I originally wrote this in 2016 as part of a course during the completion of my master’s degree program. The past four years has demonstrated that the disenfranchisement of African Americans has not changed much over time.
The ways in which Black people are abused by people in power and the justice system are just as insidious now, if not more than years prior.
The fight for Civil Rights began decades ago, and the war continues as new struggles emerge. From the year 1954 to the year 1968, the Civil Rights Movement marked the struggle for black people in America to receive the same treatment under the law as white citizens. Although 1968 marks the end of this revolution, the Civil Rights Movement is unfinished. It is easy to view the successful changes due to this period in history, but there are still major hurdles left to clear. This paper will investigate the background of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as discuss what challenges African Americans have yet to overcome.
The Significance of the Civil Rights Movement
To understand the Civil Rights Movement, one must understand how important this revolution was to African Americans. This revolution was important to black people because it united them in a common goal to overcome persecution and oppression. During this era, African Americans faced treatment worse than anyone deemed a second-class citizen received.
They faced violent attacks, bombings, rape, and many other extremely heinous threats for no other reason than the color of their skin. A pregnant African American passenger on an integrated bus hospitalized after shotgun snipers left bullet wounds in both of her legs was just one of the many injured during the course of this movement. One of the vilest attacks on African Americans was the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, and Cynthia Wesley died. Carole, Addie, and Cynthia were fourteen years old, while Denise was only eleven.
The attack demonstrated that blacks did not have the freedom and equal protection under the law their white counterparts often took for granted. The Civil Rights Movement meant that black people finally reached the point of no return. The time to stand up and shout “no more” had come, and they were willing to fight for the rights they had long been denied. For such an oppressed and often depressed population, this was an incredible moment. Having an entire ethnic group stand together and refuse to back down until positive change achieves momentum, would become an unstoppable tidal wave. For this reason, the Civil Rights Movement was essential. It was proof that there truly was a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light was freedom. The profound effect that this had on the African American population is undeniable. They moved from a meek and disenfranchised group or people, to being completely empowered, and proud of their heritage.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. This was to demolish legal barriers preventing African Americans from voting. The Voting Rights Act was a major milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. It was the culmination of Civil Rights efforts thus far, including the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that desegregated public schools. As the shift from disenfranchised to empowered solidified, it was clear that having equal access to the ballot enabled African Americans to have a voice in the shaping of the country’s future. The Civil Rights Movement took advantage of media coverage, in addition to the new technology of television. The televised coverage of protests in the South, as well as the unimaginable violent atrocities the peaceful protesters faced, drew the attention of the world. The world was now aware of African American’s struggle for Civil Rights.
The word revolutionary is an apt description of the Civil Rights Movement. It is revolutionary because this specific type of event had never occurred in the relatively new country of the United States of America. Europe had experienced various uprisings over the centuries, but this was something radical in America. Additionally, there was the aspect of surprise. Africans shipped to America as chattel and slave labor against their will and in deplorable conditions faced even worse treatment.
From these people descended the individuals who went on to lead the Civil Rights Movement. By virtue of their presumed superiority, the white people of America never expected such a large-scale rebellion against the status quo. In a short amount of time, the societal norms of the day had been shattered. African Americans were demanding to be treated the same as white citizens. To say that this was shocking would be an understatement. The large-scale change that swept across the nation faced a considerable amount of backlash. Racial tension had finally reached a boiling point. In some instances of retaliation against black people, whites smashed and burned black owned businesses, and even resorted to lynching. News of this unprecedented violence spread around the globe.
The United States of America had a reputation for being the land of opportunity. America’s reputation, now tarnished due to its treatment of a major portion of its population, needed a severe make over.
By the time the Civil Rights Movement was well advanced, the irony of the situation was glaringly obvious. America stood as a pillar of democracy and a beacon of hope to all nations, and yet it was denying an incredibly substantial amount of people basic human and constitutional rights. African Americans deserved the right to vote and the right to walk into any business and receive the same service as a white person. They had the right to treatment equally as honorable as any white person. In the years preceding the Civil Rights Movement, it was the consensus of the country that black people did not deserve these freedoms.
The United States had the audacity to welcome the poor and huddled masses into the warm embrace of liberty, while shunning those who needed it most who already live within its borders. This direct conflict with the American values and the American constitution is abhorrent. It only serves to underscore the need for this revolution. One cannot have a country overflowing with freedom, and then deny people from obtaining it based on the color of their skin. The Civil Rights Movement had one simple mission: Equality.
