Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157

African Americans in the 1940s

World War II offered increasing economic opportunities for many African Americans, as the war machine demanded soldiers and factory workers. Almost one million African-American soldiers served in the armed forces; however, they were forced to serve in segregated units. Most were kept out of combat. Although at first many war plants would not hire African Americans or would only hire them as janitors, the 1941 Fair Employment Practices Committee changed this practice. It helped protect African Americans from employment discrimination. An executive order issued two years later required non-discrimination clauses in all war contracts. Over time, many African-American workers moved into better-paying industrial jobs.

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In the aftermath of World War II many Americans lost their jobs to returning veterans, and African Americans were particularly affected. Their situation was further worsened when Congress abolished the Fair Employment Practices Committee. African Americans throughout the nation faced segregation in schools and public places as well as discrimination in housing and employment. Lynchings also continued to take place, particularly in the South. In 1946, civil rights groups urged President Harry S. Truman to take action against racism in American society. Truman responded by creating the multiracial Committee on Civil Rights. The committee's report, published the following year, documented widespread discrimination, civil rights abuses, and violence perpetrated against African Americans. Based on these findings, Truman urged Congress to pass an anti-lynching law and an anti-poll-tax measure. He worked to end discrimination in federal agencies and the military by banning discrimination in hiring, and he desegregated the military. He also took steps to end employment discrimination by companies holding government contracts.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s

In the 1950s, African Americans began to more actively demand their civil rights. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had long sought to end segregation in education. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka successfully overturned the ‘‘separate but equal’’ doctrine that had long allowed segregation in public schools. Despite this ruling, by the end of the 1956-1957 school year, most Southern schools remained segregated. The school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, was the first in the South to announce that it would follow the Brown decision. Nine African-American students were chosen to attend Little Rock's Central High. They faced a mob of angry Whites and a line of state-sanction, armed National Guardsmen when they tried to go to school. Guarded by one thousand federal troops, sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the African-American students entered the school, desegregating Central High. The first African-American student graduated from Little Rock's Central High in 1958.

Civil rights leaders also determined to end segregation on Southern transportation systems. To challenge the practice of forcing African Americans to ride in the back of city buses, they organized Montgomery's African Americans in a city-wide boycott. For close to a year, the African-American population refused to ride the public bus system. In 1956, the Supreme Court declared such segregation laws unconstitutional. By the end of the year, Montgomery had a desegregated bus system. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957—the first civil rights law passed since Reconstruction—making it a federal crime to prevent any qualified person from voting.

Through his role in the Montgomery bus boycott Martin Luther King, Jr., a young Baptist minister, emerged as an important leader in the fight for civil rights. He believed in the use of non-violent resistance in protests. Some of the earliest protests were sit-ins launched at segregated lunch counters throughout the South, beginning in 1958. More than 50,000 students, African American and White, took part in such protests, and by the end of 1960, most restaurants were integrated.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s

By the 1960s, several civil rights organizations were active. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a northern-based, integrated civil rights group, worked to end segregation in bus facilities, which was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1960. The following year, CORE organized Black and White Freedom Riders to travel through the South on public buses. When they reached Alabama, they were attacked by White mobs. In Jackson, Mississippi, state officials arrested the riders. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) then sent in new riders to take their place. Over the summer, more than three hundred riders traveled the South to protest segregation. Their actions helped persuade the Interstate Commerce Commission to strengthen its desegregation regulations, and segregation in interstate buses ceased to exist by 1963.

Civil rights workers also had success in desegregating public universities. A violent attack on 1,000 youths marching peacefully in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 led to increased support for the civil rights movement. President John F. Kennedy determined to take a stand on civil rights. Civil rights leaders called for the March on Washington, D.C., which drew more than 200,000 people to the nation's capital, to encourage passage of civil rights legislation. The resulting Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination in employment and public accommodations, and it gave the Justice Department the power to enforce school desegregation.

