I have a Dream Excerpt:

The Black Codes

Blacks who fought for the South

Black Regiments in the Union Army

Slavery Made Legal

Emancipation Proclamation

 

Americans of African Ancestry

This article was contributed by Hollis R. Lynch, Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African Studies, Columbia University.

Black people make up one of the largest of the many racial and ethnic groups in the United States. The black people of the United States are mainly of African ancestry, but many have non-black ancestors as well.

In 1990 about half of the nation's 29,067,430 African Americans lived in the South. Blacks were also concentrated in the largest cities, with more than 1 million (based on the 1990 census) living in both New York City and Chicago, Ill. There were black majorities in 11 major cities: Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Ga.; Newark, N.J.; Gary, Ind.; Detroit, Mich.; Baltimore, Md.; New Orleans, La.; Birmingham, Ala.; Richmond, Va.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jackson, Miss. Cities with from 40 to 50 percent African American populations were St. Louis, Mo.; Baton Rouge, La.; and Cleveland, Ohio.

American blacks are largely the descendants of slaves--people who were brought from their African homelands by force to work for whites in the New World. They have made basic and lasting contributions to American history and culture. Nevertheless, their rights were severely limited and for too long they were denied a rightful share in the economic, social, and political progress of the United States.

The Early History of Blacks in the Americas

Black Africans assisted the Spanish and the Portuguese during their early exploration of the Americas. In the 16th century, some black explorers settled in the Mississippi Valley and in the areas that became South Carolina and New Mexico. The most celebrated black explorer of the Americas was Esteban, who traveled through the Southwest in the 1530s.

The uninterrupted history of blacks in the United States began in 1619, when 20 Africans were landed in the English colony of Virginia. These blacks were not slaves but indentured servants--persons bound to an employer for a limited number of years, as were many of the white settlers. By the 1660s large numbers of Africans were being brought to the English colonies. In 1790 blacks numbered almost 760,000 and made up nearly one fifth of the population of the United States.

Attempts to hold black servants beyond the normal term of indenture culminated in the legal establishment of black slavery in Virginia in 1661 and in all the English colonies by 1750. The blacks were easily distinguished by their color from the rest of the population, making them highly visible targets for enslavement. Moreover, the belief that they were an "inferior" race with a "heathen" culture made it easier for whites to rationalize black slavery. The enslaved blacks, who came from populous agricultural societies, were profitably put to work clearing and cultivating the farmlands of the New World.

Of an estimated 10 million Africans brought to the Americas by the slave trade, about 430,000 came to the territory of what is now the United States. The overwhelming majority were taken from the area of western Africa stretching from present-day Senegal to Angola, where political and social organization as well as art, music, and dance were highly advanced. On or near the African coast had emerged the major kingdoms of Oyo, Ashanti, Benin, Dahomey, and the Congo. In the Sudanese interior had arisen the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai; the Hausa states; and the states of Kanem-Bornu. Such African cities as Djenne and Timbuktu, both now in Mali, were at one time major commercial and educational centers.

With the increasing profitability of slavery and the slave trade, African peoples fought each other to provide captives for European traders. The captured Africans were generally marched in chains to the coast and crowded into the holds of slave ships for the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean, usually to the West Indies. Shock, disease, and suicide killed off at least one sixth during the crossing. In the West Indies the survivors were "seasoned"taught the rudiments of English and drilled in the routines and discipline of plantation life.

Black Slavery in the United States

Black slaves played a major, though unwilling and generally unrewarded, role in laying the economic foundations of the United States--especially in the South. Blacks also played a leading role in the development of Southern speech, folklore, music, dancing, and food, blending the cultural traits of their African homelands with those of Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, African slaves worked mainly on the tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations of the Southern seaboard. Eventually, slavery became rooted in the South's huge cotton and sugar plantations. Although Northern businessmen made great fortunes from the slave trade and from investments in Southern plantations, slavery was never widespread in the North.

Crispus Attucks, an ex-slave killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770, was the first martyr to the cause of American independence from Great Britain. During the Revolutionary War, some 5,000 black soldiers and sailors fought on the American side. After the Revolution, some slaves--particularly former soldiers-- were freed and the Northern states abolished slavery. But with the ratification of the United States Constitution, in 1788, slavery became more firmly entrenched than ever in the South. The Constitution counted a slave as three fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress; extended the African slave trade for 20 years; and provided for the return of fugitive slaves to their owners.

The official end of the African slave trade in 1808 spurred the growth of the domestic slave trade in the United States, especially as a source of labor for the new cotton lands in the Southern interior. Increasingly, the supply of slaves came to be supplemented by the practice of slave breeding, in which women slaves were persuaded to conceive as early as 13 years of age and to give birth as often as possible.

Laws known as the slave codes regulated the slave system to promote absolute control by the master and complete submission by the slave. The slave was a chattel--a piece of property and a source of labor that could be bought and sold like an animal. The slave was allowed no stable family life and little privacy. He was prohibited by law from learning to read or write. The meek slave received tokens of favor from the master; the rebellious slave provoked brutal punishment. A social hierarchy among the plantation slaves also helped keep them divided. At the top were the house slaves; next in rank were the skilled artisans; at the bottom were the vast majority of field hands, who bore the brunt of the harsh plantation life.

