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The American Civil War (1861-5) put a legal end to slavery and gave black men the vote in 1865. Yet despite this, black Americans were treated as inferior citizens.
In the South, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, segregation laws that kept blacks and whites apart, controlled the lives of the black population. Black people had to use separate facilities for public transport, housing, hospitals, restaurants and shops. In 1896 separate public schools were ruled to be legal according to the constitution. This separation of facilities was considered acceptable as long as the facilities were equal in quality.
In the Northern states there was not a strict segregation policy. However, black people still experienced discrimination in jobs, education, housing and trade unions.
Few black citizens were able to exercise their right to vote because registered voters had to own property, which many blacks did not. In some states they had to pass a literacy test, which was fixed by white officials. Those who tried to vote were threatened or beaten.
Many black people took a stand over segregation, risking hurt or punishment. Resistance varied.
One of the NAACP’s most significant legal victories came in 1954 with the case of Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education in Kansas. The judgment said that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The decision provided a huge spur to the civil rights movement, which started to take ‘direct action’ through non-violent protest to end segregation and discrimination. One such example was the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks, who was arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, triggered the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King. Blacks and whites that disagreed with segregation refused to use the buses and pay fares to the bus companies. The bus boycott lasted over a year. Finally, the Supreme Court said that buses should be desegregated.
The campaign revealed King’s great gift for getting people to work together and his ability as a powerful speaker. It also led to the creation of the church-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with King as its president, dedicated to co-ordinating non-violent civil rights campaigns around the South.
In the 1960s civil rights protests heated up even more. For example:
President Johnson finally passed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964. It forbade discrimination of all kinds based on race or religion. An Equal Employment Commission was set up.
Campaigners now turned their attention to voting rights. ‘Freedom Summer’ was a big campaign to register black people to vote in 1964. Many civil rights activists, including white students from the North, went to Mississippi. This was the poorest state, where 86% of black families lived in poverty. Activists hoped that the vote would give the black community the means to change their society. CORE led the campaign and other organisations took part. Many campaigners were attacked and threatened and three were murdered. This horrified the nation and gained more support for the movement.
In March 1965, 600 marchers left Selma to walk 54 miles to Montgomery, the state capital, to push for voter registration. When the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, police attacked the adults and children with clubs and tear gas. Later Martin Luther King led another march to the same bridge in memory of ‘Bloody Sunday’. Civil rights leaders organised a third march from Selma to Montgomery, this time with federal troops for protection, after James Reeb, a white minister from Boston, was murdered.
Such voter registration drives led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Poll tax and literacy tests could no longer be required as qualifications to vote.
Dr King started to plan another march on Washington. It would be called the Poor People’s Campaign for economic equality. He took time out to support the black sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968. On 4 April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. The news shocked the world. There followed riots in 125 cities across the USA. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 the day after King’s funeral, extending government protection to civil rights workers and making it illegal to discriminate in the sale and rental of housing.
A different kind of black American leader was emerging.
Black leaders sometimes disagreed on the best direction for activism and the civil rights movement, and racial conflicts continued throughout the 1960s. However, one of the most important aims and consequences of the black power movement was to build up pride and strength in black communities.
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