Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence spoke harshly about the British king and included a passage about slave trade: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere…”
A drafting committee and the larger Continental Congress made several changes to Jefferson’s draft. During the editing process, South Carolina and Georgia delegates insisted that the slave trade passage be cut.
Following the Revolutionary War, representatives from all the colonies drafted America’s new constitution. After much debate and compromise, these men laid out a strong central government and created a Bill of Rights guaranteeing personal freedoms to every citizen.
The American revolutionaries challenged tradition and authority. Their ideas and actions inspired freedom movements around the world. But the men who founded America were also men of their time. They left whole groups of people -- including women, Native Americans, and enslaved African Americans -- out of their plans. Because of their decisions, centuries of oppression and struggle lay ahead.
Through the 1800s, the question of slavery escalated from mere disagreements into a large-scale war between American citizens.
Beginning in the 1830s, some people -- mostly white Northerners -- began to speak out against slavery. A clergyman named Ichabod Codding traveled extensively in New England, New York, and Illinois lecturing on the evils of slavery.
The wealth and power of Southern plantation owners depended upon a large labor force of enslaved people -- especially when cotton became “king” during the 1800s.
The Southern economy remained dependent on cotton -- and African Americans remained closely tied to its production -- into the twentieth century.
Enslaved people tried many forms of subtle resistance against their owners. Many probably considered the ultimate risk -- running away. The growth of an “underground railroad” -- a loose network of people and places -- helped some succeed in their quest for freedom.
Slaves known for running away were sometimes made to wear iron collars like this, with hooks designed to catch on bushes or tree limbs.
The Question of Slavery
Some vocal opponents, who called themselves abolitionists, insisted that slavery violated the principles of freedom set forth by the Declaration of Independence. But to many people -- especially in the North -- slavery was still an abstract concept. Several influential people helped them form an opinion.
When Reconstruction ended, the Southern states found many ways to deny African Americans their newly-granted rights.
This is one of the earliest known images of members of the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866 as one of many Southern vigilante groups intent on maintaining “white supremacy.” The Klan intimidated newly freed African Americans by any means -- including murder and terrorism.
In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites were legal. Southern states increasingly enforced legal segregation in schools, housing, parks, restaurants, and public transportation. In the North, despite some laws prohibiting segregation, racial restrictions and discrimination persisted. African Americans in segregated America were not treated as equals.
New laws and customs known as “Jim Crow” made sure that blacks were denied many basic rights and brought under complete control. African Americans could get arrested or lynched for not obeying them.
Jim Crow was a character created for an entertainment act during the early 1800s. Based on an old rhyme, the act was meant to demean and make fun of African Americans. Applied to the set of laws, the name had much the same effect.
Some African American leaders encouraged better education or legal action. Organizations formed anti-lynching and voter registration campaigns. Some people tried boycotts and picketing. Thousands fled the South hoping for a better life up north. Here and there, African Americans gained some measures of equality.
Just after World War II, African Americans began to win a series of rights...on paper. In 1948, they were integrated into the previously white armed forces. In 1954, schools were required to integrate students. But the reality was another story. Each victory brought new resistance and violence by some white citizens.
Rosa Parks was a soft-spoken woman who worked as a seamstress in a department store. But she also worked with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And she had training in community action from a school in Tennessee. So when the time came to take a stand, she was well prepared.
A young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., rose out of the Montgomery bus boycott to lead the full-scale Civil Rights Movement. His strategy of non-violent protest included boycotts, peaceful demonstrations and marches. Inspired by King’s tactics, thousands of African American and white citizens banded together to join the struggle.
In 1963, more than 250,000 people marched peacefully on the nation’s capital in support of jobs, freedom, and a new Civil Rights bill that was stalled in Congress. During this, the largest demonstration for human rights ever held in America, Martin Luther King delivered his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”
Along with earlier protests like this World War II-era demonstration, the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King’s inspirational leadership convinced African Americans elsewhere that they too could try to bring about change. Sit-ins at segregated lunch counters led to walk-ins at segregated parks and wade-ins at “whites-only” pools. Marchers and demonstrators carried signs with new-found confidence and dignity.
Civil Rights protesters knew the risks. They could be beaten, hit by high-pressure fire hoses, bitten by police dogs, thrown in jail, or even killed. Local police forces often were the offenders and seldom did anything to help. Americans were stunned by national media coverage of police attacking peaceful protesters.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life was constantly threatened before he was finally assassinated in 1968. King’s death sparked black rebellions in many cities and made him a revered martyr to the cause.
Public opinion swung strongly in support of new civil rights laws. President Johnson lent his full support to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. These acts -- the most all-encompassing to date -- guaranteed basic civil rights for African Americans.
But written Civil Rights laws did not guarantee equal rights. Some believed the new laws weren’t enough. Anger and frustration over poverty, sub-standard housing and unemployment led to massive riots in northern cities during the mid-1960s. The new rallying cry became “Black Power” -- demanding that African Americans establish their own place in society, using force if necessary.
For other groups of people, the Civil Rights Movement was an inspiration. As their numbers grew, they gained a voice and took action. By the early 1970s, the news was filled daily with stories of different groups fighting for basic rights.
In 1965, Cesar Chavez organized a farm workers’ union and led a strike for better wages and working conditions. Using the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, he drew national attention to the plight of farm workers in California and across the West.
From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.