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The History of Civil Rights Movement since the Reconstruction Era

Updated on May 29, 2017

The Struggle for equality since the Reconstruction Era

A History of African-American’s struggles toward Equality

By Michael Mikio Nakade, MA

(An Imaginary interview of a civil rights historian by NY Times)


NY Times: Thank you, Prof. Smith for agreeing to today’s interview. You’re one of the leading scholars on the topic of Civil Rights Movement. First of all, tell us about the failures of the Reconstruction.

Smith: The Reconstruction was another civil war between the radical Northerners and the Southerners who desperately wanted to preserve their way of life. One key piece of information about the post war South is available for us today. Gen. Carl Schurz produced a detailed report about the defeated South in 1865, and the report was chilling. In a nutshell, Gen. Schurz said that the South was not at all ready to grant freed blacks equal rights and that the South would resort to terroristic violence to maintain white supremacy. Under this circumstance, any Northern Republican government’s attempt to make blacks equal to whites in the South would fail.

NYT: But, on the surface, the Federal government passed the 14th and the 15th Amendments. Freedmen enjoyed a brief moment in the sun. So, what happened?

Smith: The 14th Amendment basically stated that the Federal government would be a guarantor of equality before the law for all citizens of the United States. Citizenships were given to anyone who was born in the United States. The 15th Amendment was the right for freed black men age 21 and older to vote. These Amendments were ratified not because the defeated former Confederate states supported them but only because the Radical Republican congress coerced the defeated southern states. As you probably know from the Prohibition fiasco, the laws are meaningless when there is no enforcement. The Radical Northern Republicans could not enforce the 14th and the 15th Amendments after the federal troops left the South as a result of the Compromise of 1876.

NYT: I see. Then, we all know that the entire South became segregated. It was exactly like the apartheid ear of South Africa. How did that come about?

Smith: The Southerners were very bitter about the outcome of the Radical Reconstruction. Once the federal troops left their backyard, they began chipping away the rights of black people. In 1896, there was a Supreme Court case called Plessy v. Ferguson, stemming from a railway car incident in Louisiana. In the end, the Court sanctioned the power of the Southern states to create two “separate but equal” societies. The white majority in the South did everything they could in their power to preserve their so-called way of life and felt vindicated in treating the blacks as outcasts. Since the whites were the majority, they had the mandate to create laws that suited them. There were “Whites Only” signs everywhere in the South, and they were perfectly legal.

NYT: Were there any black movement against such discriminating and humiliating laws in the South at the time?

Smith: The irony is that the 14th Amendment specifically states that No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” But, the reality was that the federal government was not at all interested in protecting the rights of black citizens. The entire Southern Society was operating under the assumption that the blacks were inferior and that they would need to be subservient to the white majority. The best the black Americans could do in the South was to have someone like Booker T. Washington. Booker declared that blacks should focus on vocational education and be given more opportunities to succeed economically outside of farming. It was known as the Atlanta Compromise.

NYT: I see. Booker T. Washington’s position sounded like a tacit acceptance of the status quo. I imagine that there was someone in the black community who voiced the opposition. Was there, not?

Smith: Yes, there was. There was the Niagara Movement led by W.E.B. DuBois. He is a Harvard educated northern black man. He was instrumental in founding the NAACP. He and his supporters demanded an immediate end to all forms of discrimination. In a nutshell, DuBois wanted to make sure that every black person would have a chance to learn anything that white people were learning. He believed that the future black leaders would need much more than just vocational training.

NYT: I can certainly see DuBois’ point. He was not embracing the assumption that the blacks would be better off being carpenters, construction workers, and plumbers, etc. Now, let’s shift the focus to the North. At dawn of the 20th century, many Southern blacks moved to the North. What impact did that have?

Smith: In history, the migration of Southern blacks to the North is known as the Great Migration. One byproduct was the Harlem Renaissance. Many black Americans resided in the Harlem district of NYC and celebrated their cultural heritage. The African American urban literature was born. Jazz became widely popular. Harlem’s Cotton Club boasted the talents of Duke Ellington. Louis Armstrong became a household name in the music industry. However, as more and more black Americans moved into the major cities in the North, the more and more oppositions by the whites rose. By the 1930s, there were an estimated 5 million KKK members throughout the whole nation. We must remember that white prejudice against the Blacks was not an exclusive Southern thing. The Northern whites were just as racists as anybody else. Unfortunately.