Key Figures of the Civil Rights Movement
Key individuals such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks are now synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement. These freedom fighters reached out to the masses in different ways, but always reaching toward the same goal. Put most eloquently by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his I Have a Dream Speech “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” These three individuals worked tirelessly to make sure African Americans were able to collect their inheritance.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), the most famous and recognizable face of the Civil Rights Movement, rallied the African American population unlike any other activist could. On August 27, 1963, Dr. King led thousands of Americans—not just African Americans—during the march on Washington. Such a large gathering of people coming together in protest was unprecedented. The next day, on August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. All of Dr. King’s efforts to galvanize the people revolved around the idea of nonviolent peaceful protest. The response to his message was overwhelming, which is why it was no surprise the following year on October 14, 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. At the age of thirty-five, Dr. King was the youngest recipient of the award. In his own words during his lecture while still in Oslo, Norway on December 11, 1964, Dr. King spoke highly of the people fighting for equality in America. He stated, “I experience this high and joyous moment not for myself alone but for those devotees of nonviolence who have moved so courageously against the ramparts of racial injustice and who in the process have acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.”
Another influential Civil Rights activist was Malcolm X (1925-1965). In addition to being one of the key black leaders in America, he was also a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. Although he had a large number of followers, his methods for rallying the African American people differed greatly from those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X had a more aggressive, militant message. Growing increasingly more frustrated with the pacifist, nonviolent method Dr. King advocated, Malcolm X argued that black people should be separate from whites and that African Americans would never achieve equality through integration.
This separatist attitude was the cornerstone upon which he built his message. In a letter to Dr. King, Malcolm X expressed his dissatisfaction with the way the Civil Rights Movement was going. He writes, “The present racial crisis in this country carries within it powerful destructive ingredients that may soon erupt into an uncontrollable explosion. The seriousness of this situation demands that immediate steps must be taken to solve this crucial problem, by those who have genuine concern before the racial powder keg explodes.” Malcolm X urges Dr. King to attend a rally that he was organizing to continue the discussion on what could settle the racial upheaval in the United States.
The urgency and fervor with which Malcolm X advocated for the advancement of the African American population is undeniably powerful, and it is no wonder that he is a well-known historical figure.
Rosa Parks (1915-2005) is another iconic Civil Rights activist whose influence rippled across the United States of America. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat at the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her subsequent arrest sparked a citywide boycott of the bus system and helped catapult Parks into Civil Rights history. Her courage led the African American people of Alabama to be brave enough to stand up for their rights and as a result, helped propel the Civil Rights Movement even further. Writing about her refusal to give up her seat, Rosa Parks makes it clear that the incident was not some planned moment that took months to organize. She simply had enough of harassment because of her ethnicity. Among her personal papers that have been archived, Parks writes,
“I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore. When I asked the policeman why we had to be pushed around? He said he didn’t know ‘the law is the law.’”
That December day, forever memorialized in the pages of history, was just the tip of the iceberg for Parks. She was committed to human rights, and her fight “formed a bridge between the Civil Rights struggle in Montgomery and black liberation in Detroit.” Rosa Parks is a hero because she is an example of the average person taking the first step to secure personal liberty.
Challenges African Americans Face Today
Racial profiling is the first of many challenges that African Americans have yet to overcome. Many African Americans face this injustice on a daily basis. It occurs so often, that there have been phrases coined to correlate to specific incidents. The phrase driving while black refers to African American motorists pulled over by police for no other reason than being black. The phrase walking while black is essentially the same. The only difference is that it involves African American pedestrians, rather than motorists.
Racial profiling takes place in the name of public safety, but no evidence exists that supports this claim. Racial profiling only perpetuates harmful stereotypes against African Americans. It suggests that blacks are inherently dangerous, or involved in criminal activity simply because they are black. These assumptions exist because many inmates in prisons across America are African American, and law enforcement wrongly believes that all members of this ethnic group are somehow criminals. According to an article by the Leadership Conference,
“Racial profiling is unconstitutional, and despite the emphatic declaration from the federal government that the practice is ‘invidious,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘ineffective,’ and ‘harmful to our rich and diverse democracy,’ quantitative and qualitative evidence collected at the federal, state, and local levels confirms that racial profiling persists. Moreover, as the evidence also shows, racial profiling is often encouraged by misguided federal programs and policies that incentivize law enforcement authorities to engage in the practice.”
Because racial profiling is so pervasive and damaging to the individuals it victimizes, many cases have gone before the court system. In the case of Floyd v. City of New York, statistics of racial profiling cited by the prosecution show how often this occurs. “For the period 2004 through 2009, when any law enforcement action was taken following a stop, blacks were 30% more likely to be arrested (as opposed to receiving a summons) than whites, for the same suspected crime.” This demonstrates that even while facing the same criminal charges, white suspects received preferential treatment over black suspects because of the ingrained prejudices of law enforcement.
In 2013, law enforcement sank to a new low when Trayon Christian was arrested after he purchased a designer belt from Barneys New York. After purchasing the $350 belt, Christian was apprehended by undercover officers just as he exited the store. The officers were responding to the call of a store employee who alerted him to Christian’s alleged suspicious behavior. Despite having the receipt, the debit card he used to make the purchase, and proper identification, Christian was informed that he could not possibly afford to make such a large purchase, and that his identification was false.
