by Gary Puckrein

The Dilemma of Slavery

In 1776, the Founding Fathers of the United States laid out a compelling vision of a free and democratic society in which individual could claim inherent rights over another.

When these men drafted the Declaration of Independence, they included a passage charging King George III with forcing the slave trade on the colonies. The original draft, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, condemned King George for violating the "most sacred rights of life and liberty of a distant people who never offended him." After bitter debate, this clause was taken out of the Declaration at the insistence of Southern states, where slavery was an institution, and some Northern states whose merchant ships carried slaves from Africa to the colonies of the New World.

Thus, even before the United States became a nation, the conflict between the dreams of liberty and the realities of 18th-century values was joined. But the Declaration of Independence was only the beginning of a long battle to end slavery in the United States. As the distinguished 19th-century black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said:

The mass migration of Africans to North American shores began in 1619-just 12 years after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent British colony. The first blacks were not regarded as slaves. They were looked upon as indentured servants--as bondsmen for a period who could look forward to freedom after a term of years. Many whites came to America under similar circumstances. One of the first blacks to arrive, Anthony Johnson, received his freedom in a few years. He became a landowner and a man of wealth, who at one time was himself an owner of "indentured servants."

By 1661, however, the black, unlike the white indentured servant, was regarded as a bondsman for life, and this was the beginning of slavery in the United States.

Africans came to the United States as slaves in shackles and chains. Denied those rights which others could take for granted, black Americans committed themselves to the quest for freedom and dignity guaranteed to all Americans. Ironically, the black struggle was an extension of the dream of the Founding Fathers who envisaged a new republic where all men are equal in the eyes of the law.

Black America produced generation after generation of leaders who kept this basic dream alive under extreme hardships and against the views of the majority. The 19th century produced leaders like Paul Cuffe, Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida Wells-Barnett; in the 20th century the names of W. E. B. Du Bois, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Martin Luther King Jr. stand out.

From the beginning, slavery and the second-class treatment of blacks raised moral questions that white America found difficult to answer. How could a free society deny equal rights to some of its members? Blacks well understood the ethical dilemma that their subjugation posed; over the decades they used this understanding to push America toward a realization of its founding principles. The first great struggle toward that realization was the war against slavery.

Emancipation and Segregation

Although its origins are complex, the immediate cause of the Civil War (1861-1865) was not the practice of slavery in the South, but the attempt of the Southern states to secede from the Union. In addition, the North refused to permit the expansion of slavery into the new territories of the West. As the bloody conflict became prolonged, however, Northern war aims shifted to the elimination of the institution of slavery itself, as well as the preservation of the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, proclaimed all slaves to be free in those states that were in rebellion. The Emancipation Proclamation was a historic political step, but it did not provide a permanent legal basis for the elimination of slavery. Two years later, eight months after the end of the Civil War, on December 18, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. It reads:

Although the amendment was hailed in the halls of Congress and by the forces that had worked so long in the abolitionist movement, many Americans expressed a note of caution. A leading newspaper said in an editorial:

Abraham Lincoln did not live to see the final emancipation of blacks from slavery. Eight months before the adoption of the 13th Amendment, an assassin's bullet ended his life.

America in the last half of the 19th century was not prepared to treat blacks as equals, particularly in the Southern states where slavery had once predominated. Southern whites forced a common front against blacks, and total and complete disenfranchisement of the freed blacks became the universal aim of the South. By 1890, blacks had been denied political rights so successfully that the Atlanta newspaperman, Henry W. Grady, said, "The Negro as a political force has dropped out of serious consideration."

The South achieved this goal by pressuring the federal government not to enforce civil rights laws. The next step was a series of laws passed by the states called the Black Codes or "Jim Crow" laws. These laws were supposed to define the rights of blacks but in practice limited them.

Jim Crow laws were extended to all forms of public activity-frequently under the force of law, but also as a matter of custom and tradition. Public accommodations were strictly segregated; blacks were barred from white hotels, restaurants and theaters. Trains, depots and wharves were also segregated. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of "separate-but-equal" transportation laws in the famous Plessy v. Ferguson case. Thereafter, the Jim Crow principle was applied with inexorable logic. Free access to the marketplace was denied blacks. Most important of all, in many Southern states the greatest liberty was denied to blacks-the right to vote.

The period that stretched from 1900 to World War 11 represented a subtle but basic turning point in the black American experience. When the era opened, conditions seemed almost hopeless, and blacks were indeed a downtrodden people.

