Entry of African-Americans into the United States of America was mainly through the slave trade organizations. The main purpose of slave trade was to provide much needed cheap labor for the white-owned and run plantations concentrated in the South. The enduring onsideration of African-Americans as second class citizens can be attributed to those origins and hence their treatment as property of the slave owners (Danns, 2009, p.303). It was this practice that saw the entrenchment of segregation, discrimination and isolation of the African-American from the greater American society. African-Americans have had to work hard and tirelessly to bring about the end of segregation, discrimination and isolation, in their quest to attain equality and civil rights. Their struggle has not been in vain. African-Americans have achieved much progress through social, economic and political processes .
The African-American Struggle
The struggle to liberate the African-American dates back for many years. Efforts led by the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, among others during the civil rights struggle in the United States of America, were key to the progress made. In their struggle and quest, the African-American community employed all techniques possible for recognition and emancipation from the discriminative white treatment.
A section of African-Americans believed that the acquisition of education would guarantee African-Americans white- and/or blue-collar jobs which would suffice for the purposes of achieving equality in American society. Indeed, they believed at the time that their isolation was attributable to the generally poor economic standing of African-Americans. The effort by George Washington through the establishment of the African technical school is a suitable example of their efforts to attain economic progress and success. However, the efforts did not bear much fruit in light of the prevailing limited civil rights. This can be captured in the limited suffrage rights of the African-Americans. The fact that they could not vote essentially meant that no one represented their interests in the legislative and policy making bodies. Consequently, African-Americans continued to live under discriminative laws that undermined their desire for economic, social and political progress.
These factors informed the actions by the civil rights leaders led by Martin Luther King. The famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of December 1955 sparked off by Rosa Parks, who declined to surrender her seat on the bus to the white adult in accordance with the discriminative laws, was one example. It was such boycotts and sit-ins that were to bring Martin Luther King to national prominence through the manner in which he shepherded the liberation wars. He advocated the emancipation of the African-American through non-violent protests and actions. Martin Luther King and other leaders succeeded in bringing on board the entire African-American community into a common pool for the fight for their interests.
The era of segregation in U.S. history lasted much longer than it needed to. According to Ficker (1999), the American courts had the power of the Fourteenth Amendment available to them to outlaw the policies and regulations that kept African-American separated from European-Americans. However, it took until the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when the separation of the races in public education was declared to be unconstitutional. This reversed the “separate but equal” doctrine that had applied since the Roberts v. City of Boston case in 1849.
An independent school for African-Americans was established in Boston in 1800, then annexed by the Boston Public School Committee in 1812. From then on, any black child of high school age was assigned to that school, which was joined by a second such school in 1835. After some time, there was concern among the African-Americans that those separate schools were being used in a way other than what had been intended, and that what had become black-only schools were detrimental to the education of their children. They also believed that this involuntary segregation reinforced rather than lessened racial prejudices. They wanted the schools to be integrated to give the African-American children better education and to bring to an end the implied inferiority that segregation fosters. From that starting point, they believed that African-Americans could strive towards greater equality of race in the social, political and economic senses.
In 1846 the African-American community in Boston submitted to the Boston School Committee a petition, in which they asked for an end to the segregated school system supported by a number of reasoned arguments. The committee rejected the petition, disputing that the system provided the African-American children with an inferior education. They claimed that “God and society made the African American race inferior, and this had to be reflected in Boston’s educational system.” Their response statement went on to say:
No legislation, no social customs, can efface this distinction here is a race, not only distinct in respect to color, hair, and general physiognomy, but possessing physical, mental, and moral peculiarities, which render a promiscuous intermingling in the public schools disadvantageous, both to them and to the whites.
In mitigation for that openly racially discriminatory response, a minority group on the schools committee published a statement of their own, in which they stated that “it is our duty to resist and to lend our aid to correct, not to countenance and follow, popular delusions wherever they may lead.” Consequently, although segregation of Boston schools was retained, those opposing segregation knew that they had allies on the committee.
Then along came Benjamin Roberts, an African-American whose five year old daughter had to go past five whites-only public schools en route to her segregated school. Her father tried on no less than four occasions to have her enrolled in one of those “white” schools, but without success. So he filed suit under a law that allowed recovery of damages from a city that (illegally) excluded students from a public school, and engaged Charles Summer, a prominent attorney who later became a Senator, to represent him. Despite his reasoned and eloquent arguments on behalf of Roberts, the Massachusetts Supreme Court eventually (in 1850) found in favor of the schools committee, so segregation continued. Later, that decision was used as a precedent by a number of other state courts in retaining segregation in those states. Eventually, in a case Plessy v. Ferguson in the United States Supreme Court, a judge ruled that segregation in railway cars was legal. That decision was highly significant as it was the first occasion that the country’s highest court had sanctioned segregation, a situation that remained until the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 reversed that ruling, stating that “school segregation by race was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
It should be noted that the critics of the emancipation campaign and advocates of discrimination could not ignore the strides made by King and others. They tried numerous times to undermine those efforts and finally succeeded in their quest to weaken the group through the assassination of Martin Luther King. The assassination, however, only escalated the quest for civil rights, because the leadership vacuum that resulted from the assassination was soon to be filled by others led by Malcolm X. The latter’s approach departed from that of Martin Luther King. Malcolm X advocated the use of violent means for the attainment of civil rights. The struggle for justice, equality and civil rights in the 1950’s bore fruits seen in the various pieces of legislation passed in that decade and the decade that would follow. African-Americans were allowed to exercise their civil rights and freedoms inalienable in them, solely because they were human beings.
