One July mid-morning of 1997, Rosa Parks sat in an automobile awaiting a signal to appear before a large audience of admirers. A proud mother and her daughter stopped beside the car. "That's the lady we've come to see," the woman told her daughter. "What did she do," her daughter asked? "She refused to give up her seat for a white man," the mother replied. Puzzled, the child asked, "Why was that great?" Her mother never answered. I remember thinking that this young, Black girl, about 12, is a part of a generation of southern Blacks whose parents have never lived under segregation, Blacks to whom Rosa Parks' defiance makes no sense without an historical perspective. This new generation of Blacks requires an explanation: "Why has refusing to give up her seat to a white man made Rosa Parks a great Black woman?"
Refusing to give up her seat made her great because - and only because - her defiance was the specific act that led to the grass-roots social movement involving enough middle-class Blacks to eventually force the policy changes in Washington that ended second-class citizenship for millions of Blacks forever Her single act led to the Montgomery bus boycott, the emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr., The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC), and many other organizations, saints, and martyrs who fought against second-class citizenship for Blacks and "by piggy-back" for women. Nevertheless, the civil rights movement of the 60s must be thought of as a continuous movement beginning as early as 1846, with Dred Scott, who sued his owner for his and his family's freedom. The civil rights movement has always been an attempt to overcome the decision in Dred Scott.
In 1846 Dred Scott fights for freedom
With his eleven-year fight for freedom begun in 1846, Dred Scott started the Black civil rights movement. Scott, with his wife Harriet and children Eliza and Lizzie, all slaves, sued their owner John Sanford for his and their freedom. Both the Missouri State and the Federal Courts held that slaves had no legal standing because they could not become citizens either of Missouri or of the United States. Scott appealed to the United States Supreme Court. "The question," Chief Justice Taney begins the Supreme Court's decision of 1857, "is simply this: Can a Negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?" In Dred Scott, Taney says, "In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.
"It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.
"They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion." Thus, Taney argues, the declaration "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" was never intended to include Blacks, for they "formed no part of the people who framed and adopted it." In their decision, the Supreme Court Justices formalized as law the perceptions that Blacks were so inferior to whites that they could not be considered people. All courts, state and federal, are bound by Supreme Court decisions.
Abraham Lincoln sets about overcoming Dred Scott
A young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, thought that Taney and the Supreme Court were wrong, but he thought that their decision had to be overcome, not overturned (see David Donald: Lincoln). Lincoln formed a new political party, the Republican Party, and, with its endorsement, ran for president of the United States. With Lincoln, the civil rights movement became a struggle of abolitionists and Blacks to overcome the doctrine enshrined by the Supreme Court that Blacks were not included, as people or as citizens, in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of 1787. Lincoln was aware that of 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 16 had held "productive" slaves, and 9 more had held slaves around the house.
Emancipation: most slaves freed as confiscated property
In September 1862, President Lincoln issued a draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to take effect January 1, 1863. The Proclamation freed all slaves except those in states or parts of states that were not in rebellion. These exceptions included 13 parishes of Louisiana, West Virginia, and seven counties of eastern Virginia, which included Norfolk and Portsmouth. A total of 800,000 Negroes were excluded (John Hope Franklin: From Slavery to Freedom, p. 284). All remaining slaves were freed under the 13th Amendment of 1865. Although Lincoln thought that slavery was morally wrong, he could find no Constitutional authority to free slaves that the country would accept or the Supreme Court let stand. To issue his Proclamation, Lincoln used his authority under the Confiscation Act of 1861 allowing the President to confiscate property belonging to those rebelling against the Union.
Black men willing to die for a principle
Long before Emancipation, thousands of runaway slaves were following Union armies. By July 30, Negro regiments had been federalized and President Lincoln and the government, with the urging of Frederick Douglass, were officially committed to their use (The Chronological History of the Negro in America, pp. 231-232). Douglass and the Black men who signed up knew that a person willing to die for a principle could not be said to be inferior. After all, white men were dying for principles, and, of course, the greatest Christian example is Christ dying for a principle. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to die for the freedom of humankind. Douglass and other former slaves too old to fight sent their sons.
