Assessing the position of African Americans, no event is more prominent and exemplary than the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States. Such an event marks the culmination of years of struggle, shaped by many periods in the history of the United States. It cannot be stated that there is a single event that sparked reforms in the civil rights of Africa Americans. Although such reforms did not concern only African Americans, touching on the liberties of such groups as ethnic and sexual minorities and women, it can be stated that for African Americans such reforms were of specific significance, suffering from slavery for several centuries before. In that regard, it can be stated that even though the position of African Americans in society today is the result of a long historical period, a single period can be outlined as being one of the most influential in the recent history of African Americans.
In Unit IV of Nation of Nations, covering a period between 1946 and 1976, the life of African Americans was revolved around the gradual restoration of their civil rights (Davidson, Delay, Heyrman, Lytle, & Stoff, 2007). Not underestimating the merits of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark law that put the legal foundation of the principle that “no person shall be discriminated against based on race, color, or national origin” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001), the main period that will be outlined in this paper is concerned with the time from which this Act and other subsequent revolutionary events grew out, the 50s and the early 60s of the last century (Davidson, et al., 2007). In that regard, the present paper argues that the events occurring in the aforementioned period put the foundation for social, legislative, and political changes that shaped the position of African Americans in the United States today.
The Brown Decision
The right to equal education can be seen as one of the important rights shaping the position of African Americans today in the United States. With the first African American President Barack Obama being a graduate from several educational institutions, it is hard to acknowledge that only a little more than half a century ago, African American Students did not have the right to attend schools along with white students. A landmark case ending the segregation in education was Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which started a chain reaction across the country that legislatively made sure that all citizens of the United States, regardless of their race or color, have equal education opportunities.
Before Brown v. Board of Education, the basis of segregation in education was the principle of separate but equal, which generally assumed that African Americans will have the same rights, although separately from the white population. This was far from the truth, however. As stated by the plaintiffs in the case, “segregated public schools are not “equal” and cannot be made “equal,” (“Brown v. Board of Education,” 1954). The equal part of separate, but equal was not materialized, except a few institutions. For the most segregated schools, the inequalities for African American population were represented through teachers’ training, facilities and their quality, and the amount of money spent on each school (Patterson, 2001).
Before the decision, segregation was not only concerned with equal access to public school but also the rights to teach and equal employment opportunities. In that regard, there were no black teachers in San Francisco for the period between 1870 and 1944 (Patterson, 2001, p. 5). Such injustice was mainly concentrated in the south, where for some Southerners, the idea of integrating schools and mixing races in education was perceived as the first step in a mixed marriage. As stated by Herbert Ravenel Sass in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, A very few years of thoroughly integrated schools would produce larger numbers of indoctrinated young Southerners free from all “prejudice” against mixed matings (Patterson, 2001, p. 6).
In addition to public schools, the doctrine of separate but equal was also negatively influential in higher education as well, wherein the context of law schools, for example, “[b]lack students were denied contact with white law students and professors; they had no established alumni to turn to for practice; they would earn a law degree far less prestigious than whites received at their school” (Patterson, 2001, p. 18).
The case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) came to change such a state of inequality in education, legally challenging the constitutionality of school segregation. Not being the first case, in that regard, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a collective case o several plaintiffs, who challenged that the fact of separation of education itself has harmful consequences on children. The case refers to different plaintiffs, with different conditions, and mostly from different states, where the common elements of the action are that in all cases African American children of school age were seeking “the aid of the courts in obtaining admission to the public schools of their community on a nonsegregated basis” (“Brown v. Board of Education,” 1954). All of them were denied admission based on segregation laws according to race. The argument used was based on the damage that the fact of separation itself causes to the African American children, which persuaded the court that school segregation was unconstitutional (“The Unappreciated Hero,” 2001). As it was stated in the decision by Chief Judge Earl Warren, To separate [black schoolchildren] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone (“Brown v. Board of Education,” 1954).