Due to this tight control there were few successful slave revolts. Slave plots were invariably betrayed. The revolt led by Cato in Stono (S.C.) in 1739 took 30 white lives. A slave revolt in New York City in 1741 caused heavy property damage. Some slave revolts, such as those of Gabriel Prosser (Richmond, Va., in 1800) and Denmark Vesey (Charleston, S.C., in 1822), were elaborately planned. The slave revolt that was perhaps most frightening to white slaveowners was the one led by Nat Turner (Southampton, Va., in 1831). Before Turner and his coconspirators were captured, they had killed about 60 whites.

Individual resistance by slaves took such forms as mothers killing their newborn children to save them from slavery, the poisoning of slave owners, the destruction of machinery and crops, arson, malingering, and running away. Thousands of runaway slaves were led to freedom in the North and in Canada by black and white abolitionists who organized a network of secret routes and hiding places that came to be known as the "underground railroad." One of the greatest heroes of the underground railroad was Harriet Tubman, an ex-slave who on numerous trips to the South helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom.

Free Blacks and Abolitionism

During the period of slavery, free blacks made up about one tenth of the entire black population. In 1860 there were almost 500,000 free blacks--half in the South and half in the North. The free black population originated with former indentured servants and their descendants. It was augmented by free black immigrants from the West Indies and by blacks freed by individual slave owners.

But free blacks were only technically free. In the South, where they posed a threat to the institution of slavery, they suffered both in law and by custom many of the restrictions imposed on slaves. In the North, free blacks were discriminated against in such rights as voting, property ownership, and freedom of movement, though they had some access to education and could organize. Free blacks also faced the danger of being kidnapped and enslaved.

The earliest leaders of the American blacks emerged among the free blacks of the North, particularly those of Philadelphia, Pa., Boston, Mass., and New York. The free blacks of the North established their own institutions--churches, schools, and mutual aid societies. One of the first of these organizations was the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church, formed in 1816 and led by Bishop Richard Allen of Philadelphia. Among other noted free blacks was the astronomer and mathematician Benjamin Banneker.

Free blacks were among the first abolitionists. They included John B. Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish, who in 1827 founded Freedom's Journal, the first Negro newspaper in the United States. Black support also permitted the founding and survival of the Liberator, a journal begun in 1831 by the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Probably the most celebrated of all Negro journals was the North Star, founded in 1847 by the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, who argued that the antislavery movement must be led by black people.

Beginning in 1830, black leaders began meeting regularly in national and state conventions. But they differed on the best strategies to use in the struggle against slavery and discrimination. Some, such as David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet, called on the slaves to revolt and overthrow their masters. Others, such as Russwurm and Paul Cuffe, proposed that a major modern black nation be established in Africa. Supported by the white American Colonization Society, black Americans founded Liberia in West Africa in 1822. Their ideas foreshadowed the development of Pan-African nationalism under the leadership of A.M.E. Bishop Henry M. Turner a half century later. However, most black leaders then and later regarded themselves as Americans and felt that the problems of their people could be solved only by a continuing struggle at home.

The Civil War Era

The extension of slavery to new territories had been a subject of national political controversy since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the area now known as the Middle West. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 began a policy of admitting an equal number of slave and free states into the Union. But the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott Decision of 1857 opened all the territories to slavery.

By the end of the 1850s, the North feared complete control of the nation by slaveholding interests and the white South believed that the North was determined to destroy its way of life. White Southerners had been embittered by Northern defiance of the 1850 federal fugitive slave act and had been alarmed in 1859 by the raid at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., led by the white abolitionist John Brown. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 on the antislavery platform of the new Republican party, the Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy.

The Civil War, which liberated the nation's slaves, began in 1861. But preservation of the Union, not the abolition of slavery, was the initial objective of President Lincoln. Lincoln believed in gradual emancipation, with the federal government compensating the slaveholders for the loss of their "property." But in September 1862 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves residing in states in rebellion against the United States as of Jan. 1, 1863, were to be free. Thus the Civil War became, in effect, a war to end slavery.

Black leaders such as the author William Wells Brown, the physician Martin R. Delany, and Douglass vigorously recruited blacks into the Union armed forces. Douglass declared in the North Star, "Who would be free themselves must strike the blow." By the end of the Civil War more than 186,000 black men were in the Union army. They performed heroically despite discrimination in pay, rations, equipment, and assignments and the unrelenting hostility of the Confederate troops. Black slaves served as a labor force for the Confederacy, but thousands of these slaves dropped their tools and escaped to the Union lines.

Reconstruction and After

As a result of the Union victory in the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865), nearly 4 million black slaves were freed. The 14th Amendment (1868) granted blacks citizenship, and the 15th Amendment (1870) guaranteed their right to vote. Yet the Reconstruction period was one of disappointment and frustration for black people, for these new provisions of the Constitution were often ignored, particularly in the South.

After the Civil War, the freedmen were thrown largely on their own meager resources. Landless and uprooted, they moved about in search of work. They generally lacked adequate food, clothing, and shelter. The Southern states enacted laws resembling the slave codes of slave times. These laws restricted the movement of the former slaves in an effort to force them to work as plantation laborers--often for their former masters--at absurdly low wages.

The federal Freedmen's Bureau, established by Congress in 1865, assisted the former slaves by giving them food and finding jobs and homes for them. The bureau established hospitals and schools, including such institutions of higher learning as Fisk University and Hampton Institute. Northern philanthropic agencies, such as the American Missionary Association, also aided the freedmen.

