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Civil rights movement

The long road from slavery

It was August 1619 when The White Lion docked near Point Comfort, a small port in the English colony of Virginia. Its cargo included more than 20 enslaved Africans, seized from the Portuguese slave ship São João Bautista, who were to be sold to the colonists. 

From that moment, slavery, white supremacy and segregation was to frame American history for the next 400 years. It continues to hang over American life today.

Over the next 250 years, almost 400,000 enslaved Africans were transported to North America. Most initially worked on the tobacco, rice and indigo plantations in Maryland, Virginia and Georgia. Many worked 18-hour shifts and were often regularly whipped and beaten. Women could be sexually abused by their enslavers and resistance was swiftly and violently put down. There was little time off and life expectancy was short.

Slavery in the South

Slavery was largely confined to the Southern states, though many Northern-based businessmen grew rich off the back of the slave trade and investments in Southern plantations.

Generally, however, those in the Northern states were less enthusiastic about slavery, linking it to their own determination for independence from their colonial rulers.

To keep order, a hierarchy was created among the enslaved people, from privileged house workers to foremen on the plantations, which insulated and protected the enslavers even more.

There were slave rebellions, though, the most famous being Nat Turner and his uprising in Virginia in 1831, as well as Gabriel Prosser in Richmond in 1800, and Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822. Most were violently put down and the retribution enacted by the slavers as a warning to others.

The violent repression of enslaved people only added to the determination of the small but growing abolitionist movement. Led by free Black men like Frederick Douglass and white supporters such as William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the radical newspaper The Liberator, the abolitionist movement began helping enslaved people escape through a series of safe houses, better known as the Underground Railroad. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 enslaved people were freed through the railroad.

The success of the Railroad helped spread abolitionist sentiment across the Northern states, but simultaneously created an anti-North reaction among many in the South.

The growing call for abolition was also strengthened by America’s economic growth, which was largely based in the North. As well as the growing need for labour, rapid industrialisation weakened the importance of the South and its vast plantations.

In 1820, a bitter feud broke out over the attempts by the federal government to restrict slavery during Missouri’s application for statehood. The dispute ended in a compromise, which saw Missouri enter the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state and all western territories north of Missouri’s southern border declared free soil. The compromise was not to last long, however.

Thirty years later, another compromise was negotiated to resolve the issue of slavery in territories won during the Mexican-American War. However, this was overridden by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which asserted the rule of popular sovereignty over Congressional order in the new state of Kansas.

Pro- and anti-slavery forces fought it out, quite literally, and the repercussions were felt nationally. Shortly after, the Supreme Court decision in the Dred-Scott case, brought by an enslaved man who sued for his freedom after his ‘master’ took him into free territory, effectively put an end to the Missouri Compromise by declaring that all states were open to slavery.

Perhaps the tipping point came when passionate abolitionist John Brown led an armed assault on the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry, intending to start a slave liberation movement. While the attack was to be repelled, and 10 people including Brown were killed (he was the first person to be hanged for treason in the United States), the audacity of the attack made Brown a hero in the North and a mass murdering villain in the South. The country was at breaking point and the scene was set for civil war.

Civil War

Within three months of Abraham Lincoln being elected President in 1861, seven Southern states seceded to form the Confederate States of America, with four more joining after the Civil War began.

Though Lincoln’s anti-slavery views were well known, it was his desire to preserve the Union that was the central tenet of the war. It was only later, as the war hit a stalemate, that Lincoln used slavery as a more overt tactic.

In September 1862, nearly a year-and-a-half after the war started, Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation, which was made official on 1 January 1863:

“Slaves within any State, or designated part of a State …in rebellion …shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

In freeing an estimated three million enslaved people in the Confederate states, Lincoln took the moral high ground at home and abroad, deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labour and, perhaps most importantly, swelled his army by 200,000 new Black recruits. This proved to be a key turning point in the war and two years later it was over.


With the Civil War won, the United States set about to redress the inequalities of slavery and issues surrounding the readmission of the 11 Southern states that had seceded.

Nationally, laws were enacted and a new definition of an American citizen emerged. In the Southern states, a politically-mobilised Black community combined with their white allies to achieve Republican electoral success.

In December 1863, less than a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln unveiled the Ten Percent Plan, whereby when one-tenth of a state’s pre-war voters took an oath of loyalty, they could establish a new state government. However, there were many in the Republican Party who believed this did not go far enough and wanted readmission to the Union to be tied to full equal rights for the formerly enslaved.

In April 1865 Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and while the new President, Andrew Johnson, promised to continue Reconstruction, he quickly backtracked and stalled in many areas.

