African American Struggle for Freedom in USA
America is known as the land of the free as sang in the National anthem, but the Black Americans experienced a different journey since their entry as slaves in the 16th century. Their history begins with slavery in the American fields, and their fate in slavery ended up dividing the nation into two during the civil war. Slavery was the most detestable form of dehumanization experienced in the country as it entailed people seen as property and their human rights deprived. Through the whole fight for freedom, some significant events and leaders spearhead the shaping of the character and identity of the United States of America and the black community. The struggle of the African Americans for freedom and inclusion traces back to the period of the civil war where the first victory against slavery got won; it, however, did not stop there as the Blacks still fought for inclusion in the social, cultural, intellectual and political framework up until the second reconstruction.
Slavery was an inhuman form of labor consisting of very hard labor sustained by force and the fear of separation from families and humiliation. They were the factories in the field as they dealt with routine jobs every day and got considered as the factories in the fields. Plantation labor was the most common activity with slavery, and it consisted of working in sugar, cotton, rice and tobacco farms[i]. In the 18th century, there was a trend towards self-sufficiency of the slaves in their jobs, and they leant skills and performed several other tasks, including carpentry, cooking, seamstressing, blacksmithing, and cooping. The level of his/skill measured the value of the slave and it determined how they got treated. Within the slavery, the African Americans developed their form of culture. The culture consisted mostly of a combination of Christianity, African culture and resistance. The culture came about because the masters treated the slaves brutally often; they had to ensure humiliation, beatings and whippings, rapes and sometimes executions.
Slave resistance got integrated into the Slaves culture because of the trauma. They had several forms of resistance ranging from subtle forms to even the violent approaches. The violent forms of rebellion included the infanticide, sabotage, running away, suicide and destruction of property. The blacks never successfully overturned slavery through their violent reforms; the inspiration was the successful rebellion that gave freedom to slaves in Haiti[ii]. The whites had superiority in the slave ownership, but they lived under the fear of slave revolt. Several revolutions happened in the United States starting from the 15th and 16th century and the massive ones happening in the 17th century. The two notable ones include:
The Stono rebellion took place in South Carolina on September 1739. It was a violent rebellion led by a literate slave known as Jemmy. He organized a group of slaves with arms for them to attack the whites. Jemmy was a slave believed to have originated from Kongo kingdom, and most of the other slaves in South Carolina were believed to come from the same place, and so it made it easier for him to communicate with the other slaves. The meetings got held in the common slave assemblies, and parties and information passed within the area until there was a group large enough for an attack. The insurrection got organized where the slaves stole arms formed their masters and started an armed war with their masters until the white militia stopped them. The insurrection resulted in death of both slaves and militiamen; the surviving slaves got executed and some sold to West Indies. The revolution resulted into passing of a new Slave Code in the land to better manage the slaves: it was the Negro Act 1740. The law imposed new limits on the slaves’ conduct prohibiting any of their assemblies and getting the right to study, travel and grow their produce.
After the Stono rebellion, many revolts appeared all over the country. New York had a high population of slaves and contained many different ethnic groups; it therefore resulted in tensions. In the year 1741, 13 different fires broke out in the city one burning down the Fort George. The Whites spread rumors that the fires were a plan of the slaves’ massive revolt and that there was more to come including killing of the whites. Two hundred slaves got interrogated about the case and trial held at city hall over the claims. The government executed 17 people, thirteen among them being black. Seventy slaves got sold in the same period to West Indies.
The institution of slavery was a central thing in the politics and economy of the United States in the 19Th century. The demise of slavery happened in two waves: the first one which involved a gradual, peaceful wave in the American regions that had few slaves and the other wave involved a violent clash of sections. Slavery officially ended on December 6, 1865 after the passing of the 13th amendment of the constitution. The 13th amendment states that no one should work as a slave except if forced by the law in the case when they get punished for a crime committed. The slave trade internationally was prohibited sixty years before the end of slavery in USA; in the period, internal slave trade happen in the US, and by the time it was abolished, there were almost four million slaves in the country. Several important events built momentum towards abolishment of slave trade. They include:
Slavery played a pivotal role in the development and end of the American civil war. The northern leaders had attempted to stop slavery from expanding to the western territories, and the southern leaders resisted. According to the census carried out in 1960 there was a total of four million slaves inhabiting 15 states and some 400,000 free black Africans. Freeing slaves was not easy, and it was something the government had to ponder about clearly. The war started with Union armies spreading all over the southern region. All over the battlefront, runaway slaves started presenting themselves to the Union armies where they got hired and used in the war. The Confiscation Act was passed in 1861 that allowed for the legal status of runaway slaves, and therefore they could be confiscated by the Union forces[iii]. In 1862, another law was passed to prohibit the return of slaves after confiscation. By the end of the war, the Union had set up 100 camps for their confiscated slaves. They took the initiative of freeing slaves. In 1862, General David Hunter who had command over a large part of the Southern area abolished slavery in the area under his command, but President Lincoln negated his order. In late 1862 however, congress processed slavery abolishment in Washington DC. After the battle of Antietam, the Confederates got driven out of Maryland, and Lincoln issued preliminary emancipation.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a document written by President Abraham Lincoln on 1863 January 1st to free slaves if the states in rebellion to the union. The start of the Civil war witnessed an interest of the people in the north seeking to stop slavery and the trade. The result was a call for secession by the southern states. President Lincoln wanted to save the Union of the USA by either preserving slavery, destroying it or destroying part of it. After the battle of Antietam, he called on to the revolted states to return their allegiance to the union, or he would declare slaves as free men by the next year. Since no state returned into the allegiance, the emancipation declaration was issued on January 1 1863[iv].
