One of the most dramatic consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction was that the South was effectively driven from national power for roughly six decades. Southerners no longer claimed the presidency, wielded much power on the Supreme Court, or made their influence strongly felt in Congress But beginning in the 1930s, the South was able to flex more and more political muscle, and by the 1970s some began to think that American politics and political culture were becoming ‘southernized’.u How did this happen and what difference did it make to the development of the South and the United States?
Under segregation most blacks in the U.S. still lived in the South and were employed as sharecroppers, laborers and domestic servants, but the system of segregation and discrimination was also found everywhere in other sections of the country. Certainly virtually nothing was done for civil rights during the Progressive Era or the New Deal. No Democratic president seriously challenged the Southern wing of the party before Harry Truman, and because of his limited support for civil rights and desegregation of the military, the Dixiecrats split with the Democratic Party in 1948. It was a harbinger of the future, and explained why John F. Kennedy was so slow and hesitant to side with the civil rights movement before 1963. In any event, most of the time in Congress a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans was able to block any meaningful action on civil rights before 1964. Even when the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 decision that outlawed segregated schools, the South resisted the attempts to integrate these dual school systems for twenty years. Indeed, all the members of Congress from that section signed a Southern Manifesto that vowed to resist all attempts at desegregation. In short, there had simply been no real chance for a Second Reconstruction in America before the mass protests for civil rights that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, and even their limited successes produced a major conservative backlash, led first and foremost by Alabama governor George Wallace. His split with the Democratic Party in the 1960s was a sign that many conservative Southern whites were moving into the Republican Party for the first time in history.
Thanks to the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, blacks and other minority groups made more progress in the U.S. In a decade than ever before in history. In 1964, after a decade of massive resistance by whites in the South, only 2% of blacks in the South and Border States attended integrated schools, but 25% did by 1967 (Gold 114). Segregated buses, restrooms, train cars, theaters, waiting rooms and restaurants all disappeared after 1964, while it also became illegal to fire women for being pregnant or having small children. These are the most important legacies of the Civil Rights Act. Politically, of course, it was disastrous for the Democratic Party, which was not able to elect a non-Southern president again until 2008. Indeed, Barack Obama was the first North Democrat to carry any state in the South since 1968. Lyndon Johnson was perfectly correct when he told his press secretary Bill Moyers that “I think we just delivered the South to the Republicans for a long time to come,” but nevertheless it was the right thing to do (Gold 115).
In contrast to King’s many references to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Alabama governor George Wallace reminded his audience that these were written by white Southern slaveholders — Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Wallace would later run for president in 1964, 1968 and 1972 on a platform opposing civil rights and generally appealing to whites disaffected by protests, demonstrations, the antiwar movement, and other cultural, racial and religious issues. Ever since 1964, the Republicans have used a Southern Strategy to appeal to these disaffected white voters, which has allowed them to control the White House for most of the time since 1968 and enact some highly regressive social and economic policies. Wallace certainly had a very specific view of the Framers of the Constitution, and was correct in stating that they had not intended to grant equal citizenship and voting rights to blacks, even though they had “played a most magnificent part in erecting this great divinely inspired system of freedom” (Wallace 1963). He offered himself as an example of “courageous leadership to millions of people throughout this nation who look to the South for their hope in this fight to win and preserve our freedoms and liberties. So help me God” (Wallace 1963). He even argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted equal citizenship to all persons, was illegal and had been imposed on the South after the Civil War, which was identical to the views of the KKK during the First Reconstruction.
After thanking his supporters in the recent election, Wallace praised Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and reminded his listeners that the first Confederate president had taken the oath of office in the very same spot, in “this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland” (Wallace 1963). He went on to deliver the only line for which this speech is remembered today, proclaiming that “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . And I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever” (Wallace 1963). If King’s signature line will always be “I have a dream,” then Wallace’s will be this rousing defense of segregation laws. Wallace also denounced federal judges who ordered the integration of public schools for trampling on the rights of white citizens and reiterated that “what I have said about segregation goes double this day . . . And what I have said to or about some federal judges goes TRIPLE this day” (Wallace 1963).
