Civil Rights Movement History
Historical Context

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s was but one episode in the long struggle of Black Americans for human rights in this country, and it grew out of all that came before.

1619-1860 Slavery

Africans are enslaved and brought to the Americas.

Escaped slaves join indian tribes fighting to save their land.

Slave revolts dot history, both before and after the American Revolution.

Some Black slaves in the South fight on the British side in return for promises of freedom.
Some "free" Blacks in the North fight on the side of the Revolution in the expectation that slavery will be abolished in the new nation.

After the Revolution, slavery is not abolished but rather included in the Constitution.

African slave trade is officially banned, but covertly continued.

A political anti-slavery movement takes form in the North.

Underground railroad helps slaves escape to free states and Canada.

1860-1865 Civil War

Fearing that Lincoln will restrict slavery, 11 Southern states try to secede from the Union in order to maintain slavery as the "Southern way of life."

Determined to preserve the union, Northerners oppose the Southern rebellion. Many are determined to defeat slavery, others fight to protect economic interests that secession threatens.

180,000 Northern Blacks and freed slaves join the Union army.
Blacks serve in segregated units with white officers and lower pay.

In 1863 Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery (eventually).

600,000 union soldiers are killed or wounded in the fight to preserve the union and defeat slavery. (Blacks in the Union Army suffer a higher ratio of casualties than whites, largely due to racism of white officers.) 500,000 confederates are killed or wounded in their effort to maintain the slavery system.

1866-1877 Reconstruction

Reconstruction promises land ("forty acres & a mule"), education, & freedom to former slaves.

Large numbers of Blacks register to vote, and many are elected to office.

The economic & education promises of reconstruction remain largely unfulfilled.

The share-crop system replaces the chattel-slave system in the rural South.

The so-called "Compromise of 1877" in which white Republicans strike a deal with white Democrats to desert and disempower Blacks removes Federal protection of Black civil rights and ends the Reconstruction era.

1877-1900 Post-Reconstruction & Jim Crow Era

Southern Blacks are forced back into a status that is close to pre-Civil War slavery:

Rise of Ku Klux Klan terrorism.
Denial of the vote to Blacks.
Elimination of elected Black public officials.
Massive theft of Black-owned land & destruction of Black businesses & towns.
Segregation system of laws & customs imposed throughout South & MidWest.
Plessy v. Ferguson confirms "separate but equal" as legal basis of segregation.
Knights of Labor, initially an integrated union, abandons its Black members.

Conditions for Latinos living in the territory conquered from Mexico in the War of 1948 mirror those of Blacks living in the South & Mid- West.

W.E.B. Dubois and others issue the Niagara Statement and found the NAACP in 1909.

IWW builds militant, integrated, industrial unions, but is eventually destroyed by government repression.

The Populist alliance of Black & white is destroyed by internal white racism (1880-1896).

1900-19?? Northern Migration

Massive migration of Blacks from the rural South to the urban/industrial North.

Urban industrial work is mainly organized on Jim-Crow segregated basis.

Rise of AFL "craft" unions that (with a few exceptions) are white-only.

During WWI, 350,000 Blacks serve in segregated units (with white officers).

Reinvigorated KKK spreads out of the South and into North and Mid-West.

Post-WWI "race riots," in which white mobs violently attack and oppress Black communities.

Marcus Garvey, Back-to-Africa movements, and rise of Black nationalism.

Rise of the Harlem Renaissance, flowering of Black arts & culture.

1929-1941 Depression & New Deal

Collapse of the industrial and agricultural economy. Blacks are first fired or never hired. Massive unemployment and starving times.

Rise of industrial unions (CIO), some integrated, a few of which actively fight racism.
But many unions are not integrated and do not fight racism.

FDR's "New Deal" provides hope and jobs to many.
But most New Deal agencies & programs accommodate segregation rather than opposing it.

NAACP and Black veterans of WWI struggle against discrimination against Blacks in New Deal programs.
Within the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt acts as a "voice of conscience" against discrimination

World War II & Post-War Era

Black GIs fight in a segregated military.
All-Black units (most with white officers) perform heroically despite systematic discrimination within the service.
Black war heroes are mostly ignored in regards to promotions and medals.

A. Philip Randolph threatens a March on Washington to force President Roosevelt to issue an executive order requring equal employment opportunities in war industries.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) founded as a nonviolent direct-action organization.

Labor-shortages in northern & western war industries increase Black migration out of the South.
New and expanded Black communities grow in West Coast cities.

Black GIs experience greater racial equality & acceptance in Europe than they do at home.

Returning vets organize struggles for racial equality at home.

In reaction to a mild civil rights plank adopted by the Democratic party convention, Southern Democrats ("Dixiecrats") bolt the Party in 1948 to support Strom Thurmond as a segregationist candidate for President.

In the context of passing America's first "peace-time" draft (Universal Military Training), President Truman issues executive order 9981 integrating the armed services.

Black voters in key Northern states provide Truman's margin of victory, defeating Dixiecrat and Republican efforts to defeat him.

Legislation to:
     Establish a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC)
     Outlaw lynching
     End the poll tax
is defeated in Congress by a coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans.

Cold War & National Liberation

The "Red scare" — dissent is seen as treason.
Repression and assault on labor, civil rights, internationalist, and peace organizations.
In the South, integrated groups and associations are — by definition — assumed to be "Communist."

8 of the 10 "Red" (integrated) unions are destroyed by government persecution and back-stabbing by conservative "labor leaders."

Anti-colonial, anti-racist, struggles in Africa and Asia inspire Black students and intellectuals.

Post-war economic boom and northern industrial jobs spur Black exodus from the South to the North and West.

GI education bill greatly expands education opportunities for Black veterans.

News stories about racism directed against American Blacks — particularly graphic TV images — are given prominent attention around the world to the detriment of U.S. Government's Cold-war foreign policy and international neo-colonial politics.


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