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Black Oppression in America: Brief History of Discrimination, Segregation, and Poverty

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Since before the founding of the United States, the issue of white oppression against blacks has permeated American society. From the Three-fourths Clause in the Constitution to the American Civil War, from Reconstruction to the Double V Campaign, and to some extent even until today, a racial order has kept blacks as second class citizens socially, politically, and economically. Though some of these issues remain as yet unresolved, a major period of progress occurred in the 1950s and 1960s that began with Thurgood Marshall’s victory in Brown v. The Board of Education. Desegregation soon swept the United States through successful demonstrations including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Greensboro Sit-ins, and Birmingham Campaign, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 soon followed, together guaranteeing African Americans (and members of all races) equality under the law. However, the work of enforcing these rights then became America’s responsibility, much of the black activism shifting in support of self-determination movements like Black Power and militant organizations like the Black Panther Party. Fear of these movements among the white population escalated into the 1970s, when violent protests erupted against busing in Boston. By the 1980s, white flight came to enforce de facto segregation in American cities as black activism petered down. Officials prematurely insisted that America was now “colorblind”, signalling the end of an era marked by a great awareness and expansion of African Americans social, political, and economic equality. Realistically, however, the race issue in America was too ingrained to fully disappear in this short period of time, and continues to be a source of conflict in society today.

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Spearheading the push for racial equality was a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson. Attorney Thurgood Marshall, who had spend many years trying to overturn this doctrine before, argued that “even with the same funding and facilities–” which was unheard of, anyway “–segregation was inherently unequal because it stigmatized one group of citizens as unfit to associate with others” (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 757). The court responded unanimously in support of Marshall, Earl Warren reading the decision that “to separate [blacks] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community” and that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” (The Atlanta Constitution, 18 May 1954). This victory marked the beginning of the end for legal segregation, though it still remained an established part of American society.

After Brown v. The Board of Education, new demonstrations set about to dismantle segregation in sectors beyond education. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, “crippled” Montgomery Bus Lines in an attempt to institute a “first-come-first served” rule of seating, 7 weeks into the protest forcing the company to double its fares (Philadelphia Tribune, 17 Jan 1956). Despite this rapid success, however, it would take many more weeks of pressure for the boycott to achieve its goals. Into the 8th week, Mayor W.A. Gayle responded to the demands of the protesters by saying: “[if Negro leaders] mean for us to destroy our social fabric, then there is no likelihood of an end to the boycott” (The Chicago Defender, 4 Feb 1956). Clearly, the task of establishing any hint of equality for blacks meant breaking apart the fabric of society and weaving a new one. After over a whole year of protest, African Americans finally agreed to end the boycott as soon as the Supreme Court ruling against bus segregation went into effect (The Sun, 15 Nov 1956). This occurred on December 21, 1956, though this marked only another small step in desegregating America and gaining support for racial equality.

More demonstrations and movements quickly brought to light the blatant injustices of America’s social order against blacks. In 1960, for example, “sit-ins” initiated by students in Greensboro challenged discrimination at lunch counters, their movement spreading quickly “to other cities in the South and capturing the sympathies of other students in the East, North and Midwest” (Cleveland Call and Post, 6 Aug 1960). Though in fact “there [was] no law prohibiting Negroes from being served at the lunch counters,” this campaign challenged the local customs which nonetheless forbid it, thus forcing out yet more socially ingrained rules in American society (New Journal and Guide, 13 Feb 1960). By July of 1960, the sit-ins had “ended use of the color bar in at least 15 southern cities” (Newsday, 26 Jul 1960). The Birmingham Campaign in 1963 also publicly demonstrated the opposition of white society– particularly in the South– against basic civil rights for African Americans. Though once again no law prohibited the blacks to march down the streets of Birmingham, they met with assaults via nightsticks, high-pressure fire hoses, and attack dogs (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 772). This climactic event, along with widespread movements and protests across the United States, finally led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Legally, African Americans had finally overthrown the doctrine of white supremacy in the United States.

Practically, however, much more progress was needed to ensure equality between whites and blacks, and for many this signalled a controversial change in strategy. Notably, up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the principle of nonviolence had driven the movement. Since the beginning of King’s leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he warned that “if we become victimized with violent intents, we will have walked in vain” and “[our] glorious dignity will be transformed into an eve of gloomy catastrophe” (The Washington Post and Times Herald, 21 Dec 1956). Some may argue that this indeed occurred in the latter part of 1960s, but in any case the nature of the movement for African Americans, along with the resistance to it, shifted dramatically as more steps toward reshaping society took place.

