A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Part 3
CIVIL RIGHTS AND
RACIAL JUSTICE

No domestic development has been more important to postwar American society than the struggle for racial equality. That struggle had a long history. During the three-quarters of a century after the end of Reconstruction, little had occurred to improve the status of African Americans. The vast majority of blacks lived in the South, were denied the right to vote, suffered the overt and covert consequences of segregation, experienced dire poverty, and were subject— at virtually every moment—to the threat of physical intimidation and violence. Yet throughout that time, African Americans had fought back, using their own institutions, resources, and energies to build the best schools, churches, and homes that they could for their children and themselves.

The modern civil rights struggle received its major impetus from three sources: the New Deal, World War II, and the long and finally successful campaign of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to overturn the legal sanction for segregation, accomplished in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation was inherently unconstitutional.

During the 1930s and 1940s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the rural South to migrate to cities within the South, and, especially during World War II, began to take new jobs in the North and West. The number of blacks in labor unions doubled, some economic improvements occurred, and in the North especially, there was the opportunity for some political participation. Eleanor Roosevelt had encouraged her husband, Franklin, to do more to address problems of racial oppression, and in coalition with similarminded allies in the New Deal, had succeeded in making some differ

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