The Struggle for African American Freedom

The Henry Ford

The ideal of freedom is an innovative notion that can be found at the heart of America. This ideal is embodied in the Declaration of Independence and protected in the Constitution. But freedom -- especially for African Americans -- has been elusive, fought for through social movements and struggle.
Independence & Constitution
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence announced that the British colonies in America were free from the rule of Great Britain. With this declaration, Americans proclaimed a list of universal human rights, including life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the right to self-government.

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.

Keeping the Union Whole
Though America’s Founding Fathers established a nation based on the principles of freedom, they allowed slavery to continue.

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.

In 1857, an enslaved man named Dred Scott sued for freedom. The Supreme Court ruled against him, declaring that black people could not be citizens of the United States, and holding that the federal government could not ban slavery in the territories.

The slavery question pitted neighbor against neighbor -- each with their own strongly held opinions.

In this pamphlet, a controversial Episcopal Bishop argued that the Bible did not forbid slavery.

Human Property
Southern slaveholders argued that slavery was a natural and necessary part of plantation life.

Slave badges like this were worn by enslaved African Americans whose owners hired them out to work for other people. The wages they received went back to the owner.

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.

Southern slaveholders could justify their actions because they considered enslaved people not real people. They were pieces of property, to be bought and sold -- much like horses or cattle.

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.

Frederick Douglass stood up and spoke at an abolitionist meeting in 1841. His gut-wrenching tales about life on the plantation turned thousands of skeptical Americans into active abolitionists.

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin -- a best-selling story about the plight of Southern slaves. Her emotional descriptions made many sympathetic readers change their minds about slavery.

John Brown tried to steal government weapons, convinced that Southern slaves would follow him in a revolt. He was caught and hanged for treason in 1859. Northerners honored him because he was willing to die for a cause. But it gave Southerners one more reason to prepare for war.

Secession and War
Abolitionists and supporters of slavery formed two angry camps, each refusing to back down. By 1860, it was tearing the nation apart.

People knew the 1860 Presidential election would determine the country’s fate. Abraham Lincoln -- one of four candidates -- promised to keep slavery out of the new western territories.

When Lincoln got elected, Southerners feared he would end slavery everywhere. One by one, southern states seceded from the Union and formed their own government -- the Confederate States of America.

Less than two weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration, Confederate troops opened fire on government supply ships arriving at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Lincoln called for an army to put down the rebellion.

The Civil War had begun, and President Lincoln faced the ultimate test of America’s founding principles.

Ultimately, he decided to end slavery to make the country whole again.

Abraham Lincoln put his Emancipation Proclamation into effect on January 1, 1863, declaring that all slaves in rebel states would be “forever free.”

President Lincoln knew this was just a public statement, not law. But it sent a clear message -- if the Union won, slavery was finished.

From Slaves to Soldiers
After the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans were actively recruited into the army.

African Americans were separated into their own regiments and often discriminated against. But they fought bravely, and changed the way many Americans thought about them.

With the war’s end in sight, President Lincoln urged Congress to legally outlaw slavery in America, by passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It reads: “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.”

No one had expected the war to last so long, to be so devastating, or to end slavery. But, Lincoln became convinced he had made the right decisions.

Unfortunately, less than a week after the Confederate forces surrendered, President Lincoln was assassinated while sitting in this chair at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

As news of Lincoln’s death spread, many Americans wept with shock and anguish. Tens of thousands of people lined up to pay their last respects -- including many former slaves, who considered Lincoln their savior.

Reconstruction & Discrimination
After the war, people tried to remake the South without slavery. New laws guaranteed equal rights for all Americans.

But white Southerners had lost their land, their savings, and free labor from slaves.

To be re-admitted into the Union, the defeated Confederate states had to show that a majority of their citizens renounced secession and would support the Constitution.

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.

Southerners re-established their economic domination of blacks through harsh contracts and labor laws. African-American children were often forced to become indentured servants -- basically being owned by a white master until they came of age at 18.

Degrading images and objects intended to convince white people that African Americans were inferior, second-class citizens went nationwide.

Most white Americans rarely came in contact with African Americans, so the derogatory stereotypes largely went unchallenged.

Although they were hoping for a better life ahead, former slaves would face almost a century of discrimination and renewed oppression.

The Civil Rights Movement
The Civil War ended slavery. But the long-held tradition of unequal treatment for African Americans was hard to change.  

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.

During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan spread nationwide. Klansmen carried out an unchecked reign of terror -- looting and burning, beating and killing. Their goal was to preserve the supremacy of the “White Race.”

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 Ignites a Movement
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on this city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Rosa Parks' courageous act of protest sparked a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery and helped launch the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

This pictorial quilt made by retired schoolteacher and self-taught artist Yvonne Wells tells that story.

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.

No law angered Montgomery’s African Americans on a daily basis as much as bus segregation. When Rosa Parks was arrested, they decided they’d had enough. They shared rides, they walked -- anything but ride the buses.

Despite white threats and violence, the Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than a year until the law finally changed.

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.

For many Americans, the dream of true freedom remains unfulfilled. But past struggles bring about the hope that all people can be more tolerant and accepting of each other’s differences.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

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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