Slavery was more than an economic institution; it had completely radicalized the nation. Identity was inextricably tied up with race; even after emancipation, blacks were not truly free, and were certainly not equal. Even in the North, African Americans were second-class citizens, but it was in the South where racism truly flourished. Jim Crow was the most notable manifestation of official policies that preserved racist institutions for generations. When the Great Depression hit, African-Americans in the South were hit especially hard. The Great Depression was one of the major triggers of the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north. Unfortunately, African Americans fared little better socially or economically when they migrated to northern cities. Competition for unskilled and low-wage positions was reaching a peak, causing racial tensions to escalate. The labor movements were not only fledgling, but just as racially segregated as any other social or political institution in America. Franklin Rooseveltâ€™s New Deal policies did much to turn around the economy and opened up new opportunities for African Americans, but it was not until the Civil Rights movement that official top-down policies would make a more meaningful difference by outlawing Jim Crow, segregation, and other vestiges of slavery. Even after the Civil Rights movement and all it did to loosen the shackles of oppression, it too decades before there was a sign that Martin Luther Kingâ€™s dream could be made real: the Obama Presidency. Even while continually being oppressed, African-Americans rose all the way to the top. They endured racial segregation, fought relentlessly for Civil Rights, and went from being slaves to the President of the United States.
In addition to the failure of Reconstruction, the Great Depression dramatically impeded social, political, and economic progress for all Americansâ€”especially African Americans. With limited opportunities in traditional Southern sectors open to African-Americans, like sharecropping, African Americans migrated in unprecedented numbers to northern urban centers in search of new opportunities like factory work. Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit everyone, including factories, and as many as half of all African Americans were unemployed and many destitute (â€œGreat Depression and World War IIâ€). Things were worse in the south due to more violent forms of racism. Yet African Americans worked hard to overcome systematic, violent, and institutionalized racism. One way that African Americans in the South overcame oppression was through community solidarity and what Boyd (2000) calls survivalist entrepreneurialism. Especially for black women in the South, survivalist entrepreneurialism empowered the African American community through small local businesses catering to the black community. This model of economic self-empowerment has remained a mainstay of African American culture ever since, and has enabled the trajectory from slavery to being at the top.
Resentment towards the influx of African Americans into the white-dominated labor market fomented racial tensions throughout the nation. Nowhere were racial tensions more apparent than the South, and particularly with Jim Crow. An abundance of primary source evidence shows how terrible Jim Crow was, and what a complete affront to the principles of the nation. Jim Crow was not just a metaphor but a reality, a daily living reality for millions of people. In fact, Jim Crow was not just a Southern phenomenon but a nationwide scourge. Newspaper articles from places as seemingly far removed from slavery as possible, like Minnesota, show how African Americans located no peace or security and were subject to Jim Crow laws (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016810/1904-11-12/ed-1/seq-4/). Jim Crow was a legal system, too, making it impossible to subvert effectively. Yet Jim Crow was more than just a system of unjust laws; Jim Crow was embedded in the culture, manifest in popular culture such as music like the Jim Crow song (https://www.loc.gov/resource/amss.as106690.0). Minstrel shows were also a popular culture example of how central racism was to American culture. On an even more sinister note, blacks were systematically prevented from exercising their constitutionally protected right to vote, they were systematically prevented from attending the best public schools, they were subject to signs like â€œNegroes and Dogs Not Allowed,â€ (Patterson, n.d., p. 1). Every conceivable arena of daily life was segregated, from hospitals to movie theaters.
Because of the failures of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, powerful black thinkers devised methods of self-empowerment that would subvert white authority. Individuals like W.E.B. DuBois did a tremendous amount to change American society. The founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), still one of the premier self-empowerment organizationsn for African Americans, W.E.B. DuBois received his Bachelorâ€™s, Masters, and PhD from Harvard University and taught sociology at the University of Pennsylvania (â€œNAACP History: W.E.B DuBois,â€ n.d.). His views on pan-Africanism, black nationalism, and black self-empowerment were contrary to even other African Americans, but prompted tremendous investment in black institutions. The Souls of Black Folk was somewhat revolutionary in that W.E.B strong language to describe institutionalized racism, with the goal of waking up all Americans and encouraging dramatic transformations in African American consciousness. Around the same time that DuBoisâ€™s theories on political, economic, and social empowerment flourished, President Roosevelt developed the policies and programs that comprised the New Deal.
