Civil Rights Movement

James Madison believed the toleration of the slave trade under the Constitution was a "blot" on the "Republican character" of this nation. Although he had deemed the inclusion of the slavery provisions in the Constitution necessary to win the ratifying support of the Southern states (see "Ratification"), he would later declare that slavery must be brought to an end, whatever the cost:

[I]f slavery, as a national evil, is to be abolished, and it be just that it be done at the national expense, the amount of the expense is not a paramount consideration.1

Before slavery could be brought to an end, however, hundreds of thousands of African men and women were forcibly brought to the United States of America and sold as slaves. And while the Constitution banned the "migration or importation" of slaves after 1808 (see Article I, Section 9), it said nothing about the status of slaves still in the country after that date.

Dred Scott Decision

As the nation grew during the first half of the 19th Century and new territories and states were formed, the stage was being set for a showdown between "slave states" and states that had outlawed slavery. A host of problems were being played out on an almost daily basis as states struggled with questions about how to treat former slaves and their children. And what of slaves who were moved by their owners from a state where slavery was legal to one where it was not? In just such an instance, the Supreme Court reviewed the case of Dred Scott, a slave who had been moved from Missouri to Illinois and back by his master. Scott argued that his transfer to a state where slavery was illegal (Illinois) had made him a free man.

In one of its most disparaged decisions, the Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that black people who had come to America as slaves were not citizens and, therefore, could not expect any protections from the national government. It would take a bloody civil war and an amendment to the Constitution (the Fourteenth) to reverse the Court's decision.

The "Official" End of Slavery

After the South had been defeated by the North in the Civil War, legally sanctioned slavery came to an end in the re-United States of America. In the "Emancipation Proclamation," Abraham Lincoln declared:

I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free . . . And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In addition to the Proclamation, the Congress proposed and the states ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to guarantee to former slaves the same rights and privileges enjoyed by other citizens of this nation. The Thirteenth Amendment unequivocally stated that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." The Fourteenth guaranteed the rights and liberties of all Americans and extended "equal protection of law" to former slaves. The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited the denial of voting rights on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

At least on paper, more than four centuries of black enslavement in America had been undone.

Post-Civil War Abuses

In spite of the official end of slavery and the extension of full constitutional rights and privileges to black Americans, it would be nearly one hundred years after the Civil War before real progress was made toward the realization of those rights and privileges. As has been noted, the guarantee of rights on paper and the actual protection of those rights in practice are, in many instances, two entirely different matters.

In the South, former slaves were treated indifferently, at best. At worst, they were harassed, beaten and even murdered. While much of the discrimination and harassment was perpetrated by private individuals, often in the dark of night by men wearing white hoods, many forms of discrimination had the full force of the law behind them. While the comparative poverty of former slaves and social norms had kept blacks and whites apart in the decades immediately following the Civil War, governments across the South began enacting laws, commonly referred to as "Jim Crow" laws, requiring blacks and whites to use separate public facilities, including trains, buses, restaurants, theaters and schools.

These laws seemed to be blatant violations of the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Several suits were filed in response to arrests made for violating segregation laws. Ultimately, a case made it to the Supreme Court and many observers believed the laws would be declared unconstitutional. In its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, however, the Court ruled that blacks and whites could be required to use separate facilities so long as they were "equal." The "separate but equal" standard, as it came to be called, however, produced very little in terms of equality. In practice, the separate facilities provided for blacks were woefully unequal.

Several other means were employed by political and community leaders to keep blacks "in their place." As soon as federal occupation of the South ended after the Civil War (troops pulled out in 1877), meaningful opportunities for blacks to participate in politics all but disappeared. While intimidation, lynchings and harassment kept many black voters away on election day, legal barriers were also erected to prevent black participation in the political process. Literacy tests, poll taxes, whites-only political primaries and the drawing of political election districts to dilute the strength of black votes were all very effective tools in the "disenfranchisement" of black voters. (In this context, the term "franchise" means the right to vote.)

