The Civil Rights Movement 1846-1972: From Dred Scott to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act

By Perry, James A. | Diversity Employers, February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Civil Rights Movement 1846-1972: From Dred Scott to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act


Perry, James A., Diversity Employers


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.

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