15. CIVIL RIGHTS
Every February, African Americans and the nation alike, take the month to reflect upon the history of Black people in these United States. From the beginnings of slavery to the election of the first African American president, Black people have made many strides along the way and have certainly made their mark in the annals of American history.
In recognition, OurWeekly will do a four-part series on the 15 most pivotal aspects of Black History.
America is just over a half-century removed from the Civil Rights Act. Many persons within the African American community would ask how far we’ve come since the historic passage of a bill that endeavored to “put teeth” or specifically more protections within the 14th Amendment.
Because of the Civil Rights Act, many laws have been passed to guarantee civil rights to all Americans, but the struggle continues for Blacks, women, Hispanics, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, the LGBT community and the homeless. What began primarily as a remedy for past injustices placed on African Americans has transformed into a panoply of laws that provide a redress of grievances for all Americans who may suffer under the indignity of discrimination.
While the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments outlawed slavery, provided for equal protection under the law and guaranteed citizenship, and protect the right to vote, individual states did not abide by these federal orders and by the end of Reconstruction had passed Jim Crow laws which allowed for segregation. These were upheld by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1895 which found that state laws requiring racial segregation that were “separate but equal” to be constitutional. This decision legalized segregation in the United States for 70 years.
Each year, from 1945 to 1957, Congress considered but failed to pass a civil rights bill. Congress finally passed a limited Civil Right Act in 1957 and again in 1960, but these offered only moderate gains. It was then that the famous Black sit-ins, boycotts, Freedom Riders and the founding of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began a national campaign for inclusion in the political process.
By the mid 1950s, African Americans had begun to mobilize in earnest against discrimination as a number of civil rights groups demanded an end to segregation in housing, education and employment. As this movement gained ground, however, it created a backlash of racism nationwide. Undaunted, civil rights advocates utilized peaceful protest most identified with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated passive resistance, while others such as Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X preferred a more hard-edged method of gaining social equality.
The most crucial year for the Civil Rights Movement was 1963 as social pressures began to build after the Birmingham Campaign, televised clashes between peaceful protesters and authorities, the murders of civil rights workers Medgar Evers and William L. Moore, the murders of four young girls after their 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. was bombed, and the famous March on Washington. Civil rights were firmly on the national agenda and the federal government was forced to respond.
President John F. Kennedy in June 1963 gave a nationally televised address about civil rights and subsequently submitted a bill to Congress (H.R. 7152). Following his assassination five months later, King and President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to press for passage of the bill and it was passed by the House in February 1964. After a strident filibuster in the Senate, the bill survived and Johnson signed it into law in July 1964 thereby declaring once and for all that discrimination for any reason on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin was illegal in the United States of America.
Today, American women, disabled Americans, the LGBT community, senior citizens, and those who may press for a living wage or more reasonable immigration status may trace their social progress to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. As David Horne, Ph.D., founder and director of the Pan African Public Policy Institute, explained the widespread benefits of the historic bill, “Much like the African American right to secure civil rights, [many] communities have benefited greatly by the 1964 legislation.”
African American culture has made an indellible mark on American history, and continues to be the lifeblood that binds us together as a people. No four aspects of our culture are more pronounced than our Music, Hair, Fashion, and Food.
Music is arguably one of the most central aspects of African-American culture. Rooted in the typically polyrhythmic sounds of the ethnic groups in Africa, this art form is ever expanding and has been influencing society as a whole since its American beginning when slaves blended traditional European hymns with African elements to create spirituals.
In the 19th century, as the result of the blackface minstrel show, African-American music became mainstream, transformed American (and international) rhythms—through the introduction of ragtime, jazz, blues, and swing—and gave birth to the Jazz Age in the 1920s. Rock and roll, doo wop, soul, and R&B developed in the mid-20th century, and were also all embraced by mainstream audiences.