The declaration from the emancipation was that “all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states were and henceforth declared free.” It ensured that the war was more of a crusade for human freedom. The results of the proclamation included the recruitment of black into the armies. They responded well, and there was recruitment of up to 180,000 blacks into the armies for the remaining part of the war. The emancipation was the deathblow to slavery in the United States, and after it only few efforts ensured the sealing of the ratification of the thirteenth amendment.
The 13thm amendment was the final blow to slavery in the USA. It was passed in the Senate on April 8 1864, the House on January 31, 1865 and passed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on February 1, 1865. The necessary states required to ratify the law reached on December 6, 1865. The amendment provided that “ neither slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime of which the party has been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to its jurisdiction.” It was the final solution to the problem of slavery. Together with the 14th and the 15th amendment, these laws were the major trio of the post-Civil-War amendments that expanded the civil rights in America.
The cultural aspects of the African American picked up fast in the period before the end of slavery. From 1830 to the end of slavery, several writers perfected the narratives about slavery. Frederick Douglas wrote the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas: an American Slave in 1845. Harriet Jacobs wrote the incidents of the life of a slave girl in 1861.Their narratives painted the picture of the tensions that ensued between the slaves and their masters. They intended to fight for the end of slavery through stories of their experiences. Their narratives were used the biggest propaganda weapon by the White abolitionists. The writers wanted to have their true personal account of the slave life. Both narratives were about runaway slaves, and both had the elements of suffering under bondage, cruelty of the masters and their strong will to seek freedom.
Life after slavery was a big transformation for the slaves in the south. The world of brutalities had ended, and they had newfound freedom to education, marriage, wages ownership and more. The years after slavery was however difficult. The states instituted black codes that while gave them blacks some rights, they also denied them the rights to serve in state militias, appear injuries and testify against whites; they also had to sign annual labor contracts with their landlords. Most of the black Americans, therefore, lived in poverty. They had no education and money they had to depend on their former owners where they paid rent from the little wages they got. Former slaves were never compensated. The African culture revolved around education, school and faith. The black churches were the centerpiece of the black community; it was where socialization, education and politics were organized. Their desire for education resulted in creation of schools for them at different levels. Some other facilities such as hospitals and black colleges got created for freedmen by the freedmen’s Bureau between 1865 and 1870.
The reconstruction period was between 1865 and 1877. The government passed laws for political and civil rights for the blacks in the south. The 14th amendment of 1868 granted African Americans citizenship. The 15th amendment of 1870 gave the black men constitutional voting rights. The reconstruction period saw 700 African American men serving in the elected public office, another thirteen hundred men and women serving as public servants. The period did not go smoothly because there was fierce opposition by the whites in the south.
The late 1860s had the white supremacists known as the KKK terrorizing the African American leaders and citizens in the south for eleven years until Congress passed the law to arrest them[v]. The military of the federal government protected the civil rights of the Africans in the south. They, however, got withdrawn from some areas; that was the end of reconstruction in those areas. The period witnessed the beginning of lynching, segregation laws and disenfranchisement of the blacks.
The period of the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century involved many social tensions between the native and the immigrants. The south experienced tensions between the blacks and the whites. Very few blacks got jobs in the industries as they got portrayed as lazy and ignorant. Majority of blacks became sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Segregation was at peak in 1900, and civil rights of blacks got curtailed. The Supreme Court ruled in the Civil rights cases that segregation cats and the 14th amendments protected people form violations against state and not individuals; it effectively gave leeway for the segregation of the African Americans[vi]. In the wake of the Supreme Court decisions, several states legalized racial segregation in public places such as schools, hotels buses. The south also came with other laws in the 1900s to disenfranchise the blacks thus imposing their right to voting; the limitations included residency requirements, disqualification because of crimes, payment of all taxes, and a literacy test. The loopholes favored the whites. Louisiana, for example, instituted that one would only vote if their fathers or grandfathers had been eligible to vote as of 1867[vii]. The segregation resulted in most of the blacks migrating from the rural south to the urban north and some back to Africa. They established all-black towns and created some equal rights organizations.
