The history of African Americans in the United States is one that is associated with intense bitterness, suffering and struggle. From the days when African slavery and servitude existed to the current situation, America can be said to have transformed into a true democracy. This level of achievement has not at all been easy. It has taken the sacrifice, commitment and effort of many people to attain the democratic rights that all Americans including African Americans enjoy today. Some of the people who fought to have a free and just society in America will forever remain in the books of history. However, many others have gone unnoticed but this does not reduce the positive contribution that they made during their time. This research paper aims to review six significant events in the history of African Americans that have contributed towards the creation of a more socially, economically and politically just American society.
Establishment of the Colored Farmers Alliance in 1866
In 1886, the first populist association of black cotton farmers was formed in America. It was known as the Colored Farmers Alliance. Ironically, the highest rank of the black organization, the General Superintendent, was held by R.M. Humphrey. More often, there were black protests regarding white leadership. In 1891, a strike involving black cotton pickers was planned and conducted in some parts of the South. The cotton pickers demand for a wage rate rise to $ 1.00 per hundred pounds. Colonel Leonidas Polk, who was the president of the Southern Alliance at the time, attempted to squash the strike using dubious means that showed utter disregard for the grievances of the black cotton pickers. Polk advised white farmers to abandon their cotton in the plantations instead of being charged more than 50 cents per hundred pounds in order to have it the cotton picked. According to Polk, the blacks were trying to improve their lives by worsening the welfare of the whites. He further argued that reforms should not be directed at making better the conditions of one part of the farmers at the demerit of the others. This was a completely contradictory argument because it was the black cotton pickers that were being taken advantage of by the white cotton field owners. In the same year, Ben Patterson, a black cotton picker led the strike in Arkansas. Moving from one plantation to another to rally support behind for the support, his band happened to kill a plantation manager and burned down a cotton gin. They were caught and shot dead.
The formation of the Colored Farmers Alliance was one of the first populist organizations of the black people. However, their rights continued to be suppressed under the leadership of the white people. Many cases of lynching of black people were still reported. Notwithstanding, the Alliance created a platform for African Americans to seek more positions of representation for their people.
‘The First Cotton Gin’ (1869)
This is an 1869 depiction of black slaves using the cotton gin as their white masters deliberated on the future prospects of the machine on the cotton industry. By early 1800, African American slavery was a prevalent activity particularly in the Southern parts of the United States. One of the reasons for the re-emergence of slave trade was attributed to the invention and increasing use of the cotton gin. This machine enabled cotton planters in the South to grow a wide range of cotton types. The short staple cotton did particularly well with the climate of the region. One major constraint with the cotton plantations was the amount of labor required to remove the seeds from the fibers of the cotton. The machine made the process much simpler and cost effective to do. However, venturing into cotton growing continued to be labor intensive especially in the large cotton plantations of the South. As a result, the African Americans were considered to be a cheap source of the required labor supply. The cotton gin machine invented by Eli Whitney only made cotton farming more attractive to invest in.
Cotton was a very profitable cash crop to grow at the time. The cotton field owners in the South had large markets in the United States and some parts of Europe. The use of black slaves made cotton growing very cost effective because they were cheap to maintain and easy to serve. The whites felt that the blacks were vulnerable to suppression. They thus treated the black slaves as savages who were not entitled to any human rights and freedoms. No consideration was given to their welfare as slave owners considered them to be part of their property which they could decide to dispose of at any time. Disrespectful slaves were punished severely, most of the time almost brutally. It is this kind of maltreatment that provoked disagreements between the Southern and the Northern States which engaged in cottage industries and thus did not require the use of slaves.
The Civil Rights Act enacted on the 9th day of April 1866 was a critical legislation in directing the nation towards social justness. It stipulated that all individuals born in American were to be treated equally irrespective of their race and social standing. This implied that African Americans born in the United States were accorded equal rights as their white counterparts. William Harper’s 1869 depiction of the cotton gin machine was one of the publications that sparked the Civil War. In 1865, slave trade was abolished in America as a result of the Civil War.