While African American music undoubtedly influenced many other genres, one in particular has been so influential that it has even impacted African American life. During the 1970s, the dozens, a Black tradition of using rhyming slang to put down one’s enemies (or friends), and the West Indian tradition of toasting developed into a new form of music. In the South Bronx, the half speaking, half singing rhythmic street talk of “rapping” grew into the hugely successful cultural force known as hip hop.
Hip hop and rap have significantly impacted Black life in a number of ways including by providing a new and hardcore aesthetic for musicians to aspire to— think of the case of gangster rap, NWA (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Fk Da Police”) and other genres of Black music that have been used as a tool of political protest in the case of musings by Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”), James Brown, (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”) and Bob Marley ( “Get up Stand up.”)
The subject matter inherent in gangsta rap has long caused a great deal of controversy. Critics have accused the genre of promoting crime such as murder, sexual violence, theft, gang activity and substance abuse. The White House administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton criticized the genre. “The reason why rap is under attack is because it exposes all the contradictions of American culture …What started out as an underground art form has become a vehicle to expose a lot of critical issues that are not usually discussed in American politics,” Sister Souljah told journalist Chuck Philips in a review of the battle between “the Establishment” and defenders of rap music.
Some have even criticized gangsta rap as analogous to Black minstrelsy. Gangsta rappers often defend themselves by arguing they are describing the reality of inner-city life, and that they are only adopting a character which behaves in ways they do not necessarily endorse.
Since the beginning of African civilizations, hairstyles have been used to convey messages to society. As early as the 15th century, different styles could indicate a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community. Hair maintenance in traditional Africa was aimed at creating a sense of beauty. “A woman with long thick hair demonstrated the life force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity … a green thumb for raising bountiful farms and many healthy children”, wrote Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist specializing in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone.
In Yoruba culture in West Africa, people braided their hair to send messages to the gods. The hair is the most elevated part of the body and was therefore considered a portal for spirits to pass through to the soul. Because of the cultural and spiritual importance of hair for Africans, the practice of having their heads involuntarily shaved before being sold as slaves was in itself a dehumanizing act. According to “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” the shaved head was the first step Europeans took to erase the slaves’ culture and alter their relationship between the African and his or her hair.
While no name might be more synonymous with Black hair than Madam C.J. Walker, who became the first self-made millionaire in America by selling products that catered to Black women’s kinks and coils, Angela Davis is credited with pioneering the afro as a political statement in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Many believe that straightening Black hair—by way of heat or chemicals—is a form of assimilation to the White American standard of beauty. In recent years, the natural hair movement, with regards to care and style, has fought its way back to the forefront of Black beauty culture. Women (and men) are frequently seen wearing cornrows, braids, locs and twists, and it’s become less political and more about showing pride and acceptance of Black hair in its natural state.
The importance of fashion among African Americans can be traced all the way back to slavery and especially post-slavery, when Black women looked forward to dressing up for church on Sunday. Monday through Saturday they were restricted to their work uniforms; Sunday was the opportunity to step out in style. Professor Josef Sorett, an academic specializing in religion and African-American studies at Columbia University, explained, “By putting on their finest attire, Black folks both affirmed their own humanity, and imparted respect to one another. They did all of this with style”
But style isn’t only reserved for their “Sunday best.” African Americans, especially entertainers and others in the public eye, have long been trendsetters that influenced mainstream fashion. Grace Jones, Prince, Pam Grier, and Little Richard still remain inspirations for trends today.
Always innovative in ways to convey a powerful message, African Americans have used fashion politically as evidenced by the popularity of the Black Panther Party’s militant style of dress and how it made a statement without words. Even today, with the Black Lives Matter movement, African Americans have used fashion to aid spreading their message. After the death of Trayvon Martin, many donned hoodie sweatshirts similar to the one he was wearing when he was killed by a neighborhood watchman, to stand in solidarity and show that anyone could be treated just like him, without consequence. Following the death of Eric Garner, individuals sent a message, when they began wearing T-shirts with “I Can’t Breathe”—the deceased’s last words as he was strangled by a New York City cop—plastered across the chest. New York Knicks player Derrick Rose was the first to wear the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during a pre-game warm-up practice. This led to further media coverage and support from fellow athletes who, in turn, did the same.
