Facts, Information And Articles About African-American History In The United States
Black History Summary: Black history is the study of African American history, culture, and accomplishments primarily in the United States.
Enslaved, oppressed, and dehumanized for much of American history, members of the black community, such as Carter G. Woodson, who founded Black History Month, studied and promoted black history as a way to overcome the discrimination and to promote the accomplishments of blacks to inspire them to make even greater contributions to the black community and larger society.
The black press was instrumental in documenting black history and giving voice to blacks, who were, at best, ignored in the larger press. The first black-owned and operated newspaper was Freedom’s Journal. Established in 1827 by two freed black men in New York, Presbyterian minister Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm—the first black man to graduate from college—the paper reported on current events and contained editorials against slavery, lynchings, and other injustices. Other newspapers, periodicals, and scholarly journals followed, including Frederick Douglass’ North Star (1847), The Chicago Defender (1905), the NAACP’s The Crisis (1910), The Journal of Negro History (1916), and Ebony (1945), all providing a forum for black news, culture, society, and scholarly pursuits that were ignored or denigrated by the larger society.
African slaves and indentured servants were brought to the U.S. colonies to provide a cheap labor force alongside European indentured servants. By the turn of the 18th century, African Americans made up about 10% of the population and while some were brought from Africa, many came from the West Indies, were brought to the colonies as slaves from plantations in the Caribbean, or—increasingly—were born in the colonies. It also became increasingly rare for African Americans to be treated as indentured servants and freed; instead, they were treated as slaves for life, their children born into slavery with no hope of escaping the condition.
Most masters treated their slaves as they would their livestock, interested only in the work they could do. Separated from their families and their culture, blacks were forced to adapt to extremely difficult working and living conditions. In response, they formed their own society, culture, and religious practices as best they could. Some slaves ran away or organized rebellions, most of which were brutally put down.
African Americans in the Revolutionary War
By the time of the American Revolution, about 2% of people in the North were slaves, mainly used as personal servants, while in the South about 25% of the population was comprised of slaves working on large plantations and smaller farms as well as in manufacturing, brickmaking, offloading ships, and virtually all other forms of manual labor. Some American colonists recognized that slaves’ struggle to be free of their masters was similar to their own struggle for freedom from British rule; slavery began to be seen as a social evil that reflected poorly on whites and on the country as a whole.
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Crispus Attucks, a tradesman of African and Wapanoag descent, was among the first casualties of the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, which foreshadowed the Revolutionary War. Attucks and four others killed during the Massacre were all hailed as heroes and buried in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, which contains the graves of other notables, including John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1858, the budding Abolitionist movement and the African American community in Boston began celebrating Crispus Attucks day on March 5 to remind Americans of Attucks’ sacrifice for his country’s independence even though he had been born into slavery.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence became a manifesto for human rights and personal freedom, although ironically Jefferson was the owner of about 200 slaves. The Declaration initially contained language that included the promotion of slavery as one of King George III’s offenses, but that passage was removed by the Second Continental Congress. Petitions from freed blacks, including Prince Hall, the founder of African American freemasonry, to end slavery were ignored by the Second Continental Congress.
Blacks Patriots fought in the Revolutionary War alongside their white neighbors, about 5,000 total, including Prince Hall, who hoped to improve their white’s perception of their capabilities. When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, he recommended to the Continental Congress, which agreed, that freed African Americans should no longer be recruited into the army. Many states already barred blacks, Native Americans, and other groups from joining their militias since it implied their inclusion as citizens in the young nation; a militia represented “the people in arms” and conferred the right to bear arms and receive military training. Freed blacks who were already in the army were allowed to continue fighting; some African Americans, like Agrippa Hull, fought in the war for over six years. By November 1777, the manpower required to continue the war forced a reversal in the policy of exclusion and the Congress authorized the enlistment of any Negro, the term used at the time, be he free or slave. This had come incrementally. Free men of color were accepted if they had prior military experience (January 1776) and later (January 1777) recruitment was extended to all free blacks. Among Southern states, only Maryland permitted black troops to serve, so the story of black troops in the Continental Army was that of northern blacks almost exclusively. In almost all cases, they fought in integrated units, the notable exception being the 197 men of the First Rhode Island Regiment, comprised of 197 black men and their white officers. It earned laurels in its first engagement, defeating three assaults by veteran Hessian units at Newport (Battle of Rhode Island) on August 29, 1778.
