The Fight for Black Equality in America


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Democracy and equality in America are goals which countless souls have aspired to have. And, yet, a contradiction lays at its heart. The country, founded on the principle of liberty, enslaved a portion of its population for almost a century after its founding. False justifications were used to quiet this paradox until a bloody civil war necessitated a resolution.

Colored painting of a Dutch merchant with slaves
It seems hypocritical that a country founded on people having equal rights went on to enslave a portion of its population. (Image: Rijksmuseum/Public domain)

A Long Road Toward Equality in America

In 1775, a group of revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to embark on a bold experiment. It was an idealistic project guided by notions of liberty and individual rights. Inspired by the quest for freedom, these men declared their independence from the most powerful empire on earth. Their conviction that, ‘all men are created equal’, was so intense that it justified revolution.

The Union victory over the Confederacy in 1865 was the death knell for slavery in the United States. Afterward, ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution banning slavery became a precondition for Confederate states to be fully accepted back into the Union. And still, Black Americans remained overwhelmingly disadvantaged—both implicitly and explicitly—for much of the next century. 

By the end of the 1950s, however, Americans who’d grown comfortable watching light-hearted diversions, like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, on television began to have second thoughts about the sight of high-pressured fire hoses and attack dogs turned against American Black children and peaceful civil rights protesters. Such scenes drew many white Americans out of cocoons of privileged ignorance.

At the same time, the United States was promoting itself as a bastion of freedom amid a Cold War with the Soviet Union. But it was clear the revolutionary promise of equality, liberty, and rights had not been extended to all.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Federal Segregation

The presidential election of 1876 brought an effective end to federal intervention in Southern affairs. It was halted in exchange for the South’s support of Rutherford B. Hayes as president. Conservative white Democrats now assumed control of state legislatures in the former Confederacy. They passed laws that further segregated Southern society, and restricted African Americans’ ability to vote through selectively enforced poll taxes and literacy tests.

A surge of white supremacy, and restrictive Jim Crow Laws, replaced the promises of integration. Supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan harassed, attacked, murdered, and lynched Black Americans in a widespread campaign of intimidation to keep them subordinate. 

The 1896 Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson went so far as to uphold the constitutionality of racial segregation laws. Under the principle of ‘separate but equal’, the idea of equality became a contradiction in terms.

The Right to Vote

In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, was founded in response to what it termed ‘the ongoing violence against Black people around the country’. The group filed lawsuits, and lobbied Congress, to better represent Black interests. Among its aims were to outlaw disenfranchisement and pass anti-lynching laws.

The American educator and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois argued that Black Americans needed the unfettered right to vote in order to defend themselves, advance their interests, and command respect. Enfranchisement—the right to vote—was seen as essential for African Americans to gain political equality, and advance in other areas of life as well.

The Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement was revolutionary in its aims and tactics. It demanded that Black Americans be allowed to participate fully in the constitutionally established system of local, state, and federal government, in the courts, and in civil society. It demanded justice and insisted that the rights provided by the Constitution be extended to all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin.

At the end of the Civil War, many Americans weren’t ready to see the old system of racial inequality abolished. Some Southern states passed Black Codes restricting the rights of former slaves. Congress responded with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 declaring all people born in the United States to be citizens with inalienable rights. 

All US citizens, the act declared, enjoyed the full protection of federal law. This became enshrined in the Constitution through the 14th Amendment. It gave the federal government the power to enforce citizens’ protections. This would prove critical to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. So, too, would the 15th Amendment prohibiting states from denying the vote on the basis of ‘race, color, or previous…servitude’.

Image of Asa Philip Randolph
Philip Randolph’s call for a march on the capital showed other activists the power of the threat of public demonstrations. (Image: John Bottega/Public domain)

Threatening Public Demonstrations

In 1941, the labor organizer and social activist Asa Philip Randolph called for a massive march on the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. He was protesting segregation in the military and defense sector, specifically.

FDR responded with a half measure. While he didn’t end segregation in the armed forces, he did sign an executive order to investigate employment discrimination in general and ban it in the defense industry. Roosevelt didn’t go so far as Randolph had hoped, but it was a step in the right direction. The march was tabled.

Some civil rights proponents in Chicago took note of the effectiveness of Randolph’s activism. And in 1942, they formed the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE. Consisting of Black and white members, the group modeled its actions on Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protests in India. 

CORE initiated sit-ins and picketing campaigns to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters in several midwestern and western cities.

Their example became a model for the civil rights movement over the next two decades.

Common Questions about the Fight for Black Equality in America

Q: What did the NAACP stand for?

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed so that it could help with the problem of equality in America. The group lobbied Congress to pass anti-lynching laws and help to secure justice for Black Americans.

Q: What were the demands of the civil rights movement?

The civil rights movement aimed to secure equality in America for Black Americans so they could vote and actively participate in the social system.

Q: What happened in the aftermath of Philip Randolph’s call for a march in Washington, DC?

Philip Randolph called for a march to protest the segregation in the military. Though the result wasn’t the end of this segregation, it did lead to a ban on employment discrimination.

Keep Reading
Why Do Revolutions Happen?
What Makes a Revolution Successful?
The Romantic Idealization of a Revolution