African American fashion is so beautiful and unique that it is constantly and continuously repurposed for mainstream audiences, often presented as new creations and very rarely credited to its true originators.
Food is a major staple of Black culture. The foods that African Americans consume, popularly identified as Soul Food, originally began as a creative response to racial and economic oppression and poverty. Under slavery, African Americans were not allowed to eat better cuts of meat, and after emancipation many were often too poor to afford them. So, in a classic turning of lemons into lemonade, this traditional cuisine still exists and thrives today.
A typical “Sunday dinner,” the meal many Black families consume immediately after leaving church, could consist of any combination of fried chicken, fried fish, greens (turnip, collard, mustard—complete with ham hocks or neckbones,) black eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, yams, gumbo, potato salad, fried okra and cornbread. On Thanksgiving, a family might feast on all of the above, plus the addition of pies and cobblers for dessert.
In many households, usually beginning with grace (a prayer to thank God for the meal) the Black family dinner table has long been a source of bonding, sharing and understanding.
An unfortunate consequence of this diet has been the adverse effect that it has had on the health of African Americans. Because many of the foods that Blacks consume are high in fat, sodium, and sugar, the prevalence of diet-related health problems such as obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes are common in urban communities. As a result, many African Americans have made attempts to trade out some of the worst offenders for healthier alternatives while still keeping tradition alive.
For the first roughly 350 years or so of Black history in the New World, people of African descent have been migrants. From the forcible removal of more than 12.5 million people from the African continent (only 10.7 million of whom survived the dreaded middle passage), black persons were dispersed to South America, the Caribbean and North America (about 10 percent of the total came to America) to serve as slaves subject to the whims of our captors.
From Jamestown, Va., where the first Africans landed, slavery spread through the American South and supplied the labor to help the region grow. But the Civil War (1861-65) would usher in another period of migration for African Americans. After the end of slavery, Southern Blacks found themselves ensnared in Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction where White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White League in Louisiana attempted to intimidate Blacks and often forced them to endure harsh discriminatory treatment, the so-called “Black Codes,” and the repression which left them economically disadvantaged.
But unlike during slavery, Blacks did not have to stay in the South. And they did not. They began to move to what seemed like greener pastures in a migration called the Exodus of 1879.
Encouraged by community leaders Benjamin “Pap” Singleton of Tennessee and Henry Adams of Louisiana an estimated 40,000 former slaves left the South to settle in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado.
But before they left, nearly 98,000 people met in New Orleans as part of the Colonization Council to discuss where they should emigrate.
The choices they weighed were Liberia or Kansas. However, Liberia proved unrealistic logistically and financially for most people so Kansas was selected as the “promised land.”
But many steamboat captains refused to carry the migrants across the Mississippi River, and thousands of Exodusters found themselves stranded for months in St. Louis. They also got caught up in a political mess where neither the local or federal governments would help them.
During the 1870s, the Black population of Kansas increased by some 26,000 people. Historian Nell Painter further asserts that “the sustained migration of some 9,500 Blacks from Tennessee and Kentucky to Kansas during the decade far exceeded the much publicized migration of 1879, which netted no more than about 4,000 people from Mississippi and Louisiana. During the 1870s and the decade that followed, Blacks bought more than 20,000 acres of land in Kansas, and several of the settlements established during this time (e.g., Nicodemus, KS, which was founded in 1877) still exist today. These towns were established as part of the Black Township movement which began not long after the Civil War ended. One hisotrian noted “The Black-township idea reached its peak in the 50 years after the Civil War.
