- Written by Kimberly Blaker Kimberly Blaker
For nearly 250 years, America held Black men, women, and children as slaves. They were considered “property” and worked as servants and on plantations, not by choice, and for little compensation, often suffering severe abuse.
Despite progress, today, Black Americans still experience prejudice. During Black History Month, the nation celebrates African Americans, both young and old, who fought for freedom and civil rights.
A Brief History
The legalized slave trade ended in 1808. But slaves continued to be smuggled into the United States, and the millions already held in servitude found no relief.
Nearly two years into the Civil War, on Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves held by the Confederate states “shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.”
Slaveholders released few slaves immediately. But two years later, the South surrendered, and the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery.
In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified, giving U.S. citizenship to Blacks and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Then in 1870, the 15th Amendment gave them the right to vote.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act in 1875, guaranteeing African Americans equal rights in public accommodations and jury duty. But the progress was short lived. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional.
Over the following decades, societal change took a gradual pace, with some Southern political leaders creating laws that kept Blacks from voting and legalized segregation.
During this time, the Ku Klux Klan took matters into its own hands. From 1889 to 1918, the Klan captured and hung 3,224 men, women, and children, mostly Black.
Organizing the Civil Rights Movement
In 1905, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American — political, civil, social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves but for all true Americans.”
Out of his letter came a civil rights organization called the Niagara Movement. It lasted only five years, but it led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910.
Around the mid-1900s, the pace of the civil rights movement took off. In 1948, President Harry Truman created a Civil Rights Commission. He called for an end to school segregation and proclaimed a fair employment policy for federal workers.
Over the next few years, state Supreme Courts heard school segregation cases. Not all were successful. But on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the court ruled school segregation is unconstitutional.
The next decade was turbulent. Many whites refused to accept that Black and white children would attend school together. Bus boycotts and other peaceful demonstrations by Blacks and civil rights activists met with acts of violence by those who favored segregation.
Then, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new Civil Rights Act. It outlawed discrimination in voting and public accommodations and required fair employment practices. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, barring the use of literacy and other tests as a requirement to vote.
African Americans Who Took a Stand
The following men and women are just some who challenged the system and led the way to reform.
Sojourner Truth (1797?-1883) escaped slavery and became a traveling preacher. She was a talented orator and, in 1843, became the first Black woman to speak out against slavery. Later, Truth strove to improve the conditions for Black people who settled in Washington, D.C.
Nat Turner (1800-31) led a massive slave revolt in Virginia in 1831 known as the “Southampton Insurrection.” Nearly 60 white people were killed. Turner and many of his followers were later captured and hanged. Nonetheless, he became a symbol for abolition.
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) escaped slavery in 1849. She helped free more than 300 slaves through the Underground Railroad and served as a spy and a nurse during the Civil War. Later she helped raise funds for African American schools and advocated for women’s rights.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) headed and expanded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a college for Black students. He believed that Black economic independence was necessary to gain social equality. His autobiography, Up from Slavery, was published in 1901.
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) founded the NAACP. His goals included ending segregation and the widespread lynching that was taking place in the United States. Du Bois also visualized world change.
He was the author of many works, including Black Reconstruction (1935). In 1961, he moved to Ghana and joined the Communist Party after becoming alienated from the United States. He later died “in self-imposed exile.”
Thurgood Marshall (1908-93) was the first Black United States Supreme Court judge. Before taking the seat, he served as director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. Marshall appeared before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and other monumental civil rights cases.
James Leonard Farmer (1920-99) founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. He and his organization favored nonviolent protests.
Rosa Lee Parks (1913-2005) was arrested in 1955 after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. This led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which facilitated the national civil rights movement. In 1979, she won the Spingarn Medal for her courageous contribution.
Malcolm X (1925-65) became a Black Muslim minister after he converted to Islam. An influential leader, in 1964 he broke away from the movement to form the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated in 1965, presumably by rival Black Muslims.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) is one of America’s most noted civil rights leaders. His leadership included organizing the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the years, King was arrested 30 times for his peaceful civil rights activities. King’s extraordinary leadership led to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In 1968, he was assassinated.
Andrew Young (b. 1932) assisted in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also served as the first African American U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Young Advocates of Civil Rights
Belinda Rochelle explains in her book, Witnesses to Freedom: Young People Who Fought for Civil Rights, that kids also made valuable contributions.
On April 23, 1951, high school student Barbara Johns led a boycott at R.R. Morton High School over the Black school’s poor conditions.
The Morton students rode an unheated school bus to school. They also had to wear heavy winter coats to classes to keep warm, and the school’s textbooks and classrooms were in poor condition.
A month following the boycott, a lawsuit was filed against the school district.
Another high school student, Harvey Gantt, was a senior when he organized a sit-in demonstration. He and other Black students walked into a segregated diner to be served. Instead, they were immediately taken to jail.
Gantt became the first Black student to enroll in the segregated Clemson University of South Carolina.
Sheyann Webb was only 8 when she became involved in the movement. On March 7, 1965, the little girl participated in what became known as Bloody Sunday. In this demonstration, 600 people began a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in response to the death of a Black man killed in a fight with the police.
On Bloody Sunday, officers attacked the marchers, including children, during the demonstration. Many were beaten and injured. Sheyann escaped the worst of the day, suffering only from the tear gas she encountered.
As an adult, she’s traveled the country advocating for education and discussing the civil rights movement.
While each of these men, women, and children played a crucial role in the movement, they did not do it alone. Millions of Americans throughout history have taken part in the cause.
Caption: On the cover, from left, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr.