The Development of African-american Civil Rights in The Us

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Words: 3044 |

Pages: 7|

16 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 3044|Pages: 7|16 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

One of the most important factors in the development of African-American civil rights was the process of reconstruction and the growth of grass root Black leaders. They laid the groundwork for activists such as MLK and members of the NAACP. The Radical Reconstruction that took place in 1867 was the biggest development of de jure African-America civil rights in the 19th century. However, it is not the most important factor as it did not have cause a substantial improvement to African-Americans’ lives. The 14th Amendment was a significant piece of civil rights legislation as it recognised that all American citizens should been seen as equal by the law. Johnson recognised that the 14th Amendment would not be implemented in the more hostile Southern states. Therefore, the 1867 Military Reconstruction Act took away individual state power and representation for the Southern states until they allowed blacks to vote and ratified the 14th Amendment. This was a significant piece of legislation as it forced the South to legally recognise the rights of African-Americans. Although this improved de jure civil rights it did little to improve de facto rights. The Act failed to create federal agencies to protect black rights or give economic aid to the free slaves, meaning that standards of living for African-Americans was still sub-standard. The 1870 15th Amendment was another major development in de jure Civil rights, as it stated that the vote could not be denied on account of race. Its impact was limited as it did not forbid states to introduce literacy, property and educational tests for potential voters. De facto civil rights were soon reduced when the Southern states found new ways to suppress black voting with the majority of Southern states introducing income and literacy qualifications, to penalise blacks who lacked education due to slavery. It is clear that Reconstruction had done little to improve civil rights as by 1900 only 3% of Southern blacks could vote. Reconstruction failed to bring lasting political and de facto gains for African-American Civil rights but set an important precedent for later legislation such as Roosevelt’s New Deal, which would dramatically improve the socio-economic status of African Americans. The failure of Radical Reconstruction inspired early activists such as Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington to attempt to improve life for African-Americans. Activism would prove an essential part of the civil rights movement up to 1968. The early struggle of Ida B. Wells against lynchings marked the starting point of the civil rights struggle. Wells was driven out of the South after writing in the Memphis Free State that nobody believes the “lie that Negro men rape white women”. She highlighted the clear racism in Southern society, creating a precedent for the improvement of de facto civil rights. She lectured on lynching in major cities such as Washington and Philadelphia, with her speaking tour in Britain leading to public outcry against lynching. Although Wells failed to make significant progress in improving de jure civil rights as she failed to get the federal government to legislate against lynching, she did put the issue in the public eye. This is significant for the improvement of African-American rights as it allowed the movement to gain publicity, which would eventually improve de facto rights. Booker T. Washington, one of the first major civil rights leaders had an accommodationist approach to improving de facto rights. He believed that for blacks to survive in an oppressive white society they must accept the status quo and improve their educational and vocational skills instead of protesting. Although controversial, Washington’s approach did allow for a short-term improvement of de facto civil rights. Washington was the first black speaker to talk at the Atlanta World Fair with his most famous speech the ‘Atlanta Compromise’ stating that it foolish to agitate for social equality as equality would come through hard work, not force. Washington helped to improve de facto civil rights by funding education, through the Tuskegee Institute, and gaining white support due to his moderate approach to black and white cooperation. However, he accepted segregation, contributing to the continued perpetuation of racial inequality and was not radical enough to make real change in society. His success was limited to a short term improvement in African-American standards of living in the South.

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Louis Harlan’s interpretation of Booker T. Washington is unconvincing as it depicts was recognised as the leading expert in Booker T Washington in the late 20th century, writing extensively on him between 1970 and 2000. He was recognised for mastering primary sources on Washington and his general interpretation of Washington is a negative one. In his essay “Booker T. Washington in Biographical Perspective”, Harlan asserts the view that Washington did not simply “pragmatically” adjust his accommodationist philosophy to suit the restrictive view of the era, but instead was consistent in believing that in order to be a successful black man, he and others must adjust to the realities of white power. This is a moderately convincing interpretation as Washington’s own rise from a slave to the middle class served as testimony that it was possible for African Americans to succeed in a white-dominated society, with the success of his autobiography “Up from Slavery” showing how Washington profited from his accommodationist stance. Harlan dismisses the interpretation that Washington was only publicly accommodationist and was secretly radical by suggesting that Washington’s secret militancy did little to help race relations and his tendency to use espionage against other African American leaders outweighed any contribution he had to the improvement of civil rights. However, this interpretation is less convincing as Harlan was naturally disposed to be biased against Washington’s infiltration of the NAACP as Harlan himself joined the NAACP in the 1950s, so it is natural that he would criticise Washington extensively for spying on an organisation that he was part of. A major flaw of Harlan’s interpretation of Booker T Washington is Harlan’s tendency to overemphasise Washington’s vices. An example of this is Harlan’s assertion that because Washington was raised on a small farm instead of a plantation he “never experienced slavery in its harshest forms”, so was unfit to comment on the damaging psychological aspects of slavery that the philosophy of accomodationism added to. However, Harlan himself admitted to harbouring passively racist attitudes during WW2 and as a white American is unfit to comment on Washington’s experience as a slavery. Furthermore, in Washington’s own biography he describes the hardships he endured as a slave. He slept on a dirt floor and lacked proper clothing for the majority of his childhood. Overall, Harlan’s interpretation of Washington is overly harsh as he criticises Washington’s philosophy without truly knowing what Washington believed, and ignores the historical constraints that were placed on Washington.

