How Did the Fight for Rights Begin?
Chapter 1 Preface
Long before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was making headlines, the black response to oppression and racial inequality was well under way. Indeed, while the failed promise of emancipation in the latter half of the nineteenth century gave rise to Jim Crow—a series of laws and customs that segregated and disfranchised blacks—it also compelled a host of individuals to launch efforts to assert their constitutional rights and improve their standing in society. Near the turn of the century, for example, the outspoken crusader Ida B. Wells grappled with one of the leading problems of her day: the lynching of black men. Through a carefully orchestrated journalistic attack, Wells almost singlehandedly brought this form of racial violence—certainly one of the most trenchant symbols of white supremacy—to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Still others mobilized to create the landmark organizations that would shape and support the fight for rights: Marcus Garvey formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1917 to promote his contention that blacks should work for self-determination, an idea that prefigured the black power movement of the 1960s. Similarly, in 1905, W.E.B. Du Bois and others formed the Niagara Movement to address black grievances, which led to the highly influential National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—and the legal assault on discrimination.
While these early black activists...
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Blacks Should Not Agitate for Civil Rights
Born a slave on a Virginia plantation, Booker T. Washington rose to become one of the most influential black leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early in his career, Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school that promoted industrial education and self-improvement as a means of uplifting blacks. Yet it was Washington’s 1895 address before the Atlanta Exposition that catapulted the renowned educator into the national spotlight. His speech, reprinted here, became one of the most influential—and controversial—addresses in American history.
Responding to the rise of Jim Crow, a system of laws and customs that disfranchised blacks, Washington, speaking before a biracial audience, advocates a policy of accommodation on racial issues, urging blacks to forego political and legal action in favor of vocational training and work in industry. While many praised Washington’s practical approach to racial problems, critics soon emerged. Foremost of those to challenge Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” was W.E.B. Du Bois, who found that it compromised social equality by accommodating a deeply entrenched system of racism.
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Board of Directors and Citizens:
One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest...
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Blacks Should Agitate for Civil Rights
As the black freedom struggle was gaining strength at the turn of the century, W.E.B. Du Bois was well on his way to becoming the nation’s preeminent black intellectual and spokesperson. Born a free black man just after the end of the Civil War, Du Bois became the first black man to graduate from Harvard and went on to help found the influential National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the organization’s widely read journal, the Crisis.
A prolific scholar and outspoken political leader, Du Bois exposed the black experience perhaps more profoundly than any leader of his day. In his writings and speeches, Du Bois not only pointed out the social and psychological ramifications of racial injustice, but also advocated vigorous protest as a means of advancing social equality—an approach that ran counter to Booker T. Washington’s accommodation strategy. In the following 1907 speech, Du Bois, who viewed accommodation as acquiescence in blacks’ second-class citizenship, explains why agitation is a powerful weapon in the fight for black rights.
There are those people in the world who object to agitation and one cannot wholly blame them. Agitation, after all, is unpleasant. It means that while you are going peaceably and joyfully on your way some half-mad person insists upon saying things that you do not like to hear. They may be true, but you do not like to hear them. You would rather wait till some...
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Booker T. Washington’s Leadership Was Flawed
As one of the nation’s chief black spokespersons, Booker T. Washington stood at the forefront of race relations in nineteenth-century America. In his assessment of post- Reconstruction race leadership, Martin Kilson contends that Washington engendered only miniscule black advancement. Instead, Washington too narrowly focused on social system development, or rather bolstering those agencies, networks, and institutions that would spur black social development. According to Kilson, this strategy was ineffective not only because it failed to address the second-class citizenship status and human rights parity of African Americans, but also because it relied too heavily on the role of whites in bestowing economic and educational opportunity. Martin Kilson is a research professor at Harvard University and the author and coauthor of several books, including The Making of Black Intellectuals: Studies on the African American Intelligentsia. The following viewpoint is excerpted from an article that originally appeared in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
One function [of leadership] can be characterized by the term that anthropologists often use—social organization. That is, leadership is concerned with fashioning the nuts and bolts of a social system, the infrastructure of agencies and networks that allow individuals and a people as a whole to realize the purposes required for a viable human existence. Thus, one...
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Booker T. Washington’s Leadership Was Effective
Civil rights scholar Adam Fairclough hails Booker T. Washington as a successful and farsighted leader who, whatever his limitations, remained committed to racial equality and ultimately engendered conditions that promoted black progress. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, for example, was an impressive symbol of black gains—and not a repressive machine that kept blacks mired in second-class citizenry. Too, Washington’s attempts to dismantle racism by making blacks indispensable to the southern economy—a strategy bitterly criticized by many of his contemporaries— was indeed relevant to Washington’s time as it specifically addressed the needs of the South’s agricultural industry.
In his final analysis, Fairclough concludes that Washington as been judged too harshly by his critics. Despite his apparent endorsement of segregation and his refusal to agitate, Washington was not an exemplar of white racist complicity as is so often charged; rather, he offered a beacon of hope to otherwise disfranchised blacks as he paved the way for future civil rights advances. Fairclough has written extensively on the civil rights era. He is the author of Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equaltiy, 1890–2000, from which the following is excerpted.
Born in a squalid cabin in Virginia in 1856, the son of a white man whose identity he never knew, Booker Taliaferro Washington was a legendary American success story: his autobiography, Up from...
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Civil Rights Can Be Secured Through Mass Action
A. Philip Randolph was the preeminent black labor leader of the twentieth century. As president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and later as a key figure in the civil rights movement, Randolph fought throughout his career to bolster economic and political rights for the black working class.
Randolph gained national prominence when World War II exposed a new facet of the nation’s longstanding racial problem: Nearly a million African Americans defended their country by serving in the armed forces—where segregated units were a grim reminder of Jim Crow. At the same time, blacks were excluded from all but the most menial defense industry jobs. To compel the federal government to desegregate its defense industries, Randolph called on blacks to march on Washington on July 1, 1941. His address, reprinted here, is taken from an article in the Black Worker, the publication of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Faced with the prospect of thousands of blacks marching on Washington, D.C., President Franklin D. Roosevelt acquiesced to Randolph’s demands and issued an executive order that prohibited discrimination in the defense industries. Although the July 1 march was called off, Randolph’s ideas on mass action campaigns spawned much of the ideology that would later dominate the civil rights movement.
We call upon you to fight for jobs in National Defense.
We call upon you to struggle for the...
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Civil Rights Can Be Secured Through Legal Action
As lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the pivotal years of the black freedom struggle, Thurgood Marshall remains one of the most well-known figures of the civil rights movement. Marshall’s use of legal strategies to eradicate segregation culminated in many precedent-setting cases. In his twenty-three years with the NAACP, Marshall won twenty-nine of the thirty-two cases he argued before the Supreme Court. His most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education, declared segregation of public schools illegal. Marshall went on to become the first black justice to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States.
In the following address before a special wartime conference of the NAACP in 1944, Marshall outlines the legal machinery behind the NAACP’s campaign to overturn racial segregation and other forms of discrimination. Critical to the success of the legal campaign, Marshall states, is the enforcement of existing civil rights statutes and the creation of new legislation.
The struggle for full citizenship rights can be speeded by enforcement of existing statutory provisions protecting our civil rights. The attack on discrimination by use of legal machinery has only scratched the surface. An understanding of the existing statutes protecting our civil rights is necessary if we are to work toward enforcement of these statutes.
Defining Civil Rights
The titles “civil rights” and “civil...
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