Johnson offered a pardon to all Southern whites, except Confederate leaders and wealthy planters, restoring their political rights and all property but without the enslaved. His outline for a new government required them to abolish slavery and repudiate secession, but they were also given a largely free hand in managing their affairs. Some quickly took advance of this freedom and devised ways to limit the freedmen’s economic powers and re-establish planation discipline.

The Republican Party was split on how to respond to Johnson. Some more aggressively pushed for real change, while others hoped to mollify the President and gently nudge him in a more positive direction. Johnson rejected the Freedman’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bill, the latter defining all persons born in the United States as national citizens who were all equal before the law. However, despite his veto, the Civil Rights bill passed into law.

This was quickly followed by Congress approving the Fourteenth Amendment, which enshrined birthright citizenship into the Constitution and forbade states to deprive any citizen of “equal protection” of the laws.

The 1866 Congressional elections saw the Republicans sweep to power in what was viewed as a sharp repudiation of Johnson’s reluctance to enforce change. The next decade became known as the period of Radical or Congressional Reconstruction and a significant roll-out of new equality legislation occurred nationally and in the Southern states, which were all then controlled by reforming Republican administrations.

Publicly-funded schools came into being, citizenship was expanded and labour rights given to plantation workers. These changes brought opposition from Southern whites. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed in 1865 and undertook a wave of intimidation and violence across the South, targeting both Blacks but also Republican leaders.

In 1868, Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives. While he survived trial in the senate, his power was gone, as was his ability to obstruct Reconstruction.

Later that year, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from restricting the right to vote on racial grounds. This was quickly followed by a series of further acts which authorised national action to control political violence and in 1871 there was a legal and military offensive that destroyed the Klan.

The retreat from Reconstruction

With the withdrawal of Union troops, the Southern states began to renegotiate the definitions of 'equal rights' in debates over post-Civil War amendments. Legislators in Louisiana, for example, passed the Separate Car Act in 1890 which segregated Blacks from whites in separate but equal conditions on train cars.

Furious with this new law, a group of activists from New Orleans set up the ‘Citizens Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law’ in order to challenge its constitutionality. Danial Desdunes, son of the group’s co-founder, bought a first-class ticket from New Orleans to Montgomery, Alabama, believing that the cross-state trip would violate the Commerce rules. However, a legal clash was averted when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in another case that the Separate Car Act did not apply to interstate passengers, rendering the test redundant.

Next to test the law was shoemaker Homer Plessy, who at one-eighth Black, was supposed to sit with other Black people on a train. However, in June 1892 he bought a first-class ticket to take him from New Orleans to Covington, both within the state of Louisiana. Plessy boarded the "white carriage" where the conductor had been informed ahead of time that the light-skinned Plessy was legally Black. The conductor had Plessy arrested and charged with violation of the law.

When the case came to court, Plessy’s lawyers argued that their clients 13th and 14th Amendments’ rights had been violated, but the judge sided with the State and found him guilty. The case then went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, where it was again upheld. ‘Separate but equal’ was now enshrined in law and the period known as Jim Crow began.

Jim Crow

Jim Crow regulated the lives of Black people in every conceivable way – politically, economically and socially. The 1875 Civil Rights Act was quickly unwound, as white supremacy was once again re-established under the guise of ‘separate but equal’.

Across most of the South, Black people were totally disenfranchised by the turn of the century, had menial jobs and little or no opportunity to progress. They were segregated from whites in many public facilities. The communities they lived in were poorer and received little public funding and had little access to decent legal support.

But it was the disenfranchisement of Black voters that was absolutely central to the Jim Crow South.

Jim Crow

To be allowed to vote people had to pay a poll tax, but of course the overwhelming majority of African Americans were too poor to pay the tax. Potential voters also had to prove that they could read difficult extracts from texts, but as literacy levels were so low few could pass. Even if they did, there was a “Grandfather Clause”, excluding anyone whose grandfather was enslaved from voting.

Jim Crow legislation was accompanied by a wave of violence and murder. A report published in 2015 by the Equal Justice Initiative, found that 3,959 African Americans were murdered across 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950. Their five year investigation, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, concluded that lynchings were a tool to “enforce racial subordination and segregation”.

“These lynchings were torturous and violent and extreme. They were sometimes attended by the entire white community. It was sometimes not enough to lynch the person who was the target, but it was necessary to terrorise the entire Black community: burn down churches and attack Black homes. I think that that kind of history really can’t be ignored.

“The trauma and anguish that lynchings and racial violence created in this country continues to haunt us and to contaminate race relations and our criminal justice system in too many places across the country.”