Dr David H. Jackson has a contrasting interpretation of Washington’s philosophy and role as an early black leader. In ‘Booker T. Washington and the Struggle against White Supremacy (The Southern Educational Tours 1908-1912), Jackson argues that Washington was not accommodationist but instead was practically “Machiavellian” in his approach to politics, meaning that Washington was cunning and unscrupulous. This is a convincing interpretation of Washington as Washington’s ability to make friends with white philanthropists allowed him to fund black education through the Tuskegee Institution, evidenced by Rosenwald, a white businessman contributing $4 million towards the construction of more than 4,000 rural schools in the South after Washington’s death. Jackson also argues that Washington used his educational tours across the South to spread the message of black progress. Whereas Harlan dismissed these tours as unimportant, Jackson saw them as significant as they were major attempts to combat white bigotry that was rife in the South. Jackson states that the tours were an opportunity for Washington “to education himself, and more importantly others, about the progress of black race”. This is a convincing interpretation of Washington’s life work, as Washington advocated for African-Americans to improve their de facto rights by educating themselves. Washington reached approximately one million people through his tours in the South, highlighting the positive effect that Booker T. Washington had on the African-American community. Jackson’s interpretation of Washington is more convincing than Harlan’s as he places Washington’s activities in the context of the historical constraints that he faced. In the early 20th century, black activists were faced with the constant threat of lynching, and although this was still a problem when MLK began to speak out about civil rights, Washington faced a much greater threat with a lot less support. Jackson’s interpretation is further strengthened by Jackson being an African American scholar activist who utilises knowledge to teach others about black equality and civil rights. Although Harlan was also a civil rights activist he never experienced racism and discrimination so struggles to assess the dangers that Washington posed.

The most important factor in the development of African-American Civil rights was the constant activism of the NAACP which successfully improved both de jure and de facto Civil rights, whilst also improving the lives of African Americans economically and socially. Although, the NAACP was not the only association that aimed to improve black civil rights it was, and still is, the largest civil rights organisation, with the fact that is still exists today showing the effectiveness of it. One reason for the success of the NAACP was its formation, as it was created by an interracial group of activists, including the prominent black activist Du Bois. The NAACP helped to improve de facto voting equality by pressuring the Supreme Court to rule against the Grandfather clause, which Southern states had exploited since Reconstruction to skew voting equality in favour of whites. In March 1915, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was released, in which the South was depicted as being ruled by raucous African Americans who were heroically overthrown at the end of the film by the KKK. The NAACP attempted to stir people to boycott this inherently racist and inaccurate film, but due to the film’s overwhelming popularity there was little significant white opposition. The NAACP national security Mary Childs Nerney’s letter highlights the NAACP’s main strength: their unwavering perseverance in opposing racism in all its form. The letter highlights the NAACP’s “utter digust” at the film, meaning it is valuable showing the NAACP’s ability to take strong stances of issues that negatively impacted the image of African-Americans. This shows that the NAACP was not just concerned with passing legislation to help civil rights but also wanted to change the attitudes of ordinary white Americans. It is also valuable for showing the NAACP’s ability to adapt as they knew that it would be impossible to persuade people to not watch the film so instead focused on cutting the most horrific scenes. However, the source also highlights the NAACP’s flaws as they achieved mixed and minor cuts with “six weeks of constant effort” doing little to help the situation. The source is also valuable for looking at the early organisation of the NAACP as Mary Childs Nerney was a white woman who was only the Executive Secretary of the NAACP from 1912 to 1916. She often lost patience with African – American people and failed to cooperate with W.E.B Du Bois, with him refusing to lead the campaign to ban ‘The Birth of a Nation’. It is therefore clear that the NAACP originally depended heavily on white support, due to the level of danger that came with being a black activist in the early 20th century. Overall, the letter is extremely valuable at highlighting how and why the NAACP ran their campaigns. The NAACP began to rely more on black activists to run the organisation, which boosted African-American rights by creating black role models and allowing further cooperation with black communities. Charles Houston was appointed to direct the NAACP’s legal campaign in 1934, which was significant as he was a black man who insisted that the NAACP should employ black lawyers, meaning the NAACP directly created well-paid jobs for African-American. In 1936, Houston’s star pupil Thurgood Marshall was hired and together they led the fight against segregated education in the 1930s and 1940s. They worked to involve black communities at a local level, which is something that earlier leaders failed to do. The success of these two men was shown in their victory in ‘MISSOURI EX REL GAINES VS CANADA 1938’, where the Supreme Court decreed that blacks had the right to the same quality of graduate education as whites. A contributing factor to their success was that they were able to establish that graduate schools were an easier target than the larger and more high profile public schools. The strategic activism of the NAACP allowed the development of African-American rights to a further extent than single figureheads of the movement. The NAACP continued to play a pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. They continued their work on giving African-American’s an equal education, building on the earlier ideas of Booker T. Washington in a more radical and successful way. A key victory was the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in “BROWN VS BOARD OF EDUCATION” which outlawed segregation in public schools. The NAACP also played a major role in protect activism during this time helping to organised the 1963 March on Washington, one of the biggest civil rights rallies in US history. Overall, the NAACP was the most important factor in the development of African-American civil rights as they continuously worked to improve de facto and de jure fights, shown through their ability to push through major legislation and win cases against the Supreme Courts. The ideological success of MLK would have been impossible if it had not been for the precedent that the NAACP set, and in comparison with the NAACP did little to actually help the lives of African-Americans.

