A Civil Rights History: African Americans

by Andrea Faville

The African-American civil rights struggle began in 1619 when settlers of Jamestown, Va., gave a Dutch trader 2,400 pounds of tobacco in return for 20 Africans — the first slaves in the land that would become the United States.

In 1779, the United States won its freedom from Great Britain. It declared itself the “land of the free.” But there was no freedom for the millions of slaves brought over from their homes in Africa. Many of them worked grueling hours on plantations under the hot, Southern sun. Their uncompensated labor fueled the country’s agrarian economic engine.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they fought for freedom on many fronts. Slaves organized uprisings. Advocates of freedom, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, used journalism to stir anti-slavery sentiments. During the Civil War, abolitionists supported President Lincoln and the Union cause. On New Year’s Day 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in the United States.

Free from the bonds of slavery, African Americans now had to reckon with the shackles of societal and institutional racism. Southern states passed Jim Crow laws, mandating segregation of blacks and whites in public spaces, including schools and restaurants. Discriminatory workplace hiring and university admissions policies limited the range of professional and educational opportunities open to blacks.

In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists stepped up their struggle against racist practices that were often embedded in the law. Their fight for equality played out in picket lines, headlines, lunch counters, courtrooms, classrooms, sports fields and voting booths.

Moments of individual bravery inspired activism: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Martin Luther King Jr. going to jail for demonstrating in Birmingham, Ala. Elizabeth Eckford walking past a hateful white mob and a line of National Guard troops to enter Little Rock High School.

Collective action spurred social and legal change: The black population of Montgomery, Ala., boycotting the public bus system until it desegregated. The Freedom Riders traveling through the Deep South on racially integrated buses. The march of 250,000 people through Washington, D.C., to the Washington Mall to hear King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Resistance to the civil rights movement was massive and sometimes tragic: Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot in 1963. The same year, a church bombing in Alabama killed four young black girls. In 1964, three young civil rights workers were found murdered in Mississippi. Malcolm X was shot. In 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn.

For African Americans, the Civil Rights Era through the 1960s brought many legal, economic and political victories, though at a high price.

“We will speed the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing, Free at last/ Free at last/ Thank God Almighty/ I’m free at last.’” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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