The African-American Struggle for Civil Rights

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The African-American Struggle for Civil Rights

This theme explores the struggle of African-Americans to obtain social and political equality in the United States.


The 1600s saw the beginning of slavery in America. In 1619, the first slaves were brought over from Africa through what is known as the Middle Passage, which was the middle part of the triangular trade route among the colonies, Europe and Asia. The conditions in which Africans were transported were brutal; many died aboard.


The 1700s saw the beginnings of slave rebellions. In 1739, the Stono Uprising was the first slave rebellion. About 100 slaves attempted to flee to Florida but were attacked by the colonial militia. Those who were not killed there were taken back and executed. The long-term result of the rebellion was that it led to fear of more, which caused the colonies to pass more restrictive laws to govern the behavior of slaves. New York experienced a “witch hunt” period in which 31 blacks and 4 whites were killed on suspicions of conspiring to free slaves. By 1790, 750,000 blacks were enslaved in the North American colonies. Slavery was more common in the South, where tobacco, rice, and indigo were grown for large profits on plantations. While slavery never took off in the North, there were still some present in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They were used as house servants, in shipping operations and on farms.


The 1800s was when slavery began to be challenged starting with banning the slave trade in 1808 due to its inhumane conditions. Then in 1820, the Missouri Compromise is created outlawing slavery in states above the southern Missouri border excluding Missouri. The Missouri Compromise postponed the slavery debate for 30 years until the Compromise of 1850 took its place. The Compromise of 1850 was necessary after the territory gained in the Mexican-American War beating out the Wilmot Proviso which attempted to prohibit slavery in acquired territory. It admitted California as a free state and left the Utah and New Mexico territories left to be decided by popular sovereignty also implementing the fugitive slave law which made for the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Prior to the Compromise of 1850 Nat Turner led a significant slave rebellion leading to stricter slave laws in Virginia. The same year, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator an abolitionist paper also forming the American Anti-slavery Society in 1833. Along with William Lloyd Garrison, Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were also abolitionist advocates who began to become influential characters in the abolitionist movement, Douglass with his North Star newspaper and Sojourner Truth with her charismatic speaking. Harriet Tubman, also an escaped slave, helped many slaves escape with the Underground Railroad.

1850- 1900

From 1850 to 1900 the United States is occupied with civil rights. Harriet Beecher Stowe helps to add to the already high tensions of slavery with her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Afterwards the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed which left the decision of slavery in Kansas and Nebraska up to popular sovereignty. The slavery debate became so heated that Kansas became known as Bleeding Kansas during this period due the 200+ deaths and Senator Andrew Butler beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane due to slavery. After the bleeding Kansas fiasco the Dred Scott v. Sanford case in 1857 hurt the abolitionist movement. In this court case the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were property not citizens and that congress could not regulate slavery in the territories. With increasing tensions the southern states began to threaten to secede from the union. John Brown, an abolitionist, led a raid on Harper’s Ferry in hopes to initiate a slave rebellion but he failed and was executed. One year later the election of 1860 led to the formation of the Confederate States of America with Jefferson Davis as their president after Abraham Lincoln won the presidency. The creation of the Confederate states marked the beginning of the Civil War. During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that all slaves in the confederate states were free. The Emancipation Proclamation led to nearly 200,000 free blacks and escaped slave joining the union army. Lincoln later supported complete emancipation leading to the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln negotiated with southern leaders on this topic at the Hampton Roads Conference. People known as Copperheads began to criticize Lincoln saying he was instigating social revolution. Once the union were about to be the victors of the war they established thee Freedman’s Bureau to help freed slaves survive. The Civil war ended in 1865 leading to the period of reconstruction. Lincoln’s plan was called the Ten-Percent Plan where ten percent of the voters in 1860 election had to take an oath to the union and they would reorganize their state government and apply for readmission. Radical Republicans felt it was too lenient and the Wade-Davis Bill was enacted which required 50% rather than 10% and they would repeal their secession and accept the thirteenth amendment. One year later, 1965, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became president. Johnson’s reconstruction plan was to create a provisional military government until they were readmitted into the union and required all citizens to take a loyalty oath. Johnson unwilling to compromise led to congress overriding vetoes an d taking over reconstruction leading to Congressional Reconstruction and the Fourteenth Amendment, which made all people born in the US citizens. Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867 which imposed martial law in the south and made them ratify the fourteenth amendment. The Fifteenth Amendment was passed in 1869 under Ulysses S. Grant it enfranchised black men. Southerners who cooperated with reconstruction were referred to as scalawags and Northerners who ran the programs were called carpetbaggers. With reconstruction being a failure the Ku Klux Klan was formed targeting people who supported reconstruction. In addition the failure led to sharecropping which was the new slavery. Freed slaves had nowhere to go so many of them still worked on the plantations. The end of reconstruction occurred with Compromise of 1877 when the troops were pulled out of the south. Things went even worse for blacks when the court case Plessy v. Ferguson validated the discriminatory Jim Crow Laws stating that separate but equal facilities were legal. Booker T. Washington arose as a leader for the blacks with his accommodationist mentality refusing to demand equal rights immediately.


