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The Civil Rights Movement

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Why and how did African-Americans protest in the Civil Rights Movement?

Why and How Did African Americans Protest Against Their Position in American Society in the 1950s and Early 1960s?


In this essay I am going to be discussing why African Americans felt the need to protest in the 1950s and 60s, and the methods they used to get their voices heard. The African Americans were emancipated in 1863, but they were still not equal citizens. Almost one-hundred years after emancipation, the African Americans were still being treated as second-class-citizens - in this essay I am going to be looking at the injustices and seeing how the African Americans protested against the unfairness of it all.


Although the US Constitution says that everyone is equal, African Americans were very much still being treated as unequal citizens after the Emancipation Act in 1863. Organisations like the Ku Klux Klan were at large in the South, where slavery was at its peak before the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan was massive during the 1950s and they often used violent demonstrations, such as hangings, to scare and intimidate the African Americans. The Klan made life unbearable for some African Americans, as they lived with constant fear for theirselves and their loved ones. The most intimidating thing about the organisation was that their members could be anyone, ranging from policemen to bin men, creating an uncertain atmosphere in the towns effected because no one knew who to trust. This uneasy atmosphere must have been a contributing factor that made African Americans protest against their position in society.


The Jim Crow laws, that were mainly in effect in the south, legalised segregation and kept African Americans as second-class-citizens. The Jim Crow laws ensured that white and black people had to live separately and certain public amenities - such as churches, hospitals, schools, toilets, cemeteries, parks and other public places - were segregated with white people often receiving the better of the two. These laws also meant that black schools were inferior to white, with better public funding, and they were also deliberately badly educated to make it harder for the African Americans to advance in society. Voting was almost impossible for African Americans because they had to pass a ridiculous literacy test with impossible to answer questions and even if they passed that they had to pay a poll tax that the African Americans could not afford; these methods ensured that the African Americans could not get their voices heard in the American equivalent of Parliament. These Jim Crow laws made life much harder for African American citizens and must have been one of the largest contributing factors towards why the Africans Americans protested.


Even thought the African Americans were emancipated, they still worked many of the low paid jobs that the slaves used to work because of a lack of employment opportunities. The majority of them were sharecroppers, this meant that they still farmed the same land as the slaves, but got to keep a small amount of the crops they harvested. This sounds like a good idea, but the sharecroppers had to give back a portion of their crops in return for housing and many fell in debt when there were not enough crops to go around. This meant that life had not changed that much since the emancipation for the sharecroppers because they were constantly being held back by their unfair debts and lack of fair employment opportunities.


Certain social factors effected African Americans, such as when entering a white person’s house, African Americans had to enter through the back door and not look a white person in the eye. This social custom just emphasises the superiority of white people and would probably enrage black people into protesting.


The African Americans protested their position in society in numerous ways. There were many protests in the America and many reached international media attention. In Kansas 1954, Oliver Brown sued the city school board because his African American eight-year-old-daughter had to walk twenty-one blocks to her segregated school and the board refused to admit her to (the nearer) white school. The case reached much more attention than anticipated and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People played an instrumental part in aiding Oliver Brown with legal aid. The Supreme Court ruled that all schools should be integrated. This was a massive success and it was a successful passive protest that used the courts to theoretically outlaw segregation in schools.


Three years after the Supreme Court ruling, the first real test of the ruling occurred after nine African American students attempted to join Little Rock High School. The nine African American students attempted to enter the school in September 1957, but the Governor sent in the state soldiers to prevent the students access. This event was highly covered by the media and particularly harrowing photos emerged of Elizabeth Eckford (a black student) being yelled at by a white and angry mob. On the 23rd of September, nineteen days later than expected, President Eisenhower sent in one-thousand US soldiers to control the situation. This was a passive demonstration of black equality and it reached an international level of media attention. It was an important protest because it showed that the President respected African American equality. It was the first real example of desegregation and was an important milestone in the shift of African Americans’ place in society.


In 1955, the buses in America were segregated, with white people in the front and black people in the back, and if a white person didn’t have a seat it was the law that a black person would have to give up their seat. Rosa Parks, who was part of the NAACP, staged a passive protest in which she got herself arrested for not moving for a white man. She got arrested and photos emerged of a little old lady being towered by white policeman whilst having her fingerprints taken. For the next year she staged a Bus Boycott with the help of Martin Luther King Jr. All African Americans stopped using the buses for a whole year until the rule was changed. The reason this was effective was because they were costing the bus company money. The Supreme Court declared transport segregation illegal at the end of the Boycott. This was an extremely effective protest because it showed that the African Americans had power and influence over big corporations and the Supreme Court.


In February 1960, four boys sat at a lunch counter reserved for white customers only. They sat in in North Carolina in a large chain restaurant called Woolworths. The four students started a massive movement that lasted six months and took place in many Woolworth chains. This protest was passive, as it consisted of thousands of African Americans just sitting, but the protestors were met with violence and often had boiling food poured down them. During the later stages of this protest, white students sat in with the African Americans. This was extremely significant because it marked a shift in the younger generation’s opinion about African American’s and their rights. This protest gained significant media attention, especially when the white students sat in and maybe suggested that the ideology behind segregation was outdated. This protest ended six months after it started when Woolworths desegregated the counters.


In 1961 a group of thirteen black and white students decided to test out the bus desegregation laws and ride into the Deep South of America. They were met with violence and were fire bombed by the KKK. All of this was caught on camera and spread throughout the media. It emphasised the need for black equality and painted a horrific picture of the brutality in the South. It was a passive protest.


To conclude, the African Americans protested against their place in society because of unfair pay and most importantly the Jim Crow laws that made them second class citizens. They protested passively and were often met with violence. In my opinion, the most significant protest was Little Rock because it reached wide spread media attention and showcased the need for desegregation of schools.