The 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments
After recognizing that thousands of Black soldiers died fighting for their freedom, Congress sent the 13th Amendment to the states for ratification. The 13th Amendment provided that "Neither slavery not involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States." In 1868, the 14th Amendment provided that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States ... are citizens of the United States." And in 1870, the 15th Amendment provided that "The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The 13th Amendment was necessary because Lincoln's Emancipation did not free all of the slaves. The 14th Amendment was necessary correction of Dred Scott. The 15th was necessary because of state codes preventing Blacks from voting.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875
On March 13, 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act declaring that all person born in the Unites States were citizens with full rights under the Constitution. A second Act, on March 1, 1875, "An Act to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights," declared that all persons were entitled to use public accommodations, and that all persons were allowed to serve on juries. It gave citizens of every race and color equal rights to make contracts, testify in court, purchase, hold and dispose of property, and enjoy full and equal benefit of all laws. It provided punishment for anyone denying this right to any citizen. But on the basis of Dred Scott, the Supreme Court found that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional, and that under the Constitution, Blacks were not people as "people" is used in the Constitution.
1896: Plessy v. Ferguson, Separate But Equal
Restricted from ruling that Blacks are neither people nor citizens, the Supreme Court ruled that separating people on the basis of race was Constitutional so long as the facilities were equal. According to the Court, "When the government has secured to each of its citizens equal rights before the law and equal opportunities for improvement and progress, it has accomplished the end for which it is organized and performed all of the functions respecting social advantages with which it is endowed."
May 17, 1954: Brown v. Board of Education
Ninety-seven years after Dred Scott and fifty-eight years after Plessy, the Court in Brown reversed Dred Scott and Plessy. And by this time African Americans, having fought in two world wars and having grown in pride and self-awareness presented their own case before the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, working for the NAACP, was the lead attorney. By this time, the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s has created urban centers in the North through which Blacks grow in pride and self-awareness nurturing creativity. Black music, literature, drama and art flourish throughout America. There have been enough changes through the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Negro American Labor Council, the A. Philip Randolph Institute in New York City, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and the NAACP to push for the kinds of changes that eventually destroyed racial segregation and set up African Americans as citizens equal to whites.
Important 20th Century Cases
In Civil Rights Decisions: the 20th Century, Maureen Harrison and Steve Gilbert list thirteen cases affecting African Americans directly. Among these are Loving v. Virginia (1967) which struck down laws preventing interracial marriages, the Scottsboro Boys v. Alabama (1932) in which the court ruled that the right to counsel is inherent, and other cases in which the Supreme Court ruled against racially restricted housing and segregated public accommodations.
The decade of the 60s
The most significant decade of the Civil Rights Movement was the 60s. The 60s culminated not only in the Civil Rights Bill of 1963, the Civil Rights At of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Open Housing Act of 1968, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, but also with a federal government willing to enforce the laws it passed. All three branches of government listened because Rosa Parks' defiance became that of a hundred million or more people, virtually all of whom lined up behind her to destroy the laws that said that a Black woman could not sit where a white man wanted to sit.
In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy narrowly defeated Nixon. Large support from Black voters seems to have elected Kennedy. The sit-in demonstrations began on January 31, 1960 by students at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, North Carolina. On March 6, 1961, Kennedy signed an executive order establishing a committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (Hugh D. Graham, The Civil Rights Era, p.27). Apart from this Executive Order establishing "affirmative action" Kennedy had done very little to support Blacks by 1963. The sit-in of '61 followed by James Meredith's attempt to enter Ole Miss in '62 and Governor George C. Wallace' stand in the door to prevent two Black students from entering the University of Alabama required resolution at the Federal level. In April of 1963, Black students led by Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted Eugene "Bull" Connor in Birmingham. The confrontation was bloody. In August, the bloody confrontation was followed by the March on Washington, ending with King's speech, "I have a Dream." Recalling with his advisors that the Supreme Court had already ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1883 unconstitutional and that that ruling had never been overruled, Kennedy, similar to Lincoln, used his authority under the Commerce Clause to propose the civil rights bill of 1963. President Johnson, following the assassination of President Kennedy, guided the Civil Rights Act to passage on July 2, 1964. After the crisis in Selma, Ala., President Johnson was able to get his Voting Rights Act passed on August 3, 1965. The Voting Rights Act was necessary even after the 15th Amendment.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972
For most of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, people alluded to an analogy between race and sex. A synthesis of Blacks and women behind the Equal Rights Amendment pushed congress to pass the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. Hugh Davis Graham in The Civil Rights Era (p.3) says that the two movements, that for Blacks and that for women, with their combined weight, "together with supporting court decisions and administrative enforcement, broke the back of the system of racial segregation and destroyed the legal basis for denying minorities and women full access to education, employment, the professions, and the opportunities of the private marketplace and public arena."
The Bakke Case: Counter Civil-Rights Movement
In Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court seemed to rule against affirmative action in medical school admissions. The attacks on Affirmative Action signal that there will be a Civil Rights Movement for the new millennium, but it will be a fight to hold on to the rights Blacks fought for during the old millennium.…