The Long Road to Equality: Despite the Rise of Barack Obama, Many African-Americans Still Feel like Second-Class Citizens. John Kirk Charts the Progress of the Civil Rights Movement through Its Most Prominent Body, the NAACP, Which Celebrates Its Centenary This Year

By Kirk, John | History Today, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Long Road to Equality: Despite the Rise of Barack Obama, Many African-Americans Still Feel like Second-Class Citizens. John Kirk Charts the Progress of the Civil Rights Movement through Its Most Prominent Body, the NAACP, Which Celebrates Its Centenary This Year


Kirk, John, History Today


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On February 12th, 1909--the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth--a group of 60 activists, both black and white, signed a petition issuing 'The Call' for America to rededicate itself to the ideals of racial justice that Lincoln had come to represent. 'Besides a day of rejoicing,' the petition read, 'Lincoln's birthday ... should be one of taking stock of the nation's progress since [his assassination in] 1865.' Today, 100 years later, the organisation born out of The Call, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is America's oldest and largest civil rights group. Its history is the history of American civil rights in the past century.

The NAACP's origins had numerous strands. At the end of the American Civil War (1861-65) the promise of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was fulfilled when southern slaves were freed. During the period of Reconstruction (1865-77), the victorious Republican North sought to create a biracial democracy in the South. The cornerstone of this project was three constitutional amendments. The 13th Amendment (1865) officially abolished and prohibited slavery. The 14th Amendment (1868) granted former slaves (and all US citizens) 'equal protection' under the law. The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibited denial of the vote because of 'race, color, or previous condition of servitude'.

When a new generation of Republican politicians abandoned Reconstruction in 1877, prioritising national unity and economic progress over racial justice, Southern Democrats, many of whom had supported and fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, seized power. They quickly set about undermining the civil rights of former slaves. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, racial discrimination was formalised in a set of laws that provided for the segregation and disenfranchisement of the black population.

Southern Democrats could not blatantly ignore constitutional amendments. But they did, with northern and federal complicity, find various ways around them. The US Supreme Court condoned segregation in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) by upholding the legal doctrine of 'separate but equal'. Homer Plessy had appealed against his jail sentence for sitting in a train carriage for whites only. The court said that as long as facilities for blacks were 'equal' to whites, the phrase used in the 14th Amendment, they could be provided separately. In practice, separate hardly ever meant equal. By introducing literacy tests and poll taxes as voter qualifications, Southern Democrats undermined the 15th Amendment by effectively disenfranchising a largely illiterate and almost uniformly poor black population.

Beneath the velvet glove of constitutional subtleties lay an iron fist of violence and intimidation. It was not just the vigilantism of groups like the Ku Klux Klan that enforced white supremacy. The idea became deeply embedded in southern society. African-Americans who transgressed the law, or who simply failed to show adequate deference to whites, could face deadly consequences. Lynchings were rife. One study compiled by the NAACP reported 3,224 lynchings of African-Americans between 1889 and 1919.

African-Americans responded in a number of ways. Those who could afford to do so moved in the Great Migration to northern and western cities. Although they escaped formal segregation in the South, they often encountered other forms of racial discrimination elsewhere. But there were many who viewed the South as their home, a place where they had been born and raised and where they had family ties. Some subscribed to the ideas of southern-born Booker T. Washington, a former slave and America's foremost black leader at the turn of the century. Washington extolled the benefits of individual thrift and hard work, and the building of strong black institutions as the key to uplifting his race. Although his approach has sometimes been dismissed as too tolerant of segregation and oppressive conditions, it offered a pragmatic response to a worsening racial climate when African-Americans had few alternatives open to them. …

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