The United States is a progressive nation that is considered one of the most developed countries in the world. Although the United States may now seem like a tolerant and liberal nation with the perception that it is the land of opportunity, its history is deeply rooted in outright discrimination towards the various minorities within the nation. The United States managed to become the nation it is today because of the actions of the brave men and women who stood up on behalf of the beaten and the oppressed in various events known as the Civil Rights movement. This essay will be tracing the history of the Civil Rights movement in relation to the African Americans, the Asian Americans as well as the women of the United States.
The constitution that governs over the United States is one that is best described as being unique. With only seven articles, the Constitution of the United States of America is the shortest constitution in the world yet it is considered a relatively stable constitution. The twenty seven amendments found within the Constitution are based on the civil rights. The civil rights are defined as ‘equal rights for persons regardless of their race, sex, or ethnic background’. When the Declaration of Independence was enacted in 1776, it stipulated that ‘all men are created equal’, however it was implied that it only applied to the white men of the country, thus this saying was not fully realized. (1) 1) Welch & Co. (2012), p. 376
The African American people of the United States today descended largely from the slaves that were brought in the nation starting from the year 1565. Eventually, in the seventeenth century, when the British made each and every African as well as their children slaves for a lifetime, the slave trade flourished. In the South, the slaves were used in the agricultural sector and this provided huge benefits for the economy. The slave trade also flourished in the North with slaves being used to cultivate products that would be used for trade with the West Indies in exchange for molasses. (2) This form of blatant and unjust discrimination did not go without rebellion.
Some slaves chose self-inflicted death instead of enslavement. Other slaves chose to fight for their long sought freedom and mutinied against force. Some of these unfortunate slaves fled into the wilderness while others chose to rebel openly in the North American colonies. Towards the end of the colonial period in North America, slavery had become the norm in the English colonies in America. (3) With this, the foundations had been laid out for the political, economic as well as social conditions that would describe the interracial circumstances of the United States Of America in those days.
When slavery was eventually dissolved and abolished after the Civil War, the Blacks still faced a tremendous amount of discrimination and backlash from the white community. Despite the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 which prohibited slavery, the people of the South still managed to oppress the African Americans by binding former slaves to debts that they could hardly pay off and charging African Americans unfairly with minor crimes that would result in them being leased on to local plantations or mines to work off their violation fines. These two acts were also known as neoslavery. (4)
The enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to the blacks but despite this, they were still not treated fully equally. The Jim Crow laws which was enforced in the 1880s to the 1960s endorsed segregation between the whites and the blacks by giving the states the power to charge anyone consorting with a member of a different race under the name of the law. Intermarriage between races were usually prohibited under this law and public institutions were often required to separate their white and black clientele. Various events in history such as the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 made it clear that the Supreme Court as well as the Government had adopted a separate but equal doctrine in which, although the Blacks were not seen formally as inferior, they were still not seen as equal.
Violence was indeed a common occurrence in the 1900s when lynching was not uncommon. The Ku Klux Klan which started in 1915 was an immense threat to the blacks as they preached white supremacy and took all steps needed to eliminate and degrade their targets, the blacks. The escalating violence against the blacks by the whites who wanted to stand on their ground as the perceived superior race was rising. The blacks who could no longer take this blatant form of constant discrimination while living in perpetual fear decided to fight back. Thus, the first attempts at the Civil Rights movement in recent history was the formation of an activist group known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also known as NAACP in 1909. It was a coalition of both whites and blacks who demanded for the Civil Rights of the blacks. Their first agenda was to overturn separate-but-equal doctrine that resulted from the Plessy vs Ferguson case. (6)
The NAACP were successful in various ways. They somehow managed to convince the court to invalidate the grandfather clause and also to stop segregation among residential areas. The NAACP managed to get the ball rolling for overturning segregation among schools. The group did this first by managing to convince the Supreme Court to make it a requirement that each state had to provide as much graduate schools for the blacks as the whites. The NAACP also managed to get the Supreme Court to insure that the number of schools for blacks equalled that of the whites. In this manner, the Supreme Court did not overturn the doctrine of separate-but-equal but rather, it made the doctrine particularly hard to practice. (7)
The Brown vs. Board of Education case was a huge milestone in the Civil Rights movement because the Warren court that ruled over this case voted in favour of it which finally broke down segregation and allowed the blacks to enter schools that were reserved for the whites. The court approved of the decision as they strongly believed that the segregation of schools went against the Fourteenth Amendment which endorsed equal protection. (8)
Another movement of the black’s civil rights in relation to education was busing in which a number of black children were sent for schooling in predominantly white neighbourhoods and likewise, a number of white children were sent for schooling in predominantly black neighbourhoods. This act which was approved by the Berger Court was done in hopes of improving the relationship between black and white youths. Another reason for busing was also to increase the confidence black children had within themselves as well as their prospects in their future career. (9)
The Civil Rights movement also took to the streets in the form of protests. In Montgomery, Alabama in the year 1955, a black woman by the name of Rosa Parks took a brave move by refusing to move to the back of the bus. Her subsequent arrest as well as her display of courage encouraged others to join in and protest against city buses. These activists chose a then unknown minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr to lead them. With ongoing protests, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s was put into public attention. Martin Luther King Jr rose into prominence as a result of it. Martin Luther King Jr often preached of his dream and vision regarding equality and he quickly rose to become one of the most influential figures of the Civil Rights movement. (10) His ideologies are still influential to this day.