In contrast, almost from the beginning, the British and the Loyalists offered emancipation to any slave willing to join them in fighting the Patriots. Within a month of issuing his proclamation offering emancipation, Virginia governor Lord Dunmore had a 300-man unit of African Americans, which he called an “Ethiopian” brigade. Slaves escaped their masters in all colonies to join the British or flee for freedom amid the chaos of the war. In South Carolina, about a quarter of it’s slave population, about 25,000, escaped.
At the end of the war, colonists demanded the return of their property, including slaves, although the British helped many (about 4,000 documented cases) leave the country. One, Thomas Peters, had run away from slavery in North Carolina to join the British after hearing Dunmore’s proclamation. He fought throughout the war and at the end, was taken to Nova Scotia with other Loyalists and African Americans who fought for the British. The British gave the blacks land that could not be farmed and denied them the same freedoms as their white counterparts. Peters traveled to England to protest their treatment before Parliament, arriving at a time when English abolitionists were pushing through the bill the would create the Sierra Leone Company. Peters and about 1,100 other Loyalist African Americans left for Sierra Leone in 1792, and although Peters died shortly after their arrival, the group successfully established Freetown, Sierra Leone, a British colony on the West African coast.
Black History in the Old West
Black history in America includes the stories of those who helped to settle and civilize the western United States. Blacks were a part of the western expansion and the western frontier from the beginning of European colonization in the mid-1700s. Freemen and escaped slaves pushed westward as the United States expanded beyond the Mississippi to the Pacific. Their roles in westward expansion included colonizing, farming, building railroads, prospecting, establishing their own businesses—in short, they could be found in virtually all walks of life. There were many black cowboys, some black lawmen and outlaws, and black soldiers—the renowned “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Blacks in Early California
Freed blacks, or Afro-Latinos—descendants of African slaves brought to Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Spanish—helped colonize California following the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition that opened an overland trade route to California in 1774. By 1790, an estimated 20 percent of California’s population was African American. In addition, race had much less significance in California society, where Afro-Latinos were equal members of society, acquiring large tracts of land, holding military and political positions, and intermarrying with Spanish, Mexican, and native people. California’s last governor under Mexican rule was Pío de Jesús Pico, was a wealthy, third-generation Californio of Spanish, African and Native American ancestry.
Following the U.S. acquisition of California, the new territorial government began enacting laws that stripped away the legal and political rights of all non-whites. The California Constitution, ratified in November 1849, voted to disenfranchise all but white male U.S. citizens, with a limited exception for Indians, who could be allowed to vote in special cases sanctioned with the two-thirds vote of the legislature. Vagrancy laws were adopted that essentially enslaved Native Americans until the end of the Civil War. Other laws were enacted that allowed anyone claiming a black person as an ex-slave to detain and, essentially, re-enslave that person. Thousands lost their land in U.S. courts that refused to recognize Spanish and Mexican-era land titles.
Freemen of Color and Slaves Migrate West to the Interior
In the late 18th and early 19th century, other free blacks—freed and escaped slaves—migrated west into the interior from colonies on the Atlantic coast, mainly working in the fur trade. They were slaves, free trappers, camp keepers, traders, and entrepreneurs. One man, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was a very successful trader of African descent—his early life is not well-documented though it is likely that he was born into slavery—who settled near the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s and is widely regarded as the first resident and founder of Chicago. When Point du Sable sold his farm in 1800, it included a house, two barns, a horse-drawn mill, a bakehouse, a poultry house, a dairy, and a smokehouse.
In 1803, Merriweather Lewis and William Clark set out from St. Louis, where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet, to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, look for a water route to the Pacific, and explore the Pacific Northwest. The Corps of Discovery included Clark’s slave York, who made invaluable contributions to the expedition through labor, hunting game, and helping establish friendly relations with the native tribes. He risked his life to save Clark in a flash flood in present-day Montana, and as the journey wore on and the Corps coalesced into a true team he was treated as an equal, voting member. On their return to St. Louis, Clark expected York to return to slavery, refusing to free him. Sometime after 1816 Clark either relented and freed York or York managed to finally escape. His ultimate fate is unclear—Clark claimed York hated freedom and died trying to return. Contrary to this claim, a fur trapper reported seeing him in an Indian village in the 1830s, content and respected in his old age.
