The struggle against segregation, discrimination and isolation is a protracted battle that claimed many lives. During the time of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans longed for real freedom. For many centuries they were denied the basic rights of an American citizen. They were supposed to be free after the Civil War but this was not the case. Slavery was simply changed to segregation and isolation.
In every generation African Americans needed to clarify the real meaning of freedom. Every time society tried to shortchange them, heroes came to fight for their rights. Although so many things have changed since the first Negro slave set foot on American soil, the struggle continues to this day. It is time to revisit the past in order to change the present. The following explains how African Americans ended segregation and isolation.
Slavery and Emancipation
Segregation, discrimination, and isolation are words without meaning if taken out of its context. In the case of African Americans, these words are full of meaning and in fact it can generate a great deal of emotions. In order to understand the struggle of African Americans to achieve equality in America, it is important to go back to the starting point. More than two hundred years ago Negro slaves from Africa and the Caribbean came to the United States via cargo ships owned and operated by slave traders.
They are known as Negroes. It is a Spanish word for black. They became slaves because of the color of their skin. Their powerlessness emboldened slave traders. Their inability to stand up to their masters emboldened slave buyers.
This trend continued even after the United States declared independence from British rule. Slave traders captured black skinned natives from the shores of Africa and transported them to America. There was high demand for slave labor in plantations located in the United States.
The struggle against segregation, discrimination, and isolation began in the fight to end slavery. After the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain the founding fathers of the United States created the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In these sacred documents one can find statements regarding the inherent value of every human being.
All those who were born and raised in the United States can claim citizenship. Their citizenship assures them that they have rights and privileges. It did not take long before the call to end slavery echoed throughout America.
It will require the Civil War to abolish slavery in America. But before that can happen, Negro slaves had to make a stand. The fight to end slavery started with the realization that slaves must learn to read and write. According to John W. Fields, “The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then?” (Yetman, 2007). Slaves had to find a way to learn how to read and write.
One of those who succeeded to read and write was a Negro slave named Frederick Douglas. He escaped from slavery. A few years later he did not only master the skill of reading and writing, he also discovered that he can persuade people through his writing. It is through his written works that America and the rest of the world understood the horror of slavery and he wrote:
The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and byword to a mocking earth (Douglas, 1999, p. 222).
Another influential leader in the abolitionist movement was Booker T. Washington and he said: “I recall that I had an intense longing to read. I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers” (Washington, 2000, p.19). All the like-minded men and women joined forces with Douglas and Washington to force the Federal Government to end slavery.
Civil Rights Movement
The end of the Civil War practically ended slavery in the United States. But true was still in its infancy. There were so many people who clamored for emancipation but only a few understood the ramifications of ending slavery. Four million slaves were liberated at the end of the Civil War (Eyerman, 2001, p.23). This number is a significant figure considering that it represented 12.6 percent of the total U.S. population at that time (Eyerman, 2001, p.23). The social and economic landscape of the South was altered overnight.
Negro slaves went from being laborers to isolated free men and women. They were free but no one established a system that could have eased the transition from slavery to freedmen. Consider this eyewitness account of newly freed slaves: “Here were four million human beings without clothing, shelter, homes, and alas most without names.
The galling harness of slavery had been cut off of their weary bodies, and like a worn out beat of burden they stood in their tracks scarcely able to go anywhere” (Eyerman, 2001, p. 23). Centuries of slavery was replaced with almost a century of segregation, discrimination, and isolation.
African Americans worked together to fight oppression and injustice. There are two major groups of people that contributed greatly to the Civil Rights movement. The first group is comprised of charismatic leaders that created influential organizations that would pressure the Federal Government and State authorities to take and reconsider their stance regarding segregation, discrimination and isolation. The second group is comprised of ordinary individuals who were forced by extraordinary circumstances to prevail against evil.
One of the outstanding African Americans who belonged to the second group was a woman named Susie Guillory Phipps, the wife of an affluent seafood importer in Louisiana. Her general appearance was that of a Caucasian woman. In all her life, she believed that she was white but not black.
However, everything changed when she applied for a passport. An official birth certificate was needed. Susie Guillory Phipps could not believe his eyes when the document finally arrived and it said that she was African American.
She did some research and discovered that in 1934, the Louisiana Division of Vital Records had issued a certificate that classified her as “colored” (Bird, 2009, p.14). She discovered that her ancestor, a plantation owner named Jean Gregorie Guillory, took a black mistress. After two centuries this relationship produced a descendant named Susie Guillory Phipps (Davis, 1991).
She spent the rest of her life trying to change an absurd rule that segregated people on the basis of their family tree. As a member of the Negro race in 1977, she felt the impact of discrimination. In her numerous attempts to change the system, she failed. But her persistence enabled the case to gain widespread publicity.