During the Reconstruction period, blacks wielded political power in the South for the first time. Their leaders were largely clergymen, lawyers, and teachers who had been educated in the North and abroad. Among the ablest were Robert B. Elliott of South Carolina and John R. Lynch of Mississippi. Both were speakers of their state House of Representatives and were members of the United States Congress. Pinckney B. S. Pinchback was elected lieutenant governor of Louisiana and served briefly as the state's acting governor. Jonathan Gibbs served as Florida's secretary of state and superintendent of education. Between 1869 and 1901, 20 black representatives and 2 black senators--Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi--sat in the United States Congress.

But black political power was short-lived. Northern politicians grew increasingly conciliatory to the white South, so that by 1872 virtually all leaders of the Confederacy had been pardoned and were able to vote and hold office. By means of economic pressure and the terrorist activities of violent antiblack groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, most blacks were kept away from the polls. By 1877, with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South, Southern whites were again in full control. Blacks were disfranchised by the provisions of new state constitutions such as those adopted by Mississippi in 1890 and by South Carolina and Louisiana in 1895. Only a few Southern black elected officials lingered on. No black was to serve in the United States Congress for three decades after the departure of George H. White of North Carolina in 1901.

The rebirth of white supremacy in the South was accompanied by the growth of enforced racial separation. Starting with Tennessee in 1870, all the Southern states reenacted laws prohibiting racial intermarriage. They also passed Jim Crow laws segregating blacks and whites in almost all public places. By 1885, most Southern states had officially segregated their public schools.

In the post-Reconstruction years, blacks received only a small share of the increasing number of industrial jobs in Southern cities. And relatively few rural blacks in the South owned their own farms, most remaining poor sharecroppers heavily in debt to white landlords. The largely urban Northern blacks fared little better. The jobs they sought were given to white European immigrants. In search of improvement, many blacks migrated westward.

During and after the Reconstruction period, blacks in the cities organized historical, literary, and musical societies. The literary achievements of blacks included the historical writings of T. Thomas Fortune and George Washington Williams. 'The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass' (1881) became an autobiographical classic. Blacks also began to make a major impact on American mass culture through the popularity of such groups as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The Age of Booker T. Washington

From 1895 until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave who had built Tuskegee Institute in Alabama into a major center of industrial training for black youths, was the nation's dominant black leader. In a speech made in Atlanta, in 1895, Washington called on both blacks and whites to "cast down your bucket where you are." He urged whites to employ the masses of black laborers. He called on blacks to cease agitating for political and social rights and to concentrate instead on working to improve their economic conditions. Washington felt that excessive stress had been placed on liberal arts education for blacks. He believed that their need to earn a living called instead for training in crafts and trades. In an effort to spur the growth of black business enterprise, Washington also organized the National Negro Business League in 1900. But black businessmen were handicapped by insufficient capital and by the competition of white-owned big businesses.

Washington was highly successful in winning influential white support. He became the most powerful black man in the nation's history. But his program of vocational training did not meet the changing needs of industry, and the harsh reality of discrimination prevented most of his Tuskegee Institute graduates from using their skills. The period of Washington's leadership proved to be one of repeated setbacks for black Americans. More blacks lost the right to vote. Segregation became more deeply entrenched. Antiblack violence increased. Between 1900 and 1914 there were more than 1,000 known lynchings. Antiblack riots raged in both the South and the North, the most sensational taking place in Brownsville, Tex. (1906); Atlanta (1906); and Springfield, Ill. (1908).

Meanwhile, black leaders opposed to Washington began to emerge. The historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois criticized Washington's accommodationist philosophy in 'The Souls of Black Folk' (1903). Others were William Monroe Trotter, the militant editor of the Boston Guardian, and Ida Wells-Barnett, a journalist and a crusader against lynching. They insisted that blacks should demand their full civil rights and that a liberal education was necessary for the development of black leadership. At a meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 1905, Du Bois and other black leaders who shared his views founded the Niagara Movement. Members of the Niagara group joined with concerned liberal and radical whites to organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. The NAACP journal Crisis, edited by Du Bois, became an effective organ of propaganda for black rights. The NAACP won its first major legal case in 1915, when the United States Supreme Court outlawed the "grandfather clause," a constitutional device used in the South to disfranchise blacks.

Black contributions to scholarship and literature continued to mount. Historical scholarship was encouraged by the American Negro Academy, whose leading figures were Du Bois and the theologians Alexander Crummell and Francis Grimke. Charles W. Chesnutt was widely acclaimed for his short stories. Paul Laurence Dunbar became famous as a lyric poet. Washington's autobiography 'Up from Slavery' (1901) won international acclaim.

Black Migration to the North; World War I

When slavery was abolished in 1865, blacks were an overwhelmingly rural people. In the years that followed, there was a slow but steady migration of blacks to the cities, mainly in the South. Migration to the North was relatively small, with nearly 8 million blacks--about 90 percent of the total black population of the United States--still living in the South in 1900. But between 1910 and 1920, crop damage caused by floods and by insects--mainly the boll weevil-- deepened an already severe economic depression in Southern agriculture. Destitute blacks swarmed to the North in 1915 and 1916, as thousands of new jobs opened up in industries supplying goods to Europe, then embroiled in World War I. Between 1910 and 1920, an estimated 500,000 blacks left the South.

The blacks who fled from the South soon found that they had not escaped segregation and discrimination. They were confined mainly to overcrowded and dilapidated housing, and they were largely restricted to poorly paid, menial jobs. Again there were antiblack riots, such as that in East St. Louis, Ill., in 1917. But in the Northern cities the economic and educational opportunities for blacks were immeasurably greater than they had been in the rural South. In addition, they were helped by various organizations, such as the National Urban League, founded in 1910.

Some blacks opposed involvement in World War I. The black Socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen argued that the fight for democracy at home should precede the fight for it abroad. But when the United States entered World War I in April 1917, most blacks supported the step. During the war, about 1,400 black officers were commissioned. Some 200,000 blacks served abroad, though most were restricted to labor battalions and service regiments.

The Garvey Movement; the Harlem Renaissance

Blacks became disillusioned following World War I. The jobs that they had acquired during the war all but evaporated in the postwar recession, which hit blacks first and hardest. The Ku Klux Klan, which had been revived during the war, unleashed a new wave of terror against blacks. Mounting competition for jobs and housing often erupted into bloody race riots such as those that spread over the nation in the "red summer" of 1919.

In the face of such difficulties, a "new Negro" developed during the 1920s--the proud, creative product of the American city. The growth of race pride among blacks was greatly stimulated by the black nationalist ideas of Marcus Garvey. Born in Jamaica, he had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association there in 1914. He came to the United States in 1917 and established a branch of the association in the Harlem district of New York City. By 1919, the association had become the largest mass movement of American blacks in the nation's history, with a membership of several hundred thousand.

The Garvey movement was characterized by colorful pageantry and appeals for the rediscovery of the black African heritage. Its goal was to establish an independent Africa through the return of a revolutionary vanguard of black Americans. Garvey's great attraction among poor blacks was not matched, however, among the black middle class, which resented his flamboyance and his scorn of their leadership. Indeed, one of Garvey's sharpest critics was Du Bois, who shared Garvey's basic goals and organized a series of small but largely ineffectual Pan-African conferences during the 1920s. The Garvey movement declined after Garvey was jailed for mail fraud in 1925 and was deported to Jamaica in 1927.

The flowering of African American creative talent in literature, music, and the arts in the 1920s was centered in New York and became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Like the Garvey movement, it was based on a rise in race consciousness among blacks. The principal contributors to the Harlem Renaissance included not only well-established literary figures such as Du Bois and the poet James Weldon Johnson, but also new young writers such as Claude McKay, whose militant poem 'If We Must Die' is perhaps the most-quoted black literary work of this period. Other outstanding writers of the Harlem Renaissance were the novelist Jean Toomer and the poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. During the 1920s the artists Henry Ossawa Tanner and Aaron Douglas and the performers Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, and Roland Hayes were also becoming prominent. The black cultural movement of the 1920s was greatly stimulated by black journals, which published short pieces by promising writers. These journals included the NAACP's Crisis and the National Urban League's Opportunity. The movement was popularized by black philosopher Alain Locke in 'The New Negro', published in 1925, and by the black historian Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro (now Afro-American) Life and History and editor of the Journal of Negro History.

Blacks in the Depression and the New Deal

The Great Depression of the 1930s worsened the already bleak economic situation of black Americans. Again the first to be laid off from their jobs, they suffered from an unemployment rate two to three times that of whites. In early public assistance programs blacks often received substantially less aid than whites, and some charitable organizations even excluded blacks from their soup kitchens.

Their intensified economic plight sparked major political developments among the blacks. Beginning in 1929, the St. Louis Urban League launched a national "jobs for Negroes" movement by boycotting chain stores that had mostly black customers but hired only white employees. Efforts to unify black organizations and youth groups later led to the founding of the National Negro Congress in 1936 and the Southern Negro Youth Congress in 1937.

Virtually ignored by the Republican administrations of the 1920s, black voters drifted to the Democratic party, especially in the Northern cities. In the presidential election of 1928 blacks voted in large numbers for the Democrats for the first time. In 1930 Republican President Herbert Hoover nominated John J. Parker, a man of pronounced antiblack views, to the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP successfully opposed the nomination. In the 1932 presidential race blacks overwhelmingly supported the successful Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Roosevelt Administration's accessibility to black leaders and the New Deal reforms strengthened black support for the Democratic party. Many black leaders, members of a so-called "black Cabinet," were advisers to Roosevelt. Among them were the educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who served as the National Youth Administration's director of Negro affairs; William H. Hastie, who in 1937 became the first black federal judge; Eugene K. Jones, executive secretary of the National Urban League; Robert Vann, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier; and the economist Robert C. Weaver.

Blacks benefited greatly from New Deal programs, though discrimination by local administrators was common. Low-cost public housing was made available to black families. The National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps enabled black youths to continue their education. The Work Projects Administration gave jobs to many blacks, and its Federal Writers Project supported the work of many authors, among them Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Waters Turpin, and Melvin B. Tolson.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), established in the mid-1930s, organized large numbers of black workers into labor unions for the first time. By 1940, there were more than 200,000 blacks in the CIO, many of them officers of union locals.

World War II

The industrial boom that began with the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 ended the depression. However, unemployed whites were generally the first to be given jobs. Discrimination against blacks in hiring impelled A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to threaten a mass protest march on Washington. To forestall the march, scheduled for June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 banning "discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government" and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to investigate violations. Although discrimination remained widespread, during the war blacks secured more jobs at better wages in a greater range of occupations than ever before.

