African Americans have suffered a long history of oppression and discrimination in the United States. This essay examines their long struggle for equality and argues that the biggest jumps in the success of the civil rights movement has been due to prominent historical figures, such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our professional and skilled writers offer historical research papers such as this as well as a broad spectrum of other subjects.
Essay on Black American Rights
The evolution of equality for black Americans has been a long and arduous journey. Some have called it the black struggle, the civil rights movement, the fight for equality, and in some rare and racist cases, an abomination. In every incarnation of its existence, no matter what it was called, it kept changing. There were shifts, gains and losses—and today it has made a stellar leap from the tireless efforts of its dedicated leaders.
Frederick Douglass for black rights
Frederick Douglass argued,
“It is not well to forget the past…Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is…the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make them more symmetrical” (Blight 1160).
This statement is very apropos to Douglass, for he took great care to fully and eloquently document his experiences in slavery and oppression so that a true understanding could take seed in the minds of his readers. This painstaking care he took in spreading his message becomes undeniable when it is observed that he wrote and published three separate autobiographies detailing his life. It seems that Douglass wanted to ensure that the national memory was cemented into our world through the printed word so that future generations could perhaps make the world more symmetrical.
Martin Delany was a contemporary of Frederick Douglass. He was highly educated, studied and practiced medicine and was an advocate for the equality of black Americans. He started his involvement in the anti-slavery movement with the moral suasionists:
people who agree with the idea that class or material or intellectual condition was the true cause of slavery and racism (as opposed to the standard reasoning that the cause stems from blatant, irrational prejudice against skin color).
Moral suasionists believed that self-improvement was the key to achieving equality (Adeleke 252-253).
Racism as a Common View
The following concepts were made popular by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species may possess different qualifications (Jefferson 143).
This ridiculous view hinges on ensuring that black people are thought of as lazy, messy, low-class, stupid, junky people and that it be believed that they intentionally maintain this status without any oppression being present. This philosophy and the attempt to shoulder the full responsibility for the “stereotypical low class negro” was intensely misguided, however, and it became very clear how misguided once white reactionaries responded with violence and destruction against any black people who prospered or tried to enter into the societal establishment or business industry. Sadly, these racially insensitive views are still alive in American society today.
Delany and the fugitive law
Along with many blacks at the tail end of the 1840s, Delany started to reassess his strategy toward this issue. In 1850 the Fugitive Law passed which not only made the institution of slavery stronger, but also put freed black people at risk of being captured and re-enslaved (Adeleke 253). Before the passage of the law, Delany delivered a speech before the Mayor of Alleghany, Pennsylvania and other dignitaries speaking against the Fugitive Law and he aided anti-Fugitive Law vigilantes, but his actions failed to make a difference. It was at this point that Delany realized, along with a lot of other blacks, that the issue really was about race. Delany began considering black Americans as “an oppressed ‘nation within a nation,’” and he began to advocate a strong consciousness of racial identity.
Rising factions in the struggle for black equality
In the 1850s two groups found prominence within the black struggle:
- Integrationists attempted to work within the then current political landscape in order to advance cultural pluralism.
- Insurrectionists carried out acts of violence and insurrection to protest the oppression of black Americans.
Interestingly enough, Delany did not side with either of these main groups of the time. In the wake of the Fugitive Law, Delany had lost all faith in the Integrationist movement as there was clearly no point within the then current political system. But he also considered that the Insurrectionist movement was literally a suicidal movement considering the vast amount of exceedingly racist white Americans (Adeleke 253).
Separatism as a strategy to achieve black rights
Delany instead chose to put his efforts toward the creation of a black state, geographically outside the United States, that could be built into an economic power—thus creating a destructive impact on the slavery and racism of the United States. It was clear from his new work in the black struggle that he was extremely angry with and alienated from America. Despite his choice to not involve himself with the Insurrectionists, Delany became increasingly militant in his views, inspiring other alienated members to follow his Black Nationalist message (Adeleke 254). This type of rhetoric was surely an inspiration for civil rights movement leader Stokely Carmichael, who seems to have paralleled Delany in his attempt to reason with an assumed civilized white society only to discover ignorance and hatred in place of reason.