Wallace maintained that liberals on the Supreme Court had been Communist-inspired when they outlaws school segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and when they banned prayer in the public schools in Engel v. Vitale (1962). All of this became standard rhetoric on the New Right in America for decades after this speech, both in its secular and evangelical Protestant versions. Wallace’s references to God and the Bible were always made in this context of liberal attacks on white Southerners, just as he insisted that any federal efforts to support civil and voting rights for blacks were really examples of reverse racism against whites. For this reason, he had “placed this sign, “In God We Trust,” upon our State Capitol on this Inauguration Day as physical evidence of determination to renew the faith of our fathers and to practice the free heritage they bequeathed to us” (Wallace 1963). God also intended the races to live separate lives, as had the Founders of America, but now “communist philosophers” were attempting to destroy the ‘free’ society based on those sacred principles (Wallace 1963).
Real liberty, fraternity and equality could only be found under a legal system that separated the races rather than requiring them to be integrated. Then he warned King and other blacks who “follow the false doctrine of communistic amalgamation” that the whites were willing to defend the status quo at all costs (Wallace 1963). Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon made use of the Southern Strategy to pick up the votes of disaffected Southern Democrats by appealing to all these cultural and racial issues, and Republicans have continued this up to the present. Barry Goldwater picked up five states in Deep South in 1964, in a year that was otherwise a landslide for the Democrats. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used the Southern Strategy extensively to appeal to disaffected white voters, and for this reason the Democrats almost never receive a majority of the white vote. Indeed, the Southern Strategy has intensified since Barack Obama became president, even though his administration has not focused on civil rights issues to any appreciable degree.
Civil rights did not lead to the end of poverty among blacks and other minorities, although it certainly helped create a black middle class fir the first time in U.S. history. King spent far more time addressing basic economic issues in his 1967 “Where Do We Go from Here?” speech, including the fact that blacks had half the income of whites and double the rate of unemployment, lived in substandard housing, and died in Vietnam at twice the rate of whites relative to their proportion of the population. Blacks attended college at only 5% the rate of whites while “75% hold menial jobs” (King 1967). In the ghettos of the North, they were “confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness,” which has not really changed since 1967 (King 1967). King called for a guaranteed annual income to raise blacks out of poverty, which would have cost about $20 billion a year at that time. This was much less than the $35 billion cost of “an unjust, evil war in Vietnam,” which King wanted to end (King 1967). Yet he also opposed violence and insisted that the riots in Watts in 1965 and in Detroit and Newark two years later accomplished nothing for civil rights or the improvement of economic conditions. Nor did he believe that a violent revolution would ever succeed in the United States, given that even the majority of blacks opposed it.
Blacks still live in segregated ghettos with high levels of unemployment and gang violence, while black poverty and unemployment are still at least double the levels of whites, as they always have been. Nor is there any longer a bipartisan consensus in favor of civil rights as there was in the 1960s. Instead, the Republicans became the party of the white backlash and changed the focus to “the negative side effects of affirmative action rather than about the need for positive measures to end discrimination” (Grofman 1). Violence and police brutality against blacks certainly continued, such as the beating of Rodney King by the police in Los Angles, which lead to the most violent riots since the 1960s when the officers were acquitted in 1992 (Hasday 103). Discrimination is housing also continued, and the 1968 Civil Rights Act that outlawed it has never been effectively enforced. Even its passage was simply a reluctant move by a Congress that was badly shaken by the nationwide rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King that year.
Perhaps the most important contrast between Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 and his 1967 “Where Do We Go from Here?” was that he discussed economic issues far more by the end of his life. Civil rights, desegregation and voting rights were not enough given that the majority of blacks were still in poverty, lacked adequate housing and educational opportunities and had high levels of unemployment. King’s message in 1967 was more radical than his speech four years before, and he was assassinated in 1968 at a time when he was organizing a Poor People’s March on Washington that many whites feared would end up in riots. Black poverty and social inequality is still common today, and perhaps even worse because of the current recession, despite the successes of the 1960s civil rights movement. Obviously that movement did change American society to some degree or Barack Obama would have had no chance at all of ever being elected president. In his “A More Perfect Union” speech in 2008, Obama also discussed economic issues far more frequently than King had in 1963, although his solutions for poverty were never as bold as King’s guaranteed annual income. As both King and Obama discovered, demanding equal rights and individual liberties in the United States has always been easier than obtaining social and economic rights, although in the case of blacks both types of rights have been frequently denied.