He often led protests and demonstrations in public areas to seek for corrections to what he considers as injustice such as his desire for the
desegregation of public facilities and for voting rights. Martin Luther King Jr truly pushed for integration especially within the civil rights movement. The members of congress as well as the President were put under pressure as the civil rights movement went on the rise. However, it was only after the movement started to display real power that the officials in the Government sector truly began to start taking action. (11)
When President Johnson stepped into the White House, he passed on new legislations to ensure more equality. Among these were the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act Of 1968. These two acts banned any form of discrimination in the employment sector, voting, housing and of course, public accommodation.(12) The problem of inequality between the black and whites may have far progressed in today’s modern society and is definitely not as prevalent as it were back then but problems still continue to persist. Discrimination seems to be perpetual as everywhere in the United States, racial slurs are still being thrown around, there are those who probably still continue to be tormented not because of the content of their character but because of the colour of their skin. (13)
The Asian American civil rights movement isn’t as colourful as the very much historical African American civil rights movement but it is one that is still of great importance. It all began in the late 1960’s when political activism among the Asian Americans started sprouting out at different times in different places. As with most other social movements and reforms in the 1960s, the Asian American Movement should give thanks to the civil rights movement for making it clear that the country’s perception of itself was far different from the reality of it. (14) Although the United States was perceived as a land of equal opportunity where individual effort was placed above all else, this was false. Instead, the United States was really a country where discrimination based on race not only happened, but was actually quite common. The civil rights movement carried out by the blacks opened the eyes of the general public of how blatant the discrimination in the United States was. (15)
Feeling a sense of urgency to help their fellow non-white Americans, Asian Americans started to embrace the civil rights movement. Because of the ethical discontent of seeing how badly the blacks were treated, the Asian Americans came rushing to help but in an odd turn of events, they too realized how similar they were to African Americans as opposed to the European Americans. It was in that time when the Asian Americans started to realize that they too faced discrimination and racial injustice as the blacks did. (16)
President Roosevelt’s decision to place more than one-hundred thousand Japanese Americans in concentration camps faced heavy criticism from the Asians who based this on outright discrimination as those who were sentenced were essentially American. Japanese Americans were determined to prove that they were American and had no ties to the Japanese Empire and they attempted to do this by assimilating themselves into American culture. Despite this, they still faced discrimination. Soon, annoyance took over fear when it came to the consequences of free speech. Asian American college students began to become insistent and started requesting for educational programs that were illustrative of their histories and cultures. (17)
Likewise, Asian American activists tried to keep gentrification from crushing
Asian American neighborhoods. Among the movement’s achievements were the series of strikes that occurred on the campus of the University Of California, Berkeley in 1968 and 1969. The strikes were done in order to demand for the start of ethnic studies programs. The students that participated in the strike were persistent and requested to design the program structure themselves as well as have the ability to select the faculty who would go on to teach in these programs. The University Of California, Berkeley went on to become the first university in the United States to develop a PhD program in Comparative Ethnic Studies. (18)
One of the obstacles faced by Asian Americans was that they were usually seen as an ethnic group rather than a racial group but this was altered by the occurrence of the Vietnam War. While the war was ongoing, a lot of Asians regardless of whether they.