In World War II, as in World War I, there was a mass migration of blacks from the rural South. Some 1.5 million blacks left the South during the 1940s, mainly for the industrial cities of the North. Once again, serious housing shortages and job competition led to increased racial tension. Race riots broke out, the worst in Detroit in June 1943.

During the war, which the United States had entered in December 1941, a large proportion of black soldiers overseas were in service units, and combat troops remained segregated. In the course of the war, however, the Army introduced integrated officer training, and Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., became its first black brigadier general. In 1949, four years after the end of World War II, the armed services finally adopted a policy of integration. During the Korean War of the early 1950s, blacks for the first time fought side by side with whites in fully integrated units.

The Civil Rights Movement

At the end of World War II, black Americans were poised to make far-reaching demands to end racism. They were unwilling to give up the minimal gains that had been made during the war.

The campaign for black rights went forward in the 1940s and 1950s in persistent and deliberate steps. In the courts the NAACP successfully attacked racially restrictive covenants in housing, segregation in interstate transportation, and discrimination in public recreational facilities. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court issued one of its most significant rulings. In the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kan.), the court overturned the "separate but equal" ruling of 1896 and outlawed segregation in the nation's school systems. White citizens' councils in the South fought back with legal maneuvers, economic pressure, and even violence. Rioting by white mobs temporarily closed Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., when nine black students were admitted to it in 1957.

Direct nonviolent action by blacks achieved its first major success in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955-56, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. This protest was prompted by the quiet but defiant act of a black woman, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955. Resistance to black demands for the desegregation of Montgomery's buses was finally overcome when the Supreme Court ruled in November 1956 that the segregation of public transportation facilities was unconstitutional. To coordinate further civil rights action, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was established in 1957 under King's leadership.

Within 15 years after the Supreme Court outlawed all-white primary elections in 1944, the registered black electorate in the South increased more than fivefold, reaching 1,250,000 in 1958. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first federal civil rights legislation to be passed since 1875, authorized the federal government to take legal measures to prevent a citizen from being denied voting rights.

Beginning in February 1960 in Greensboro, N.C., student sit-ins forced the desegregation of lunch counters in drug and variety stores throughout the South. In April 1960 leaders of the sit-in movement organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the spring of 1961 "freedom rides" to defy segregation on interstate buses in Alabama and Mississippi were organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), under its national director, James Farmer.

The NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and CORE cooperated on a number of local projects, such as the drive to register black voters in Mississippi, launched in 1961. In April 1964 they worked together to help found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, which later that year challenged the seating of an all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

Blacks adopted "Freedom Now" as their slogan to recognize the Emancipation Proclamation centennial in 1963. National attention in the spring of 1963 was focused on Birmingham, Ala., where King was leading a civil rights drive. The Birmingham authorities used dogs and fire hoses to quell civil rights demonstrators, and there were mass arrests. In September 1963 four black girls were killed by a bomb thrown into a Birmingham church.

Civil rights activities in 1963 culminated in a March on Washington organized by Randolph and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. King addressed the huge throng of 250,000 demonstrators. The march helped secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbade discrimination in voting, public accommodations, and employment and permitted the attorney general of the United States to deny federal funds to local agencies that practiced discrimination. Efforts to increase the black vote were also helped by the ratification in 1964 of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the poll tax.

The difficulties in registering black voters in the South were dramatized in 1965 by events in Selma, Ala. Civil rights demonstrators there were attacked by police who used tear gas, whips, and clubs. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested. As a result, however, their cause won national sympathy and support. Led by King and by John Lewis of SNCC, some 40,000 protesters from all over the nation marched from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital. Congress then passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated all discriminatory qualifying tests for voter registrants and provided for the appointment of federal registrars.

The Black Revolt

During the 1960s the nation's black-inhabited inner cities were swept by violent outbreaks. Their basic causes were long-standing grievances--police insensitivity and brutality, inadequate educational and recreational facilities, high unemployment, poor housing, high prices. Yet the outbreaks were mostly unplanned. Unlike the race riots of earlier decades, the outbreaks of the 1960s involved the looting and burning of white-owned property in the black ghettos. The fighting that took place was mainly between black youths and the police. Hundreds of lives were lost, and tens of millions of dollars' worth of property was destroyed. The most serious disturbances occurred in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Calif., in July 1965 and in Newark and Detroit in July 1967.

During the 1960s militant black nationalist and Marxist-oriented black organizations were created, among them the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Deacons for Defense, and the Black Panther party. Under such leaders as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown SNCC adopted more radical policies. Some of the militant black leaders were arrested and others fled the country, seriously weakening their organizations.

The slogan of "black power" became popular in the late 1960s. It was first used by Carmichael in June 1966 during a civil rights march in Mississippi. However, the concept of black power predated the slogan. Essentially, it refers to all the attempts by American blacks to maximize their political and economic power.

Among the outstanding modern advocates of black power was Malcolm X, who rose to national prominence in the early 1960s as a minister in the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslim movement. Malcolm broke with the leader of the Black Muslims, Elijah Muhammad, and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity before he was assassinated in February 1965.

The black power movement was stimulated by the growing pride of black Americans in their African heritage. This pride was symbolized most strikingly by the Afro hair style and the African garments worn by many young blacks. Black pride was also manifested in student demands for black studies programs, black teachers, and separate facilities, and in an upsurge in African American culture and creativity. The new slogan--updated from Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes--was "black is beautiful."