Those fighting for their civil liberties and equal rights often resorted to the courts in their efforts to obtain justice and to achieve social justice and equality. A suitable example lies in the case of Brown v. Board Education, in 1954. In that case, the Supreme Court faulted the state laws that had established separate public schools for black and for white students. The decision of the Supreme Court was that such laws were unconstitutional. While the court ruling in that case and many other cases were in practice not of much real consequence for discrimination continued for the most part, the cases did lay the ground for the emancipation of the African-Americans. Society in general became more informed about the issues at hand. The people gradually became responsible and sensitive to the plight of the black Americans.
In fact, the Brown case prompted presidential action. It is on record that the incumbent president sent military officers to the school that had refused the admission of the black sisters. The action of the president which was intended to ensure the sisters were allowed in the school reflects the gradual changes that America was experiencing.
The issues of civil rights and equality campaigned for so passionately and for so long by the activists among the Africa-American population were documented by many in published works. Jackson (2001) reviewed two such books. Those were “Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle” by Michael K. Honey and “The Bridge over the Racial Divide; Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics” by William Julius Wilson.
The book by Honey, who is professor of African America, Ethnic and Labor studies at the University of Washington in Tacoma, offers his own perspective on the history of the black workers in the U.S., development of the American economy, and the freedom struggle of the African-Americans in recent generations, from the 1930’s to the present day. According to Jackson, one of Honey’s principal objectives in the book is to discuss the importance of the labor organizers and movements to black U.S. workers during the civil rights campaigns. In contrast, the book by Julius Wilson, who is a Harvard professor of Sociology, takes a view of contemporary U.S. society, especially at what he sees as the ongoing racial and economic divisions within it, and seeks the creation of a government of a multiracial coalition. In Wilson’s view, there is a real need for policies that will target full employment and in other ways do something about the current economic struggle that all Americans have to deal with.
Jackson reports that Chapters Two and Three of Honey’s book describe how many African-Americans became industrial workers in the early years of the twentieth century, and how black women found it difficult to get work during and following the Second World War. He notes that in spite of some improvements in wages achieved in the 20’s and 30’s, black workers regularly had to cope with racial segregation and were subjected not just to discrimination but also to frequent violence. He also found that black workers experienced much worse conditions.
Honey also notes in his book the parallels between the struggles in the workplace and within the union movement against racism and segregation during the 1940’s and 1950’s and the civil rights campaigns and union battles of the 1960’s. He shows that the strike in 1968 by the sanitation workers in Memphis that culminated in Martin Luther King being assassinated actually helped create solidarity between the union movement and the freedom struggle by the blacks. Honey comments that both during World War II and after it, black workers increasingly began to set up or join unions, effectively challenging their perceived status as second class U.S. citizens. They could see that wage and working conditions improvements were the result of links between the unions and civil rights movements, although the start of the Cold War era and the accompanying prevalence of anti-union / anti-communist sentiments discouraged such progress.
The concluding chapters of Honey’s book are described by Jackson as dealing with the plight of African-Americans in industry in the three decades from 1970 to the year 2000. Honey notes that following the barring of racial segregation in many factories, much industry was relocated to non-unionized locations in both South America and Asia. Jackson regards Honey’s book as a “topnotch piece of scholarship” and a “valuable study that makes an enormous contribution to our historical understanding of labor, African American, and economic history”. Jackson suggests that Wilson’s book provides solutions to some of the racial and other problems highlighted in Honey’s book.
Wilson’s first chapter discusses the connection between what he sees as the widening divisions of race and class in America. In his view, we need to fully understand the forces that cause and/or allow such divisions to not just exist but to flourish. He later notes that the demand for low-skilled labor has been replaced by a demand for skilled workers, primarily because of those low-skilled jobs being exported to non-unionized countries. Additionally most of those new jobs are service-oriented and are located out of town, far from the city areas where many African-Americans live. That cause high unemployment levels in city centers, where many unskilled African-Americans are now jobless. Wilson sees the cause of this problem as a history of political decisions influenced by race, but that if a new, fair framework can be created, he is confident that what he refers to as “America's commitment to fairness and merit, regardless of income, race, and gender” will reappear and will flourish.
African-Americans have had to struggle and fight for equality and against segregation and discrimination since the abolition of slavery. For many years even the courts could/would not help them fight segregation. By their persistence and the efforts of leaders like Martin Luther King they have nonetheless succeeded, even though there still areas where there is a need to achieve true equality. However, it is fair to say that our African-American fellow citizens have earned their place in American society.
They have exploited the opportunities that modern America offers to its peoples and can excel and prosper in economic and social situations. They have for the most part eliminated the isolation that their ancestors experienced. It is evident today that African-Americans have achieved a great deal of the changes and reforms they desired through social, economic and political processes.
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Ficker, D.J. From Roberts to Plessy: Educational segregation and the “separate but equal” doctrine. (1999). The Journal of Negro History84. 4 (Fall 1999): Pages 301-314. Retrieved on September 22, 2012, from http://www.proquest.umi.com
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