In order for us to understand the problems this nation faced during the period between the 1950’s and 1960’s we must look briefly at the Dred Scott case, Dred Scott v. Sandford 1857. This case would set in motion events that would leave blacks in this country subjugated to this day. The decision of this case came down to the view of Chief Justice Rodger Taney. He made his decision and with it, he spoke these words.
The question before us is, whether Negroes compose a portion of the American people and are constituent members of this sovereignty. We think they are not. On the contrary, they are a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who have been subjugated by the dominant race. They can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which the Constitution provides for citizens of the United States. (Hakim joy, Freedom, Oxford University Press 2003, Pg. 113)
This decision, although, not cited would dominate the American way of life for the next hundred and thirty years. In the essay Communication in a Global Village, Dean Barlund, asks these questions. “Will a global village be a mere collection or a true community of men? Will its residents be neighbors capable of respecting and utilizing their differences, or clusters of strangers living in ghettos and united only in their antipathies for others?” (Brunk Terence et-al Literacies W.W. Norton & Company, pg. 48) We cannot say all Americans have clustered in ghettos, but what we can say, is blacks have, and they continue to be forced into low class neighborhoods, where opportunities for advancement were/are non-existent. It was cases such as Dred Scott and the presentence of this nation to treat every race less the white race as subjects that would lead to the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement.
Antipathies for others have become a way of life in this nation, especially when it comes to people of different races. The struggle for Civil Rights was born from these antipathies and during the 1950’s and 1960’s this nation would have to come to grips with its past, present, and future. During that twenty year span, black people went to war twice to fight for freedoms abroad, while they received little freedom and no respect from the country they called home. Southern blacks lived in a system that was totally dominated by government sanctioned racism. In his book Radical Equations, Robert Moses says, “Like any black person living in America I knew racism. What I hadn’t encountered before Mississippi was the use of law as an instrument of outright oppression” (Moses P. Robert, et-al, Radical Equations, Beacon Press 2001. Pg. 58) Northern blacks on the other hand lived in a system where they had certain rights, but were still separated by a racial precedent set long ago. In the book American Apartheid the authors Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton writes, “By 1900 the black population (in Chicago) suffered an extraordinary degree of segregation and their residential confinement was nearly complete” (Massey, Douglas S., Denton, Nancy A. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Harvard University Press 1993. Pg. 3) the one thing all blacks had in common was second classmanship. Anthony Marx writes
In the United States, and elsewhere, the century has brought both reinforcements of the color line and militant struggles against it. Momentous conflict has confounded expectations that racial domination and mobilization, supposedly archaic residues of another age, would simply wither away. (Marx W. Anthony, Making Race and Nation, Cambridge University Press 1998, pg. 1)
The reinforcement that blacks were second class citizens and the racial domination they face did not wither away as was hoped, but only exacerbated the problem of race in this nation.
The decade of the 50’s started out humble enough. America was prosperous, the General Hero of WWII was president, and the future of the country was bright. To most the racial issues of equal housing, education, and employment, in America was a non-issue. The government, for its part, gave blacks token gestures like desegregating the military, banning racial segregation in interstate travel, and banning discrimination in federal employment; these gestures fell far short of making blacks equal citizens. Across the nation groups like the NAACP were at work, going through the legal system to attain rights for blacks that whites were born with. Other blacks, however, would take different paths, but the NAACP had the legitimacy of an organization. In 1954 the NAACP would force a decision upon a nation not prepared for change; this nation that would challenge these changes with their every breath. In his book The African American Experience, Joe Trotter writes,
Under the leadership of the NAACP, early postwar legal actions culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown V. Board of Education (1954). In the Brown case-including black school children and their parents in Kansas, Virginia, Delaware, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C.- the Supreme Court ruled that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. In this ruling, the Court struck down the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and dismantled the key legal underpinning of the entire segregationist order (Trotter W. Joe The African American Experience, Houghton Mifflin Company 2001, pg. 521)
As with any Supreme Court decision, making the decision and implementing the decision is two different things. Although, the Court ordered desegregation “with all deliberate speed” social change is never that simple. This decision would bring America to the brink of a racial civil war and give birth to a movement that would change society to this day.