Before the Civil War, black slaves fled the South not just to freedom in the North but to freedom in the West. Escaped slaves and free blacks were drawn to the west for the same reasons whites were: the promise of riches in the Gold Rush, cheap land, and a chance for a better life. Several acted as guides, Moses Harris and Edward Rose among them. One man, Moses Rodgers, arrived in California during the Gold Rush, eventually purchased mines in California, and became one of the wealthiest men in the state.
During the Civil War, about 100,000 slaves escaped to settle in western states bordering on slave states—Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana (the latter two were still considered “western states” at the time). Freed slave Clara Brown made her way to Colorado just before the Civil War began and became a prominent business woman and community leader, helping countless former slaves make new homes and find jobs in the West.
In the years following the Civil War, as with whites, there was a great migration of blacks to new western states—between 1865 and 1910 about 250,000 migrated. As Jim Crow laws were put on the books and widespread discrimination was sanctioned by law, many blacks moved west to claim land via the Homestead Act. Most chose to migrate to Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and California, with migration to Oklahoma picking up in the 1890s after Indian lands were opened for settlement. All-black communities formed around the promise of land ownership and escape from racial persecution.
Like whites, blacks were homesteaders and their communities included all professions and social institutions—schools, churches, restaurants, men’s and women’s clubs. Some were entrepreneurs; Elvira Conley opened a laundry business in Sheridan, Kansas—at the time a lawless frontier town—that was frequented by Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock. Biddy Mason was a slave and midwife who obtained her freedom by petitioning the court in California. She was able to buy a significant amount of land in Los Angeles and make her family one of richest in California.
African American Cowboys, Outlaws, and Lawmen
African Americans were also cowboys, outlaws, and lawmen, classic roles in the old West. Along with crop cultivation, herding and ranching grew in the 1860s, creating demand for skilled herders and ranch hands: cowboys. Several famous cowboys—Bose Ikard and Nat Love, aka “Deadwood Dick”—were born into slavery and made their way West following the Civil War. The U.S. census reported 1,600 black cowboys in 1890 and some estimates say one in three cowboys were of African descent. Jesse Stahl, Mathew “Bones” Hooks, and Bill Picket were also black cowboys born after emancipation.
Some black men, including some who had fought in the Civil War, became lawmen and Buffalo Soldiers. Bass Reeves became the first black U.S. deputy marshal west of the Mississippi and Marshal Willie Kennard gained fame for shooting the pistols out of a criminal’s hands. Some others—among them, Ned Huddleston (aka Isom Dart), Cherokee Bill, and Ben Hodges—became outlaws choosing to rustle cattle, and rob or swindle banks, stores, and railroads.
The Post-Revolutionary and Antebellum Periods
Following the Revolutionary War, during the Antebellum Period, Southern plantations began to shift production to cotton, a labor-intense but lucrative crop. Demand for cotton had risen during the war when textiles from Europe were cut off, and continued to rise after the war as the textile industry mechanized and the Industrial Revolution began in England and New England. Southern plantation owners depended on a slave labor force to cultivate and harvest the crop—along with the rise in demand for cotton, the demand for slave labor rose.
In 1808, the federal ban on importing slaves became effective, ending the international slave trade while allowing domestic slavery to continue and driving prices for slaves up. It became profitable for smaller farmers to sell their slaves further south and west. Although most farmers in the South had small- to medium-sized farms with few slaves, the large plantation owners needed many slaves to cultivate and harvest crops, and their wealth afforded them considerable prestige and political power.