In his 2008 speech, Obama realized that King’s work had not yet been completed and that racism and segregation were still very real obstacles that blacks and other minorities faced in their daily lives in America. Nevertheless, he also wished to create a movement that was broader than issues of race, and that addressed social and economic justice for all people in the United States. Even there, these were also part of the legacy of the earlier struggles against slavery and segregation, and could be called part of the unfinished revolution of the 1960s. Obama spoke far more about economic conditions than did King in 1963, especially working class and middle class whites who did not believe they were especially privileged in the United States. They had seen their industrial jobs and pensions disappearing for decades and their wages and incomes stagnate or decline. Their conditions worsened further doing the current recession, but politicians had been manipulating their racial fears and resentments for many years, focusing them on issues like affirmative action. Blacks and other minorities were not to blame for the social and economic decline of the lower classes, but rather “a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many” (Obama 2008).
By historical standards, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act have been enormously successful, as far as they went, and indeed one of the few federal interventions in this area that has made a real difference in the lives of minorities. They did guarantee basic civil and voting rights to blacks that had been granted only temporarily in the First Reconstruction, then withdrawn gain. They did not end poverty, discrimination, police brutality or racism in general, but certainly made it impossible to allow these to continue as a matter of law and public policy in the United States — which they always had been prior to 1964. Were Martin Luther King still alive today, he would note the progress that has been made, while still pointing out that a lot more needs to be done, particularly in inner-city slums and ghettos, or with the majority of young black males being in prison or on probation. Thanks to the conservative backlash after 1968, of course, progress on most of these areas has been stalled, although the election of a black president in 2008 was definitely something that could never have happened in America before the civil rights movement. In fact, it would have literally been impossible and unthinkable in 1964. Nevertheless, as King was well aware of, a change of laws did not alter the severe social and economic injustices faced by blacks and members of other minority groups.
2. Some scholars have argued that the United States in general and the American South in particular experienced TWO Reconstructions: the first initiated by the Civil War and slave emancipation (1863-1877), and the second initiated by the developing struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Do you believe that this argument has merit? What would the similarities and differences be between such a first and second Reconstruction? Were the goals and objectives similar or different? Were the parties and groups brought into conflict similar or different? What of the achievements and failures? How similar in fact were they? Was there a historical relationship between the two periods? And how fundamental were their challenges to the organization of American society?
QUESTION 2: THE FAILURE OF THE FIRST RECONSTRUCTION: FROM SLAVERY TO SEGREGATION
Abraham Lincoln in his famous letter to the New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in 1863 stated that he regarded the issue of slavery as one of pragmatism and expediency rather than morality, and that if he could save the Union by freeing, all, some or none of the slaves then he would do so. His Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 also reflected this pragmatism, freeing all slaves in states that were still in rebellion as a war measure while leaving others alone in the Border States that had remained loyal to the Union. Nor did he ever seem particularly enthusiastic about extending full citizenship and voting rights to the freed slaves, although behind the scenes in 1864-65 he worked actively in support of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery everywhere in the U.S. when it was ratified in 1865. For black leaders like Frederick Douglass and radical members of his own party like Rep. Thaddeus Stevens and Senators Charles Sumner and Ben Wade, Lincolns policies on slavery and Reconstruction were too moderate, centrist and slow, and they were the real driving force behind Radical Reconstruction in 1867-77, which required the Southern States to ratify the 14th Amendment in 1868, which guaranteed equal citizenship for blacks, and the 15th in 1870 that enfranchised black males. For the majority of white Southerners, though, these policies contradicted their view on white supremacy and had only been imposed on them at gunpoint by the victors in the Civil War. Once the last of the federal troops were removed after the Compromise of 1877, blacks lost their civil and voting rights and were “firmly relegated to the lower rungs of the economic ladder” (Woodward 1955/2002, 5). Had this not occurred after 1877, there would have been no need for a Second Reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. Segregation and denial of black voting rights were considered ‘legal’ by state and local governments and upheld by Supreme Court decisions like Plessey v. Ferguson (1896) and Williams v. Mississippi (1897). For the United States, “separate but equal” was the law of the land in many parts of the country until 1964, and while the separation by race was real equality part never existed (Glover 14).
There were two Reconstructions in American history, although the first one in 1865-77 ended with restoration of home rule and white supremacy in the South, rather than equal citizenship and voting rights promised in the 14th and 15th Amendments. In fact, the First Reconstruction ended in extreme violence, when the Ku Klux Klan overthrew the governments of many Southern states and returned the former Confederates to power. This resulted in the disenfranchisement of blacks and the creation of a system of Jim Crow segregation that lasted until the 1960s, so in many respects, the Second Reconstruction of 1954-65 was an attempt to restore the original gains made in 1867-77, and force the federal government to enforce its own Constitutional protections of black citizenship and voting rights. For almost ninety years after 1877, though, on these issues the political system returned to the “traditional ways of expediency and concession” as it ignored the rights of the freed slaves and their descendants (Woodward 1966/1992, 3).
