Over the course of the history of the United States, there have been hundreds of thousands of people who have made a conscious effort to stand up and fight against unfair laws and practices within the country.
In particular, there have been countless Black Americans that have had to constantly fight for their lives since the the times of slavery in the United States when the freedom of Black people was sold to the highest bidder.
At the end of 2015, I paid a trip to the city of Memphis, Tennessee to attend the wedding of one of my childhood friends. While I was there, I thought that it was important to also pay a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, a museum dedicated to the history of Blacks in America that covered the time period from slavery through the Civil Rights Era.
Slavery in the United States of America: 1619-1865
The history of slavery in the United States of America (which was part of the larger Transatlantic Slave Trade) is one of the darkest parts of the country’s history.
Beginning in 1619 over one million men, women, and children were kidnapped from their homes on the continent of Africa by the Dutch and were then transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the colonies to work as indentured servants along poor white Europeans to help the colonies grow and prosper.
In 1641, slavery was officially legalized in the colony of Massachusetts. In the years following, other colonies began to follow the lead of Massachusetts by legalizing slavery in their states and turning humans into personal property.
While many people tend to associate slavery with the American South, it was not just a Southern issue; the first states to legalize slavery were all in the North and included colonies in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.
In 1662, Virginia was the first colony to enact hereditary slavery, meaning that any child that was born to a slave became a slave by default. In 1664, Maryland became the first state to mandate lifelong servitude and other states began to follow.
Slavery in America officially lasted for 245 years from 1619 to 1865. During this time, many Blacks, including my ancestors who were brought to America through the slave trade, lost their cultural identity, traditions, familial ties, and customs. They were forced to live under harsh conditions and circumstances, and even though slavery was officially abolished in 1865 at the end of the Civil War and legally through the 13th amendment, Black American’s fight for freedom was far from over.
Read and watch more about the history of Slavery in America on History.com.
Reconstruction Era: 1865 – 1877
From 1865 to 1877 America went through a period known as Reconstruction, in which the country worked towards reuniting the Northern states and the Southern states after the Civil War.
In 1867, the 14th Amendment was passed which granted citizenship and civil liberties to the freedmen. Although over 4 million Black Americans were both legally free and citizens, states, and regions across the South and Midwest started adopting laws to make the transition from slavery to freedom difficult for Blacks. The laws, which were known as black codes, were created to limit the activity and labor of Black Americans. The codes forced Black Americans to do such things as sign labor contracts and work in specific jobs (such as farming or servitude).
During this time period, Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee as a fraternal social club that would play pranks on, intimidate, and ultimately murder freed Blacks.
Jim Crow Era & Civil Rights: 1877- Mid 1960’s
The era of Jim Crow in the Southern part of the United States lasted from 1877 to the Mid-1960’s.
During this time in history, Black Americans experienced racial apartheid and were treated as second class citizens. Through segregation, Blacks were forced to use ‘Colored Only’ facilities, which were often far inferior to those of their White counterparts. In addition to segregation and degradation, mob violence and lynching ran rampant throughout the Southern States as white supremacists tried to rid their states of Blacks who spoke out or did something that they perceived to be wrong.
Rosa Parks on the Montgomery City BusOne of the most well-known Black American Civil Rights Activists from this time period was a woman from Montgomery, Alabama named Rosa Parks. On December 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, the cops were called, and she was arrested.
At the time, the Montgomery City Code stated that all public transportation in the city had to be segregated but equal. It required Blacks to sit in the back of the bus while allowing Whites to sit in the front.
In addition to the so-called ‘separate but equal’ seating, Blacks were forced to get on the bus to pay their fare in the front before exiting the bus and re-entering through the back to take their seats. If there were a lot of White passengers on the bus, Blacks were often forced to give up their seats to allow Whites to sit down.
After the arrest of Rosa Parks, the NAACP organized approximately 40,000 Blacks in the city of Montgomery and asked them to boycott the unjust bus system and Rosa’s arrest in a movement that would come to be known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The boycott severely impacted the bus system financially and in 1956, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Northern Division declared segregation unconstitutional. Due to the legal ruling and massive financial losses due to the Boycott, Montgomery was forced to end segregation on the buses and the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott ended.
