Perhaps more than that of any other minority, the history of African Americans in this country has been a long and complex story. During the slave trade in the early history of the United States, millions of blacks were brought from Africa. By the late 1700s, almost 4 million slaves lived in the southern states. While some slave masters may have tried to treat their black slaves humanely, the slaves felt deeply their loss of homeland, family, and freedom. In addition, harsh working conditions, physical beatings, manacles, branding, and castration were common. Nor did the slaves always passively give in to their masters' whims; sometimes slaves rebelled against their masters. Out of all of this oppression evolved a variety of uniquely African‐American forms of art and music, including gospel, jazz, and the blues.
The formal abolition of slavery during the Civil War forever altered the life of blacks, especially in the South. Yet the one form of group closure—slavery—was replaced by another—discrimination. The behavior of the former slaves was closely monitored, and they were quickly punished for their “transgressions.” The result was continual denial of black people's political and civil rights. Legislation was also passed legalizing segregation of blacks from whites in public places like trains and restaurants. However, following the Civil War, most states in the South passed legislation against the interests of blacks, which became known as the Jim Crow laws. The laws, for example, prohibited blacks from attending white schools, theaters, restaurants, and hotels.
During the early decades of the 20th century, thousands of southern blacks moved to the North because of increased job opportunities. However, this migration did not always set well with northerners. Race riots exploded, and blacks encountered numerous forms of discrimination in housing, work, and politics.
This migration north continued both during and after World War II, especially with the increased automation being used on southern plantations. But blacks migrating north after World War II soon found the opportunities for work slim. Increased automation coupled with unions that exerted control over many occupations added to the prejudice and discrimination experienced by blacks.
The Civil Rights Movement
Blacks were largely denied opportunities for education and personal advancement until the early 1950s and 1960s. It was only then that the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to have an effect on black civil rights.
Even before World War II, social advocates began challenging segregation in the military, as well as on buses and in schools, restaurants, swimming pools, and other public places. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”—a decision that formed the basis of the civil rights movement of the 1950s to the 1970s. The decision was strongly opposed in some states, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which had formed during reconstruction, organized to intimidate and persecute blacks.
In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a 42‐year‐old African‐American woman—Rosa Parks—refused to surrender her seat on a bus so that white people could sit. She was subsequently arrested, which spawned mass demonstrations and bus boycotts. Eventually, a Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., organized and led marches and campaigns of nonviolent resistance to discrimination. But responses to the movement were far from nonviolent. As examples, the National Guard would prohibit black students from entering public facilities, and police would disperse protesters with clubs, fire hoses, and attack dogs. Still, the demonstrations continued until, in 1964, Congress passed a Civil Rights bill banning discrimination in education, employment, public facilities, and in governmental agencies. Additional bills in later years were passed to outlaw discrimination in housing and to ensure the rights of blacks to vote. As might be expected, a great deal of resistance arose to the implementation of the new laws protecting blacks' civil rights. Civil rights leaders were threatened, beaten up, and even killed—as was the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. During the remainder of the 1960s, major race riots broke out in cities across the nation.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the beginnings of affirmative action, or action taken to provide equal opportunity, to end discrimination. Most instances of affirmative action have proven to be controversial. An example is forced school busing, in which children were taken by bus to schools outside their normal school districts in an attempt to force integration in school systems. Other examples of affirmative action attempted in the 1970s and 1980s included having “quotas” (percentages of represented groups) employed in public agencies and colleges. Critics of affirmative action argued that the resulting “reverse discrimination,” or action taken to provide opportunity only to underrepresented groups, was not a cure for social ills. Fixed quotas were finally declared illegal.
Sociologists debate the actual effects of the civil rights movement. Although the movement seems to have had some impact, the degree to which that impact has caused lasting social change remains in question.
The unemployment rate of blacks compared to whites is the same as it was in the early 1960s. Employment opportunities for black men have worsened, and a greater percentage of black men have given up on the work force. Likewise, little seems to have improved in terms of neighborhood segregation. Research has reaffirmed that blacks continue to be victims of discrimination in the real estate market.
On a more positive note, black and white children now attend the same schools, and black and white students attend the same colleges. Some urban schools and colleges, however, have larger numbers of black students because of the movement of whites to suburban and rural areas.
Blacks have also made some gains in elective politics; the number of black public officials has increased dramatically since the 1960s. Yet these changes are still relatively minor, as blacks make up only a few percentage points of the one‐half million elected public offices in the United States.