Many people belive that the American Civil War was both the end of slavery and the creation of a society where African Americans began to receive equal treatment under the law. This belief is only partially true. While slavery was outlawed in all of the states in America after the conclusion of the Civil war, conditions for African Americans in America continued to be far from equal. In fact, the treatment of African Americans in the post Civil War era was, in many ways, only a slight degree better than legalized slavery. In the American South, in particular, African Americans were subject to violent, and often lethal, actions against them by whites. The practices of “Jim Crow” laws made it effectively impossible for African Americans to get educations, vote, own property, or even earn a living wage.
Charles Canady writes in “America’s Struggle for Racial Equality.” (1998) that the outgrowth of the Jim Crow laws in the years after the Civil War were a dark chapter in American history. Also, these laws worked to stop the integration of African Americans into society. Canady writes that Jim Crow was a direct continuation of slavery: “When this disgraceful chapter in our history came to an end, it left a legacy of racism that has afflicted America up to the present generation. Soon after the Civil War, that legacy found expression in the segregation statutes, also known as Jim Crow laws.” (Canady) In this way, the same racist and elitist practices that had underlined slavery continued, but simply with another mask. This mean t that African Americans still had a long way to go in order to attain human rights, let alone equal rights in American society.
One of the ways in which African Americans approached the early days of the continuing struggle for rights was to directly oppose the cornerstone of the Jim Crow laws, which was, of course, segregation. Catherine Barnes mentions in her book Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit (1983) that opposition to the idea of racial segregation was evident among both whites and African Americans in the years of reconstruction Barnes writes that “Blacks opposed segregation, however, and during Radical Reconstruction, they turned to the federal military commanders in the South and the federal courts to undo Jim Crow transit, especially on urban streetcars.” (Barnes 3) In other words, the early struggle for the end of slavery that had culminated in the bloodbath of the Civil War was now transforming to an equally brutal struggle for the attainment of of basic rights.
The journey from reconstruction to the modern era, in terms of the experience of African Americans can be seen as a continuous expression of this struggle for basic rights. the struggle is ongoing and has not ended simply because we now have an African American President. Even now, over one-hundred years after the conclusion of the Civil War and the outlawing of slavery, African Americans face racial persecution and discrimination. That the conditions of American society have changed in many ways for the better despite the lingering racism and discrimination is largely due to the populist efforts known collectively as the Civil Rights Movement. This era marks the most evident period of the struggle for social and legal equality that is part of African American history.
As Canady points out, the Civil rights movement was founded on the idea that Jim Crow laws and policies were unjust and inhumane. Canady notes that “The civil-rights movement of the 1950s and the early 1960s arose to combat racist laws, racist institutions, and racist practices wherever they existed.” (Canady) Because of this fact, this period of American history can be thought of as “completing” many of the ambitions and aspirations that were embodied by both whites and blacks in the aftermath of the Civil War. What the Reconstruction era failed to do was left to the Civil Rights Movement to try to correct. One of the first and most important aspects of the movement was that it was founded on the idea of individual freedom and pride. Canady writes that “This understanding of the dignity of the individual found concrete expression in a legal principle that was relentlessly pursued by the early civil-rights movement. If universally adopted, this principle would fulfill the promise of American ideals.” (Canady) because of this emphasis on individual dignity and liberty, the Civil rights Movement must be viewed as one of the most democratic and innately American movements.
According to the time-line of the movement provided by PBS.org two major legal achievements contributed to the attainment of civil rights under American law for African Americans. The first was the fact that “ The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the segregation of Montgomery, Ala., buses is unconstitutional.” The second important legal event was, obviously, the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964: “President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, which gives the federal government far-reaching powers to prosecute discrimination in employment, voting, and education. (Timeline) These two signature legal events show that the gaining of basic legal rights for African Americans was a long and very difficult process that literally required decades of protest, legal action, and public education.
The history of the Jim Crow laws and the way that the Civil Rights Movement successfully overcame them is one of the most heroic chapters in American history. This is due to the fact that the racial persecution of African Americans in terms of both slavery and the Jim Crow era is so abominable and disgusting that the eventual signing of legislation to outlaw abusive and racist practices must be seen as the completion of the process of integration that began in the Antebellum years and continues right on through to the present day.
Barnes, Catherine A. Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.
Canady, Charles T. “America’s Struggle for Racial Equality.” Policy Review 87 (1998): 42+.
Timeline Civil Rights Era (1954-1971) www.pbs.org; accessed 420-13; http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/timeline/civil_01.html