However, Delany’s views were not without controversy. Many voices within the black struggle called his Black Nationalist agenda escapist and an aid to the slavers, since it removed the “disturbing element” of the freed black man. His plan was also considered insensitive as it outlined plans for how to help those who would emigrate but did not have the means or capital to do so. In the face of these criticisms, Delany eventually did return to his Integrationist roots in the 1860s and 1870s. Delany’s struggle to amalgamate black culture with white American society is best described in the following quote:
I am not in favor of caste nor the separation of the brotherhood of mankind and would as willingly live among white men as black if I had an EQUAL POSSESSION AND ENJOYMENT of the privileges, but shall never be reconciled to live among them, [whites] subservant to their will existing by mere SUFFERANCE, as we, the colored people, in this country (Adeleke 158).
The warring ideologies of separatism vs. societal inclusion are unified within this quote. Delany speaks to the quintessential problem of the black struggle. That problem being that the black struggle is not a black struggle at all. It is simply the problem of white privilege, Manifest Destiny, etc. The barriers that existed to Delany were white barriers. He attempted to alter black society to fit some sort of acceptable mold when that was an impossibility. Despite his dalliance into separatism, moving forward, Delany spent the majority of his time working to build bridges between the black and white communities of America (Adeleke 255).
WEB Du Bois brings the struggle for black American rights into modernity
In 1868, William Edwards Burghardt Du Bois was born free in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (Lewis 11). He experienced a childhood of very little discrimination and was lovingly supported by family, friends, and community when he decided to attend college—receiving personal loans and local church donations (Lewis 39-40). After two Bachelor’s degrees and graduate work abroad where he toured Europe extensively, Du Bois returned to the United States to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. He was the first black American to receive a Ph.D. (Lewis 105). Du Bois, being of intensely high intellect, was prolific on the subject of how race affected society throughout history, especially in regard to the struggle of black Americans. In 1899, while teaching at Atlanta University, Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro, the first ever sociological study of black Americans. In it attributes many of America’s problems to the scourge of slavery (Lewis 140-141).
One of the main concepts that Du Bois created to explain the dilemmas of the black American movement to attain equality was the concept of “double consciousness”, which, according to Du Bois, is a
“sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings…whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois 3-4).
This mode of thinking would shape the remainder of Du Bois writing and would become an enduring theme in the struggle for black equality in America.
Du Bois and racial thought
DuBois explains that:
“this incessant self-questioning stifles action, responsibility, and enterprise, leaving the best energy, talent, and blood of the race paralyzed, thus surrendering the field of action to every rascal and demagogue who chooses to cloak his selfish deviltry under the veil of race pride” (Holt 302).
This consideration allows for the inclusion of credulity in regards to the earlier observations of Thomas Jefferson, Martin Delany, and others. They observed that black Americans actually are stupid, lazy, and not prone to industry. But it was not a fault of genetics or melanin content, as had been earlier suggested; instead it was the act of oppression itself that caused the disenfranchisement and “dis-enablement” of black Americans.
But this explanation also explains the exact problem that Martin Delany was running into in his political and social activities. The moral suasionists’ need for black Americans’ self-improvement from an objectively lazy and slovenly race toward the ideal (upheld mainly by whites) was false, but objectivity grants that argument merit. And Delany’s separatist attempts were no better. Both were half of the problem of double consciousness—a striving to meet the archetypal requirements of “American society” vs the striving to be free and oneself within all the glory of one’s heritage. Du Bois, in one small paragraph, has delineated the earlier problems, their barriers, and their reasons why. In so doing he points to the necessary solution, the only one that would ensure peace—true, unconditional equality in the eyes of self and in the eyes of the opposition in all things.
American? Negro? or both
Du Bois was a supporter of the Pan-Negro movement, or Pan-African movement (Ernst 213). In examining the sociology of black Americans, he noted that every black American has asked himself:
“Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both?”