Abraham Lincoln was motivated by a liberal, free labor ideology which guaranteed equal rights and equal economic opportunities for all, when he abolished slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and, more permanently, the 13th Amendment of 1865. This ideology was rooted in the liberal thought of the Enlightenment and Founders like Benjamin Franklin. Lincoln’s argument was that the framers of the Constitution had compromised in 1787 to maintain slavery where it already existed but had also looked forward to its eventual extinction, and in this his ideas also fell within the Federalist-Whig tradition of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Henry Clay. Only the pressures of wartime and the need to recruit black troops and deprive the South of its most important labor force pushed Lincoln to the more radical position of immediate abolition of slavery, which he had not supported when he was first elected in 1860 (Tsesis 2004). Wartime needs, particularly concerns about maintaining the loyalty of the Border States of Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, prevented him from abolishing slavery outright there in 1863, and they were exempted from the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation. Only when the war was clearly won in 1865 did he then press Congress to send the 13th Amendment to the states for ratification, which abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. In addition, the former Confederate states were not readmitted to the Union until their legislatures had ratified the 14th Amendment as well (Foner 1995). Lincoln’s ability to explain and articulate this ideology in speeches like the Gettysburg Address was far superior to that of Jefferson Davis or any of the Confederate leaders, and proved to be a great advantage to the Union.
This free labor ideology based on Enlightenment principles was a key advantage for the North, including its capacity to attract and absorb immigrants and appeal to working class and middle class whites. Of the nine million people in the South, over four million were slaves who were not likely to volunteer to fight for the cause, nor were Confederate leaders eager to arm and train them to fight in the war — for obvious reasons. On the other hand, the North began to free the slaves and arm them, starting with the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, and this was a strategy the Confederacy could not match. Lincoln did not begin the war with the goal of abolishing slavery, but only to prevent it from expanding any further to the West. He had even been willing to offer the South a constitutional amendment to guarantee slavery where it already existed, but this proposal was rejected. Later, he offered compensated emancipation to slaveholders in the Border States, but once again met with refusal. Only then did he turn to the more radical or revolutionary idea of abolishing slavery by decree, followed by a constitutional amendment in 1865 (Brinkley 2012). Yet in the end, after the Compromise of 1877, blacks were hardly any closer to equal rights and equal citizenship, and subsequent reforms periods like the Progressive Era (1900-20) and the New Deal (1933-40) did not address these issues.
One important factor to remember with the First Reconstruction was that many Republicans in Congress thought that Lincoln was too moderate on issues of black civil rights and voting rights, such as his plan to readmit Louisiana to the Union with no real protections of the rights of the freed slaves. They clashed openly with his successor Andrew Johnson, the former Senator from Tennessee, who was prepared to readmit all of the Southern states with the former Confederates still in control. The First Reconstruction was carried out by Congress rather than the executive branch, which passed a Civil Rights Act in 1866, placed the South under military rule again in the 1867 Reconstruction Acts, disenfranchised the former Confederates, and then impeached Andrew Johnson and turned him into a lame duck, one-term president. Ulysses S. Grant supported this version of Radical Reconstruction from the start, including the impeachment of Johnson, and then was elected president in 1868. Johnson only survived in office at all because of seven moderate Republican votes in the Senate, who represented the section of the party that was frightened by the Radical Benjamin Wade and did not want him to succeed Johnson if he were removed from office. Wade, like Thaddeus Stevens in the House, was a self-proclaimed Jacobin who had often clashed with Lincoln over the delay in abolishing slavery and thought his Reconstruction policies far too moderate and conciliatory to the Confederates. He also favored women’s rights, labor unions and a redistribution of wealth in the country, which frightened the business community that already regarded the Republican Party as its preferred political home. Therefore, the Republicans permitted Johnson to survive his term in office as a completely powerless president, and “contrary to myth, the Republican Party did not drive out of its ranks the ‘seven martyrs’ who had voted for acquittal” (Foner 2005, 146).