The consequences of the decision for the African American population cannot be overrated. Although the Brown decision did not end segregation, it “combined with political and economic forces to usher in a new era of southern race relations” (Davidson, et al., 2007, p. 863). Accordingly, it should be stated that even though the consequences of the decision, combined with other notable events led to many changes in the life of African Americans, the merits of the decision can be specifically emphasized in the context of education. The schools in the south started desegregation with various degrees of success, but the process started to work, with more and more white people, including parents, school principals, school board members, and other community leaders, being prepared to support the Brown decision. Other notable events related to the integration of educational institutions followed the Brown decision, one of which is the integration of Little Rock’s Central High, the first civil rights crisis covered by television. Similarly, with no timetable established for school integration, the scope of the decision was expanded by individual and collective changes to the system by African Americans (Carson, 2004). In the long term, the decision opened the doors of post-secondary education for African Americans, also increasing their enrollment “in predominantly white colleges and universities” (Harvey, Harvey, & King, 2004, p. 328).
The significance in the context of civil rights was also huge, where it is stated that the Brown decision was the first strong link in the chain of causation, which accelerated the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and subsequently led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Patterson, 2005, p. 414). It can be assumed that the following events, contributing to the civil rights movement might not have happened, if not for the Brown decision. One of the subsequent events, contributing to the position of African Americans today is the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, which will be discussed in the following section.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The right to equal social treatment can be seen as one of the main rights that shape the position of African Americans in the United States today. Led today by an African American president, the situation for African Americans was different before the late 1950s of the last century. African Americans could not access the same facilities from the same doors as whites, could not go to movies to which whites go, and even could not sit in buses near whites. All that changed after the Montgomery bus boycott and a contribution of several African American figures, among which the main figure from which the boycott started – Rosa Parks.
The situation for African Americans in Montgomery before the boycott can be described as embarrassing second-class treatment. The latter was specifically evident in the case of city buses, in which African Americans had to take seats at the back of the bus, with them forced to move back or even stand if the number of white passengers exceeded the seats allocated to them. The irony of the situation can be seen in that the buses were dependant on the African American passengers, who constituted three-fourths of the passengers of public transport in the city. In that regard, if the black population did not use public transport, they would not have been able to operate (Kinshasa, 2006, p. 19).
The segregation of city buses was only a part of the total legal segregation, not only in Montgomery but in the whole state of Alabama. The law prevented African Americans from using the same public facilities, such as schools, swimming pools, cafeterias, movie theaters, and others (Kohl, 2004). In instances when the facility could be used by both African American and white populations, there were separate entrances, toilets, and drinking fountains allocated for each group (Kohl, 2004). In that regard, it can be seen that the separation did not mean that those facilities were equal, as it was proven in the Brown decision, where most facilities used by African Americans were far inferior to those used by the white population.
The inequality if separate use can be seen through the fact that African Americans were forced to give up even the seats designated for them, in case the bus became crowded, wherein such case, for example, “an elderly African American woman would have to give up her seat to a European American teenage male”, an action that might result in her arrest for breaking the law if she refused to give her seat (Kohl, 2004, p. 17).
The events of the boycott itself started when, Rosa Parks, a secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and one of the first women to join the organization in Montgomery, refused to move to the back of the bus. Parks was seated in the colored section, and with the bus becoming crowded, the bus driver asked her to stand up and let him have the seats; a request to which Parks refused to comply and which led to her being arrested (Kohl, 2004). It should be noted that Rosa Parks was not the first African American woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat. There were several factors, which combined led to the boycott. One of which is the Brown decision, issued just a year and a half before the discussed events, giving hope to challenge segregation. Accordingly, it is argued that “the boycott had been planned and organized before Rosa Parks was arrested. It was an event waiting to take place, and that is why it could be mobilized so quickly” (Kohl, 2004, p. 18). Others argue that the boycott was developed after the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the president and the spokesman of which was selected Minister, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Kinshasa, 2006). The position held by Parks as a member of the NAACP was a contributing factor as well, where several women from NAACP, drafted a letter of protest that initiated the boycott.
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person… The next time it may be you, or you, or you… We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trial (Davidson, et al., 2007).
Regardless of the way the boycott was planned, it should be stated that it lasted for 381 days, during which many events happened, including threats, bombings, job losses, 75% reduction in the bus company revenues, raised bus fares, and others (Kinshasa, 2006, p. 19). By the end of the period, the Supreme Court affirmed an earlier decision by the United States Court that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Thus, by the end of 1956, African Americans could ride the buses in Montgomery as equals to any other groups or population in the United States. Although the decision was concerned only with buses, it was a huge step in the path in the restoration of the civil rights of African Americans.