Du Bois then asserts:
We are Americans. Not only by birth and by citizenship, but by our political ideals, our language, our religion…farther than that our Americanism does not go. At that point we are Negroes…that people whose subtle sense of song has given America its only American music, its only American fairy tales, its only touch of pathos and humor amid its mad money-getting plutocracy (Ernst 213).
Du Bois has made the point that black Americans are not only wholly genuine within the context of the overarching identity that is “American,” but that the identity concept of “American” was forged by black Americans through their unique cultural heritage. And when one stops to consider the effects of this forging of “American-ness” one will notice that it became a part of Americanism, indistinguishable from any other part of Americanism and this heritage belongs to all Americans no matter their race and color. Thus, the concept of “Americanism as white” is a fallacious concept.
A continuation of a sample essay that focuses on the development and evolution of the black civil rights movement in the United States. It focuses on further contributions from famous historical figures such as WEB Du Bois, Stokely Carmichael, and Barack Obama. Our professional and skilled writers offer historical research papers such as this as well as a broad spectrum of other subjects.
Education as a solution
If Douglass’ contribution was duplicative incident so as to ensure communal consciousness of society, and if Martin Delany’s contribution was to point out the flaw in the “black and white” argument (full integration versus separatism), then W.E.B. Du Bois’ contribution was most definitely education. He did spend quite a bit of time trying to coalesce the Pan-African movement, but that was later taken up and made popular by another. Du Bois defined the many truths and identities of the black American in a scholarly context that helped bring the necessary issues to the forefront of discussion.
Advocates of a “black solution”?
Since the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War, people were trying to figure out “what is to be done” with the black Americans, thus insinuating through this that there actually should be something “done” with them, which then insinuates that autonomy is inconceivable as the black American surely needs coddling. Or, a much darker inference can be made here wherein the coddling of the black American is wholly and justifiably requisite due to the immense amount of violent antipathy directed at him during that time. The black American had to be taken care of, or else he would simply be attacked or defeated.
Du Bois, in his article “Education and Work,” makes an argument as to what is to be done in regards to the education of the black American. There was the Southern school, which argued in favor of trade-based or skill-set based educational programs—the bare minimum and rather a discriminatory view of black education. Trade school type programs that would only teach them just what they needed to hold a menial position. Then there was the New England school which argued that they didn’t want to make men carpenters, but to make carpenters men.
Through thorough education of culture, history, etc.—a full, well-rounded affair—there would be an availability of leaders within the black American society (Du Bois 63).
The mere fact that these two arguments existed in such vitriolic fashion is telling. In the end, both the southern school and the New England school options were employed. It would be logical to assume that this tandem approach was employed for the very same reason it is employed to this very day—some people do not set lofty goals for themselves and only desire a skill set from which they can earn a decent living. Mechanics and handymen don’t need to learn Latin. The advanced cultural and leadership education was most likely made available to those who wanted it and could keep up—just as it is today.
Black American rights derailed through violence
On August 28, 1963, over 250,000 supporters of the civil rights movement witnessed social activist Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and they heard Bayard Rustin urge that we “carry the demands of this revolution forward” as this was a “time to act.” It was an inspiring time that invigorated the individuals within the civil rights movement with hope and action so that they were newly dedicated to achieving the aims that had been setup since before the emancipation of the slaves (Stewart 432). However, this momentum was not to last, as just a few weeks after this glorious moment, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—a center for civil rights activity—was bombed, with four young girls killed in the blast.
Stokely Carmichael’s contribution to black American rights.
Terrorist acts such as this continued and the civil rights movement members’ hopes and fresh spirits that came with the honorable and righteous peace movement were replaced by disillusionment and a more militant opposition to those who would reject their cause (Stewart 432). It was during this time of unrest that Stokely Carmichael decided to debut the idea of “black power.” Now there was a rallying cry to shout so that the black American could feel unified and stand up for himself and others with a blatantly angry symbol of all the oppression they resented and non-recognition for which they were long overdue.
