Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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How did African-Americans respond to the problems of the post-Reconstruction era?

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As Reconstruction drew to a close in the late 1870s, federal funding to rebuild Southern society dwindled and the troops that had occupied former Confederate states were withdrawn. African American activism continued, and in many cases accelerated far beyond wartime and immediate postwar levels. African American reformers faced severe challenges, however, as Southern politicians promoted legal and judicial measures that discriminated against black people specifically, and poor people and non-landowners more generally.

Some African American efforts were directed toward fighting the legal restrictions, while others concentrated on protecting people from extra-legal violence by the Klan and similar racist agents. In some states, such as South Carolina, the black majority population flooded the polls, creating a black majority state assembly in 1878. Other initiatives addressed the new horizons open to black people, such as obtaining legal title to land in the Western states. New towns in Kansas, for example, advertised widely throughout the South to recruit homesteaders. Migration north also increased in those years.

The impact of Reconstruction did not abruptly end with projects that bore the name. Education projects, including the founding of schools and colleges—often with church sponsorship—had geometrically increased literacy among formerly enslaved people and was an important capacity-building step. Literacy also generated further interest in published histories and biographies, documenting the contributions of African Americans not just in recent history, but back to America’s earliest years.

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African-Americans became active participants in dealing with the problems they faced as a result of the segregation and the denial of some of their rights after Reconstruction ended. When Reconstruction ended, white southerners regained control of the state governments in the South. Laws that had been passed during Reconstruction that allowed African-Americans to exercise their rights were ignored or overturned. For example, people had to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test in order to vote. Many African-Americans were unable to do these things because they had never attended school and/or were too poor to pay the tax.

In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, there were two leading African-American thinkers who had differing views on how to deal with the denial of rights. Booker T. Washington wanted African-Americans to focus on vocational training so they could get a job and be on a more solid footing economically. He founded the Tuskegee Institute to help African-Americans accomplish this. W.E.B. Du Bois wanted African-Americans to get all of their rights at the same time. While Booker T. Washington wanted African-Americans to delay the fight for political equality until they were economically secure, W.E.B. Du Bois wanted African-Americans to fight for all of their rights at the same time. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP believed in using the courts to achieve equality. They also encouraged Congress to pass laws. This organization filed many lawsuits. These lawsuits dealt with segregation and the denial of voting rights for African-Americans. They worked for the passage of anti-lynching laws and laws which fought segregation.

African-Americans also protested their lack of rights. A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington, D.C. if President Roosevelt wouldn’t act on ending the discrimination that existed in the hiring of workers at federal defense plants during World War II. This threat led to an executive order to stop this discriminatory practice. African-Americans protested bus segregation in Montgomery and the lack of registered African-American voters in Selma.

African-Americans were active participants in the fight to reverse the segregation and the denial of rights that they faced as a result of actions that occurred after Reconstruction ended.

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