The significance of such events can be acknowledged as a combination of several factors, rather than a single event. It is understood that the boycott had more influential consequences, surpassing the desegregation of the city’s buses in Montgomery. MIA received a letter of support and about $250,000 in donations, showing the support for the boycott. Similar boycotts started to occur in other Southern cities, including Birmingham and mobile, and other states as well, Tallahassee Florida. Another major achievement can be seen through bus companies starting to hire African Americans as bus drivers, as prompted by MIA. The boycott and its consequences served as a scene in which such a historical figure as Martin Luther King, Jr, was recognized nationally as a civil rights leader (Pierce, 2005, p. 44). For African Americans today, enjoying basic rights that cannot be even questioned, such as having equal opportunities to have a seat in a bus, is the result of a series of events, in which the Montgomery bus boycott is among the most influential.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
The right to freely choose a representative and be a representative can be seen among the most important right shaping the position of African Americans in society today. With many high positions held by African Americans, such as Secretary of the State, the Congress, the Senate, and others, it can be stated that African Americans are largely shaped by having the right to be elected in such positions. Accordingly, having the right to provide their votes for a particular candidate in a certain position in the government is vital to African Americans as well. In the presidential elections of 2008, the number of African Americans who voted reached a record-high 12.1 percent (Lopez & Taylor, 2009), sixty years ago the African American population was mostly denied that right in the South, as “Black voter registration in the Deep South is entirely controlled by the white power structure” (CRMV, 2009). In that regard, it can be stated that an influential role in having such rights by African Americans today was played by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and their voting rights campaigns.
The actions of SNCC were mainly revolved around organizing activities related to electoral politics. The voting rights campaigns were based on the desire to highlight racial injustice, where organizing voter registration campaigns, they believed in ending black disenfranchisement by “demonstrating the deep desire of black southerners for the vote” (Jeffries, 2006, p. 174). SNCC initiatives also included organizing mock elections, freedom summer participation, and others. The main contribution was in removing the psychological barriers for African Americans to demand their rights. Many African Americans were threatened and/or beaten when attempting registration (CRMV, 2009). SNCC attempted to eliminate these fears, by promoting voter registration (Jeffries, 2006, p. 181).
The significance of SNCC to the position and status of African Americans today cannot be overrated, specifically in the light of the record voting participation and the election of the first African American president of the United States. The initiatives of SNCC taking place approximately in the same timeline with the Brown decision, the Montgomery Boycott, and other major events, contributed to increasing the awareness of the African American population of their rights to vote. Such awareness gained them politicizing experiences, which were crucial to the subsequent event. Accordingly, the work of SNCC can be seen contributing to the formation of the Voting Rights Act.
It can be concluded that each of the events mentioned in the paper, the Brown decision, the Montgomery Boycott, and the SNCC voting campaigns, occurring at the period of 1950s and the 1960s of the last century, contributed to the changes that shape the positions of African Americans today. It can be argued that there is still work to be done or that some of the consequences reverted at some point in history. Nevertheless, it can be stated that if it was not for a lawsuit on the right to have equal education, a boycott for the right for equal bus seats, and the campaigns for the right to vote, many things would have been different for African Americans today.
Carson, C. (2004). Two Cheers for Brown v. Board of Education. The Journal of American History, 91(1), 26-31.
The article by Clayborne Carson provides an analysis of the short and long term consequences of the Brown vs. the board of education case in terms of achievements and deficiencies. The article argues that despite major contributions to the social rights movement, rather than changing the patterns of racial distribution of education, which remained largely unchanged. The article was used to indicate that the changes were the results of collective actions by African Americans rather than enforcement from the system.
Harvey, W. B., Harvey, A. M., & King, M. (2004). The Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on Postsecondary Participation of African Americans. The Journal of Negro Education, 73(3), 328-340.
The article by William Harvey, Adia Harvey, and Mark King investigates the enrollment of African American student in white postsecondary educational institutions. The article found out that significant changes occurred in the patterns of enrollment following the Brown decision, surpassing those occurring in K-12 systems.