Entering the twentieth century, progressivism achieved great successes regarding public enlightenment. During this time period, groups were formed to fight a battle against discrimination that had been haunting blacks for far too long. W.E.B Dubois, a civil rights activist, headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP in an attempt to achieve racial justice. During World War I, more than 500,000 Southern blacks migrated to the North in search of jobs since wartime manufacturing was creating jobs. Dubois encouraged blacks to enlist in the armed forces in hopes of once again promoting the idea of social equality but unfortunately the army segregated blacks and assigned them to inferior labor. After World War I, America’s prosperity was sky rocketing and in Harlem, the largest black neighborhood in New York City, the Harlem Renaissance was born. Dubois helped draw attention to Harlem’s cultural movement and among others who joined in the movement were the poets Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston. Another great development for the black cultural development was the popularization of jazz. Due to the fact that jazz was such a free-spirited form of self-expression it became an emblem of the era now known as the Jazz Age. The roaring twenties were an era of transition into the modern age that proved to bring a new spirit to the nation but also brought the reemergence of a new and more powerful Ku Klux Klan. During the 1920s, the KKK grew to more than 5 million members and now not only targeted blacks but Jews, urbanites and anybody who didn’t follow acceptable Christian behavior. Leading into World War II, more than a million blacks served in the army but they lived in segregated units. The United States army was not desegregated until after the war in 1948 during Truman’s administration and in addition to that, Truman called for a more aggressive enforcement of anti-lynching laws. Also, Jackie Robinson, the first black to be induced into Major League Baseball, managed to break the color barrier in baseball and with that sparked and outbreak of flagrant racism in the South but none of that seemed to matter anymore. Going into the mid-1950s, blacks had achieved far more that was every imagined and were slowly but surely heading into what would be the one of the most symbolic periods of history.

1951-Present Day

During the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement experienced great success beginning in 1954 with the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education brought on behalf of Linda Brown by the NAACP which overturned the “separate but equal” rule and helped desegregate all schools. Although it was a great victory for civil rights, it didn’t solve the issue overnight. In 1957, the governor of Arkansas called the National Guard to Little Rock High School in order to deny 9 teenagers knows as the Little Rock Nine, access into the school. Another pivotal event in the civil rights movement was the Montgomery bus boycott in the fifties. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of the bus for a white man as required by the Jim Crow Laws leading to her arrest. Parks’ arrest sparked the opposition of blacks to ride the buses for a year. The boycott shined a bright spotlight on the famous civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr. King inspired others to take a peaceful stand against segregation and in 1960, black college students in Greensboro organized a sit-in at a local lunch counter designated for whites only which encouraged blacks across the nation to take this approach to combat segregation. In 1962, President Kennedy enforced desegregation at the University of Mississippi and in the summer of 1963, he asked Congress for a legislation that would outlaw desegregation in all public facilities. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to push that legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Martin Luther King Jr. continued to guide blacks through an active period for the civil rights movement and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which organized sit-ins, boycotts and other peaceful demonstrations. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), organized the Freedom Riders who staged the sit-ins, boycotts, etc. The group was initially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose main focus was antisegregationist activism yet all these groups still faced tremendous struggles and threats. In 1963, Mississippi’s NAACP director, Medgar Evers was shot to death by an anti-integrationist and not too long after that in Montgomery, Alabama active demonstrators were assaulted by the authority. During the 1960s, civil rights victories did not come easy for blacks. Resistance to change was as strong as ever. In Selma, police tried to keep blacks from voting and in Birmingham police and fireman attacked protesters. Meanwhile, all over the South, the KKK and other racists bombed black churches and homes of civil rights activists. When news of the violence and bombings arose, blacks became outraged and they demanded a more aggressive approach to protest which Malcolm X, a minister of the Nation of Islam, brought. Malcolm X urged blacks to claim their rights under any circumstances. Later, influenced by Malcolm X, the SNCC and CORE expelled their white members and formed Black Power. By 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the civil rights movement had split with some continuing to advocate peaceful change and others who were for aggression and empowerment.


1600s-1700s Key Terms

Indigo: a tropical plant of the pea family, which was formerly widely cultivated as a source of dark blue dye.

Middle Passage: the sea journey undertaken by slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies.

Rice: a swamp grass that is widely cultivated as a source of food

Stono Uprising: slave rebellion that commenced on 9 September 1739, in the colony of South Carolina.

Tobacco: he plant of the nightshade family that yields tobacco, native to tropical America. It is widely cultivated in warm regions, especially in the US and China.

