Racial Segregation

You needed that second civil war.

General Colin L Powell

The American Civil War had been fought over the right to own slaves and in 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had promised freedom. But 100 years later, from the beach, to the bar, to burials, segregation was everywhere. In August 1963, a Baptist Minister told America that as far as the Negro was concerned, the country had not lived up to the promissory note of the Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are created equal’. America had written a bad cheque. African Americans were now going to use any means necessary to achieve the American Dream.

The promised freedoms of Abraham Lincoln were lost by both failing to enforce equality, and by accepting the ‘separate but equal’ Jim Crow laws whereby facilities could be divided by race as long as the services provided were similar. In practise, schools, for example, for blacks were substandard in comparison to those for whites. So blacks were no longer slaves. They were just second-class citizens. By 1900 there were still lynchings; 115 in all when the total number of homicides was only 230. At this time, 90% of African Americans lived in the South, dispersed amongst the countryside. The First World War increased demand for munitions workers in the cities as mechanical cotton pickers rapidly replaced the need for manual labour. By 1965, having often migrated along the new Interstate Highway, 80% of African Americans now lived in cities, but often concentrated together in slums. From the start, race riots occurred. In 1919, Chicago riots left 38 dead. In 1963, there were over 1400 demonstrations in just three months.

Black people had already shown they were ready to fight. One million had joined up for the Second World War. But despite desegregation in 1948, another decade would pass before it occurred. It was the same in civilian life. In 1954, it was reported around the war that America had outlawed segregation and in 1955, the Supreme Court said that segregated education should be ended. But ten years later, more than 75% of the school districts remained segregated and one half of the black population was below the poverty line.

Did you know?

The Communist Party was one of the first organisations to be colour blind. In 1932, a nineteen year old black youth joined an Unemployment Council organised by the Communist Party and recorded the following, “I lived in the worst section of town, and rode behind the ‘colored’ signs on streetcars, as though there was something disgusting about me...I had always detested it, but I had never known that anything could be done about it. And here, all of a sudden, I had found an organization in which Negroes and whites sat together.” (A People’s History of the United States) , One of the first militant black leaders was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican who came to the US in 1916. He was notable for both promoting blacks over whites and for suggesting a return to Africa.