NYT: Gee. I’m getting depressed. Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. But, things were not getting better. What would be the next big event that changed the sad state of race relations in this country?

Smith: World War II, no doubt. The Great Migration continued during the war because there were factory jobs available in the North and in the West. Not only that, one million African-American fought in the war, even though they were segregated. The most famous unit was Tuskegee Airman. Those brave men proved that they could fly airplanes just as well as white pilots. This is like ‘history repeating itself.’ Abe Lincoln was impressed with the 54th Massachusetts Unit and later suggested that the Black veterans should be able to vote after the war. Harry S Truman was impressed with the heroics of one million black soldiers and abolished segregation in the armed forced in 1948. World War II was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.

NYT: Alright! Things are improving for the African-Americans. Please tell me more.

Smith: In the world of sports, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. He proved that the black baseball players could play with the white players. He made the idea of integration more plausible. Politically, it was the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.

NYT: Oh, sure. Everyone knows that the Supreme Court decision that said: “separate facilities were inherently unequal.” It seems like the federal government began honoring the promise of the 14th amendment. Correct?

Smith: Not so fast. It’s one thing to have the Supreme Court ruling but it is quite another to enforce it. We must remember that the Southerners had been immersed in the system of apartheid for all these years. They were not about to change their cherished way of life overnight. They fought tooth and nail.

NYT: That’s right. Against collective bigotry of the Southern whites, black Americans countered with boycotts and mass protests. Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine come to my mind to inspire the protests. Please tell me more about the African-American efforts.

Smith: The Rosa Parks arrest took place in 1955. Just a year removed from the Brown v. Board of Education case. We must also remember that it was at the height of the Cold War, and the United States was the “good guy” in this global struggle. But, in reality, the United States was denying the freedom of Black Americans. The world opinion was pressuring the U.S. to change its racist way. The tide of history was on the side of the Black Americans. Against this socio-political background, the Civil Rights movement took off. It had its charismatic leader in Martin Luther King, Jr. His nonviolent protests were both effective and appreciated by many in the North.

NYT: It always baffles me as to why the South remained so stubborn about maintain their so-called way of life. That institutionalized racism is both wrong and backward. How do you explain this?

Smith: Way back in 1830s, Alexis du Tocqueville noticed that slavery was color based and that the black racial inferiority was assumed due to their dark complexion. He predicted that people in the United States would have a hard time getting past this association. He said only God would know when the black people would achieve equality with the whites. Well, du Tocqueville was right. The mindset is one of the hardest things to change. We must also remember that the majority of the people in the South were white, and they did not wish to have their so-called way of life forcibly change by some do-gooders in the North. The southern governors and congressmen were elected after promising to their voters that they would work hard to maintain apartheid in their respective home state.

NYT: I see. Then, will you explain why things changed so quickly by the mid 1960s? Under Lyndon B. Johnson, the Civil Rights Act passed, ending discrimination based on race and gender in employment and banning segregation in all public facilities. Furthermore, the Voting Rights Act expanded black suffrage by removing literacy tests and poll tax. That’s like the 14th and the 15th amendments finally enforced throughout the land.

Smith: Looking back, I am convinced that the assassination of JFK in November 1963 helped the cause. LBJ used the phrase, “Fitting tribute to our slay president,” many times when he was pushing for those aforementioned legislations. It literally took the death of JFK in Dallas to persuade the Southerners to agree with the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I must also add that LBJ’s Texas background helped immensely. The Southerners were much more willing to listen to their fellow Southerner. The Southerners absolutely hate being told what to do by those preppy Ivy League educated Eastern established socially liberal men.

NYT: That’s interesting. I had never thought of that. Thank you for sharing your insight today. I appreciate your candid comments about the struggle for African-Americans’ quest for equality in this country.

Smith: You’re welcome. The struggle is still continuing. We’re not quite there, yet.

I was convinced back in 2008 that we had arrived at a color-blind society with the election of Barak Obama. But no, I was wrong. As a society, we still have some work to do.

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