– Bryan Stevenson, director, Equal Justice Initiative

The racist President

African Americans received no support from the federal Government. In fact, quite the opposite. In January 1913 Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th President of the United States and within three months began enshrining segregation into the federal system.

On 11 April, he received a report from his Postmaster General complaining about the “intolerable” situation that found white and Black employees having to work together and share drinking glasses and washrooms. Similar complaints were made by his Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo, who argued that segregation was necessary “to remove the causes of complaint and irritation where white women have been forced unnecessarily to sit at desks with colored men.”

Within a few months Black employees in several federal departments had been relegated to separate or screened-off work areas and segregated lavatories and lunchrooms. They were also given menial positions or reassigned to divisions slated for elimination. The government then began requiring photographs on civil service applications, to better enable racial screening.

Most of these practices lasted until 1940 and, understandably, the sense of betrayal among many Black people was strong.

However, despite the incorporation of segregation into government policy, or maybe fuelled by it, 700,000 African Americans still signed up to fight for their country in WW1.

There was no real equality in the forces though, with African Americans relegated to menial jobs in the Navy and barred from certain units in the Army. The government made no provision for military training of black officers, though a segregated unit operating out of Fort Des Moines, in Iowa, in October 1917 saw over 600 blacks commissioned as captains and lieutenants.

African Americans used the war to show their patriotism and to prove they could contribute to the protection and advancement of the country, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) encouraging this spirit of Americanism to counteract racial tension and stereotypes. The war also convinced many that they deserved greater economic, legal and political equality back home and as a result a new wave of activism was born.

One new group to emerge in the aftermath of WW1 was the New Negro Movement, supported by African-American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and promoted by Black newspapers. Founded in 1917 by Hubert Henry Harrison, a writer, educator and political activist from the West Indies, the movement attracted black writers, poets and activists to openly voice the need for equality.

Red Summer

However, the harsh reality of the post-war political and economic climate soon appeared. The ending of the war and the return of hundreds of thousands of African American soldiers back into civilian life coincided with the Spanish Flu pandemic which caused 675,000 deaths in the U.S., 50 million globally. Anger, fear and scapegoating resulted in Black people finding themselves on the receiving end of an outbreak of racial violence in 1919 that was so lethal that the civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson called it the “Red Summer”.

Demobilisation of the Army and the removal of price controls led to a steep rise in unemployment, inflation and competition for jobs. While African Americans were hardest hit, this did not stop white racists from further scapegoating and demonising.

Making matters worse were deliberate attempts by some to conflate the call for equal rights with Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. Even President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.”

Between April and November of 1919, there were over 35 riots and 97 lynchings across the country. One of the worst outbreaks of violence was a three-day long massacre in Elaine, Arkansas, during which over 200 Black men, women, and children were killed after Black sharecroppers tried to organise for better working conditions.

The KKK, which had been largely shut down by the government after the Civil War, experienced a resurgence in popularity and began carrying out dozens of lynchings across the South.

In 1920, there were 12 million African Americans living in America, with three-quarters living in the South. Racial intolerance affected every aspect of their lives. The economic situation of most African Americans was bad and few really benefited from the flourishing economy of the 1920s.

Most living in the South were sharecroppers who suffered when agricultural prices fell throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Three-quarters of a million lost their jobs.

The industrial growth of the northern cities saw a mass exodus of 1.75 million Blacks from South to North, but while they were afforded more legal rights they still had more menial jobs than their white counterparts, were paid less and lived in sub-standard accommodation.

The situation only got a lot worse during the 1930s Great Depression, as African Americans were generally the first to lose their jobs. By 1933, over half of African Americans in the North were dependent on government support, twice or even three times the rate of whites.

According to the historian Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, nearly 70% of Black workers were jobless in 1934 in Atlanta. In cities across the North, around a quarter of white workers were unemployed in 1932, while the jobless rates among African Americans topped 50% in Chicago and Pittsburgh and 60% in Philadelphia and Detroit.

Yet the rising economic gloom also radicalised many African Americans. The inter-war years saw the formation and growth of the NAACP, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and Mary McLeod Bethune’s the National Council of Negro Women.

Many African Americans expressed their frustration at discrimination and economic woes through their music and literature. Music, such as jazz, soul and blues, became popular, especially in inner city areas like Harlem in New York. When jazz was banned in a number of cities, performers moved to the speakeasies. Thus, young white people became increasingly influenced by Black American culture.

Political allegiances were changing too. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal saw many African Americans break their traditional loyalties with the Republicans and switch to the Democrats. This, together with rising political consciousness and a vibrant and confident culture, gave birth to the Civil Right Movement of the post-war years.