Blacks could hardly vote anywhere in the U.S. before the First Reconstruction, but over 2,000 held public office in 1867-77. This would have been impossible in the past and would not happen again until after the Second Reconstruction of 1954-65. The 14th and 15th Amendments initiated a “constitutional revolution” in the South, but it only endured for ten years due to intense opposition from the former Confederates (Foner 2005, 129). At least 10% of black officeholders during the First Reconstruction were actually victims of physical violence, intimidation or even murder by the KKK, and in the presidential elections of 1868 and 1876, Klan violence was so extreme in some states that blacks and their allies could hardly campaign at all (Foner 2005, 134). Indeed, the real reason that the election of 1876 was in dispute and ended up being decided in the House of Representatives was that violence by the KKK in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana made it impossible for many blacks to vote or have their ballots counted, which meant that the electoral votes of those states were in dispute. During the First Reconstruction, however, the majority of white males in the South were disenfranchised or refused to vote at all, which was “an ominous indication” that they mostly regarded it as illegitimate and having been imposed by force by the federal government (Foner 2005, 143). Only those whites who had opposed secession and the Confederacy participated in the First Reconstruction, and even though their numbers were substantial in Upper South states like Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, they were never the majority anywhere in the South.
Not since the Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-77) has there been any serious discussion of paying blacks in the United States reparations for 250 years of unpaid labor. At that time, Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republican members of Congress proposed that the Southern plantation system be broken up and the land distributed to the freedmen (’40 acres and a mule’) although in the end this was not done. In the state governments during Radical Reconstruction, blacks were the most enthusiastic for breaking up the plantations and redistributing land (Foner 2005, 140). Nevertheless, few acquired land in the United States after the end of slavery, and most of them lacked the capital to open businesses or the opportunity to receive higher education. This was certainly the case under the system of Jim Crow segregation that continued into the 1960s, and up to that time the majority of blacks lived in poverty and worked in menial, low-paying jobs. These facts are not in dispute by anyone who has made even a superficial study of American history, and there is absolutely no doubt that blacks faced massive and open discrimination in housing, employment, education and voting rights until fair recent times.
Carter Woodson published groundbreaking book The Miseducation of the Negro in 1933, when the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression and black poverty and unemployment has reached extreme levels. At that time, segregation and disenfranchisement of were the norm, lynching was common and very few blacks graduated from high school or attended universities. There were hardly any black professionals at the time and none served as judges or in elected offices of any kind, while the idea of a black president would have been completely impossible and indeed unthinkable. As Woodson pointed out, they very limited and underfunded education available to blacks at the time taught virtually nothing about black history and either ignored them completely or portrayed slavery in a positive light while mostly preparing them for menial tasks at the bottom of the economy. Africans were depicted as being savage and subhuman, and having benefitted from being exposed to white European ‘civilization’ in the form of slavery and colonialism.
Woodson had a long list of examples of how blacks were miseducated that seem mind-boggling by contemporary standards but he had witnesses all of it personally when researching his books. White teachers at black schools were using textbooks that showed blacks as biologically inferior, and white students in the South typically attended a “graded school consolidated by free transportation” while blacks went to “one-room rented hovels to be taught without equipment and by incompetent teachers educated scarcely beyond the eighth grade” (Woodson 37). A few blacks were trained in journalism but would never be hired by white newspapers, while others trained in skilled industrial work were not allowed into white trade unions. Indeed, by the 1930s there were proportionately fewer black skilled workers than there had been under slavery in 1860. African history, languages and culture were hardly taught anywhere “except in case of the preparation of traders, missionaries and public functionaries to exploit the natives” (Woodson 65). Blacks who studied law were being taught that they were members of a race that was innately criminal, while black medical students were being taught that they were biologically inferior and carried epidemic diseases. Nor would they permit black physicians and medical students to enter white hospitals for fear that they might have social contact with the patients. In business classes, they were told that blacks were too corrupt and incompetent to run any type of enterprise, and that no one should ever invest any money with them. As a result, blacks are “unable to employ one another and the whites are inclined to call on Negroes only when workers of their own race have been taken care of” (Woodson 44).
School texts taught that blacks were happy in slavery, that they enjoyed singing and dancing on the plantations, and that their limited intelligence suited them to menial agricultural work. Moreover, these books taught that slavery would have continued had not Northern abolitionists and agitators not provoked the Civil War — or the War Between the States, as white Southerners called it. Virtually none of them told the truth about the Reconstruction Era, and depicted it as a period of anarchy and chaos with the South under the rule of carpetbaggers and corrupt, ignorant blacks, at least until the Ku Klux Klan ‘redeemed’ the South and restored white supremacy. In other words, it was the same version of ‘history’ shown in the film Birth of a Nation, which was the propaganda of white supremacy. Even so, millions of blacks were moving out of the Jim Crow South during the early and mid-20th Century, especially during the world wars, and in the Northern and Western cities they found poverty and ghettos, but also “precious new space for civil and political activism,” including support of the New Deal, organized labor, the Great Society and civil rights (Hahn 465). They had learned hard lessons about social and political organization under the extremely repressive conditions of the segregated South, and began to apply those after the Great Migration to the cities.