Another major part of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement included The Sit-In Movement, where young Black activists went into restaurants, peacefully sat at Whites-Only counters, and waited to be served. Often times, service was refused to them and they began to be taunted verbally and physically.
The purpose of the sit-ins was stated well by Ella Baker, an advisor in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who said “We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon, and even suffer physical violence to obtain first-class citizenship.
Over the entire Sit-In Movement, over 1,500 students were arrested and abused. Slowly, restaurants throughout the South changed their tune, and segregation was abolished in restaurants.
One of the most poignant events to occur during the Civil Rights Movement was the 1961 Alabama bus bombing of the Freedom Riders.
In May 1961, thirteen Black and White activists boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C. that was bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. The riders were the first to test out the new ruling in the Boynton v. Virginia case (1960), a Supreme Court Ruling which declared interstate bus and train segregation illegal across the United States. The rider’s goal was to go into the deep South and protest segregation at bus terminals by using Whites-Only facilities, including restrooms and lunch counters.
Unfortunately, many Southerners were unhappy about the behavior of the Freedom Riders and just outside of Anniston, Alabama, the Riders were met by a large mob of Klan members that attempted to murder them by shattering the windows of the bus, and puncturing the tires of the bus before tossing in a bomb in hopes to obliterate them all. The Riders narrowly escaped with their lives before the bus exploded.
In response to the violence that occurred during the inaugural trip of the Freedom Rides and knowing the potential dangers that lied ahead of them, hundreds of other individuals took similar Freedom Rides into the South to continue protesting. The government took notice and the Kennedy administration was forced to introduce federal law which made segregated interstate travel illegal.
One of the biggest and most outspoken proponents of racial segregation in the South was Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama off and on from 1937 to the early 1960s. He was ruthless in his tactics and in 1963, he made the worst decision of his career.
During the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, in addition to arresting thousands of children Bull Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs to attack school-aged children who were peacefully protesting desegregation in Birmingham.
The news media covered the treatment of those children under the hand of Bull Connor and accelerated the creation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
Later that year, over 200,000 people headed to Washington, D.C. in the continued fight for equality as they participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The purpose of the march was to shed light on the social, economic, and political inequalities that Black Americans were facing around the country. At the end of the March, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in which he shared his dreams of America being a nation where every man, woman, and child would be equal.
During the Civil Rights Movement, activists were encouraging their fellow Black Americans to register to vote. Southern states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama were not making it easy on Blacks however, and used various tactics such as literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes to discourage voter registration.
Bloody Sunday (1965) was one of the major events of the Civil Rights Movement that occurred in the town of Selma, Alabama. On this horrific and tragic day, activists intended to march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama to bring awareness to Blacks constitutional rights not being fulfilled as they were unable to vote in the South and also to protest the death of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, an activist who had been killed by the hands of a white police officer.
Over 600 people turned up for the march on March 7, 1965, which was led by John Lewis, the SNCC, and the SCLC. Unfortunately, the marchers were unable to get very far before they were stopped by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The troopers ordered the marchers to turn around, and when they politely refused, the troopers threw tear gas into the crowd and charged at them wielding their batons and swinging at anyone and everyone around them; over 50 people were hospitalized after the incident. The event was televised around the country and widespread anger spread across the country and prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to get involved.
After an unsuccessful second march called Turnaround Tuesday two days later, Dr. King (with the assistance of court protection) was finally able to lead a successful and non-violent march with the from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, with a total of over 25,000 marchers. That summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
Although there were many people during the Civil Rights Movement who believed in practicing non-violence, there were quite a number of others who believed that non-violence did not solve any problems.
Some of the major opponents of the non-violence movement included the Black Panthers (officially known as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense). The Panthers were tired of ‘turning the other cheek’ and they were known for carrying their guns as permitted by their 2nd Amendment rights and ‘throwing down’ if necessary.
Malcolm X was another big opponent of the non-violence movement who said “Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” While he did state that he and Dr. King wanted the same thing (freedom), he had a totally different idea of how it should be obtained.
Some of the events that marked the end of the Civil Rights movement included the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike (1968), the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited housing discrimination in the United States.
This article is a very brief summary of events that occurred between 1619 and 1968. There are a number of other events and important people that played an important role in gaining the liberties that Black Americans have today.