According to the Library of Congress, Rooseveltâ€™s presidency and the New Deal made a huge difference for African Americans. Roosevelt â€œentertained African-American visitors at the White House and was known to have a number of black advisors,â€ (â€œGreat Depression and World War II,â€ n.d.). Although many New Deal programs ended up being segregated in the ways they were implemented, and Roosevelt did not fully back the NAACP on all matters, the New Deal did do a lot to raise awareness of the intersection between race and socio-economic class (â€œGreat Depression and World War II,â€ n.d.). Also around World War Two, African Americans who fought for their countryâ€”even though they were on segregated regimensâ€”returned with a greater sense of purpose and power in creating a more perfect nation (Patterson, n.d.). Finally in 1948, President Truman desegregated the American military, but he was unable to sway Congress on passing more sweeping anti-segregation legislation (Patterson, n.d.).
It would be several more decades before more decisive laws would be passed at the national level, laws that would completely dismantle Jim Crow. Even if dismantling Jim Crow occurred more on a legalistic level than a practical one, the Civil Rights era did bring about important changes to the American consciousness and identity, paving the way for the inevitability of the first African American president. The fact that Congress remained so stubborn for so many decades highlights how bad race relations really were in America. Given this, it does seem almost miraculous that within three more generations, the American public voted for its first African American president.
The Civil Rights movement did not emerge out of a vacuum, but represented the culmination of decadesâ€”actually, centuriesâ€”of frustration and oppression. Knowing that the Constitution now provided for equal protection and equal treatment, African Americans rallied against segregation, and Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson. Brown v. Board of Education was the first sign that changes were afoot in American politics. Decided in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for numerous other legal and legislative changes in America. Rosa Parks and other notable African American leaders also began nonviolent protest movements in the spirit of Gandhi, and before long, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior became one of the most important political leaders the nation had ever seen. With a strong, organized, unified network of activists dedicated to civil rights, King helped to usher in a whole new era of national identity. After the Civil Rights movement, and especially after President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it became increasingly difficult to implement racist policies, even if many whites continued to harbor racist attitudes and beliefs. Racism was in some ways pushed underground, but gradually the nation was changing for the better.
When Obama was sworn in, it was a momentous moment for the nation. It was not just the largest attendance of any presidential inauguration in United States history; it was actually the largest attendance of any event in the history of Washington, D.C. (â€œU.S. Presidential Inaugurations: Barack Obama,â€ n.d.). In his first inauguration speech, Obama makes a small reference to segregation, but makes a more sweeping statement about how his being elected symbolizes the coming together of a new nation conceived in liberty. Obama states, â€œWe are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth,â€ (Obama, 2008). While it would have been helpful to have more directly spoken about race during his Presidency, Obama did nevertheless radically transform what it means to be African-American. Obama did not single-handedly eliminate racism, and there are still numerous hills to climb before true racial equality is reached and prejudice has ended. Yet the nation has still come a long, long way.
â€œThe Appeal., November 12, 1904, Image 4.â€ Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016810/1904-11-12/ed-1/seq-4/
Boyd, R.L. (2000). Race, Labor Market Disadvantage, and Survivalist Entrepreneurship: Black Women in the Urban North During the Great Depression. Sociological Forum 15(4): 647-670.
Brown v. Board of Education. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/347/483/case.html
â€œGreat Depression and World War II.â€ (n.d.). Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/depwwii/race/.
â€œJim Crow. Sold wholesale and retail by L. Deming, at the sign of the Barber’s pole Hanover St., Boston, and at Middlebury, Vt.â€ Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/amss.as106690.0
â€œNAACP History: W.E.B. DuBois.â€ (n.d.). NAACP. http://www.naacp.org/oldest-and-boldest/naacp-history-w-e-b-dubois/
Obama, President Barack. First inauguration speech: https://www.aol.com/article/news/2017/01/19/president-barack-obamas-first-inauguration-speech-full-text/21657532/
Patterson, J.T. (n.d.). The Civil Rights movement. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/civil-rights-movement/essays/civil-rights-movement-major-events-and-legacies
â€œU.S. Presidential Inaugurations: Barack Obama.â€ (n.d.). Retrieved online: https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/inaugurations/obama/index.html
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