Last Updated on August 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1326
“The Black Soldier” by Chad Williams
When the United States entered the Second World War, racial discrimination in the defense industries had been banned for less than a year. In practice, the draft remained a highly discriminatory process, with rigid racial segregation and frequent abuse directed towards Black soldiers. The US army preferred to place Black soldiers in labor and service units, though half a million of them were eventually deployed overseas. When they were deployed as combatants, Black servicemen made important contributions to the war effort, as in the Battle of the Bulge. However, the continued discrimination and violence they faced when they returned home made many wonder why they had been fighting. Some Black veterans, such as Medgar Evers, became leaders in the civil rights movement.
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“The Black Left” by Russell Rickford
For the African American left, the US victory in the Second World War was a hollow one. They hoped not only for the defeat of European fascism, but for world peace, human rights, and decolonization. One such activist was the popular entertainer Paul Robeson, who in August 1949 was to sing at a civil rights benefit concert in Peekskill, New York. Some residents of Peekskill took issue with comments Robeson had made about the undesirability of fighting against the Soviet Union and campaigned aggressively against the concert’s taking place. They achieved their aim, but a defiant Robeson rescheduled the concert for the following weekend. He was able to sing, but the end of the concert was marred by violent riots. The American far right soon adopted a new slogan: “Wake up, America! Peekskill did!”
“The Road to Brown v. Board of Education” by Sherrilyn Ifill
Before the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, C. G. Jennings, the stepfather of twins Doris Raye and Doris Faye Jennings, attempted to register them at a white high school in Hearne, Texas. This followed a fire at the local Black high school and the shoddy, hazardous construction of a new building for Black students. Although Jennings’s case was unsuccessful, it was one of the cases that shaped the thinking of Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which he had recently founded. Marshall came to understand what was possible in terms of challenging racist legislation, inspired by such cases as Jennings v. Hearne Independent School District, as well as the Nuremberg war trials which were being conducted in Germany at the same time.
“Black Arts” by Imani Perry
The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education was front-page news in America and around the world. The ruling encouraged not only Black activists but Black artists, such as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, for whom the decision represented a kind of corrective against McCarthyism. Baldwin, Hansberry, and other artists of the 1950s produced works which showed the depth and complexity of Black lives in America. Despite the ways in which their own lives and their ability to produce art were limited by racism and other forms of bigotry, “they insisted that Black life was not mere endurance but a victory of the spirit.”
“The Civil Rights Movement” by Charles E. Cobb Jr.
The civil rights movement was a cross-generational struggle in which young people shared networks and experience with their parents and grandparents. Many of the protests in the late 1950s and early 1960s began with college students, such as those who were refused service in Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960. This protest started with four eighteen-year-old students but quickly grew to include sit-ins by thousands of people from all age groups. Ella Baker, an activist who took a leading role in organizing sit-ins, was particularly focused on bringing the generations together, an activity in which she was encouraged and financially aided by Dr. Martin Luther King. Baker’s efforts were often met with violence, but they eventually prevailed,and helped to shape future activism.
“Black Power” by Peniel Joseph
The author contrasts the boldness of the Black Power Movement with the nonviolence advocated by other Civil Rights campaigners and asserts that contemporary social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter, “stand on the shoulders of Black Power activists.” Malcolm X was Black Power’s strongest voice in opposing white supremacy, giving the movement its framework. It was his assassination that led to Black Power’s rise to national attention, and he exercised an important posthumous influence over the Black Arts movement. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael emerged as the primary spokesman for Black Power, and it was his rhetoric, along with the Vietnam War, that led Martin Luther King, “the prince of peace,” to adopt a more radical and less conciliatory approach.
“Property” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
In 1968, shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King, Congress banned racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. In the same year, the Supreme Court confirmed this principle with its ruling in Jones v. Mayer. Additionally, the Housing and Development Act was signed into law, making provisions for the building of millions of new homes, as well as for low-income home ownership. These changes in housing policy seemed to offer a way for African Americans to participate in the prosperous American economy through homeownership. However, predatory practices in the real estate market prevented this from being the case in practice, and Black Americans continue to suffer disproportionately from inadequate and insecure housing and from the problems caused by having to rent their homes rather than being able to own them.
“Combahee River Collective” by Barbara Smith
In 1974, a small group of Black women, including the essay’s author, formed the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist organization based in Boston. The collective supported campaigns to free and overturn the convictions of Black prisoners who had been unfairly prosecuted. Later, they organized political retreats for Black feminists and produced pamphlets highlighting injustices. These events happened almost half a century ago, and the members could not have known that Black Lives Matter would later use Black feminist analysis to address a range of injustices outside the range of usual feminist discourse. The author regards the Combahee River Collective as a fortuitous and unlikely movement of which she is grateful to have been part.
“And the Record Repeats” by Chet’la Sebree
The poem begins with the image of a record repeating “the same two seconds of ‘Strange Fruit.’” This image is extended to consider the way in which history repeats itself in violence, particularly the domestic and foreign conflicts of the United States. It ends on an optimistic note, with the collective “we” in the poem working to change the record.
This part of Four Hundred Souls covers some of the most significant events in African American history, most notably the development of the civil rights movement, which arose nearly one century after the end of slavery. Black writing and other arts flourished during this period, but otherwise the account makes for grim reading, largely because so little seems to have changed in practical terms. Whenever a landmark piece of legislation or Supreme Court ruling theoretically rights the wrongs of history, an outburst of white supremacist violence negates its effects in practical terms. The period described is now well within living memory, meaning the reader is likely to feel closer to and more implicated in the injustices described.
It is difficult to argue with the conclusion reached by Dr. Martin Luther King and related by Peniel Joseph in his essay “Black Power.” Stokely Carmichael, the voice of Black Power after the killing of Malcolm X, had once been a follower of King but had found his methods too peaceful and tolerant for such an intractable problem. As the Vietnam War increasingly demonstrated American aggression abroad and racism continued unabated at home, King came to believe that Carmichael was right. White America was never going to give justice to African Americans. They would have to take it by force.