The ‘New Negroes’ of 1920s
The ‘new negro’ was a 1920s term that gained prominence after the post- World War 1 period. After the First World War, African Americans made significant transformation in their lives. Many shifted from the agriculture-based rural South to the urban North, which was industrial. During the period of the War, black soldiers had engaged in the war to advocate for the adoption of democracy all over the world. Fighting abroad, many African Americans realized that they were subjected to less racial segregation that back at home. This brought a sense of rebirth and assertiveness. When they went back home to America, they became actively participant in demanding for social and economic equality. As a result, there were a number of bills that were introduced. A Federal law to outlaw lynching was introduced by Congressman Dyer of Missouri. Perpetrators of the vice that had traditionally targeted Black Americans was passed by the House of Representatives. However, the Southern Democrats voted to squash the bill in the Senate House.
It was not just the ‘new negro’ men that had been empowered as a result of participation in the war. The ‘new negro’ woman had also been greatly emancipated. This can be attributed to the fact that during the time of the War, the ‘new negro’ woman had been left without a husband. As a result, she had to learn how to provide for herself and her children. This created a sharp diversion of the ‘new negro’ woman as a house keeper to a bread winner. There is no point of contention that in spite of the difficult racial and class challenges of the 1920s, a new spirit of hope, self-confidence and pride symbolized the activities of African Americans and their expression of the pressing equality concerns.
1940s: African American men joining the Second World War
The age-old custom of racial segregation and the Jim Crow laws continued to into the 1940s. Attempts to form the civil rights movement were still at an early stage. Laws to enable black Americans access to public facilities, equal job opportunities and voting rights were not yet forthcoming. Black people were not allowed to go to white schools, hospitals and restaurants. They were not even allowed to ride in the same bus with the whites. The whites considered the blacks to be racially inferior to them and in fact tag named them as ‘colored’.
When the Second World War started, most African Americans were undecided in their feelings pertaining to supporting the war effort. According to them, it would be pointless to support a war for the government which did not recognize their rights in the first place. The Double V (VV) slogan was adopted to address the plight of black soldiers who fought in the war. The first V symbolized victory against America’s foreign enemies. On the other hand, the second ‘V’ advocated for victory against the suppressors of black freedom back home.
An essential platform in the strife for civil rights freedom was the defense arena. With the acceleration of preparations for the war in early 1941, the African Americans had hope that they would gain from the new jobs in the production of military equipment as much as the rest of the country. On the contrary, black workers continued to be denied employment in military plants, and when they finally managed to obtain work, it was demeaning and meager in payment. In the spring of 1941, Philip Randolph, a civil rights activist, threatened to conduct a massive protest against discrimination in the defense industries and armed forces. As a consequent of the looming protest, President Roosevelt was compelled into signing the Executive Order 8802 in the month of June 1941. This led to the establishment of the Commission on Fair Employment Practices prohibiting segregation in defense industries, investigate cases of violation, and recommend remedial measures.
1960s Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.
Until the 1960s, racial discrimination was still very prevalent in the United States. At the start of the century, many states had passed the infamous ‘Jim Crow’ laws. These laws had mostly been enacted by states in the American South, which had formed caste system that discriminated the African Americans on the basis of race. As a result of the oppressive legislation, blacks were not allowed to access the same facilities and services as their white counterparts. Blacks were prohibited from accessing most public utilities such as good schools and hospitals. This situation angered members of the black community who agitated for equality.
Protests against black oppression in America commenced in earnest in the 1950s. The Supreme Court of the United States abolished the law upholding segregation in public schools in 1954. In 1955, the refusal by Rosa Park to vacate her seat in the bus for a white man provoked serious protests by the black community and sympathetic whites. In 1960, a number of black college students forcefully accessed restaurant seats reserved for whites to protest against the discrimination that they faced. These incidents, together with many other that occurred during this period culminated into the formation of the Civil Rights Movement. The core purpose for the formation of the Movement was to advocate for the equality of the African Americans by protesting against the unjust laws through non-violent means.
In spite of the non-violent methods of protest adopted by protesters, fierce resistance was met from the ardent believers of white supremacy. The peacefully organized crusades meant for freedom were often met by beatings, bombings, shootings and riots against the protesters of the civil rights movement. Many such cases were reported by the media and the civil rights leaders across America. Anti-protesting groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were formed to discourage the liberation of black freedom and punish alleged white ‘sell-outs.’
On the 28th day of August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an inspirational, motivational and optimistic speech about the future of America in his famous speech ‘I have a dream’. The speech was delivered in front of about a quarter a million people, comprising of a significant number of whites. The speech was his prediction of the success of the efforts of the civil rights movement. By 1964, the Civil Rights Act had been assented to by President Lyndon B. Johnson; an example of the achievements of the efforts by Martin Luther King Jr. His assassination on the 3rd day of April 1968 angered many and consolidated more support for the activities of the Movement.
Barrack Obama: First Black President of the United States of America
The world witnessed a major milestone in history when Americans from all walks of life chose to elect Barrack Hussein Obama as the first African American president of the United States in 2008. For many, this was the peak of achievement for all those who engaged in the struggle for equality in America. Although significant progress had been attained in the socio-economic spheres of the people’s lives, the nomination of Barrack Obama by the Democrats who had been historically against the upholding of black freedom and his subsequent ascent to power by a popular majority vote was a remarkable level of success.
The fight for African American freedom had been long time coming. This event brought the United States to the international limelight as a truly mature democracy where the scope of opportunities is limitless for individuals with the urge and drives to succeed. The 2008 American presidential election was a hotly contested one. It was a political battle of economic recovery and development policies between the two traditional parties of the United States (the Democrats and the Republicans). The Republicans had been in power through the George Bush administration that had been flawed for the poor economic situation of the country. It was a contest between two parties with different ideologies facing the electorates to explain how they would get the economy on a recovery path after the adverse impact of the economic and financial meltdown.
Barrack Obama emerged victorious against a white candidate John McCain of the Republican Party. His ability to understand and explain how the economy of the United States could be best put back on a growth path was a critical element in appealing to the American voters. In addition, he was equipped with orator skills that captivated most of the American people who he addressed with using his charismatic personality. In his presidential acceptance speech, Barrack Obama acknowledged the contributions made over the years by many freedom rights movement leaders who had made his historic election possible.
The United States boosts of being one of the most successful democracies in the world. It is a global pace setter in advocating for the equal treatment of all people regardless of their race, ethnicity, nationality, and other types of social bias. However, the contemporary society should not take these achievements for granted. It has taken decades of years to build and reach the level of social, economic and political developments that are enjoyed today. The suffering of the African Americans due to racial segregation over the past years cannot be erased from the records of history. However, all Americans should learn from these events in order to ensure a better future in which all individuals in the United States and the rest of the world are treated equally.
Beacham, T. Gilmartin, B., Grobman, S, Ling, C., & Rhee, V. (Producers), Libretto, J. (Director). (2004).Let freedom ring: Moments from the civil rights movement, 1954-1965 [News program]. NewYork, NY: NBC Universal. Retrieved fromhttp://digital.films.com/OnDemandEmbed.aspx?Token=40565&aid=18596&Plt=FOD&loid=0&w=640&h=480&ref=
Cosby, B. (2004, May 17). Address at the NAACP on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Retrieved March 23, 2014, from www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/billcosbypoundcakespeech.html
Elise Johnson McDougald on "The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation". (1925, March 1). Retrieved March 23, 2014, from http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5126
Hartt, R. L. (1921, January 15). "The New Negro": "When He's Hit, He Hits Back!". Retrieved March 23, 2014, from http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5127
Hogan, H. (Writer). (2003). World War II: The world at war [Television series episode]. In R.Hawksworth (Executive producer), America in the 20th Century. New York, NY: Films for theHumanities & Sciences. Retrieved fromhttp://digital.films.com/OnDemandEmbed.aspx?Token=36221&aid=18596&Plt=FOD&loid=0&w=640&h=480&ref=
Pollard, S. (Producer & Director). (2012). Slavery by another name [Documentary]. United States: TwinCities Public Television, Inc. Retrieved from http://video.pbs.org/video/2176766758/
Schlesinger, A.M. (1949). The Vital Center (excerpts). (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2014, from http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/vital-center.html
United States (2003). America's reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War. Retrieved March 23, 2014, from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/exhibits/reconstruction/section4/section4_civrightsact1.html