The police asked Christian “how a young black man such as himself could afford to purchase such an expensive belt?” Trayon Christian faced this injustice because he was a black man in an expensive store, often frequented by wealthy white customers. Because according to the police, it was out of the ordinary for a young black man to shop there, he faced undue harassment. As a result, he sued the store, as well as the New York Police Department. Unfortunately, Christian is not the only African American shopper who faced this type of discrimination. Oftentimes, black shoppers will be followed by in-store security or by “undercover shoppers”—store employees who survey the area for suspicious behavior—on a daily basis. This has lead to a new phrase among African Americans innocently going about their business: Shopping while black.
The disproportionate amount of police brutality and shootings involving mostly unarmed African Americans has steadily risen over the past few years. A direct cause as to what started this deadly trend is still unknown. However, implicit racial bias and racial profiling are two key reasons it persists. According to Mapping Police Violence, statistics regarding African American victims of law enforcement paint a particularly dire picture of the United States. “Police killed at least 102 unarmed black people in 2015, more than any other race. Nearly 1 in 3 black people killed by police in 2015 were identified as unarmed, though the actual number is likely higher due to underreporting [and] unarmed black people were killed at 5x the rate of unarmed whites in 2015.” Cases like the death of Freddie Gray, who died on April 19, 2015 due to spinal injuries sustained during his arrest in Baltimore, Maryland, and the death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri grabbed the media’s attention. Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager gunned down by police united the African American population in Ferguson, and ignited protests and riots throughout the city.
The riots went on for several days, with extensive damage to property, and injuries to participants. The police donned riot gear and used tear gas as an attempt to cause the rioters to disperse. The fervor with which the people of Ferguson protested the killing of Michael Brown had not occurred since the original days of the Civil Rights Movement. Since then, there has been an increase in study of police violence toward African Americans, like the above-mentioned statistical analysis from Mapping Police Violence. However, change will not happen unless law enforcement and the nation at large can overcome the deeply rooted racial bias held on to for centuries.
In addition to the racism and abuse at the hands of law enforcement African American adults face, the public school system continues to fail black youth.
African American children attending inner city or rural schools do not receive the same quality of education as white students. Most of the money received from the federal government by public schools for poorer students comes from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In order to receive these funds, school districts must demonstrate that they “provide educational services to their higher-poverty schools that are comparable to those provided to the lower-poverty schools.” Forbidden by law to include teacher salaries, the school districts are misled into believing they spend the same amount per student for higher poverty schools, as they spend on lower poverty schools.
This cycle of misinformation is the “comparability loophole.” The lack of funding leads to substandard educational equipment like computers that are often obsolete. Textbooks are out of date, and sometimes so damaged they fall apart. Veteran teachers abandon these schools for higher paying jobs at better-funded and often predominately white schools. This leaves the black students only the teachers who are less qualified, and less trained.
The statistics on under qualified teachers in predominately-black schools paint a dire picture of the public educational system in America. According to BlackDemographics.com, teachers who do not hold a certification in the subject they teach educate African American children attending underperforming schools. “In non-black public schools, more than 75% of math teachers had math as their major in college as opposed to 56% of teachers in majority black schools. And of that 56% fewer were certified.” After some of the underperforming schools in impoverished neighborhoods shut down due to budget cuts and a lack of certified teaching staff, the children moved to other nearby schools. Once the number of students in the surrounding schools doubled, overcrowding became a new problem to overcome. Classrooms with twenty-five to thirty students have left these under certified teachers overworked, and lacking the time and resources to give each student the attention they desperately need.
Because many African American students receive subpar education from the public school system, they often turn to a life of crime. Gang violence is rampant in poor black neighborhoods. Teenagers drop out of school and end up in prison. The correctional system, rather than a university or trade school is often the destination of black youth. This phenomenon is the school to prison pipeline.
The lack of resources in many public schools is not the only factor pushing African American youth down the pipeline. Zero-tolerance policies in the wake of school shootings and terrorism led to an increase in suspensions and expulsions. These punishments sometimes neglect the student’s right to due process, leading black students to feel disillusioned with the idea of education.
Schools may be incentivized to suspend lower performing students around the time yearend standardized testing is administered. This is an attempt to have as many high performing students included in the school’s statistics as possible. Testing is directly linked to funding, and poorer schools are faced with the choice to either give all students a fair chance, or “game the system” to hold on to federal funding. Many black students come from single parent homes, and because that parent has to work, the child is unsupervised. Poor communities lack constructive activities and resources, leaving the unsupervised children to get involved with crime.
The public school system’s failure of African American students leads to higher incarceration rates among blacks, which leads law enforcement to profile African Americans as more dangerous. Unable to see African Americans as anything other than dangerous, the police are more likely to use deadly force, and this only perpetuates the cycle of racial bias toward blacks in America. The foundation of any enlightened society is education. In order to eradicate these deep-seated prejudices against African Americans, solving the educational crisis is a priority.
The Civil Rights Movement is not over. Past Civil Rights leaders laid the groundwork for a better future, but the fight is not yet over. African Americans face racial profiling, a disproportionate amount of police brutality, and educational deficits. Until true social change occurs, these evils will persist, and the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about will never come to fruition.
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