Registering Voters

Other civil rights activists turned their attention to voter registration. They chose to begin their work in Mississippi, where African Americans made up about forty percent of the population in the state, but only five percent of eligible African-American adults were registered to vote. State officials used a variety of means to prevent them from registering, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. SNCC organizers believed that the state was key to their efforts to get rid of racial discrimination.

McComb, Mississippi, a town of 12,000 citizens with only 250 registered African-American voters, was their first target. Robert Moses of SNCC arrived there in July 1961. In less than a month, he had registered six voters as well as been jailed, beaten, and chased by an angry mob. Violence increased with the murder of Herbert Lee, who had worked as Moses's driver. Despite evidence to the contrary, Lee's murder was ruled an act of self-defense. In the midst of arrest and mob attacks, the McComb voter registration drive came to an end.

Although activists continued the drive, the intimidation tactics practiced by Southern Whites kept many African Americans from registering. In 1963, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) conducted two mock elections to show that African Americans in Mississippi were interested in voting. Some 27,000 African Americans voted in the first election and some 80,000—four times the number of registered African-American voters in the state—voted in the second election. In 1963, SNCC decided to recruit White volunteers from northern colleges to come to Mississippi to help in the voter registration efforts. These activists launched Freedom Summer in 1964 and rallied African Americans in Mississippi and in Alabama to register to vote. Their actions, and the violence with which Whites met these workers, contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put the voter registration process under federal control and greatly increased the number of registered African-American voters in the South.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

  • 1950s: Before 1965, fewer than six percent of African Americans in Mississippi are registered to vote.
  • 1960s: After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thousands of Southern African Americans register to vote. By 1968, some fifty-nine percent of eligible African American voters in Mississippi are registered.
  • Today: In the late 1990s, of the total 1,975,000 of Mississippi voters, 670,000 are African American. Overall in the United States, 23.5 million African Americans are registered to vote, but only 63.5 percent report having voted in the 1996 presidential election.
  • 1950s: Prior to 1962, universities and colleges in the South are not open to African Americans. As they are forced to do at the lower educational levels, African Americans attend their own schools.
  • 1960s: In 1962, a court order forces the University of Mississippi to admit African American James Meredith. When he arrives on campus, a riot breaks out. Flanked by armed guards, Meredith attends classes for the rest of the year. He graduates in 1963.
  • Today: Affirmative action, a policy that seeks to redress past discrimination through active measures to ensure equal opportunity, is undergoing challenges in the U.S. court system. Opponents claim that affirmative action in school admission policy is illegal because race is being used as a factor in judging applicants. In the late 1990s and early 2000, the admissions policies of several graduate schools are found to be unconstitutional. However, polls reveal that the majority of Americans support affirmative action programs in school admissions policies.
  • 1940s and 1950s: As they have long been doing, White state officials use unfair election rules, poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence and loss of jobs to prevent many Southern African Americans from voting or even registering to vote.
  • 1960s: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gives the federal government the power to inspect voter registration procedures and to protect all citizens' right to vote.
  • Today: The presidential election of 2000 brought about charges of voter disenfranchisement and civil rights abuses. In the aftermath of the election, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approves an investigative report that finds the 2000 presidential race in Florida has been marred by injustice. The report states that African American voters were nine times more likely than White voters to have their ballots discarded as invalid.
  • 1940s and 1950s: African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph protests lower pay of African Americans in industrial jobs and segregation in the armed forces. His efforts and his threats to organize massive marches on Washington, D.C., help reverse these policies. Throughout the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) focuses on abolishing segregation in public schools in the United States. Civil rights leaders also work to desegregate public transportation systems in the South.
  • 1960s: African American civil rights leaders continue their hard work to desegregate all aspects of society, to ensure equal access to jobs and educational opportunities, and to register African American voters. Their efforts bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • Today: Despite the progress made in desegregating and equalizing American society, many minorities still feel they lack equal opportunities. A survey conducted in 2001 shows that 87 percent of all African Americans polled said that they still lack full civil rights and that more work needs to be done.

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