Amending America: Civil Rights and Individual Freedom

U.S. National Archives

Explore selected stories about civil rights and individual freedoms.

During the Revolutionary War, African Americans joined the Continental Army to obtain political freedom for the United States and their own freedom from slavery. Although some liberated themselves through military service, the institution of slavery remained intact. During the Civil War, thousands of African Americans joined the Union Army. These records testify to African Americans’ long tradition of military service.

Cato Greene—captured in Guinea, Africa, and sold into slavery in Rhode Island—fought in the Revolutionary War “to obtain his freedom.”

Greene’s discharge papers record that he served in Rhode Island regiments for five years and was discharged from the Continental Army in 1783 by Gen. George Washington. Greene died in 1826 at the age of 86.

Nearly five years after the end of World War I, African-American veteran Timothy Percy Patterson wrote to President Calvin Coolidge. “I served eighteen months in the World’s War. On the 11th day of Nov. 1918, on the Battlefield in France I heard much discussion about we being at peace. I beg to inform that I still have no peace.” Patterson was one of nearly 400,000 African-American men who served in the U.S. military during World War I. Approximately 200,000 of these were sent to Europe.

However, these soldiers had come of age in a society that increasingly sought to limit their right to vote and to segregate them into separate and unequal public facilities. Further, after serving their country in World War I and World War II, African-American veterans found themselves confronting the racial violence of lynching and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

More than 40 years after Patterson wrote his protest letter, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The passage of these laws was hastened by the non-violent demonstrations against the forces supporting racial segregation and black disenfranchisement during the 1950s and early 1960s. Yet, letters like that of Timothy Patterson’s remind us that this struggle has a long history that pre-dates the rise of the “modern” civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees all Americans the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Many Americans—children as well as adults— have exercised this right by writing to the President of the United States. Andrew S. Evans wrote to President Harry S. Truman to voice his opposition to racially segregated playgrounds. The 11-year-old lived only “about three yds. from a white playground,” he wrote. But he was prohibited from using the playground and had to go to one “4 or 5 blocks away.”

As head of the Florida NAACP, Harry T. Moore tirelessly protested lynchings and discrimination. He led a voter registration drive that added more than 100,000 African American voters. In 1951, on Christmas night, Moore’s house was bombed—killing him and his wife, Harriette. The attack shocked many Americans.

Among those who expressed their outrage was Arden Rappaport who wrote that those guilty of this crime should be apprehended and punished as living example[s] that the United States not only preaches high moral values, but lives and acts by her own dictates and principles.”

Through our series of National Conversations on Rights and Justice, we invite Americans to explore a range of contemporary issues, addressing the tension between individual rights and collective responsibilities, a process that began with the Bill of Rights.

The National Conversations will be held at across the country from 2016 to 2017. Each program will have a central topic. Grounded in documents from the National Archives' collection, they will explore the stories of America's past. These will be starting points from which we will look forward, wondering what new stories wait to be written.

Join the Conversation!

For more stories about how we have attempted to change the shape of our government, check out our other Amending America exhibits on Google Cultural Institute

Credits: Story

This online exhibit was created under the direction of Jim Gardner, the Executive for Presidential Libraries, Legislative Archives, and Museum Programs. The exhibition and this online exhibit would not have been possible without the combined efforts and expertise of many National Archives staff.

Co-Curator - Michael Hussey

Amending America at the National Archives

Amending America Exhibition in Washington, D.C. presented in part by The National Archives Foundation, AT&T, HISTORY®, and The Lawrence O'Brien Family.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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