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The war is
over. The struggle that was fought to obtain and guarantee civil rights for
black Americans ended in the late 1960’s. Contrary to what many black
Americans believe, black America won the war.
The meaning of “civil rights” has changed over the years. When the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U. S. Constitution, was enacted, the intent was to place limits on the government in favor of individual liberties. Since then, the scope of civil rights has evolved to also include protection from arbitrary or discriminatory treatment by groups or individuals. While all black Americans should know the complete history of the Civil Rights Movement, it is especially important that black children know the basic facts about this struggle.
In 1954, in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, KANSAS, the United States Supreme Court declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The court acknowledged what black Americans had always known: separate educational facilities were “inherently unequal.” This decision effectively reversed the 1896 PLESSY V. FURGUSON Supreme Court decision that upheld the principle and practice of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. It was this decision that led to the profusion of Jim Crow laws and instituted the system of legal segregation of whites and blacks in America for almost sixty years.
It is important to note that the 1954, BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, KANSAS, Supreme Court decision was not the start of the Civil Rights Movement. This decision and the civil rights legislation that would be passed over the next decade would have been of little value if ignored or not enforced. The Civil Rights Movement began a year later, on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama public bus to a white man. This led to her arrest, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the advent of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence.
However, it is also important to understand and to appreciate the impact of the barbaric murder of fourteen year-old Chicago native, Emmett Till. He was killed in Mississippi in late August of 1955, just three months prior to Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience. The murder of Emmett Till and the courageous decision by his mother, Mamie Till, to retrieve his body from Mississippi and to have an open casket funeral was the defining moment that led to the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1957 and 1960, the United States Congress passed laws to protect the rights of black voters. However, in the 1964 elections, it was demonstrated that these laws were not effective. Immediately after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to dramatize the problem, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. The Voting Rights Act went so far as to authorize the attorney general of the United States, under some circumstances, to send federal examiners to register black Americans to vote.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was also the result of the pressure generated by the Civil Rights Movement. This legislation prohibited discrimination in employment, established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and banned discrimination in public accommodations. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was the final major piece of civil rights legislation to be passed by Congress. It prohibited discrimination in housing and real estate.
Appreciating The Victory
There were many victories, large and small, in black America’s successful struggle for civil rights. And millions of black Americans who are alive today are old enough to remember the most significant of these victories. It is, therefore, unfortunate that so few young black Americans are aware of these events or appreciate their historical significance. Older black Americans must shoulder the blame for not insisting that black children learn about these events that have had such a profound affect on their lives.
Without a sense of history, black Americans can not fully comprehend the inhumane, disheartening, and changeless nature of Slavery. Without a sense of history, black Americans can not deplore the inequity and the injustice of the Jim Crow era. And without a sense of history, black Americans can not appreciate the opportunity to succeed in America that was made possible by the success of the Civil Rights Movement.
An amazing array of heroes contributed to black America’s successful struggle to obtain civil rights: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Carver, Jesse Owens, Daniel Hale Williams, A. Philip Randolph, Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Medgar and James Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. These are but a few of the heroes of the struggle. All black Americans should know their names and the contributions they made.
Beyond the well-known, popular heroes, black America’s struggle for civil rights was a victory by the people. Many thousands sacrificed their lives for the cause. Hundreds of thousands contributed their time and money. Millions contributed their hopes, their dreams, and their prayers. All black Americans stood as one and demanded equality and justice. In the end, after three and a half centuries of oppression, black Americans won the same equal access, equal rights, and equal protection under the law that had been guaranteed to all white Americans since 1776.
The Facts Speak For Themselves
If one is looking for evidence that black America has won its struggle for civil rights, it can be found by simply talking to one’s parents or grandparents who were alive during the Jim Crow era. They will attest to a time not so long ago when they attended segregated schools, played professional sports in segregated leagues, and were forced to serve their country in all-black military units. They will attest to a time not so long ago when they drank from segregated water fountains, used segregated restroom facilities, and had to enter through the back doors of white establishments. They will attest to a time not so long ago when they had to ride in the back of the bus, when they could not vote, and when they knew at least one black American who had been lynched.
By these measurements, the civil rights of most black Americans are rarely, if ever, violated in the twenty-first century. Additionally, when the civil rights of black Americans are now violated, there are legal recourses that can and should be taken to remedy the injustice. Admittedly, the civil rights of some black and white Americans are violated every day in every state of the Union. On the other hand, millions of white Americans take care not to say or do anything that might give the impression they are violating the civil rights of black Americans.
Black America’s struggle for civil rights is over. All that remains is for black Americans to be aware of these rights, to be vigilant in the protection of these rights, and if necessary, be prepared to fight and even die to preserve these rights. It was this level of engagement and dedication that resulted in victory and it is only this level of engagement and dedication that will secure this victory for all time.
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