50 Years of Civil Rights

Article excerpt

In 1945, when Ebony was first published, African-Americans would have been justified to wonder, as Frederick Douglass wondered over a half-century earlier:

[Whether] American justice, American liberty, American civilization, American law and American Christianity ... [could] be made to include and protect alike and forever all American citizens and the rights which have been guaranteed to them by the organic and fundamental laws of the land?

In 1995, Douglass' century-old inquiry remains an unanswered question. While significant racial progress has been achieved during the last 50 years, substantial racism still exists in both the public and private spheres of American society. Now our task is how do we acknowledge the progress of the past without forgetting that some segments of African-American society are in fact worse off than they were 50 years ago?

Can we learn from our historic struggles, even though White women, as a group, have benefited far more than African-Americans from the civil rights litigation and protests initiated by Blacks during the last half-century and the comprehensive civil rights acts that were passed in response to those protests? And do we remain hopeful that we can keep the gains we have made when an African-American, Justice Clarence Thomas, is now committed to obliterating the affirmative action and civil rights programs that made it possible for him to "move on up" from Pin Point, Ga., to become one of the nine justices on the United States Supreme Court?

In order to begin answering these questions--and address Douglass' inquiry--it is useful to focus on the role of the Supreme Court and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s as they have impacted the areas of voting and political representation of African-Americans.

I. BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION A CATALYTIC CHANGE AGENT

The United States Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education was the most significant governmental act since the Emancipation Proclamation. Brown eradicated the core legitimacy of state-imposed segregation and was a mighty building block for the legal rationale in support of the civil rights protests and legislation of the 1960s. Without Brown as a moral and legal precedent, the key civil rights statutes of the 1960s would not have been passed. The 1964 Civil Rights Act generally prohibited racial, gender and national origin discrimination in employment and public accommodation, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, with its subsequent amendments, made extraordinary changes in assuring Blacks access to the ballot box and, ultimately, to a variety of state and federal public offices. Despite some of the shortcomings in its implementation, Brown remains the primary jurisprudential change agent for this century and without it, much of the progress in American race relations would not have occurred. Though recognizing Brown's importance, many persons have underestimated the significance of the related dramatic increase among African-Americans in voting and as political officeholders in elected federal, state and local government positions; for this article, I will limit my comments to the federal congressional experience of African-Americans.

II. THE NOT-TOO-DISTANT PAST

From 1870 to 1901, a total of 19 African-Americans served in the United States House of Representatives and two in the united States Senate. They represented the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Louisiana and Virginia. They were a formidable group and they represented a threat to the White politicians who were committed to maintaining White supremacy. Thus, at the Constitutional Convention of 1890, Judge George Chrisman of Lincoln County, Miss., described the tactics employed by his states and others in undermining African-American political representation:

Sir, it is no secret that there has not been a full vote and a fair count in Mississippi since 1875--that we have been preserving the ascendancy of the White people by revolutionary methods. …