The goal was to establish settlements where Blacks could control their own destiny. At least 60 Black communities were settled between 1865 and 1915 including Allensworth in Southern California. Black Townships addessed the dual realities of allowing African Americans to demonstrate their ability to be self sustaining and also enabled them to escape the sometimes harsh challenge of racism.
The Great Migration
The next movement of African Americans was called the Great Migration and included between 5 and 6 million people transplanting themselves from the South to the North to regions such as Chicago, New York and California.
Greater employment opportunties coupled with deteriorating working conditions and continued oppression prompted many residents to leave the region between 1910 and 1970.
However, despite the jobs created by the reduction in European immigration because of World War I, there were still challenges for Blacks including a scarcity of housing, restrictive housing covenants and more.
At the same time, during the Great Migration Blacks had the opportunity to gain political and economic power.
In the latter part of the 20th century, what is often referred to as the “fourth great migration” began. This trend started after decolonization on the African continent, as many Africans came to America seeking an education and to escape poverty. Originally, these immigrants came with the sole purpose of advancing themselves before returning to their respective countries. However, eventually the majority of these immigrants never went home.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of African immigrants interested in gaining permanent residence in the U.S. This has led to a severe drain on the economies of African countries due to many skilled, hard working Africans leaving Africa to seek their economic fortunes in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Seventy-five percent (75 percent) of the African immigrants to the U.S.A. come from 12 of the 55 countries—Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Liberia, Somalia, Morocco, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone and Sudan (including what is now the independent country of South Sudan).
Immigrants from Africa typically settle in heavily urban areas upon arrival to the U.S. Areas such as Washington, D.C.; New York; Houston; Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta; and Minneapolis have heavy concentrations of African immigrant populations. Often there are clusters of nationalities within these cities. Additionally, the longer African immigrants live in the United States, the more likely they are to live in suburban areas.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are officially 40,000 African immigrants, although it has been estimated that the population is actually four times this number, when considering undocumented immigrants. The majority were born in Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa.
African immigrants like many other immigrant groups are likely to establish and find success in small businesses. Many Africans that have seen the social and economic stability that comes from ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns have recently begun establishing ethnic enclaves of their own at much higher rates to reap the benefits of such communities. Such examples include Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles and Little Senegal in New York City.
African immigrants to the U.S. are among the most educated groups in the nation. Some 48.9 percent of all African immigrants hold a college diploma. This is more than double the rate of native-born White Americans, and nearly four times the rate of native-born African Americans.
In 2014, approximately 4 million immigrants from the Caribbean resided in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants. More than 90 percent of Caribbean immigrants came from five countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Despite the geographic proximity of the Caribbean region, large-scale voluntary migration of this population to the United States did not begin until the early 20th century.
The abolition of slavery in Caribbean countries in the 19th century created a large pool of free labor and potential emigrants. Foreign corporations (mostly based in the United Kingdom and France) recruited former slaves as workers to labor-scarce colonies. Such movements were initially restricted inside the Caribbean region; however, by the early 1900s, the United States had become a major destination for Caribbean migrants due to the improved economic situation there and an increasing U.S. presence in the region. With the notable exception of Jamaica, all major Caribbean island nations were under direct U.S. political control at some point. Most Caribbean immigrants to the United States prior to 1960 were labor migrants, including agricultural workers who came through the British West Indies guest worker program in the mid-1940s, but some were political exiles from Cuba.
The goals of Africans who came to America varied tremendously. While some look to create new lives in the U.S. Others plan on using the resources and skills gained to go back and help their countries of origin. Either way, African communities contribute millions to the economies of Africa through remittances.
There are 3.8 million Black immigrants in the United States from countries in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and Latin America. They make up 10 percent of America’s foreign-born population. Nearly 600,000 are undocumented, according to a recent report on Black immigrants by the New York University School of Law and Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).
Migration of people of African descent in America has been game changing at each stage. From the very beginning until today, these movements of people have been a crucial part of changing the history of Africans in America.