Origins of a Movement

At the turn of the century, dissatisfied with the absence of racial equality, a group of Northern black intellectuals began to agitate anew for a restoration of civil rights.

W.E.B. Du Bois became the most prominent black spokesman of this group. In 1905, he led a meeting to inaugurate an organized program of public agitation for black rights. In 1909, Du Bois and other conference participants joined with white liberals to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The new organization declared itself against forced segregation. It was for equal educational opportunities and complete enfranchisement of black Americans. It adopted tactics of agitation and court action to realize these goals. The organization's major objective during its first half century of existence was to secure legislation and court decisions establishing equality for blacks in voting, civil rights, housing and education. It campaigned against all forms of private and public discrimination, especially in federal employment and military sense. The programs of the NAACP were made more effective by an important change in demographic patterns.

By 1890, because of the industrial revolution, blacks in the South were being replaced in the fields by machines. Slowly but inexorably large numbers of blacks drifted north to find work. The migration was spurred by World War I which created new jobs in the defense industries of the North.

The crowding of blacks into formerly white areas of the North created new problems. As the war drew to a close, whites became alarmed at the rising rate of unemployment caused by the war's end and the influx of blacks eager to work. Riots broke out in many cities. They were ugly and cruel and focused Northern attention on the injustices still being inflicted on black Americans.

Increasingly, blacks perceived city hall, the state capital and the federal government as appropriate targets for their efforts. They sought ways to harness and use their political strength to encourage government at all levels to do more for black America. In Northern cities blacks were urged to vote. Even in the South they became more active politically-but always under severe restraint and sometimes under the threat of violence.

Interracial reform, even with the help of activist white liberals moved very slowly, and it took the extensive disruptions of World War II to shatter established patterns of segregation. Thoughtful whites became painfully aware of the contradiction in fighting the racist philosophy of Nazism in Europe while permitting racial discrimination at home.

In this context of changing international trends and shifting American opinion, the campaign for black rights broadened. The NAACP piled up victory upon victory in the courts. It successfully attacked racially restrictive covenants in housing, segregation in interstate transportation and discrimination in publicly owned recreational facilities.

Blacks fought gallantly in World War II and grew impatient with the intransigence of the opponents of civil rights. They became bolder and more aggressive and began to press for their rights with relentless vigor. They had proved themselves in battle, and they wanted America to live up to the ideals for which they had fought and died. Ironically, it was only after World War 11 that the armed forces were desegregated.

Equal Education

In the summer of 1950, a group of lawyers associated with the NAACP, in collaboration with social scientists and educators, attempted a bold, all-out frontal assault on educational segregation. Thurgood Marshall, counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, presented five cases to the Supreme Court in 1952 involving a challenge to segregated public education.

In a landmark 1954 case called Brown v. the Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren said,

Many states took quick action to abide by the Supreme Court decision but others, notably in the South, either ignored the decision or sought ways to evade implementing it. While the federal government allowed each state much discretion in setting the goals for desegregation, it left no doubt that further segregation in public educational facilities would not be tolerated. When Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, opened in September 1957, the state national guard was called out to prevent blacks from entering the school. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops into Little Rock to enforce the court order, and black children went to the school under the watchful eyes of federal troops. State-supported resistance to desegregation did not end with the Little Rock case, but over the years the courts have consistently ruled in favor of desegregation. Although racial integration of schools remains a concern, today the fight for desegregation has been largely replaced by the fight for quality education.

Montgomery, Alabama

Just one year after the landmark Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools, a small and apparently insignificant human drama took place which capitulated the civil rights movement from the courts into the streets.

On a cold day in December 1955, Rosa Parks finished her workday as a seamstress and waited for a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to take her home. She had worked hard that day and was tired. She wanted nothing more than to sit down in a warm bus and rest until she got home. But the laws of Alabama decreed that whites had preference for the seats in the front of the bus.

When a white male boarded the bus, the driver asked Mrs. Parks move to the rear. Fed up with the "Southern way of life," she replied, "I don't think I should have to move." The driver had a policeman arrest her, thereby launching the modem-day civil rights movement.

Blacks, under the leadership of a local minister named Martin Luther King Jr. organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus company. For 12 months, makeshift car pools substituted for public transportation. At first the bus company scoffed at the black protest, but as the economic effects of the boycott were felt, the company sought a settlement. Meanwhile, legal action ended the bus segregation policy. On June 5, 1956, a federal district court ruled that the bus segregation policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids the states from denying equal rights to any citizen. Later that year, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment. The boycott ended, and it thrust into national prominence a person who clearly possessed charismatic leadership, Martin Luther King,Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

(further reference: Martin Luther King, Jr.)