Were Vietnamese or not faced some sort of hostility. The shared sense of being discriminated because of the hostility they faced formed some sort of bond between Asian American who were often looked down on particularly by the American Military force. (19)
They were often looked upon as sub-humans regardless of what type of Asian minority they were. Whether they were Chinese, Japanese, Cambodian or any other race of Asian origin, they were all looked down upon. Once the Vietnam War came to an abrupt end, most of the Asian American movement groups dissolved. Still, many Japanese Americans were deeply effected because of being interred. Passionate activists made arrangements to have the government apologize for its discriminatory activities against the Japanese Americans during World War II. This was realized in 1976 when President Ford signed a document known as Proclamation 4417, in which the internment of the Japanese Americans were referred to as a ‘national mistake’. (20) More than twelve years later, the Civil Liberties Act Of 1988 was signed by President Reagan which caused the distribution of twenty-thousand dollars to the Japanese Americans who were interned in concentration camps and also included a letter of apology. (21)
The women’s civil rights movement started when early feminists became fully aware of the inequalities that had been imposed on them by the patriarchal society of the early days of the United States and sought to remedy this situation. A lot of these early feminists had already gained some sort of experience in political activism through the abolitionist movement. Among the major disappointments that the women of the country had to face was when the Fifteenth Amendment which granted voting rights to the black men of the country did not include any voting rights for the women of the country. A movement for the civil rights of women which was led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Candy Stanton in 1920 eventually led to the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women the right to vote. Once this happened, tension started to form within the group. (22)
Some of the members felt that this enactment was just the first stepping stone in the long struggle for equality while a few others felt that they had already achieved enough. Those who felt content with the enactment alone felt that the actions of those who still aimed for more forms of equality would destroy labour laws that were meant to protect women. Due to all of this disagreement, the movement became dormant.
As the civil rights movement for the blacks escalated in the 1960s, the women of the United States began to realize how inferior they were in terms of status. A book written by Betty Friedan entitled ‘The Feminine Mystique’ took a look at women who conformed to the stereotype of being a conventional housewife who would do all that is expected of one while discretely wondering whether this is all that life has to offer. (23)
The deep insight that this book had caused a lasting impact which led the author Betty Friedan as well as other women of the upper middle class to form a group known as the National Organization for Women, which was often abbreviated as NOW, in 1966. Other organizations formed by women who wanted a change also started to surface. NOW sought to gain more political and economic rights on behalf of the women of the United States. Other organizations aimed to liberate women in all aspects of life. (24) Together, all of these groups had a common vision, to alter the conventional practices of the American society in the sectors of home and work. In 1972, during the Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co, a U.S. Court Of Appeals decided that men and women need to hold jobs that are adequately equal but not identical to one another so that it is protected by Equal Pay Act. This prevented employers from altering the job titles of women in order to give them a lesser income than men. (25)
25) Imbornoni (2009) Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.: Timeline Of Events Initially, the Congress did not see the women’s movement as a matter of importance but it did go on to pass the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 which forbids sex discrimination in employment. When the congress decided to pass the Equal Rights Amendment which stipulates that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” in 1972, it was perceived to be something that would easily pass through the states. Supporters of this amendment were vast and both democrats and republicans encouraged it. (25) The amendment however did not sit well with many women who felt that it was an attack towards the conventional values of the family. Women were divided on this amendment because of what it represented and soon, political support for it also fell through. The amendment was only three states short of the necessary support needed in order to ratify it.
In 1974, a law on discrimination in education which is known as Title IX was passed. According to Tite IX, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” As a result, the rate of enrolment for women in both professional schools and sports programs increased dramatically. (26) Although the fight for gender equality still lives on, it is safe to assume that the women of the past have worked hard to ensure that the American women of today have rights that were impossible to attain in the past.
To conclude, it is fair to say that when you take a look at the history of the Civil Rights movement, the United States have truly progressed from the days of the past into a tolerant and just society where black people are treated in a way that their ancestors could only dream of. A society where people of all sorts of races or ethnic background can live in peace without much racial conflict. A world where women can live openly and independently of men, a right that the women of the past could only imagine.
1. Blaustein, A., & Zangrando, R. (1968). Civil Rights and African Americans: A Documentary History(1st ed.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
2. Imbornoni, A. (2009). Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.: Timeline of Events (1921-1979) | Infoplease.com. Infoplease.com. Retrieved 1 July 2014, from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/womenstimeline2.html#WHM-1961
3. Nittle, N. (2008). History of the Asian-American Civil Rights Movement. About.com Race Relations. Retrieved 29 June 2014, from http://racerelations.about.com/od/historyofracerelations/a/RevisitingtheYellowPowerMovement.htm
4. Wei, W. (1993). The Asian American movement (1st ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
5. Welch, S., Gruhl, J., Thomas, S., & Borrelli, M. (2012). Understanding American Government (14th ed.). Minneapolis/St. Paul: Cengage Learning.