In several instances, in the history of United States, African Americans have been referred to as African, Afro-American, Negros as well as blacks. The portion of the African American population which is of completely African ancestry is not known. This is mainly because, over the past 300 years, racial mixture has considerably taken place in the United States between persons of various descents such as Europeans and the Indians. It’s been, however, considered historically that any person with black African ancestry in the United States is African American. It is however, important to note that physical characteristics, as well as ancestry cannot be purely used to set apart African Americans as a distinct group.
The history of the African Americans stretches as far back as the 16th century when Africans were captured and sold to the American plantations in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. After the independence of the United States, African American continued to be enslaved and frustrated economically, socially and politically. This gave rise to several civil liberation movements among the African American societies as they attempted to liberate themselves from oppression. As the second largest ethnic group in America, the African Americans have also contributed to the overall development of America as a country, despite their struggles and challenges. This paper, therefore, will highlight on major liberation movements in the history of the African Americans as it also explains the role of these movements and their impact in the African American society.
Period between1600 and 1865
In the African American history, the period between 1600 and 1865 is mostly characterized by slavery. It is believed that the first Africans arrived with Portuguese and Spanish settlers and explorers. History further predicts that by the year 1600, about 275,000 Africans had already settled in the South, Central and the Caribbean area. In the United States, however, Africans first arrived in 1916. By the beginning of the 18th century, more than a million Africans had arrived in America. Between 1701 and 1810 the number of Africans in America had grown to about six million. Most of them ended as slaves especially in West Indies from where they were later shipped to the main land.
As the 18th century began, white and black servants were already being treated differently. The legislation which were put forward in 1662, especially in Virginia ensured that Africans continued remaining as servants. The slavery system in America was fully developed by 1740, and a Virginia law for example, declared , those slaves were to be “chattel personal in the hands of their owners and possessors for all intents, construction, and purpose whatsoever”. The slaves were, therefore considered personal property of their owners. This slavery system in United States continued until 1865, and it was characterized by the existence of hostile attitudes towards blacks. (Painter, 2006).
Before 1865, there were constant small uprisings by the blacks such as the Gabriel Prosser revolt which occurred in 1800.Thre was another revolt led by Denmark Vesey in 1822, and another one referred to as the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831.Other small uprisings were also witnessed and as a result of this, the oppressive laws against slaves they increasingly became severe. Africans were even forbidden to gather in large numbers or even to carry arms except under supervision of white people.
Discrimination also became widespread especially in social and economic issues such as attaining education as well as in voting. In accordance to the Dred Scott v. Sandford case in 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution had the authority behind decisions which were made by the State regarding the treatment that the blacks received. In this decision, African Americans whether slaves or free were not to be regarded as citizens.
It is worth noting that, despite the discrimination that took place at that time, African Americans maintained their traditional roles and beliefs especially pertaining to family issues. This was coupled by several religious activities, borrowing much influence from African religious practices. The African Americans saw this as a means of developing themselves. This led to separate churches established by the blacks and eventually other denominations within Protestantism such as black Baptist churches, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, that were founded in 1787. (Painter, 2006).
The period from 1860
The period from 1860 was characterized by a number of civil right movements in an attempt to liberate the African Americans from slavery. This period also witnessed the American civil war took place. In 1863 for instance, President Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation. The executive order freed all slaves in the rebelling states and gave them freedom to enroll in public service including the army. Lincoln instructed the executive to respect the rights of former slaves and treat them with dignity and respect. The slave owners were not compensated by the government. The emancipation proclamation freed more than three million slaves in the southern states (Franklin, 2003). In 1865, the thirteen amendments to the United States constitution made slavery and forced servitude a crime in the United States of America.
Radical republicans took over the government and used the congress to advocate for a variety of rights to the African Americans. This led to a period popularly known as the reconstruction period. The freed slaves voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party in the 1867 elections. Consequently, the Republican Party came to power in almost all the southern states. President Ulysses Grant used the military to suppress riots from the whites who opposed the equality with the whites. Southern democrats fought hard to gain power in the southern states. After regaining power, they counter attacked al the efforts made in the reconstruction of the southern states. President Rutherford Hayes blocked efforts to scrap of reconstruction statutes. Reconstruction statutes enabled African Americans to vote and run for political offices (Wagner, 2007).By the year 1920, a number of serious movements and protests started coming up.
The Harlem Renaissance
In the period between 1920 and 1925, W.E.B Du Bois, started a renaissance, known as the Harlem Renaissance. This era was characterized by vigorous cultural growth which took place around a group of young artists, musicians, writers and social thinkers like Du Bois and Alain Locke. This movement was spurred by the disappointment felt by African Americans especially due to the limited opportunities which they were being offered in education and proper employment. African Americans serving as soldiers in the World War I also suffered due to prejudice, especially after they found out that they were accepted in Europe more than they were accepted at home.
The society was generally white-dominated and the African Americans continued to become disillusioned in terms of achieving justice, equality and success. During the Harlem Renaissance, Americans of both races were able to make and exploit social contact for the first time. The movement also articulated some priorities for the achievement of racial equality which have also been played out in modern civil rights movement.
Modern Civil Rights Movements
The modern civil rights movements began in the 1950’s.In 1954, the US Supreme Court came up with the “separate but equal” rule which formed the basis for state sanctioned discrimination. This drew both national and international attentions to the plight of African Americans. The decade that followed was therefore characterized by several civil rights activities in form of non-violent protest and constant civil disobedience which was aimed at bringing about change. Many African American leaders such as Marin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Andrew Goodman. These leaders risked and at times ended up losing their lives as they fought for freedom and equality.
Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott ushered in the first phase of black protest activities and it became the first modern civil right movement to be witnessed in 1955.The protest began when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white bus rider. By doing this she defied a southern custom and as a result she was jailed. This spurred a bus boycott of the black community, which lasted for more than a year. This boycott demonstrated the unity and determination of the blacks and it inspired blacks in very many places. (Finkelman, 2006)
The boycott’s effective leader was Martin Luther King Jr, who had string oratory and conciliatory skills. King understood the significance of the boycott and hence he realize that just as the Indians used nonviolence tactics, the southern blacks could also use these same tactics. The Montgomery boycott movement created new regional organization in 1957 that is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which was led by the members of the clergy, with King as its president.
Birmingham and the march on Washington
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference protest strategy was able to achieve its first success in 1963.The group launched an important campaign in Birmingham. This involved a number of highly publicized confrontations between nonviolent protestors in this case school children and police on the other side with police dogs, fire, and clubs. The march was able to gain sympathy especially from the northerners.
The clashes at Birmingham prompted President John F. Kennedy, who then pushed for new civil right legislation. Many local protests emerged and culminated into the march on Washington, attracting about 200,000 participants. King addressed the protestors and it was evident that he was planning to continue with an expansion of more protests. A number of white people reacted negatively to the protests, but despite that, King was able to achieve the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 964 through his linkage of black militancy and idealism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation especially on public facilities, as well as racial discrimination in education and employment. (Robinson, 2001)
Selma to Montgomery March
SCLC was able to plan a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7th.This march however ended too soon at Pettus Bridge when mounted police attacked the marching protestors using wielding clubs and tear gas. Several sympathizers were brought to Selma as the demonstrators continued planning for another march. A number of activists continued to put pressure on King asking him to defy court orders which forbade the marches. On March 9th, King turned back a second march after it was blocked by the police, and later on a group of white people at Selma reportedly killed a fellow white minister who had joined the demonstrations. This period was also characterized by the death of Reverend James Reeb and this led to an outcry in the whole nation. Several marches were postponed but finally the civil rights advocate were able to obtain a permission from the court which allowed them to proceed with the marches. After the Selma to Montgomery March, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and this greatly increased the number of black voters in the south. The Selma to Montgomery march was also the last major racial protest which took place in the 1960’s.
Black Nationalism rose in the late 1960’s giving rise to nationalists such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.A number of the proponents of the black liberation movements saw the inadequacy of the civil rights reforms because the problems faced by poor African Americans had not been addressed. It wasn’t easy for instance to acquire American citizenship during that time. The proponents of social liberation also believed that African American struggles was also a human right movement with a national self-determination for everyone.
The history of the challenges of the African Americans reveals so much struggle as they attempted to liberate themselves. Despite these challenges however, the African Americans have been on the forefront in steering the growth and development of America as a nation. During the civil war for instance, African Americans served their country both on the Confederate and Union side. In the Union Army for instance, about 179,000 African American men were able to serve about 160 units. Others also served in the Navy as well as other support positions. The number of African Americans serving in the army comprised of slaves who had run away from the south as well as free African Americans. In the confederacy, a number of African Americans served in labor position after the south allowed slaves to enlist. (Joseph, 2008).
The African American movements in the 1950’s and 1960’s, just like other earlier movements played a major role in transforming the face of democracy in America. These movements also served as models for other group advancements especially those involving minority and marginalized groups in the society like the elderly, women, gays and lesbians, students and others. Affirmative action programs have spurred various controversies but it is worth noting that these programs and remedies especially for historically rooted injustices were aspects of more fundamental, continuous debates about the role of government, individual freedom as well as other important elements of social justice.
The journey of Africa Americans from slavery, to liberation has not been an easy one. Through this journey, the African American community had to sacrifice some of the most phenomenal civil rights activists and leaders so as to achieve a state of equality in America. Research indicates that the rates of discrimination and racism in America has greatly decreased from 75% in the 1950’s to almost 5% by 2013. Interracial marriages for instance are currently acceptable in America, between the whites and any other ethnic groups. In America today, African Americans and white people share offices, churches, schools as well as other facilities. The struggle of the African Americans has also been able to strengthen other minority groups who have also benefited in this liberation. Through education and employment, the African Americans have been able to help in building America’s economy to what it is today. Examining the pros and cons of the liberation movements, therefore it’s worthwhile to say that the whole struggle was able to bear fruits, which can be witnessed through the election of the first black American President.
Franklin, J. H. (2003). The Emancipation Proclamation. The Journal of Negro History, 298-300.
Wagner, H. L. (2007). The History of the Republican Party. New York: Infobase Publishing.
Robinson, D.E. (2001) Black Nationalism in American Politics and Thought (New York, 2001)
Joseph, P.E., (2008). On rethinking the black power era, “Black Power,” Magazine of History.
Painter, N.I (2006). Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to 1895
Finkelman, P. (2006) Encyclopedia of African American History 1619-1895: Volume 2.
Richard Wormser. (2009, December 12). Reconstruction (1865-77). Retrieved February 1, 2014, from Educational Broadcasting Corporation.org: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_reconstruct.html
Woodrow Wilson. (2012, November 23). Woodrow Wilson's First Inaugural Address. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from American Experience 25 years.com: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/tr-woodrow/