The pressure that resulted from this publicity forced the State of Louisiana to abolish this particular rule in 1983 (Fluehr-Lobban, 2006). However, Susie Guillory Phipps died a few years before the ruling was made public. Nevertheless, she contributed to the eradication of a system of oppression in America.
Oliver Brown also belonged to the second group. He protested the fact that he could not enroll her little girl in a public school that is a mere walking-distance from their home. Monroe Elementary School at Topeka, Kansas is covered by the State law that segregated black and white students. Olive Brown is African American and, therefore, his daughter had to walk a considerable distance in order to take a bus that would bring her to school.
The case of Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda Brown was a blatant example of discrimination in the 20th century in America. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oliver Brown. That year children from African American families could choose to study wherever they want and the government will not stop them. It was one of the landmark cases in the United States that paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement that intensified the fight against segregation, discrimination, and isolation.
As mentioned earlier the first group was comprised of charismatic leaders who used their God-given talent to inspire people of all race, creed, and religion to end discrimination in America. Two of the most popular figures during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. shared one dream. They longed to see the day when African Americans can walk the streets without fear and shame. They worked so hard to end the ill-effects of segregation and discrimination. They used their powerful voices to preach against the evil of racism. But they had different styles and different ideologies when it came to the strategies implemented to achieve their goals.
Malcolm X was more aggressive and he believed that the United States government must be forced to consider its stance regarding segregation and isolation. He had seen the violent reprisals used against protesters. He was convinced that they must fight using armed resistance, not only to increase awareness of their struggle but also to defend themselves from rogue law enforcement officers bent to break their will.
Martin Luther King, Jr. on the other hand, was inspired by the actions of Mahatma Gandhi. The wise old man of Indian politics demonstrated the effectiveness of non-violent protest that can be intensified by civil disobedience.
The end goal is to provoke the government and the rest of America to open their eyes regarding the oppression experienced by many African Americans. Both King and Malcolm X were gunned down by an assassin’s bullet. Their contributions paved the way for the transformation of the United States of America.
Significant changes are evident from the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. African Americans are no longer considered second-class citizens. Some of the top rated artists and athletes are African Americans. In the past African Americans did not possess the means to play professional baseball, football, and golf. But in the 21st century some of the top athletes are African Americans.
It must be made clear that the fight is far from its end. African Americans toiled hard to bring change to the social landscape of America. But there are still some problems that require their attention. There are members of the African American community who feel that they do not have the ability to achieve social mobility. There are many African Americans who feel that they can never break the cycle of poverty (Uslaner, 2010). At the same time there are a high number of African Americans who are behind bars.
There are many African Americans who cannot handle the way society have labeled them. The success of African Americans in the sports and entertainment industry is now being used as a weapon to ridicule them. Instead of praising their achievements, critics are saying that they are only good as entertainers and athletes and do not posses the capabilities to succeed in other fields of endeavors.
It is important to fight a new kind of enemy called indifference. African Americans must continue to work together. In the midst of criticisms there are those who found positive things to say about African Americans. In one study, researchers discovered that young African Americans are resilient (Brown & Tylka, 2011). African Americans must use these encouraging words as a stepping stone to reach their full potential.
African Americans started out as Negro slaves. The odds were stacked against them from the very beginning. They shared bleak future. But with the collective action of extraordinary individuals they were able to end slavery in the United States. They were able to break free from segregation, discrimination and isolation.
They are no longer isolated and they are no longer considered as second-class citizens. African Americans in the present time owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before him. They honor sacrificed men like Frederick Douglas as well as women who labored behind the scenes to force America to open its eyes to the effects of oppression and racism.
They must honor the martyrdom offered by King and Malcolm X. However, there are still problems that exist today. Centuries of oppression and segregation has created a community with limited means to reach its full potential. But the resilient spirit developed through centuries of struggle must be put to good use. Someday African Americans will realize the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bird, S. (2009). Light, bright, and damned near white: biracial and triracial culture in America. Westport, CT: Praegers Publishers.
Brown, D., & T. Tylka. (2011). Racial discrimination and resilience in African American young adults. Journal of Black Psychology, 37(3), 259-285.
Davis, J. (1991). Who is black?: one nation’s definition. PN: The Pennsylvania StateUniversity.
Douglas, F. (1999). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave. New York: Oxford University Press.
Eyerman, R. (2001). Cultural trauma: slavery and the formation of African American identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Fluehr-Lobban, C. (2006). Race and racism: an Introduction. MD: Altamira Press.
Ulsaner, E. (2010). Segregation, mistrust and minorities. Ethnicities, 10(4), 415-434.
Washington, B. T. (2000). Up from slavery. New York: Penguin Books.
Yetman, N. (2010). An introduction to the slave narratives. Retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snintro00.html