Triangular Trade Route: used to refer to the trade that involved shipping goods from Britain to West Africa to be exchanged for slaves, these slaves being shipped to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar, rum, and other commodities, which were in turn shipped back to Britain.

1800-1900 Key Terms

Abraham Lincoln- 16th president led during civil war and ended slavery

Accommodationist - individual who believed in economic independence before equal rights for blacks

American Anti-slavery Society- a society of opposed to slavery

Andrew Butler- Senator that beat Charles Sumner over slavery debate

Bleeding Kansas- Period of extreme violence in Kansas due to election whether it would be a slave state or a free state

Booker T. Washington- An accommodationist that became an influential character in equal rights

Carpetbaggers- Northerners who ran reconstruction programs

Civil War- 1961- 1965 Confederacy v. Union fought over slavery

Compromise of 1850- Compromise that enacted the fugitive slave law, admitted California as a free state, and left the territories of New Mexico and Utah up to popular sovereignty

Compromise of 1877- Marked the end of reconstruction by pulling out all troops from the south

Confederate States of America- Name of the states that seceded from the union

Congressional Reconstruction- period when congress took over reconstruction

Copperheads- citizens that accused Abraham Lincoln of instigating a social revolution

Dred Scott v. Sanford- Supreme court case that declared slaves to be property

Emancipation Proclamation- Speech given by Lincoln that freed the slave in the confederate states

Fifteenth Amendment- Enfranchised black men

Fredrick Douglass- Abolitionist leader

Freedman’s Bureau – helped freed slaves survive by giving them food and housing

Fourteenth Amendment- Made anyone born in the United States a US citizen

Fugitive slave law- Allowed for the recapturing of escaped slaves

Hampton Roads Conference- negotiation between Lincoln and southern leaders on the thirteenth amendment

Harper’s Ferry- was raided by John Brown and supporters in hopes to start a slave rebellion but failed

Harriet Tubman- helped many slaves escape through the Underground Railroad

Jefferson Davis- president of the Confederate States of America

John Brown- Abolitionist who led a raid on Harper’s ferry was arrested and executed

Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan- President Andrew Johnson’s plan for reconstruction consisting of provisional military government for southern states and all citizens to take an oath to the US

Ku Klux Klan- group of racist radicals that attacked individual that supported reconstruction

The Liberator- an abolitionist paper published by William Lloyd Garrison

Mexican- American War- War that heated the slavery debate by acquiring territory (1846-1848)

Military Reconstruction Act of 1867- imposed martial law in the south and made them ratify the 14th amendment

Missouri Compromise- outlawed slavery in all states above Missouri southern border except for Missouri

Nat Turner- Slave that led the most significant slave rebellion was eventually shut down and he was executed.

North Star- abolitionist newspaper published by Fredrick Douglass

Plessy v. Ferguson- supreme court case that established the law “separate but equal”

Popular sovereignty – idea that slavery should be decided by election

Reconstruction- period after the civil war to help freed slaves and the have the confederacy rejoin the US

Scalawags- Southerners who complied with reconstruction programs

Sojourner Truth- an abolitionist and women’s right speaker

Thirteenth Amendment- prohibits slavery

Uncle Tom’s Cabin- propaganda novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe intensifying the slavery debate

Underground Railroad- network of hiding places and safe trails to help slaves escape

Wade- Davis Bill-required that 50% of voters in 1860 election take oath of allegiance to the US and established a military governor in the south

Wilmot Proviso- attempted to prohibit slaver in territory acquired in the Mexican American
1901- Present Day Key Terms

Brown v. Board of Education: Supreme court case which overturned “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy V. Ferguson.

Civil Rights Act of 1964: act to enforce the constitutional right to vote and to provide relief of segregation in public accommodations.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE): U.S civil rights organization that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Freedom Riders: civil rights activists who rode buses to challenge the Jim Crow Laws.

Harlem Renaissance: cultural movement in the 1920s

Jackie Robinson: first black to be allowed to play in Major League Baseball.

Jazz: music that originated from black culture and tradition.

Jazz Age: the era where jazz music and dance became popular.

Jim Crow Laws: racial segregation laws that mandated the racial segregation of Ku Klux Klan: an organization that advocated white supremacy, white nationalism and anti-immigration.

all public facilities.

Little Rock Nine: 9 teenagers who attempted to enter Little Rock High school.

Malcolm X: human rights activist who promoted an aggressive approach towards civil rights.

Martin Luther King Jr.: leader in the African-American civil rights movement.

Medgar Evans: civil rights activist from Mississippi involved in efforts to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi and director of the NAACP during that time.

Montgomery bus boycott: a boycott which kept blacks in Montgomery from using the bus system for over a year.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): an organization that was meant to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all people and to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination.

Rosa Parks: civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat for a white man.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC): African-American civil rights organization.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): organization formed by students who formed part of the American Civil Rights Movement.

W.E.B Dubois: American civil rights activist during the early 1900s and one of the leaders of the NAACP.

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