King was born on January 15, 1929, the second of three children. His father was a Baptist minister. He attended public elementary and high schools as well as the private Laboratory High School of Atlanta University. King entered Morehouse College at age 15 in September 1944 as a special student. He received a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1948. In the fall of that year, King enrolled at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and received his Bachelor of Divinity degree three years later. King was awarded a doctorate by Boston University in 1955. While attending Boston University, he met Coretta Scott whom he married in June 1953. Early in 1954, King accepted his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He had been a resident in Montgomery less than one year when Parks defied the ordinance regulating segregated seating on municipal transportation.

King, urged by prominent black Baptist ministers in the South to assume a larger role in the struggle for black civil rights following the successful boycott, accepted the presidency of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In January 1960, he resigned his Montgomery pastorate and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where the SCLC had its headquarters.

The Polities of Nonviolent Protest

Unlike the great majority of civil rights activists who have regarded nonviolence as a convenient tactic. King followed Gandhi's principles of pacifism. In King's view, civil rights demonstrators, who were beaten and jailed by hostile whites, educated and transformed their oppressors through the redemptive character of their unmerited suffering.

King entered the civil rights struggle at the same time that the federal government was beginning to reaffirm the principles of equality. In 1957 President Eisenhower presented a four-point proposal for protecting civil rights. Passed by Congress and signed by the president, the proposal became the first civil rights law to be enacted by the U.S. government since the 19th century. It authorize the federal government to bring civil suits in federal court when any person was denied or threatened in his or her right to vote. It elevated the civil rights section of the Department of Justice to the status of a division, with an assistant attorney general in charge. It also created the United States Commission on Civil Rights, which has authority to investigate allegations of denials of the right to vote, to study and collect information concerning legal developments constituting a denial of equal protection of the laws and to appraise the laws and policies of the federal government with respect to equal protection. The nation was slowly moving closer to a fuller realization of the dream of its Founding Fathers, but for black Americans the pace was not quick enough, and they challenged local laws and customs to force change.

On February 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, entered a variety store, made several purchases, sat down at the lunch counter and ordered coffee. They were refused service, but undaunted they remained in their seats until the store closed.

This was the beginning of the sit-in movement. In the spring and summer of 1960, young people, white and black, participated in similar peaceful forms of protest against segregation and discrimination. The movement spread quickly in the South and to several places in the North. Segregated libraries, beaches and hotels became the targets of the demonstrators.

The SCLC helped the students organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at a meeting held at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to coordinate the protests. As a direct result of the sit-ins, lunch counters across the South began to serve blacks, and other public facilities were desegregated.

An important interplay of action and response developed between government and civil rights advocates. And it was this interplay that did so much to quicken the pace of social change.

By the summer of 1960, the question of the status of blacks had become a major political issue. The two major political parties, facing the presidential campaign of 1960, recognized the significance of the black vote in a close election. There were already more than one million registered black voters in 12 Southern states. In at least six of the eight most populous states in the country, blacks potentially held the balance of power in closely contested elections. In their platforms in 1960, both major parries made strong stands for racial justice and equality. The election of 1960 was close, the closest presidential election of the century, and when the votes were counted, blacks had reason to believe that they shared in the victory of John F. Kennedy.

Soon, civil rights advocates were applying new pressures to secure equal fights for blacks. In May 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial direct action group founded in 1942, sent black and white activists called "freedom riders" into the South aboard buses to test segregation laws and practices in interstate transportation. In many cities the interracial teams were attacked on highways and in bus stations by angry segregationists.

From Birmingham to the March on Washington

The most critical direct action demonstration began in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 3, 1963, under the leadership of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The demonstrators demanded fair employment opportunities, desegregation of public facilities and the creation of a committee to plan desegregation.

For a month the demonstration was notable merely because of the large number of participants, including many schoolchildren, and the large number of arrests. King himself was arrested and, while imprisoned, wrote his celebrated "Letter from a Birmingham jail" to fellow clergymen critical of his tactics of civil disobedience (see excerpts, page 14). King was arrested more than seven times during his many civil rights campaigns throughout the South.

On May 3, the Birmingham police attacked the marchers with dogs and high-pressure water hoses. The police action made front-page news across the country and triggered sympathetic demonstrations all over the nation.