Slaves in the U.S. resisted slavery through many passive forms of resistance, such as damaging equipment, working slowly, or in keeping their culture and religious beliefs alive. They also planned open rebellions, risking everything for freedom. Several plots and rebellions happened in antebellum America, notably Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, an uprising in Louisiana in 1811, andDenmark Vesey’s conspiracy, which was uncovered in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina. One of the bloodiest rebellions in U.S. history occurred in August 1829 when Nat Turner organized a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 whites were killed and, after the rebellion was put down, the state executed 56 slaves accused of being part of it. Militias and mobs formed in the paranoid chaos that followed and anywhere from 100 to 200 innocent slaves were killed in the aftermath. In response to these rebellions, slave codes and laws limiting slaves’ movements and freedom to gather tightened considerably. In spite of this, plots and actual rebellions in slave-holding states continued into and through the Civil War.
In the North, the Abolitionist movement, which had long existed, began in earnest in 1833. Free blacks, like Frederick Douglass and two important black women in history, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, joined with whites who believed that slavery was wrong. Former slaves themselves, they were able to give vivid, first-hand accounts of its horrors. Abolitionists campaigned for the end of slavery and helped escaped slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad, a network of safe routes and safe houses. The often violent opposition between the Abolitionists and slave owners and the economic divisions between the North and South ultimately led to the Civil War in 1861.
The first black institutions for higher learning were established during the Antebellum Period. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, founded as the African Institute in February 1837 and later renamed the Institute of Colored Youth, provided teacher training and training in the skilled trades, at the bequest of Quaker Richard Humphreys. In 1854, Wilberforce University was established in southwestern Ohio to provide teacher training and a classic education to African Americans. The Ashmun Institute, renamed Lincoln University following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, was also founded in 1854 and was the first to grant degrees. Graduates of Lincoln went on to found seven other historically black colleges.
African American in the Civil War
African Americans fought in the Civil War, mainly in the Union Army and filling relief roles for the Union, such as nurses, cooks, and blacksmiths. Some were spies and scouts for the Union Army, providing valuable information about Confederate resources and troop movements. Blacks were also part of the Confederate Army, although they were the exception—they were needed more as slaves and Southerners were extremely hesitant to arm them for fear they would rebel.
Emancipation and Reconstruction
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and all slaves were freed in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendement. Other legislation followed, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment; both repealed the Dred Scott decision and made blacks full U.S. citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote and gave Congress the power to enact laws protecting that right. In 1870, the first black senator was elected; Hiram Revels was a minister and politician who had been a chaplain in the Union Army and, following the war, had been assigned by the Methodist Episcopal Church to a pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1865. Thousands of other blacks from all over the country moved to Mississippi, where they were able to clear and claim land on the previously undeveloped bottomlands along the Mississippi River.
During Reconstruction, some strides were made toward equality in the South, as long federal troops remained there as an occupying force protecting the rights of freedmen. Blacks were able to vote and run for office, and helped establish public school systems in most Southern states, although funding was difficult to find. Blacks established their own churches, businesses, and towns. However, many southern whites continued to refuse to recognize blacks as equals, terrorizing and harassing them at the polls and in the community.
The last Union troops withdrew from the south in 1877 as part of the unwritten Compromise of 1877 following the contentious 1876 election. Southern Democrats agreed to not contest the close election of Rutherford B. Hayes—they were so incensed they threatened to march on Washington—if Republicans withdrew federal troops from southern states and if Hayes appointed a Democrat to his cabinet. Southern Democrats once again had political power and began a campaign of intimidation, terror, and fraud to prevent blacks from voting. They began passing laws that made voter registration and elections more complex to disenfranchise blacks, which incidentally disenfranchised many poor whites.
The Jim Crow laws, which were state and local segregation laws enacted from 1876-1965, were passed to separate blacks and whites in as many aspects of life as possible. Supposedly aimed at making separate but equal accommodations for both races, the reality was that blacks were often treated as inferiors and put at a disadvantage, ultimately making racism and discrimination systemic. White supremacist organizations began to form, including the Ku Klux Klan in 1867, with the specific intent of terrorizing the black community. Enabled by Jim Crow laws and widespread corruption, lynchings—the extrajudicial execution of black men, women, and children and sympathetic whites—were one of the horrific results of this systemic discrimination. Estimates of the number of people killed in lynchings vary from 5,000 to 20,000.