Whatever the state of psychological knowledge may have been at the time of Plessey v. Ferguson in Brown v Board of Education in 1954, the Supreme Court rejected any contradictory findings of the 1896 precedent and concluded that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal (Saccturo, 2000). The importance of education in American society and the psychological damage and other intangible effects resulting from school segregation, including citation to several psychological studies supporting the Court’s finding that segregation hindered educational development. Although the Court ordered desegregation and abolition of dual school systems in the South with all deliberate speed, a campaign of ‘massive resistance against integration continued until the early-1970s. In Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957-58, for example, Gov. Orville Faubus openly defied a federal court order to integrate Central High School and forced the Eisenhower administration to send in troops. As in other Southern states, Faubus then ordered the school closed, and in many areas the schools stayed closed for years as white parents removed their children to private or religious schools. Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, became one of the heroes of the civil rights movement when he was assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963 (Saccturo, 2000)
In fact, the most important way that African-Americans fought against discrimination in was protests lead by important civil rights leaders. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded in 1957 and headed by Martin Luther King until his assassination in 1968. It grew out of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which has organized a successful boycott of the segregated city bus system in 1955-56, which resulted in the city’s segregation laws being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Rosa Parks, the NAACP secretary in Montgomery, had become the test case to challenge segregated buses after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. In 1963, SCLC organized the protests against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama and the protests for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965, which gained international publicity for the civil rights movement and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These were the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history and two key parts of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda. King later broke with Johnson openly over the Vietnam War, which other mainstream civil rights leaders were very reluctant to do, and was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers.
A century after the abolition of slavery, as King noted in “I Have a Dream,” blacks still faced segregation, discrimination and lack of voting right in many parts of the United States, not only the South. Racism was far more overt then and the civil rights movement had been very successful in exposing it for the world to see, through protests, marches and sit-ins. King’s central theme was that “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” but the promise had not been kept, and until it was, there would be “neither rest nor tranquility in America” (King 1963). King also admonished his black listeners not to give into bitterness and hatred, cautioning that “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people” (King 1963). Many whites were attending the March on Washington and participating in the civil rights movement so they should not all be considered on the same level as the Southern police, politicians and Ku Klux Klan members who were violently opposed to voting rights and civil rights for blacks. In 1963, though, the U.S. was more economically successful than it had ever been before in its history, at least for most whites, which is why King remarked that “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” (King 1963). King’s style was that of a prophet or a preacher rather than a political candidate, especially in his famous “I have a dream” peroration.
Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King had always made a case that the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution formed a basis for extending the same natural rights to all human beings, even if that had not really been the intent of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Indeed, American history from 1776 onward is littered with compromises with slavery, segregation and denial of equal citizenship rights, including the Compromise of 1877 that ended the First Reconstruction. Even, they argued that there was a higher moral law beyond practical politics and economics that affirmed the basic rights and dignity of all persons. By far the most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed in the history of the United States was the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which finally ended the system of dual public schools in the Southern states and abolished Jim Crow segregation is hospitals, transportation and public facilities. Only the 1965 Voting Rights Act was of equal importance, and no legislation since that time has had as much of an effect on politics, economics and society in America. It benefitted not only blacks but women, the handicapped, Hispanics, Native Americans and members of other minority groups, who have managed to hold onto most of their gains in spite of the conservative backlash of the last thirty years. Unlike the First Reconstruction of 1867-77, the Second was never completely repealed by the reactionary and racist forces in the U.S., although they have certainly tried. Although violence against civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan continued, especially in Alabama and Mississippi, this type of federal intervention soon undermined the institutions and organizations in the South that had kept blacks as second-class citizens since the end of the First Reconstruction in 1877. Therefore the civil rights revolution was very successful as far as it went, but by no means a complete revolution, especially in social and economic life. Martin Luther King recognized fully this at the time, and even Barack Obama is well aware that structural and institutional racism is still a fact in American society.
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