The Vietnam War, in which black soldiers participated in disproportionately high numbers, tended to divide the black leadership and divert white liberals from the civil rights movement. Some NAACP and National Urban League leaders minimized the war's impact on the black home front. A tougher view--that America's participation had become a racist intrusion in a nonwhite nation's affairs--was shared by other black leaders, including King. He organized the Poor People's Campaign, a protest march on Washington, D.C., before he was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968. Anger and frustration over his assassination by a white drifter set off more disturbances in the inner cities. (James Earl Ray was tried and convicted of the murder.)

The civil rights movement underwent a marked shift in emphasis after 1970. Legislative goals had largely been achieved. And even more significant than some of the civil rights laws was President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program. Established as a War on Poverty, it greatly expanded welfare programs. One goal of the Great Society was to help realize some of the intentions of civil rights legislation. This could only be done by opening up opportunities for blacks in schooling, housing, and the labor force. Thus, a new emphasis emerged: affirmative action programs tried to make up for past wrongs by assuring present opportunities. Sometimes it became necessary to resort to quota systems in school admission and job hiring, a policy that was denounced by some nonblacks as reverse discrimination. Regardless of the programs, however, by the early 1990s many blacks were still living in poverty in urban ghettos. Nevertheless, many black families had risen into the middle and upper middle class.

The Rodney King Riots

On March 3, 1991, a black motorist, Rodney King, along with two passengers, led police on a high-speed chase north of Los Angeles. When the car was stopped, the passengers surrendered, but King resisted arrest. In subduing him, four white policemen administered a beating, mostly with their nightsticks. This incident was caught on videotape by a witness, and the tape was replayed frequently to television audiences across the nation.

The white policemen were brought to trial in March 1992. The jury acquitted them of assault charges on April 29. That evening a major riot broke out in south-central Los Angeles. For more than two days there was looting, arson, assault, and killing. When it was over more than 5,270 buildings had been destroyed or damaged; 4,100 fires had been set; 49 people were killed; and about 1,400 were injured. Whole neighborhoods had been wiped out and thousands of jobs lost. Rioting and assorted violent incidents occurred in other cities, but the greatest violence was in Los Angeles. It had become the worst urban crisis of the century, and the most costly in lives, property, and money. In 1993 two of the police officers were convicted in federal court of violating King's civil rights.

Political Progress

The voter registration drives that intensified during the 1960s finally had a payback at the end of the decade. In 1960 only about 28 percent of the black voting-age population in the South was registered and there were perhaps a hundred black elected officials. By 1969, with the number of registrants more than doubled, up to 1,185 blacks had been elected to state and local offices. On the national level, however, no Southern blacks were elected to Congress until the 1970s. The first black senator in the 20th century was Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts (1967-79). Many African Americans have been elected to the House of Representatives.

Some of the electoral gains were spectacular. The first black chief executive of a major city was an appointee--Walter E. Washington, who became the commissioner of Washington, D.C., in 1967. But other blacks were elected mayors--Carl Stokes in Cleveland and Richard Hatcher in Gary in 1967; Kenneth Gibson in Newark in 1969; Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, Coleman A. Young in Detroit, and Maynard Jackson in Atlanta in 1973; Ernest N. Morial in New Orleans in 1977; Richard Arrington in Birmingham in 1979; Wilson Goode in Philadelphia and Harold Washington in Chicago in 1983; and Kurt L. Schmoke in Baltimore in 1987. Also in 1987, Carrie Saxon Perry of Hartford, Conn., was the first black woman to be elected mayor of a large city. Other black mayors included Michael R. White of Cleveland; Wellington Webb of Denver; Norman B. Rice of Seattle; Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, Mo.; John Daniels of New Haven, Conn.; Noel C. Taylor of Roanoke, Va.; and Elihu Mason Harris of Oakland, Calif.

An African American became mayor of the largest city in the United States in 1989 when David N. Dinkins won the general election after a stunning primary defeat of New York City's incumbent mayor. Tom Bradley's attempt to become the country's first elected black governor failed in 1982, but seven years later L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia reached that milestone. In Illinois, Roland W. Burris was elected attorney general. Michigan voters put Richard H. Austin in office as treasurer, and Connecticut did the same for Francisco Borges. Unlike the first generation of black politicians, who rose through the civil rights movement, the winners in the 1980s were experienced officeholders.

National recognition. The first African American named to the Supreme Court was Thurgood Marshall (1967). When Marshall retired in 1991, he was succeeded by another black associate justice, Clarence Thomas. The televised Senate committee hearings on the Thomas nomination received international notoriety in October 1991, when charges of sexual harassment were alleged against him by a former staff member, Anita Hill. The issue became controversial in itself, drawing attention to harassment in the workplace. Thomas was confirmed by a close vote in the full Senate, but the hearings had repercussions in the national elections of 1992. In Illinois, for example, Cook County recorder of deeds Carol Moseley-Braun defeated Senator Alan Dixon, who had voted to approve Thomas' nomination, in the March primary election. Moseley-Braun won the general election in November as well, thus becoming the first African American woman to be elected to the United States Senate.

The first black member of a presidential Cabinet was Robert C. Weaver, secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (1966), and the second was William T. Coleman, Jr., Transportation (1975). Another secretary of HUD, Patricia Roberts Harris, was the first black woman in the Cabinet (1977). Andrew Young was named ambassador to the United Nations (1977). Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., became secretary of the Army (1977). In 1989 Louis W. Sullivan of Georgia was named secretary of Health and Human Services.