Jeffries, H. K. (2006). SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966. The Journal of African American History, 91(2), 171-193.
The article by Hasan Kwame Jeffries provides an overview of the activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Alabama through the period between 1964 and 1966. The author provides a framework explaining the notion of Black Power through the understanding of SNCC. The article’s review was used to provide an insight on the key activities of SNCC, specifically in terms of voting rights campaigns. Accordingly, such insight helps outlining the political influence on the position of African Americans in the United States today.
Kinshasa, K. M. (2006). An Appraisal of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka KS. (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. [Article]. Western Journal of Black Studies, 30, 16-23.
The article by Kwando Kinshasa is aimed at addressing hypothetical alternatives to the way the events might have turned out in Montgomery bus boycott. The article provides an analysis of the events of the boycott and its consequences. The article was used to provide an overview of the state of African Americans in Montgomery prior to the boycott along with details of the boycott itself.
Kohl, H. (2004). The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Revisited. Paths of Learning(21), 11-23.
The article by Herbert Kohl provides an analysis of the role of Rosa Parks in the Montgomery boycott. The author attempts to correct the misconceptions regarding the role of Parks, arguing that her role is underestimated. The article was used to describe the events leading to the boycott, along with some of the short term impacts on African Americans.
Patterson, J. T. (2001). Brown v. Board of Education : a civil rights milestone and its troubled legacy. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
The book by James Patterson provides a narrative on the path of desegregating schools in the United States. The book indicates the significance of the Brown vs. the Board of education decision to the civil rights movement, examining its current implementation. The book was used to provide an overview of the state of African Americans before the landmark case took place.
Patterson, J. T. (2005). Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. Stetson Law Review, 34, 413-421.
The article by James Patterson is a review of the impact of the Brown decision on the civil rights movement in the United States. The article argues that the case was one of the many events leading to initiating the movement in the United States, which might have failed to deliver to its legacy in the society. Excerpts of the article were used to understand the short and the long term consequences of the decision on African Americans in the United States.
Pierce, A. (2005). The Montgomery bus boycott. Edina, Minn.: Abdo Pub.
A short book by Alan Pierce which describes the Montgomery bus boycott in terms of prerequisites and consequences. The book is a part of a series focusing on a single event in history of the United States, providing an examination in the context of the overall impact of such event in retrospective. Excerpts from the book were used to provide some of the facts of the social impact and the economical impact of the boycott on MIA and Montgomery.
- Brown v. Board of Education, No. 347 U.S. 483 (SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES 1954).
- Carson, C. (2004). Two Cheers for Brown v. Board of Education. The Journal of American History, 91(1), 26-31.
- CRMV. (2009). Civil Rights Movement Timeline: 1961. Civil Rights Movement Veterans.
- Davidson, J. W., DeLay, B., Heyrman, C. L., Lytle, M. H., & Stoff, M. B. (2007). Nation of nations : a narrative history of the American republic (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Harvey, W. B., Harvey, A. M., & King, M. (2004). The Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on Postsecondary Participation of African Americans. The Journal of Negro Education, 73(3), 328-340.
- Jeffries, H. K. (2006). SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966. The Journal of African American History, 91(2), 171-193.
- Kinshasa, K. M. (2006). An Appraisal of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka KS. (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. [Article]. Western Journal of Black Studies, 30, 16-23.
- Kohl, H. (2004). The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Revisited. Paths of Learning(21), 11-23.
- Lopez, M. H., & Taylor, P. (2009). Dissecting the 2008 Electorate: Most Diverse in U.S. History. Pew Research Center Publications.
- Patterson, J. T. (2001). Brown v. Board of Education : a civil rights milestone and its troubled legacy. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Patterson, J. T. (2005). Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. Stetson Law Review, 34, 413-421.
- Pierce, A. (2005). The Montgomery bus boycott. Edina, Minn.: Abdo Pub.
- The Unappreciated Hero of Brown v. Board of Education. (2001). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education(32), 38-40.
- U.S. Department of Justice. (2001). Title VI: Legal Manual. The United States Department of Justice.