Segregation: The Scar of America
“Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since we have created you all from the same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth, and dwell in the same land”
Would God categorize his children? That is a question hat I believe most would give a simple and direct response: No. So why would the United States categorize her children? Although the Amendment suggests that all men and women are created equal, the fact is that the citizens of the United States are constantly being classified by race, gender and/or religion. So, if indeed the United States is one nation under God, why do we continue to sort ourselves through unreasonable and unethical factors? The misinterpretation of race has shattered the American society and for all that it stands for. We should correct America’s immoral actions and assumptions that separate God’s children in hope of reforming the United States towards equality.
Race has always been an American issue. Let’s focus on segregation and the Civil Rights movement.
Segregation was an attempt by white southerners to separate the races in every sphere of life and to achieve supremacy over blacks. Segregation was often referred to as the Jim Crow system, after a minstrel show character from the 1830’s who was an old, crippled, black slave who embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. Segregation became common in the Southern states following the end of Reconstruction in 1877. During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War (1861-1865), Republican governments in the Southern states were run by blacks, Northerners, and some sympathetic Southerners. The Reconstruction governments had passed laws opening up economic and political opportunities for blacks. By 1877 the Democratic Party had gained control of the government in the Southern states, and these Southern Democrats wanted to reverse black advances made during this time period (Dyson 68-75).
To do this, Democrats began passing local and state laws that specified certain places “For Whites Only” and others for “Colored.” Blacks had separate schools, transportation, restaurants, and parks, many of which were poorly funded and inferior to those of whites (Dyson 68-75).
Over the next 75 years, “Jim Crow” signs went up to separate the races in every possible place. The system of segregation also included the denial of voting rights, known as disfranchisement. Between 1890 and 1910 all southern states passed laws imposing requirements for voting that were used to prevent blacks form voting, in spite of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which had been designed to protect black voting rights. These requirements included: the ability to read and write, which disqualified the many blacks who had not had access to education; property ownership, something few blacks were able to acquire; and paying a poll tax, which was too great a burden on many Southern blacks, who were very poor. Because blacks could not vote, they were virtually powerless to prevent whites from segregating all aspects of Southern life.
Blacks fought against discrimination whenever possible. In the late 1800’s, blacks sued in court to stop segregated seating in railroad cars, states’ disfranchisement of voters and denial of access to schools and restaurants. One of the cases against segregated rail travel was Plessy v Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional. In fact, separate was almost never equal, but the Plessy doctrine provided constitutional protection for segregation for the next fifty years.
To protest segregation, blacks created new national organizations. The National Afro-American League was formed in 1890; the Niagara Movement in 1905; and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. The NAACP became one of the most important black protest organizations of the 20th century. It relied mainly on legal strategy that challenged segregation and discrimination in courts to obtain equal treatment for blacks (Patterson 32-41).
The 1930’s not only brought The Great Depression, but also an increased number of black protests against discrimination, especially in Northern cities. Blacks protested the refusal of white-owned businesses in all-black neighborhoods to hire black salespersons. Using the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” these campaigns persuaded blacks to boycott those businesses. During the same year, blacks organized school boycotts in Northern cities to protest discriminatory treatment of black children.
During the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the federal government created federal programs such as Social Security to assure the welfare of individual citizens. The Roosevelt Administration opened federal jobs to blacks and turned the federal judiciary away from its preoccupation with protecting the freedom of business corporations and toward the protection of individual rights, especially that of the poor and minority groups.
Beginning with his appointment of Hugo Black to the Supreme Court in 1937, Roosevelt chose judges who favored black rights; that year the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri was obligated to provide access to a public law school for blacks just as it provided for whites. Now, blacks sensed that the national government might again be their ally, just as it had been during the Civil War (Rasmussen 20-24).
When World War II began in Europe in 1939, blacks demanded far better treatment than they had received during World War I. They demanded that black soldiers be trained in all military roles and that black civilians have equal opportunities to work in war industries back home. They insisted that black support for the war depended on this. Black unions planned a March on Washington to demand that the federal government require defense contractors to hire blacks on an equal basis as whites. To forestall the march, President Roosevelt issued an executive order to that effect and created the federal Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce it. The FEPC did not prevent discrimination in war industries, but it did provide a lesson to blacks about how the threat of protest could result in new federal commitments to civil rights.
After WWII the momentum for racial change continued. Black soldiers returned home with determination to have full civil rights. President Harry Truman ordered the final desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. He also committed to a domestic civil rights policy favoring voting rights and equal employment, but the U.S. Congress rejected his proposals.
In the postwar years, the NAACP’s legal strategy for civil rights continued to succeed, but their main thrust was equal educational opportunities. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on five cases that challenged elementary and secondary school segregation, and in May 1954 issued it’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that stated that racially segregated education was unconstitutional (Patterson 56-59).
White Southerners received this decision first with shock and, in some cases with expressions of goodwill. By 1955, however, white opposition in the south had grown into massive resistance, a strategy to persuade all whites to resist compliance with the desegregation laws. It was believed that if enough people refused to cooperate with the federal court, it could not be enforced. Tactics included firing school employees who showed willingness to seek integration, closing public school rather than desegregating, and boycotting all public education that was integrated. The White Citizens Council was formed and led opposition to school desegregation all over the South.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus defied a federal court order to admit nine black students to Central High School, prompting President Dwight Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce desegregation. The national media covered the event, and the fate of the Little Rock Nine, the students attempting to integrate the school, dramatized the seriousness of the school desegregation issue to many Americans.
As desegregation progressed, the membership of the Ku Klux Klan grew. The KKK used violence or threats against anyone who was suspected of favoring desegregation or black civil rights. Klan terror, including intimidation and murder, swept thorough the South in the 1950’s and 60’s. Though Klan activities were not always reported in the media, it was enough to deter most civilian desegregation activities (“The Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History”).
Despite the threats and violence, the struggle quickly moved beyond school desegregation to challenge segregation in other areas. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a member of the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP, was told to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. When parks refused to move, she was arrested. The NAACP recognized that the arrest of Parks might rally local blacks to protest segregated buses. Blacks had long been unhappy with their treatment on the buses, and almost overnight a bus boycott was organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was an immediate success, which lasted for more than a year. It ended with the federal court ordering all Montgomery buses desegregated.
A young Baptist minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr., was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that directed the boycott. The protest made King a national figure. King became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when it was founded in 1957. The SCLC encouraged the use of nonviolent, direct action to protest segregation. These activities included marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. The violent white response to black direct action eventually forced the federal government to confront the issues of injustice and racism in the South (Patterson 65-68).
Although segregation and discrimination today are no longer legal by law, there are still many injustices placed upon blacks and other minorities. Injustices that may or may not be as direct as those during the Civil Rights Movement, but are still present.