The struggle for civil rights started long before Brown v. Board of Education, but that decision brought to the forefront the struggle blacks had been dealing with since reconstruction. In 1954, a little known pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. was called upon to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, Trotter writes
At a mass meeting following the first day of protest, King articulated even more clearly the resolve of Montgomery blacks: “You know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron fist of oppression…. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The following day, a Montgomery journalist wrote an editorial describing the boycott as “a flame that would go across America.” (Trotter 526)
As with most black movements in this country, King’s movement started in the black church. King took his inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, a movement that would be rooted in Christian beliefs and non-violent, regardless of violence perpetrated against them. King’s movement would spawn several other movements, but each of these movements’ goals was the same: Equal rights.
Using the 1950’s as a spring board the civil rights movement entered the 1960’s with a blast. In the 1960’s, Martin Luther King, would go from a miniscule reverend to the world renowned leader of the Black American struggle. Student movements sprung up on campuses across that nation. Trotter says:
By the early 1960’s, the emergence of the nonviolent direct action movement had given rise to a new generation of black college students who increasingly challenged established leaders to intensify the struggle. Student activist were moved to act not only by the heroic deeds of their elders but also by their own precarious place within the Jim Crow system. Southern Whites ignored age distinctions in their defense of white supremacy. (Trotter 527)
These movements would not all remain nonviolent nor would white America remain silent in the face of black advancement. Trotter says:
Although the civil rights struggle culminated in a series of local and regional victories, it was an incomplete and exceedingly costly achievement. Resistance to the civil rights movement intensified as African Americans escalated their struggle. In addition to resuscitating old-line white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, southern whites formed new citizens’ councils to overturn Brown. Although the white citizens’ councils comprised the middle- and upper class-class members of the white community and presented an aura of legitimacy that transcended the brutal tactics of the KKK, the two modes of white resistance reinforced each other. (Trotter 532)
The violence that whites perpetrated against blacks during this time gave birth to a number of more radical groups, who were not adverse to using violence to further the goal of equality. Groups like the Black Panthers and The Nation of Islam did not use violence, contrary to the opinions of most whites of the time. What they did was advocate self-defense. Malcolm X said “If a dog is put on a black man, the black man should kill the dog. Not only should he kill the four legged dog, but also the two legged dog who put the dog on him (Malcolm X interview UC Berkley, October 11, 1963). People like Malcolm say the civil rights laws passed during the 50’s and 60’s are nothing more than appeasement that blacks should reject outright. In an interview at the UC Berkley Malcolm said
If white people really passed meaningful laws it would not be necessary to pass anymore laws. There are already enough laws on the law books to protect American citizens. You only need additional laws when you’re dealing with someone not regarded as an American citizen, but whites are so hypocritical they don’t want to admit that this black man is not a citizen. So they classify him as a second class citizen to get around making him a real citizen. If he were a real citizen, you would need no more laws, you would need no civil rights legislation. When you have civil rights, you have citizenship, it’s automatic. White people don’t need laws to protect their citizenship because they’re citizens. (Berkley interview 1963)
Malcolm took a different approach then King, but their goal was practically the same. Malcolm spoke of complete separation, but only because from his point of view, whites had no desire for integration, so blacks should have no desire to integrate. King spoke of integration of the nation. King wanted America to be what it promised to be for all Americans, not just white Americans.
The 60’s was a mixed decade. It was a decade where accomplishments were made, but steps were also taken backwards. The rise of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements were backlashes against a racist system that relegated blacks regardless of their abilities to second class citizenship. Regardless of religious affiliation or non-religious affiliation, each movement’s aim was the same: To stop the brutal treatment of blacks at the hand of a system steeped in white superiority. Groups like the Black Panthers went a different way. Violence was a way of life. The Panthers solved their problems not with protest, but with guns. Many of them died in the process, but again their aim was the same.
The Civil Rights movement culminated with the deaths of Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). After their deaths, the government passed several acts aimed at easing racial tension in this country, but those bills had very little if any effect on the black struggle for equality. In 2011, we sit with a black president, so people are saying we now live in a post-racial society, but the reality is far different. America as a nation is split more now than in the 1960’s, divided by many things and race continues to be dominant among those things. We will have to come together as a nation to climb this mountain. Because of people like Malcolm and Martin, we are not starting at the bottom of the mountain, but we are a very long way from the top.