The Transformation Of The African American Struggle For Civil And Human Rights Over The 20th Century


The Civil Rights movement in the United States of America (USA) has been referred to by many historians as the second Reconstruction in reference to the first one that had taken place in the former Confederate States after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65).During the first Reconstruction (1865-77) the United States Fourteenth Amendment (1868) was instituted in order to protect the African Americans that had previously been emancipated while the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) was meant to give all males the right to vote regardless of race. Both amendments were ratified during the occupation of the South by Union troops, but as soon as they left, power was ceded back to the defeated White secessionists in a rare show of magnanimity. No sooner had the Union troops left the South than discriminatory laws meant to discriminate against race were passed. These Jim Crow laws, as they were known, would go on to the enforce segregation of whites from blacks in housing, education and in the use of public facilities such as restrooms, restaurants (Langley, 1999, p. 10).

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Additionally, blacks were denied the right move freely, vote or even marry whites. In extreme cases of prejudicial practices such as denying blacks the right to a fair trial and outright murder through lynching was also routinely practiced. These practices and laws became a reality of life in the United States, continuing into the 20th century which prompted concerted efforts by a majority of the African Americans to clamor for their civil rights before the official movement started. The purpose of this essay is to provide an in-depth description of the transformation of the African American struggle for their human and civil rights over the course of the 20th century with particular focus on the three historical moments that they covered in the United States.

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Setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement (1909-55)

The Civil Rights Movement was essentially a struggle by the downtrodden African Americans to achieve equality in employment opportunities, housing, right to vote, education and access to both private and public facilities. Before the Civil Rights movement, no other political or social movement had established itself to greatly influence the political and legal institutions that were in existence in the country. The movement sought to restore the dignity of African Americans through rights that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed them which had been subsequently eroded by the Jim Crow laws (Gilmore & Sugrue, 2016, p 122).

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These laws had for a long time gone to the extent of creating friction between the Federal Government and those Southern States that implemented them as such intervention was needed whenever the fundamental rights of African American citizens were infringed upon. The foundations of the Civil Rights Movement are perhaps found in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909(Gilmore & Sugrue, 2016, p. 395) . The organization consisted of both blacks and whites who wanted to see a paradigm shift in the manner in which individuals of the African American demographic were still being treated even after their emancipation. The NAACP put a spirited fight against all forms of discrimination that had for a long time been tolerated by the Federal government. Multiple lawsuits by NAACP attorneys were presented in court to challenge these discriminatory laws. (Lawson, 2004, p. 4) It is important to also remember that it was the Second World War that opened the opened the discussion into the race and discrimination further when African American veterans came back to a country that was divided according to race (Gilmore & Sugrue, 2016, p .274). These individuals refused to be treated like second rate citizens when they had actively participated in the Pacific war theater. These gallant soldiers had fought for equality and against fascism that had threatened to take over the world, changing life as people knew it.

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Development of the Civil Rights Movement (1955-95)

            The Civil Rights Movement was heralded by Rosa Park, on the 1st of December 1955 when she refused to give her bus seat up to a white man. The bus laws during this period required the African Americans to sit at the back while the best seats were reserved for the whites. In the event that a white individual missed a seat, African Americans were require to stand and give up their bus seat. Rosa Parks did what no Africa American could dare do at the time; refuse to give her seat to a white man. For this act of defiance, she was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama and incarcerate by the police. Parks was a well-known figure in the African American community as she had worked as a secretary for the NAACP in Alabama and news of her arrest soon spread throughout (Gilmore & Sugrue, 2016, p. 372). Members of the Women’s Political Council were the first to react by suggesting that the best way to tackle this discrimination was to boycott all the city buses in protest. For many in the black clergy, this move was hailed as the best approach during a period when tensions were running high. In particular, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a young reverend at the time was at the forefront of this struggle. He gave an address in Montgomery at the Holt Street Baptist Church where he spoke against the oppression of African Americans based on the color of the skin (King, 1994). As an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King urged the African American community to embrace non-violent methods of protest contrasting this to the violence by the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacy group. Their efforts, however, did pay off when the Supreme Court declared in 1956 that it was unconstitutional for there to exist laws that discriminate against citizens of the United States simply based on race during the Gayle v. Browder case.

The progression of efforts by Civil Rights Movement (1957-1995)

            The fight for equality and the end of discrimination was bound to pit the Federal government in a collision course with states that still applied Jim Crow laws (Witt, 2013, ). African Americans were simply seeing the implementation of rights that were provided for them in the constitution. In 1957 at Arkansas Central Highs School, this State-Federal conflict took a dramatic turn when a mob of angry white students attached their black counterparts who were enrolling for classes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to intervene by sending federal troops to fully implement the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court ruling of 1954 that had abolished segregation in schools (Gilmore & Sugrue, 2016, p. 395). Similarly, President J. F. Kennedy had to send federal military troops into the University of Mississipi to uphold desegregation when James Meredith was enrolling. The highlight point of visibility in the Civil Rights movement was in 1963 when Dr. King organized the March on Washington. The crowd that gathered during this procession would collect before the Lincoln Memorial in the District of Columbia to urge the Federal Government and Congress to support the voting rights of African Americans and desegregation. It was also during this rally that Dr. King gave his keynote speech, “I have a Dream.” In 1965, the lobbying paid off when the Supreme Court declare that all those who qualified to vote would be accorded that right regardless of race. It was however sad that Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and did not live to fully enjoy the fruits of his labor. In 1995 the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, organized the Million Man March. It was a call for self-improvement among members of the African-American community while riding the neighborhoods of retrogressive activities such as drug dealing.


The African American community has indeed come a long way in their quest or a just society devoid of discrimination. It was the Civil Rights Movement that did the bulk of the work, tirelessly working for a dream of a fair and just society. Notable figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. put themselves in the frontline of this fight, and some paid the ultimate price for their bravery. It is important to note that this fight is not over with police brutality against the African American community being the new face of discrimination. Organizations such as Back Lives Matter have it as their sole goal to ensure that there is equality before the law and this vulnerable community is protected.

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