In response, the National Afro American Council (NAAC) was formed in 1898 by Alexander Walters, a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Journalists, lawyers, educators, politicians, and community activists met annually to discuss how to respond to discrimination against the black community. Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881, counseled the black community not to agitate for full equality as long as their economic needs were met and they received due process. Washington received widespread support in the NAAC, but other members of the black community began to call for more active opposition to discriminatory policies. In 1905, a group of other prominent African American men led by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter formed the Niagara Movement, which advocated that African Americans take an active roll in fighting discrimination. Following the Springfield, Illinois, Race Riot of 1908, in which white citizens rioted in black neighborhoods, members of the Niagara Movement and other concerned citizens formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City. The NAACP’s purpose, as stated in it’s charter is:
To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.
It initially focused on using the courts to overturn Jim Crow laws and fighting against lynchings by working to pass laws that would make it illegal and by educating the public. The NAACP would play a key role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Segregation in Professional Sports
Segregation and discrimination extended to all areas of the country and of life, including the nascent professional sports, like football and baseball, although individual black athletes—Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens are two examples—were able to forge success. Joe Louis rose in the world of professional boxing, which he helped legitimize in the 1930s, to become Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1937 to 1949. Track and field athlete Jesse Owens was one of 18 black athletes that competed in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, the “Nazi Olympics.” The African American athletes dominated the track and field events, demonstrating the falsity of claims of Aryan supremacy.
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Baseball was originated in New York with teams that included blacks and whites, and was popularized by the Civil War. However, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), which turned professional in 1869, relegated most blacks to the minor leagues, although a handful were on professional teams. With the widespread racism among whites in both the South and the North, the Compromise of 1877, and the refusal of some whites to play against blacks, professional baseball was gradually segregated so that by the turn of the century, an all-white league had formed at the exclusion of blacks and other minorities. In response to this gradual segregation, black regional teams and leagues formed.
By the end of World War I, baseball was one of the most popular forms of entertainment for urban black populations. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants, helped form the Negro National League, which included eight teams in the Midwest. The Negro Southern League formed the same year, although it was considered mainly to be a minor league. The Depression forced the Negro National League to dissolve after the 1931 season, but a second Negro National League was formed. In 1937, the Negro American League formed to include the best teams from the other two leagues. All three leagues prospered in spite of the depression, segregation, and discrimination to become one of the largest and most successful black enterprises of the time.
Following the 1944 death of the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was vehemently opposed to integration, and in the spirit of social change that swept the country following World War II, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signed WWII soldier and Negro professional player Jackie Robinson to the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm club, in 1946. Knowing that Robinson would face opposition both by the public and within the team, Rickey asked him not to retaliate or lose his temper, a strategy that won Robinson legions of fans, black and white. Robinson led the Royals to a league championship and was called up to the majors by the Dodgers six days before the start of the 1947 season. Robinson helped the Dodgers win the National League title and make it to the 1947 World Series, where they lost to the New York Yankees. Robinson also won Major League Baseball’s first-ever Rookie of the Year award.
Over the next four years, most of the talented black players signed with integrated Major League teams. The Negro National League disbanded for the final time after the 1949 season. The Negro American League operated until 1962, but had lost much of its talent and fan base to integrated leagues.
The Civil Rights Movement
Organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had been fighting for equality by trying to educate the public about injustices and lobbying legislators, and through litigation during the first half of the 20th century, with limited success. Following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, in which the NAACP successfully fought against school segregation, leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged peaceful, non-violent direct action in response to segregation and discrimination. King helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to educate church and community leaders on non-violent tactics and effective strategies to mobilize their communities in boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, and other actions. This mass mobilization and empowerment of the African American community and its supporters characterized the Civil Rights movement, which spanned from roughly 1950s to late 1960s.
Much of the Civil Rights movement involved non-violent protest, such as sit-ins and marches, fostered by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. It was advanced by events such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and the subsequent 381-day bus boycott, or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that led to the arrest of the protestors—who spent time in jail rather than posting bail, so that the financial burden of the protest would be on what they called “the corrupted system” and not the demonstrator. These protests led to a string of similar protests across the country and inspired the Freedom Riders, civil rights supporters who rode buses into the deep South to integrate seating patterns and bus terminals, bathrooms, drinking fountains, and other segregated public facilities at their destination.
