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.
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...
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