Within one six-month period in 1989 three major color barriers were broken. Bill White became the first African American to head a major professional sports organization when he was named president of baseball's National League; Ronald H. Brown, who had worked for Jesse Jackson's unsuccessful presidential bid in 1988, was named chairman of the Democratic party; and Colin L. Powell, a four-star general in the Army, was chosen chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--the youngest to hold the nation's highest military post.

Other Contributions to American Life

Ralph Waldo Ellison's novel of alienation and the blues, 'Invisible Man' won the National Book Award for 1953. Like its nameless, faceless narrator, many blacks in the 1940s searched for identity in a white-dominated society. Their concerns were ignored or neglected. Their accomplishments, except as entertainers, went unrecognized. They were excluded from restaurants, theaters, hotels, and clubs.

In protesting the abuse of human rights, King's leadership and the black power movement brought high visibility to African Americans. In the Invisible Man's era, left-wing causes had exploited them as anonymous symbols of oppression, but the media made celebrities of 1960s activists--for example, Black Panther supporter Angela Davis and SNCC's Julian Bond, at 28 in 1968 put forward for the Democratic vice-presidency. In the forefront of the civil rights marches were author James Baldwin, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, folksingers Harry Belafonte and Odetta, and comedian Dick Gregory.

After decades of Topsy dolls and Aunt Jemima, there appeared a nonwhite Barbie (Christie, in 1968), and a African American model was featured on the cover of Vogue magazine (Beverly Johnson, in 1974). Advertisers soon recognized the growing need for African American consumer images to sell merchandise. Some national spokespersons for food, equipment, and services have been humorist Bill Cosby, basketball's Michael Jordan, actress Whoopi Goldberg, and singer Ray Charles.

Nat King Cole was the first black entertainer with a network television series (1956-57), but despite the singer's great talent, his variety show did not attract sponsors. In 1992 his daughter Natalie won a Grammy music award for her recording of a sound-mix duet with her late father of his 1950s hit "Unforgettable." More than 20 years after Cole's death many situation comedies have been marketed with predominantly black casts, and the large acting ensembles in dramatic series are usually integrated. Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson starred in the popular series Sanford and Son in 1972-77. One of the most acclaimed weekly shows ever produced was The Cosby Show (1984-92). Its spin-off, A Different World, consistently ranked in the top ten prime-time shows. Keenan Ivory Wayans, star of the satirical comedy show In Living Color, won an Emmy award for his work in 1990.

One of television's most-watched dramatic telecasts was 'Roots', an eight-part miniseries first shown in 1977. A sequel, the seven-part 'Roots: The Next Generations', appeared in 1979. Based on Alex Haley's real-life search for his African ancestry, the shows made other African Americans more aware of their rich cultural heritage.

In the network news division Ed Bradley has been one of the 60 Minutes interviewers since 1981 and Bryant Gumbel became cohost of The Today Show in 1982. Charlayne Hunter-Gault has appeared regularly on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. Jennifer Lawson is a vice-president of the Public Broadcasting Service. A former anchor on a local news desk, Oprah Winfrey was the most powerful woman in the industry by the end of the 1980s. After she became a popular daytime talk show host, she established her own production company. By the 1990s the talk about late-night talk shows centered on the innovative Arsenio Hall. Hall and Winfrey also acted in films.

"Blaxploitation" films like 'Superfly' drew huge audiences in the 1970s, but they did not deal with the real black experience. From the 1950s Academy award winner Sidney Poitier appeared in genuine dramatic roles. By the 1980s other actors were cast in roles that had not been written with a specific color line--for example, Louis Gossett, Jr., in 'An Officer and a Gentleman' (1983 Academy award). When the original male lead of the hit musical 'Phantom of the Opera' left the cast in 1990, his replacement was Robert Guillaume. "Buddy pictures" paired black and white actors, including such stars as Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Richard Pryor, and Gregory Hines, who was also a dazzling tap dancer. A completely original talent, director-writer-actor Spike Lee had total control over his productions, which spotlighted contemporary African American life. Other prominent black directors of the 1990s were John Singleton ('Boyz N the Hood', 1991) and Matty Rich ('Straight Out of Brooklyn', 1990).

Pulitzer prizes. The poet Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black to win a Pulitzer prize, for 'Annie Allen' in 1950. 'The Color Purple', a best-selling novel by Alice Walker, won in 1983. Toni Morrison's novel 'Beloved' took the prize in 1988. 'A Soldier's Play' brought a Pulitzer for drama to Charles Fuller in 1982. Playwright August Wilson was a two-time Pulitzer prizewinner--for 'Fences' (1987) and for 'The Piano Lesson' (1990). (See also American Literature; Drama.)

Music. Almost all of America's popular music has its origins in the black culture--jazz, blues, ragtime, rock, soul, and rap. Thomas A. Dorsey was the Father of Gospel Music, and Harry T. Burleigh arranged spirituals for the concert stage. Marian Anderson was the first black to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House, in 1955. Other opera stars were Leontyne Price, La Julia Rhea, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Leona Mitchell, Harolyn Blackwell, Wilhelminia Fernandez, Marvis Martin, Clamma Dale, Isola Jones, Carmen Balthrop, Cynthia Clarey, and Kathleen Battle. Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey led outstanding dance troupes. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis emerged as one of the great trumpeters of the late 20th century, winning Grammy awards for both his jazz and classical works. His brother, Branford, became music director for television's popular Tonight show in May 1992. Top-selling popular recording artists of the 1990s included Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Luther Vandross, Prince, Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, and Tracy Chapman. The most popular rap singers were Hammer and L L Cool J.