The reaction of local authorities and white supremacist groups to protests was often extreme and violent. In the fall of 1957, Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was desegregated in order to come into line with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guardsmen to prevent nine African American students from attending the school. On September 24, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Alabama National Guard, ordering them to return to their barracks, and assigned soldiers from the 101st Airborne to escort the students to and at the school, although students were still harassed when soldiers weren’t present. During the Freedom Rides of 1961, buses were firebombed and met with mob violence incited by Ku Klux Klan members and other segregationists. Activists that began campaigns to mobilize black voters in the spring and summer of 1962 in towns in the Mississippi River delta were met with staunch opposition, facing arrests, beatings, arson, shooting, and murder. Determined not to back down, both campaigns were ultimately successful.
In 1963–1964, a civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, challenged the segregation of downtown businesses. The sit-ins and marches resulted in a string of arrests, including the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr. On the first day of one protest, called the Children’s Crusade because of the large number of high school students who participated in the two day action, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, had over 600 marchers arrested. The next day, as more protesters began marching from the church where they had gathered, Connor turned police dogs and fire hoses them. Television news cameras broadcast images of dogs attacking demonstrators and children being knocked over by the powerful streams of water from the hoses to viewers worldwide. Parts of the white community reacted to the protests in Birmingham with even more violence; the Gaston Motel, unofficial headquarters of the SCLC, and the 16th Street Baptist Church were both bombed.
Pressure on the administration of President John F. Kennedy for a civil rights law in 1963 was enormous. Along with the unfolding events in Birmingham, Alabama Governor George Wallace had blocked the integration of the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. Kennedy sent soldiers to force Wallace to step aside and allow the enrollment of two black students. That evening, the president addressed the nation with his historic civil rights address, in which he argued for the equal treatment of all and promised legislation that would end segregation and discrimination in employment and housing and would protect voting rights. Early in the morning of the next day, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated by a white supremacist in Mississippi. On June 19, Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress.
As Kennedy’s bill was making its way through Congress, the black community continued to rally. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO, organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963—the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The March was the largest march on Washington for civil rights, with estimates of 200,000 to 300,000 participants, thanks in part to Randolph involving a coalition of black leaders, including King, the head of the SCLC, who gave his famous I Have A Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Although the march was a success and is credited with helping with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not all civil rights activists supported it. Malcom X was perhaps the most vocal opponent, calling the march a farce and a circus and taking organizers to task for diluting the purpose of the march—a demonstration of black power—by allowing whites and other minorities to help organize it and participate.
Following the march, President Kennedy met with its organizers to assure them of the passage of the Civil Rights act; however, Congress did not pass it until June 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination on November 23, 1963. His replacement, President Lyndon B. Johnson, used his legislative experience and the bully pulpit afforded by the assassination to get the bill through Congress. Ironically, Johnson was from Texas, a segregated state that had been part of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
In 1964, “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” activists in Mississippi began the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to oppose the all-white democratic party and organized mock elections to demonstrate black’s desires to vote. Thousands of idealistic youth, black and white, traveled to Mississippi to run “freedom schools” to help educate and shore up the voting rights of poor blacks with classes in basic literacy, history, and civics. The backlash from white supremacists—particularly the murder three civil rights activists: James Chaney, a black man, and two of his white friends, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—created national outrage and helped secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated state and local barriers that had prevented blacks from voting.
Not all members of the black community believed non-violence and multiculturalism was the best path to ending discrimination. Stokey Carmicheal was an early advocate of being prepared to meet white violence with violence in return. The gathering Black Power movement emphasized racial pride and advocated for black’s self-determination and a range of political and social goals, generally using any means available. Some Black Power advocates believed in black nationalism and separatism, while others, like Malcom X and the Black Panther Party, declared themselves to be at war with the existing political power structure, which happened to be mainly white, not at war with all whites. They believed in the protection of blacks and black neighborhoods, and believed the fight for civil rights was more of a class struggle against economic oppression, rather than a racial struggle. The Black Panther Party, formed in Los Angeles in 1966, endured into the early 1980s by organizing some vital programs within black communities, such as a program that provided free breakfast for children and citizen patrols to document police injustice and brutality.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, race riots broke out in major cities across the country. Other riots had happened throughout the movement, mainly in black inner city neighborhoods where unemployment and the presence of mainly white police forces were high—notably in Harlem in 1964 and the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965. The damage done by rioters who were frustrated by the slow pace of change and outraged by continued discrimination was detrimental to the businesses and communities in which they occurred. After the riots calmed, affirmative action programs and anti-discrimination employment laws helped lower the unemployment rate in black neighborhoods and put more blacks on the police forces assigned to black neighborhoods. Other demonstrations through the end of the 1960s occasionally turned violent, but authorities were more willing to negotiate or cede to the demands of the demonstrators.