Floyd B. McKissick, national director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), represented one of many spokesmen on behalf of a new movement called Black Power. This movement broadly sought to create “a unified voice reflecting racial pride in the tradition of [a] heterogeneous nation”; however, it also decentralized black activism and “abandoned nonviolence as a technique in the struggle for racial equality” (Afro-American, 16 Jul 1966). Leaders like McKissick saw this movement as a way to “create new values and to build a new sense of community” at the same time that they worked to “establish legitimate new institutions that make participants, not recipients, out of a people traditionally excluded from the fundamentally racist processes of this country” (Charles V. Hamilton, New York Times, 14 Apr 1968). By and large, before 1970, little had been done to help black communities so they could enjoy true equality with whites, and Black Power brought this goal to the top of their agenda.

However, the rhetoric, disorganization, and means of attaining this goal also alienated the Black Power movement. In support of black self-determination, CORE and the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) eliminated whites from their staffs (Foner, Brief 4th ed, p 785). Furthermore, leaders in Chicago called for a “6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Black Curtain in which whites would not be allowed into the black community” (Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition), 7 Feb 1970). Riots sprang up in major U.S. cities, which were condoned by groups like the SNCC as “necessary releases of emotion” (Leslie G. Range, The Christian Science Monitor, 24 Sep 1968). Finally, the hypermilitant Black Panther Party gained sympathy from black communities at the same time that it terrified whites who perceived it as a group of white hatred and as “[an organization] explicitly for the murder of policemen” (Richard Harwood, The Austin Statesman, 4 Feb 1970). In some ways, though the efforts of the Black Power movement changed the perception of the black community to reflect greater pride and self-determination in the eyes of both whites and blacks, in other ways it also deepened the divide between them and left much of the social order and resistance intact.

The 1970s brought these issues of integration, black self-determination, and resistance to a climax. At the start of the decade, Oakland Chief of Police E. R. Gain identified–in regards to the Black Panthers– that “if the poor black man in this country could only have hope, if he could only see a government where a president would speak up and see their plight and promise a national commitment to change it… they would end the Black Panther Party and its present platform” (Richard Harwood, The Austin Statesman, 4 Feb 1970). Clearly, however, by 1974 with the violent busing protests in Boston by local whites, society was not yet prepared to offer this hope. Though blacks in Boston supported busing at about a 2:1 ratio, whites opposed it 3:1 (Boston Globe, 14 May 1974). This opposition illuminated the unresolved racial tension between whites and blacks, but also highlighted fears of whites regarding the violence, crime, and poverty present in black communities, which had been identified by newspapers tracking the Black Power movement and Black Panther Party. This fear, in turn, led to the increasing phenomenon of “white flight,” in which whites abandoned urban centers and essentially nullified the purpose of busing in the first place. Rather than integration, fear in response to government action race issues actually fostered segregation. Professor Diane Ravitch of Columbia pointed out in 1976 that “at the time of the decision [for busing] in Boston, there was a 61-percent white majority in Boston schools. There is now a white minority in the Boston schools” (David Nyhan, Boston Globe, 19 Jun 1976). Ravitch then asks, reflectively, “If you win a decision and lose the white population and end up with more segregation than you had before the decision, have you won?” (David Nyhan, Boston Globe, 19 Jun 1976). As she suggests, American society had come to enforce the previous social order rather than rectify it.

Onward into the 1980s, as riots and violent race conflicts subsided, America settled once again into an unsteady but accepted coexistence between whites and blacks. African Americans upheld their legal rights, but segregation remained a fact in American society if not a law. They remained stuck in poverty with little support internally or externally to rise out of it. Even affirmative action, which had become effectively enforced since 1970 under Nixon, received harsh criticism as a form of “reverse-discrimination” in a supposedly “color-blind” society. However, as President of the National Urban League John E. Jacob said, “there’s nothing color-blind when the black poverty rate is triple the white rate. There’s nothing racially-neutral when black unemployment is more than double the white rate” (New Pittsburgh Courier, 22 Sep 1984). Today, American society still wrestles with these problems and only recently has made steps in revitalizing the movement for black equality at Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland.. Awareness of discrimination, segregation, and poverty are rising to public awareness once again, and may yet bring about change to the issues left unresolved in the 1950s-1980s.

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