One of the most significant developments in African-American rights came from politicians in the mid-1900s such as Roosevelt and Truman accepting that African Americans deserved equal legal rights. At the start of the 1900 the rural South offered few economic opportunities to black sharecroppers which led to the ‘Great Migration’. Between 1910 and 1970 over six million African-Americans migrated from the rural South to cities in the North, Midwest and West where there were greater economic opportunities. There was a complete absence of financial support for the lower classes, which hit black communities the hardest .In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt announced a new economic programme known as the ‘New Deal’. This unprecedented programme of government intervention was designed to stimulate the economy and help the poor. It was highly significant for the development of African- American rights as it marked the start of the federal government taking an interest in aiding blacks. One of the main economic hindrances for African-Americans at the time was a lack of education. ‘New Deal’ provided one million jobs and financial assistance and training in skilled occupations for half a million black youths. Roosevelt’s programme also helped illiterate black farmers who would not benefit from education as the funding allowed numerous black sharecroppers, who rented their land from white owners to become independent farmers. Economic independence was allowed for the development of de facto Civil rights as it made it harder for African-Americans to be financially discriminated against.

Roosevelt’s New Deal also had a major political impact on African-American civil rights as it established the Democratic Party as a supporter of Civil rights, even though the Party was still extremely racist at the time. It allowed civil rights to become a mainstream political issues, which would prove essential in the improvement of de jure civil rights. However, the New Deal had a limited impact in developing African-American civil rights as the aid was not always fairly distributed, particularly in the South where white officials would withhold it from black communities. An example of this practice was the Federal Housing Authority who refused to finance mortgages for houses purchased by blacks in predominantly white neighbourhoods. It is therefore clear that discrimination against African-Americans was still a widespread issue.

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President Truman also continued to improve African-American Civil rights due to his belief that legal equality for blacks was a basic right. Although Truman viewed African-Americans as inferior he was still horrified by attacks on black serviceman after the Second World War. In September 1946, Truman established a Civil Rights Committee to investigate increasing violence against blacks. By choosing liberals to serve on the committee, Truman ensured that the report would draw national attention to the unacceptable situation. In October 1947, the report entitled “To Secure These Rights” was published. It advocated for the elimination of segregation by using federal power.Truman’s “SpeIn response to the report Truman addressed Congress in his “special message to the Congress on Civil Rights”. It was the first time a sitting president had addressed the question of black civil rights. The message reveals Truman’s reasoning for implementing civil right legislation to “secure fully our essential human rights”, showing that although Truman did not believe that all races should be equal he believed that blacks deserved to hold basic rights. The message has a highly patriotic tone as it references both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which underpin the structure of the modern day United States showing that Truman wanted to advocate for civil rights without losing the support of white Americans. Truman makes it clear that everyone should “have equal protection under the law” and that work needs to be done to achieve “greater tolerance and brotherhood”. These examples show that Truman wanted both de jure and de facto civil rights, but does not acknowledge that it is specifically African Americans who are discriminated against. However, the message does not show Truman’s true feelings about civil rights as Truman was aware that it would be publicly scrutinised and did not want to lose black support. However, the development of de jure civil rights under Truman was limited as Congress resisted Truman’s civil rights legislation. Public opinion also slowed down progress, impacting de jure and de facto civil right improvement as the majority of white voters did not approve of extending black civil rights. Therefore, although Roosevelt and Truman played crucial individual roles in bringing civil rights to the forefront of politics it was mainly due to organisations such as the NAACP and CORE putting pressure on legislative change.  

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The Development Of African-American Civil Rights In The US. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from
“The Development Of African-American Civil Rights In The US.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
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