The gains of the civil rights movement in eliminating segregation laws and enacting laws that protect rights, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were enormous victories but did not result in the immediate and full integration of blacks into American society. A large segment of the black population still lives in poverty, is incarcerated, and is under-educated. Affirmative Action laws, beginning with President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 in 1961, were enacted to correct some of the inequalities by requiring schools and employers, as stated in Kennedy’s order, “to take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Such laws have become controversial and considered by some to be reverse-racism, providing opportunities that have little to do with merit. Others point out that they have provided opportunities to groups and individuals that would not otherwise have them. Many of the Affirmative Action laws that mandate specific quotas for minorities have been struck down and in some places, such as California, affirmative action has been banned altogether.
Two additional federal civil rights laws were passed after the end of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s: the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which expanded non-discrimination laws to private institutions that receive federal funds, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which countered Supreme Court decisions that had made it more difficult to prove employment discrimination and strengthened the rights of those who experienced intentional discrimination.
Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black politicians were voted into local and national office and gained more mainstream acceptance through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1972, Shirley Chisolm, the first black female member of Congress, ran for the Democratic nomination for President. She received 152 first-ballot votes at the Democratic National Convention, coming in fourth in a field of 13 candidates for the nomination. In 1984 and 1988 Reverend Jesse Jackson ran nationwide primary campaigns for the Democratic nomination, coming in third in 1984 and narrowly losing the nomination in 1988 to Michael Dukakis. Barack Obama became the nation’s first African American president after a successful presidential campaign in 2008 and was reelected for a second term in 2012.
African Americans in the Military
Following the Civil War, in 1866 Congress reorganized the Army and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry, the 9th and 10th, and two regiments of black infantry, the 24th and 25th, that initially served mainly in the West and Southwest. Nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers by the Cheyenne these regiments fought in the Indian Wars and the Spanish American War, the Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, and other U.S. conflicts until the integration of the military during the Korean War. Black regiments faced discrimination and systemic prejudice from within the Army and from civilians.
During World War I, the U.S. Army for the first time commissioned a number of black officers, 639 in all. Some 340,000 African Americans were drafted, and more volunteered.
Among the most famous black units of the war was the 369th Infantry Regiment, formed in 1913 as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment and mustered into service in 1917. They were the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force—although they were initially assigned to labor service duties—and one of the first to have black officers as well as white. In April 1918, they were assigned to the French Army for the duration of the war and were eventually nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters for their actions in the war, for which several received Distinguished Service Crosses and the Legion of Honor. Perhaps their most decorated member was Henry Lincoln Johnson, who earned a Medal of Honor and who was the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre from the French government. They received a hero’s welcome upon their return to New York City, parading from 5th Avenue at 61st Street, where white bystanders lined the streets, into Harlem where the sidewalks were packed with black New Yorkers who had come to see them. In the 1920s and 1930s, they paraded twice each summer between their armory to the train station, where they traveled to their summer camp, and became a symbol of African American service to the nation.
The world’s first black fighter pilot had run away from the racism in his native Georgia, seeking greater equality in France, and served in the French military during the war. Eugene Jacques Bullard, the “Black Swallow of Death,” served first in the French infantry and then in its emerging air corps. During the war, he received the Croix de Guerre with two stars; much later, in 1959, he was named a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Following the First World War, the Army War College prepared a report (in 1925) that concluded black troops of World War I were “barely fit for combat.” That was at odds with the Army Provost Marshal’s report that, of the 24 million men of all races called to service in 1917–1918, 36 of every 100 black men were certified, 64 rejected, exempted or discharged. By comparison, only 25 of every 100 whites were certified.