The civil rights movement arose as a response to the unfulfilled promises of the end of slavery and the reconstruction. The US was emphasizing propaganda of equality and liberty while the blacks fought in s segregated army during the wars. After the war, many veterans returned to the country determined to fight for their rights. The civil rights movement took different strategies and brought them together for a common goal. The strategies included:
The earliest Civil rights movements used the courts spearheaded by the National Association for the Advancement of colored People. They brought lawsuits that would undermine the validity of the Jim Crow Laws in the South. The landmark case of Brown VS. Board of education Topeka ruled that use of separate educational facilities were unequal and declared the segregation in classrooms unconstitutional. The southerners resisted, and it took federal intervention to actualize the law.
The southern regions disobeyed the court orders to stop segregation and therefore Civil rights movement leaders took to direct action involving protests. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 got initiated after a Black lady refused to vacate her seat for a white lady. Martin Luther was the leader of the boycott which involved boycotting the use of public transport. It provided a template for the fight for civil rights. There were also other protests organized by religious leaders such as SCLC, student organization and labor unions to accelerate the passing of the federal civil rights[viii]. The largest of them all was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It contributed to the successful passing of the Civil rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The mass media was also important in passing the news and covering the nonviolent protests.
The Civil rights and voting rights were the second biggest victory for Blacks after Slavery. There were however many whites within the campaign, and it worried some of the blacks about their independence. For example in the freedom summer of 1964, several white students joined in on the Blacks protests in the south, and it got seen as an imposition into their leadership. Martin Luther King assassination meant the reduction of real black leaders. It led to the uprising of more influential African names in the fight for self-reliance. People like Malcolm X rose to be a great advocate of cultural pride, self-reliance and self-defense in the case of segregation[ix]. He spearheaded the black power generation which gave rise to many other African American leaders. After Assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Stockley Carmichael rose to be another leader within the African American community. 1966 saw the rise of the Black Panther Party led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. All these black power groups campaigned for blacks to demand employment, decent housing and to have self-reliance.
The civil rights marked the second milestone towards African American freedom. It was however not the end. The struggle further continued and achieved the fair housing Act of 1968 that brought an end to segregation in housing units. After the bill, the African American population in the urban areas increased from 6.1 million to 15.3 million[x]. The black areas were however prone to poverty crime and drug abuse. The early 1970s, there was an uprising of the feminists, and it led to the creation of the African American Women’s movement[xi]. A representative of the feminist group, Shirley Chisholm ran for president in the year 1972. She became the first major African American and first woman to run for president[xii]. She was also the first black woman in Congress in 1968.
After J F Kennedy, there was the introduction of the affirmative action that sought to increase the chances and opportunities given to African in the education and employment sector. Universities used race as a qualification criterion for admission to ensure that they followed the affirmative action — the racial quotas, however, got ruled as unconstitutional in 1978 in The Allan Bakke case. The struggle for the African Americans was almost over; several other leaders appeared on the way and championed for equality including Oprah Winfrey, and Jessie Jackson. The symbol of an almost free nation for African Americans got actualized after the election of an African president Barack Obama in 2012.
The African Americans have faced a tough journey so far in the United States. As the war on segregation and racism still continues up to date, looking through history reveals how far they have come. Today the situation has greatly improved: there are many African American leaders, several have taken employment and others are leaders in different fields. It shows the great strides that they have gone through to reach this point. History therefore is there to appreciate the journey, the important events and the main players through each of the stages.
[i] Castronovo, Russ. Fathering the nation: American genealogies of slavery and freedom. Univ of California Press, 1995.
[ii] Knight, Franklin W. “The Haitian Revolution.” The American Historical Review 105, no. 1 (2000): 103-115
[iii] Hummel, Jeffrey. Emancipating slaves, enslaving free men: a history of the American civil war. Open court, 2013.s
[iv] Guelzo, A. C. (2005). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. Simon and Schuster
[v] Trelease, Allen W. White terror: The Ku Klux Klan conspiracy and southern reconstruction. Secker & Warburg, 1972.
[vi] Wells-Barnett, Ida B. On lynchings. Courier Corporation, 2014
[vii] LaVeist, Thomas A. “Segregation, poverty, and empowerment: health consequences for African Americans.” The Milbank Quarterly (1993): 41-64.
[viii] Morris, Aldon D. The origins of the civil rights movement. Simon and Schuster, 1986.
[ix] Marable, Manning. Race, reform and rebellion: the second reconstruction and beyond in Black America, 1945-2006. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2007
[x] Chong, Dennis. Collective action and the civil rights movement. University of Chicago Press, 2014.
[xi] Minister, Meredith. “Female, black, and able: Representations of sojourner truth and theories of embodiment.” Disability Studies Quarterly 32, no. 1 (2012).
[xii] Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press, 1998.