During the week of May 18, the Department of Justice counted 43 major and minor demonstrations, 10 of them in Northern cities. The Birmingham demonstration did not bring the concessions that the marchers sought, but the protest was enormously important because it compelled the American people to face the problem of discrimination in a way they had never done before. For the first time in American history, the president appeared before the nation and declared that race discrimination was a moral issue. A few days later he submitted a new and broadened civil fights program to Congress. The bill containing President Kennedy's recommendation occupied much of the attention of Congress during the summer of 1963. As Congress and the nation debated the proposed civil fights bill, black activists planned a mammoth peaceful demonstration of Americans from all walks of life aimed at hastening progress and showing interracial agreement.

In 1962, A. Philip Randolph, a noted civil rights activist and labor leader, sent out a call to black groups to participate in a "March on Washington" to protest the slow pace of desegregation. His call was greeted with mixed reactions. In the wake of Birmingham and its galvanizing effect on the black community, many were eager to participate in a mass effort that they hoped would show their impatience. Dr. King argued that a march would dramatize the issue at hand and mobilize support from all parts of the country.

Those who discounted the appeal of the march were astounded to discover that it was receiving broad support from many sectors of American life. All of the major civil rights groups were joined by religious, labor and civic organizations in planning and executing the gigantic demonstration. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 Americans from many religious and ethnic backgrounds converged on Washington, staging the largest demonstration in the history of the nation's capital. The orderly procession moved from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, Walter Reuther (a labor leader) and others addressed the throng. King electrified the demonstrators with an eloquent articulation of the American dream and his hope that it would be fully realized.

A mesmerizing speaker, King gave what was later acknowledged to be one of the greatest speeches in American history at the March on Washington. Entitled "I Have a Dream," the speech outlined his hopes for a time when his "four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

In one of the most famous passages from the speech, King declared:

Legislating Civil Rights

Many were chagrined that the March on Washington did not bring about the immediate passage of President Kennedy's civil rights program as they had hoped. Civil rights supporters were further shaken by the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, was quick to make known his strong support of Kennedy's civil rights program, and through his efforts the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. The most far-reaching and comprehensive law in support of racial equality ever enacted by Congress, the legislation gave the attorney general additional power to protect citizens against discrimination and segregation in voting, education and the use of public facilities. It outlawed discrimination in most places of public accommodation; established a federal Community Relations Service (to help individuals and communities solve civil rights problems) and a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and extended the life of the Commission on Civil Rights. The U.S. Office of Education was empowered to provide technical and financial aid to assist communities in the desegregation of schools. Finally, it requited the elimination of discrimination in federally assisted programs, authorizing termination of programs or withdrawal of federal funds for noncompliance. While some blacks criticized the act for not going far enough, others were delighted that a semblance of equality might now be attainable.

Carrying on the Dream

In 1964, in recognition of his work and leadership, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Accepting the award on behalf of the civil rights movement, Dr. King said,

King continued working to integrate housing, jobs and schools to make the dream of racial equality a reality. In March 1965, he led a celebrated 87-kilometer march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery-in the face of hostility from state officials and attacks by white Southerners-to dramatize the need for a federal voting rights bill. This landmark legislation, the Voting Rights Act, was passed by Congress in 19665. It permitted federal examiners to register voters in localities where discrimination had occurred. In subsequent years, black voting in the South-and the numbers of black elected officials-increased enormously.

A year later, James Meredith, the first black to enter the University of Mississippi, was wounded during a lone march across the state of Mississippi. King immediately went to Mississippi and, joined by hundreds of others,' completed Meredith's march. In Mississippi, King faced a split in the ranks of the civil rights movement as younger, more militant members first raised the cry of "black power" and rejected his philosophy of non-violence. Despite this shift toward militancy on the part of black groups in the late 1960s, King never wavered in his commitment to the principles and practice of nonviolence to achieve his aims of social justice and human dignity.

With the successful implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King increasingly devoted his time to the issue of poverty in the United States. He began to organize a "Poor People's March on Washington" to dramatize the need for jobs, education and better living conditions for the nation's poor. Tragically, on April 4, 1968, he was assassinated by a sniper as he stood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a strike of sanitation workers.

As a result of his efforts, and those of the thousands of Americans -black and white-who labored alongside him, America has moved boldly toward the vision of a society where all people are equal in the eyes of the law, no matter the color of their skin.

It was in recognition of King's prodigious achievements that, on November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of the birth of Dr. King. For the first time, the nation honors a black American; the dream is alive and shaping the destiny of the country.

Responding to the president at the signing ceremony establishing the federal holiday, Coretta Scott King, now director of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said:

NOTE: Author Gary A. Puckrein is the publisher of "American Visions," a magazine of Afro-American culture published by the Smithsonian Institution.