World War II saw the expansion of African Americans’ role in the military in spite of federal laws preventing them from serving alongside white soldiers, the reservations of American military leaders, and widespread racism. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black aviators, begun officially in June 1941, who disproved negative predictions by becoming some of the best aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
The 761st Tank Battalion, known as the Black Panthers, were constituted on March 15, 1942, as an all-black armored unit in WWII. They faced institutional discrimination, training for for almost two years before being deployed while similar white units trained for about three months, and suffered regional discrimination during much of their training in Southern states. Perhaps their most famous member was Jack Robinson, who refused to move to the back of a supposedly unsegregated bus while at Fort Hood, Texas on July 6, 1944. Acquitted during court-martial proceedings, which prevented him from being deployed, he was honorably discharged in November 1944. Just three years later, Jack “Jackie” Robinson would break the color barrier in major league baseball.
Following D-Day, Allied forces created a truck convoy system to supply combat units advancing through Europe after having destroyed French rail lines before landing on the beaches of Normandy to prevent the Germans from using them. The Red Ball Express, as it became known because of the red balls marking its route, operated from August 25 to November 16, 1944 and was composed of almost 75% African American soldiers who had been attached to other units. The Red Ball and its British counterpart, the Red Lion Express, made possible the rapid advance through France after the breakout from Normandy by guaranteeing that gasoline, ammunition, food and other supplies moved as rapidly as front-line combat units.
Following World War II, on October 10, 1947, civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Grant Reynolds organized the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, later called the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. After failing to defeat a peacetime draft bill that did not end racial discrimination, Randolph and Reynolds threatened to organize a civil disobedience campaign in which African American would resist the draft law. In response, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, which established “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” In April 1949, Kenneth Claiborne Royall, Secretary of the Army, was forced into retirement for continuing to refuse Truman’s order. The last all-black unit was disbanded in 1954 and today, no official racial barriers exist in the U.S. military.
During the Vietnam War, the highest-ever proportion of African Americans served in the armed forces, an about-turn from the previous attitude that they were unfit for combat. About 11% of the American population was African American at the time, while at the height of the war, about 12% of the troops were black. Many blacks enlisted because of few job opportunities at home, as was the case for whites as well in states with low employment opportunities. In addition, many African Americans did not plan on attending college (in comparison to whites at the time) and could not get a college deferment. As the civil rights movement wore on, racial violence that swept the country in the late 1960s spread to the military, with race riots on military bases and ships. African American prisoners, many of whom were jailed for violent crimes, rioted at the U.S. Army stockade at Long Binh from August 29 to September 7, 1968.
On October 1, 1989, forty years after the end of military segregation, professional soldier General Colin L. Powell became the first African American appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the U.S. Department of Defense. While in this position, he oversaw Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Powell also served as National Security Advisor (1987–1989) and as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command (1989). In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him as Secretary of State, the first African American to hold the office.
Related Themes Of Black History
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American aviators, serving in many fighting forces during World War II. Read more about Tuskegee Airmen
Jackie Robinson was a famous baseball player that was the first African American to break the barrier separating the races in baseball. He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Read more about Jackie Robinson
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a prominent figure in the African American civil rights movement. Read more about Martin Luther King Jr.
Black History Month
Black History Month is observed each February in the U.S.as a time of special awareness of African Americans’ contributions to the nation throughout its history. Read more about Black History Month
Buffalo Soldiers were a group of African-Americans serving in the 10th Cavalry Regiment of The U.S. Army. Read more about Buffalo Soldiers
The Negro Leagues were baseball leagues of predominantly African Americans which existed from 1885 to 1951. Read more about the Negro Leagues
The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified December 6, 1865, is the Constitutional Amendment which abolished slavery. Read more about Thirteenth Amendment
Red Ball Express
The Red Ball Express were a group of predominantly African-Americans who helped to bring supplies to troops during WWII. The reference of ‘red ball’ came to be associated with the perishables in shipment. Read more about the Red Ball Express
Rosa Parks, nicknamed “The First Lady of Civil Rights”, was an advocate for racial equality. She is best known for her refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white passenger, a radical stand for an African American in 1950s Alabama. Read more about Rosa Parks