A Slowly Turning Tide

The tide would eventually turn in the South, but progress came slowly and sporadically. In 1944, the Supreme Court declared "white primaries" unconstitutional in Smith v. Allwright. In 1949, Ada Lois Sipuel, a black woman, won a long legal battle to win admission to the University of Oklahoma Law School. A decade later, the Court issued one of the most significant decisions in its history, Brown v. Board of Education, reversing its decision in Plessy and ordering the desegregation of public schools. In doing so, the Court declared:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Because states were slow to respond to the Brown ruling, citing a seemingly endless list of physical and economic obstacles to integration, the Court issued a second decision a year later. In what is commonly referred to as "Brown II," the Court ordered states and local governments to end racial segregation with "all deliberate speed." The decision also gave lower court judges the responsibility to oversee the integration of schools. In response to the states' "practical" concerns, the Court observed:

While giving weight to these public and private considerations, the courts will require that the defendants make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance with our May 17, 1954, ruling. Once such a start has been made, the courts may find that additional time is necessary to carry out the ruling in an effective manner. The burden rests upon the [state and local governments] to establish that such time is necessary in the public interest and is consistent with good faith compliance at the earliest practicable date.

The Civil Rights Movement

Motivated by the successes realized through legal challenges of discriminatory laws, leaders in the black community and champions of civil rights began to coordinate and organize their efforts to bring about more change. While there is no clear starting point of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the key events that energized its supporters and gained national attention was the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955. A young black woman name Rosa May Parks, sometimes called the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," set things in motion by refusing to move to the back of the bus to sit in the "colored" seats. When she was forcibly removed from the bus, the black community in Montgomery rallied around her cause and boycotted the bus system. The boycott also put a charismatic black minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. on the national stage. Behind the leadership of King and other religious leaders and civil rights activists, the Civil Rights movement adopted a strategy of "nonviolent resistance" to discrimination and racially biased laws. The primary goals of the Civil Rights Movement were to secure real voting rights for black Americans and the unconditional end of de jure segregation (segregation created by law, not segregation which occurred naturally based on settlement patterns, for example).

A Movement Made for Television

Why did it take so long after the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments for real progress to be made in the extension of rights to black Americans? At least one reason is that the war and the changes to the Constitution did not immediately change the attitudes of people in South. Another reason is that the South remained fairly isolated from the rest of the nation. Many civil rights abuses persisted in the South because no one outside the South knew enough to do anything about them. In the 1960s, however, almost every home in America had a television set. Through media coverage of the civil rights movement, images of speeches, marches and violence against peaceful demonstrators were seen in living rooms across the nation. Public opinion quickly turned against Southern political leaders and police officers and broad support emerged for action to be taken to secure the rights of blacks in the South. The power of the media was utilized to its fullest extent by Civil Rights Movement leaders in the "March on Washington" in the summer of 1963.2

The Civil Rights movement, however, was not always peaceful. Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran who had participated in the invasion of Normandy was working as the Mississippi field coordinator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1963 when he was ambushed and murdered. Periodic violence erupted as the whites and blacks clashed, sometimes openly, over the extension of civil rights to black Americans. The National Guard had to be called on to prevent violence and to facilitate the integration of the University of Alabama in 1962.

The crowning event of the Civil Rights movement was the March on Washington in 1963. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands on the Mall in Washington. The following year, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting the use of poll taxes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin in public accommodations, was also passed by the Congress and signed by President Johnson (see the Media Gallery for a photograph of the signing ceremony). The year after that, the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting any procedure that denied the voting rights of individuals because of their race. (PHOTO at Right: Civil Rights March of 1963).

Where Do We Go From Here?

While the advances of the Civil Rights movement were astounding, given the historical and societal trends they altered, it would have been foolish to assume that even these changes would end all racial strife and division in America. Indeed, serious setbacks occurred just four years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and violent protests erupted on college campuses and in poor neighborhoods across this nation. These events, coupled with a demoralizing war in Vietnam and economic hard times seriously eroded this nation's "cohesive purpose".3

Today, serious questions remain about the status of black Americans and the ability of whites, blacks, Hispanics and others to "get along." While the violence and outright discrimination of the 1940s, 50s and 60s are largely gone, significant differences in the educational and economic achievements of blacks and whites persist. Affirmative action, long seen by many black Americans as the means of leveling the playing field, has been seriously weakened by a series of court decisions and policy initiatives in several states. President Clinton's "dialogues on race" may provide some temporary relief from the tensions caused by these policy disputes, but long term solutions are elusive.

Perhaps America's young people represent the best hope for improved race relations in America and for a better economic future of black Americans. Compared to their parents, today's teens and twenty-somethings are much more optimistic about likely improvements in both areas.

1. James Madison, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965), Vol. III, 133.
2. William M. Lunch, The Nationalization of American Politics (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1987), 203.
3. Robert N. Bellah, et. al, The Good Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 63-4.