Slavery and Civil Rights

The promise of freedom and opportunity most people associated with America did not apply to all. Slaves came to the New World from Africa as captives, and indentured or bond servants. Ships delivered them to settlements where wealthy white men purchased them to work their land. An expensive investment, slaves received food, clothing, housing and medical care with the expectation that they would submit to whatever their owners required of them.

Slave labor brought prosperity to their owners, but because of religious and economic education and laws, as well as societal mores, many lived harsh, punishing lives as property without privilege or opportunity. Slave codes included and even required violence to maintain authority and submission. They could not learn to read and those who tried to stand up for themselves or escape risked maiming or death.

By 1786, all but one of the states had passed laws forbidding the importation of slaves, but the fewer than 500,000 slaves that came to America during the slave trade reproduced to increase their own population to almost four million by the 1860 census. In the North, slaves usually served as house servants whereas in the South the lighter-skinned slaves performed household duties and the darker-skinned ones worked in the fields.

Beginning in the 1750s, the view of slavery as a social evil began to spread through the colonies. Between 1780 and 1804, all the Northern states had passed emancipation acts which usually provided for gradual emancipation and eventual freedom. Throughout the first half of the 1800s, the tension increased. Runaway slaves snuck across the borders to the northern states via the Underground Railroad, a network of secret passages provided by abolitionists who wanted slavery to end.

The 1860 presidential election exposed the tension between the North and the South, with Abraham Lincoln, a firm abolitionist winning the vote. In response, in 1861 the southern states chose to secede from the Union and establish the Confederate States of America, so beginning the Civil War. On January 1, 1863 Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom to all slaves once the Union armies (fighting for the northern states) could reach them. Eventually, all slaves received their freedom when the Confederate troops (fighting for the southern states) surrendered in the spring of 1865.

Some significant modifications to law and policy resulted, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slaver)', the Civil Rights Act which declared that all persons born in the U.S. could call themselves citizens, the 14th Amendment requiring due process and equal protection for all citizens and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous servitude.

Although now free, these former slaves continued to face discrimination. They looked different and many people still treated them as lower-class citizens; they had virtually no formal education and only the skills they had learned as slaves. Society continued to segregate them in places like restaurants, schools, buses and even at drinking fountains.

During the first half of the 1900s, unrest and upheaval between the “blacks and the whites” continued. Building in scope and scale, dissatisfaction with the progress of integration into society led to the Civil Rights Movement. This refers to noted events and reform movements initiated between 1954 and 1968 with the intention of abolishing public and private acts of racial discrimination and racism against African Americans, particularly in the southern states. While supporters of the Civil Rights Movement relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience to establish equal personhood for blacks and whites, other groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) used intimidation and violence to try to impede the progress of black people and those who supported their efforts.

Among the notable Americans who nurtured the Civil Rights Movement, we find Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. Some of the key events that occurred during this movement, include the 1954 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court finding segregation in schools unconstitutional, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts protesting the segregation of blacks and whites on public transportation, the march on Washington, D.C., and the assassination of Martin Luther King, the most famous leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as a political activist and Baptist minister.

In spite of the assassination of the greatest leader for the movement, civil rights progress continued. Organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) formed to move society in the direction of equal personhood. Federal laws passed to support nondiscrimination and promote equal opportunity.

By now, all levels of society, government and politics include African Americans. Civil rights have come a long way, but Americans have varying opinions on the level of success achieved to date. Undeniably, we have progressed, but room for improvement certainly remains.