because blacks had remained under the bondage of white power for decades, and this brought an opportunity to create their own standing.
In addition, the Renaissance became more than just literary works, but, instead, it involved racial pride of the black roots. The idea of the “New Negro” encouraged black people to use it as a platform to demand civil, as well as political rights. The success of the Renaissance appealed not only to the blacks but also to the whites, who saw interracial couples performing. However, the Harlem Renaissance did not manage to break down the stiff laws of Jim Crow that kept the races separate. The Renaissance managed to encourage some relaxation in the racial attitudes, especially among the young whites, but it did not deter the laws of segregation. The greatest impact of this movement was the awakening of black pride on their race and courage to fight further towards achieving equality.
The Civil Rights Era 1947-1968
The Civil Rights Movement that began in the late 1940s attracted mass protests against racial segregation and discrimination witnessed in the South. This movement bore its roots in earlier decades, as African Americans revolted against white supremacy that advocated for discrimination and segregation. The black people received civil rights after the Civil War through the passing of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments within the U.S. Constitution. The Civil Rights Movement aimed at foreseeing the securing and protection of these rights within the black community. The 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement understood that racial discrimination needed to be fought against in order to bring the equal rights legislation that had been denied to the black people.
A certain level of success was achieved through civil rights with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and then the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This destroyed the demeaning legislation that put blacks in bondage and delegated them to second class citizens. During the civil activists of the 1950s and 1960s, both blacks and whites adopted nonviolent and civil disobedience to call for change in legislation. The improved Civil Rights Act of 1968 brought change in legislation that abolished segregation in any sector. The major African American activists that led the protests included Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, and Rosa Parks among others.
The civil rights played a huge role not only to the black community, but also to other minority groups, such as women, disabled individuals, Native Americans, and other victims of discrimination in the society. In essence, it became an era that motivated other discriminated groups in the United States to support and encourage the laws that represent equality in society. In the early days, women had no right to vote in the American Society, but the civil rights era brought these changes allowing women to pursue their goals. The civil rights age of the 1960s motivated the African American community to pursue not only equality, but also economic stability, social inclusion, and liberation. Blacks suffered discrimination in terms of housing, employment, public accommodation, justice, and education among other areas. The inclusion of the civil rights movement began to change the landscape, as blacks began to achieve economic stability in the various sectors. Even though this did not bring discrimination to an end, it ensured that blacks made huge strides in protecting their freedom.
The Black Power Movement 1968-1980
The progress achieved by the black community in the 1950s and 1960s at accomplishing civil rights was threatened by violence. In 1966, James Meredith, a black man making a peaceful march from Memphis, Tennessee, all the way to Jackson, Mississippi, was shot. This awakened such great leaders as Martin Luther King Jr. to continue the march that Meredith had begun. During the march, the towns’ people harassed the participants, and police did not assist them, but, instead, arrested some claiming to be trouble makers. Stokely Carmichael addressed the black activists and cited that the white people would continue to discriminate against them, and the only solution would be “black power”. The black power movement conducted its campaign against white supremacy while advocating for blacks to separate themselves from the whites and build their own footing.
The black power leaders such as Stokely Carmichael advocated that blacks build a separate life away from the whites. They shunned the nonviolence sentiments of the leaders such as Martin Luther in favor of violence to receive freedom. Black power gained popularity within the young generation of the black society with unique dressing, hairstyle, and slogans being used in order to advocate black power. Members of the group like the newly formed Black Panther Party in Oakland collected weapons that they believed would assist in resisting police brutality against the black community. Various violent crashes between the Panthers and the police ensued as each tried to exert supremacy. The aim of the group included achieving black power separation from the whites by any means necessary including violence.
Additionally, the movement believed that the nonviolent campaigns had achieved little in generating equality for blacks in society. It became clear to them that the white people did not hesitate to use violence against blacks, while the police did not offer any assistance. In this way, the movement called for tougher measures, as well as for a more militant and aggressive attitude towards the white people. The movement indicated that no actual change would be achieved unless the blacks take any necessary measures to secure freedom. Their sentiments became appreciated by the young black men, who supported the idea of taking freedom by force regardless of the consequences.
Turn of the Century 1981 to date
Through the efforts of the civil rights movement’s and black power movement’s participants, a lot has been achieved in the African American community since the 1980s to date. The African American community managed to gain influence in many areas of the society including politics, employment, arts, sports, and education among others. There has been a huge number of African Americans in cabinet positions and even as members of Congress. In 1989, as the first black man, Colin Powell, got elected to hold the position of Chairman in the Joint Chiefs of Staff during George H.W. Bush’s administration. In 1991, Bush appointed another black man, Clarence Thomas, as justice of Supreme Court, while Carol Mosely-Braun got elected as the first black woman in the U.S. Senate.
In the entertainment industry, African Americans have achieved great strides with such entertainers as Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and even Oscar-winning entertainers like Denzel Washington, as well as Hallie Barry, who became prominent in the 1990s. The 1990s also saw the success in African Americans pursuing literature; for example, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Rita Dove, who became successful as Poet Laureate of the United States. The sports industry is dominated by successful African American players, such as Michael Jordan in basketball, while Michael Johnson succeeded in the Olympics. It is evident even in the 2000s, the African American community has gained tremendous success, especially in the music industry, television, and sports.
American society ensures that the laws of equality get enjoyed by all citizens regardless of color, gender, or race. Today there are laws that prohibit hate speech, discrimination in terms of gender, color, religion, and even race. There are huge strides to ensure that people get equal opportunities in employment, education, and the political arena among others.
The African American society suffered through the decades of slavery and discrimination within American society. After the years of civil war, the African Americans expected to be freed and attain equal rights with the white people, but this was not to be. The Jim Crow laws of the 1880s to 1920s made it more difficult for African Americans to prosper because of segregation and discrimination. The Harlem Renaissance brought hope to the black community to pursue their talents in places such as New York or Chicago. This did not eradicate segregation but enhanced black empowerment, which developed further with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The black power movement grew and continued to fight for equality among the black community up to the 1980s. Today, the passing and protection of equality rights ensures that African Americans have the same level of social, economic, and political engagement just like whites.