Sports. The whites-only barrier was broken in major league baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947. Today African American athletes dominate almost all of the professional team sports. In basketball some of the record holders were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. In football Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Erik Dickerson, and Jim Marshall set records. Baseball's Ricky Henderson held the stolen-base record at 939 in 1991. From Joe Louis in the 1930s until Evander Holyfield in the 1990s black Americans have almost monopolized heavyweight boxing. Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson were at the top of the game of tennis. Since Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals in 1936, African Americans have excelled in track and field sports. Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee won medals at the 1988 Olympics. Carl Lewis, Butch Reynolds, Roger Kingdom, Edwin Moses, Bob Beamon, and Willie Banks also set track records.

Beyond the high-profile professions and personalities, the most positive result of the civil rights movement has been the kinds of work and workplaces that have opened up for all African Americans. More black families can identify with middle- or upper-class life in the mainstream. Still, 45 percent of black children live in poverty. Segregated housing and white flight from the inner city have continued to foster school segregation. By the 1990s affirmative- action rulings favored other minorities and the focus of civil rights legislation had shifted to the disabled.

Names and labels. As Americans of African descent reached each new plateau in their struggle for equality, they reevaluated their identity. The slaveholder labels of black and negro (Spanish for black) were offensive, so they chose the euphemism colored when they were freed. Capitalized, Negro became acceptable during the migration to the North for factory jobs. Afro-American was adopted by civil rights activists to underline pride in the ancient homeland, but black--the symbol of power and revolution--proved more popular. All of these terms are still reflected in the names of dozens of organizations. To reestablish "cultural integrity" in the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson proposed the less demeaning African American, which--unlike some "baseless" color label--proclaims kinship with a historical land base.

Some Notable African Americans  Baker, Josephine Bradley, Tom Charles, Ray Cosby, Bill Dunbar, Paul Laurence Ellison, Ralph Waldo Fitzgerald, Ella Franklin, John Hope Frazier, Edward Franklin Gregory, Dick Hansberry, Lorraine Harris, Barbara Clementine Henson, Matthew Alexander Horne, Lena Johnson, James Weldon Jordan, Barbara Julian, Percy Lavon Leadbelly Lee, Spike Marshall, Thurgood Price, Leontyne Robeson, Paul Robinson, Roscoe, Jr. Sowell, Thomas Waters, Ethel Wattleton, Faye Wilkins, Roy Williams, Bert Wilson, August

Some Landmarks of Black History in the United States

Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. Washington, D.C. Promotes study of black history. Atlanta University Center. Atlanta, Ga. Includes Clark Atlanta University; Morris Brown, Morehouse, and Spelman colleges; Interdenominational Theological Center; and Morehouse College of Medicine. Benjamin Banneker Marker. Baltimore County, Md. Dedicated to black mathematician and astronomer. Booker T. Washington National Monument. Near Roanoke, Va. Washington's birthplace. Booker T. Washington Plaque and Bust. Hall of Fame, New York City. Crispus Attucks Monument. Boston, Mass. Memorial to black who died in Boston Massacre. Du Sable Museum of African American History. Chicago, Ill. Literature and exhibits on history of black people. Frederick Douglass Home. Washington, D.C. Last home of black abolitionist. Frederick Douglass Monument and Grave. Rochester, N.Y. George Washington Carver National Monument. Near Diamond, Mo. Includes birthplace of black scientist. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Harpers Ferry, W. Va. Site of John Brown's 1859 raid. Harriet Tubman Home. Auburn, N.Y. Memorials to black abolitionist and "conductor" of Underground Railroad. James Weldon Johnson Collection. Temple Street Church, New Haven, Conn. Books and papers of black author. Jan Ernst Matzeliger Statue. Lynn, Mass. Honors black inventor of shoe-lasting machine. John Rankin House Museum. Ripley, Ohio. Station on Underground Railroad. John Swain Grave. Tombstone, Ariz. Burial place of black pioneer and cowboy. Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site. Atlanta, Ga. Includes birthplace, church, burial site, library, and archives of black clergyman and civil rights leader. Matthew Henson Plaque. State Capitol, Annapolis, Md. Honors black Arctic explorer. Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Philadelphia, Pa. Oldest African Methodist Episcopal church, founded in 1794 by Richard Allen. Negro Soldiers Monument. Philadelphia, Pa. Memorial to black soldiers of United States wars. Paul Laurence Dunbar Home. Dayton, Ohio. Memorial to black poet. Schomburg Collection. New York Public Library, New York City. Literature, art, and recordings related to black culture. Shaw Monument. Boston, Mass. Dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, all-black American Civil War regiment. Sojourner Truth Grave. Battle Creek, Mich. Burial place of black abolitionist and civil- and women's-rights advocate. Tuskegee University. Tuskegee, Ala. Founded in 1881 by black educator Booker T. Washington. W.C. Handy Home and Museum. Florence, Ala. Includes restored cabin birthplace of black blues composer. W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Marker. Great Barrington, Mass. Birthplace of black NAACP founder.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center