Lerone Bennett writes,
“Black Power, in essence, is his [Stokely Carmichael] attempt and the attempt of many who share his vision—to change the dimensions and direction of the civil rights movement and restructure it around new axes and new power bases.”
No single catalytic or triggering event brought about the evolution of the civil rights movement, but a long series of events, crises, and failures to meet rising expectations fostered by movement rhetoric resulted in widespread disaffection with both institutional and movement establishments (Stewart 434).
To the disenfranchised masses, the term “black power” meant so much more than a simple phrase. It represented:
- The Right to Exist
To many, black power meant all of these things and many more. The main reason Stokely Carmichael was able to find such success as a leader in the civil rights movement despite the militancy of his ideas was because he had been a part of the mainstream “soft” part of the civil rights movement for years with, in his perception, no results (Stewart 434). Because he had tried it the peaceful, reasonable way in a very public setting, he could bridge the gap between more conservative views and more militant views by explanation of his direct experiences.
Call back to separatism
Stokely Carmichael was not the first black leader to advocate separatism, the notions of black power, or the slogan itself. Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Adam Clayton Powell, Eldridge Cleaver, and Malcolm X preceded him, but neither the country nor the movement was ready for their militancy, ideas, and language. He sensed the mood of the movement, seized the moment, and mounted the stage set by others to launch major evolutionary changes in the movement (Stewart 434).
Separatism and socio-philosophy
Carmichael also found success was because he understood the changing nature of the time period. It was the 1960s. Socio-political statements were attributes of the time and included:
- Free love
- Free exchange of ideas
- Intellectualism vs. dogmatic theology
- Secularizing righteousness
Instead of a stodgy, stuffed suited, overly religious “classic” civil rights leader, Stokely Carmichael presented himself for the occasion. He was already visually charismatic with his height and his “Nubian God” looks, but Carmichael also dressed for the occasion (i.e., jeans and a tee-shirt for one speaking engagement and a suit and tie for another), and he adapted the way he spoke to the venue in which he was speaking. This new approach is detailed as follows:
“Before predominantly white, college student audiences, he might read one of his essays from the Massachusetts Review or the New York Review of Books. Both language and manner would be sophisticated and scholarly and, as a university graduate, he was one of them. Before predominantly black, non-college student audiences, he would employ a hip style of the in-group, speak with a southern accent, and select materials well-suited to their experiences. As a member of SNCC and a resident of Harlem and the Bronx, he was one of them.” (Stewart 435).
Carmichael’s renaissance qualities made him able to connect with his audiences on such a massive scale despite the wide chasm of differences that he had to assuage.
Barack Obama as a representitive of black rights
In 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the first of his two terms as President of the United States of America. The fact that he was even elected at all, let alone for two terms, shows a great deal of how far America has come as a nation in the struggle for black equality. While President Obama does speak out against injustice and discrimination, that is not his primary function in the movement for civil rights and equality. He instead, seeks to act as an example that can be set for all Americans no matter what their skin color or ethnic background is through acts such as mending ties with Cuba and advocating the closure of Guantanamo Bay. While all of the leaders of the black struggle and civil rights movements have acted to serve as examples to follow, not one has been set up as a mainstream example that transcends color lines. The tables have been inverted and there is now a black American holding the position that is most important, most revered, and most used by parents as the ideal position to their young and ambition children. It is a reversal that is a fascinating evolution in the movement.
The beer summit
An example of the President at work would be the racially charged incident between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley.
Gates, after a long plane ride home, was having difficulty getting into his house. A neighbor allegedly reported an attempted burglary and the officers that showed up at the scene ended up arresting Gates for disorderly conduct. Gates asserted that he was harassed by the police and racially profiled.
It instantly became national news due to the deep undercurrent of exasperation from people of color who know exactly how out of hand profiling and discrimination can get. On the other side, the similarity to traditional racism was stirred up in the accusations. Obama called both Gates and Crowley over to his place for a beer so they could talk it over. Though critics of this move jokingly called the meeting “Beer-Summit,” a frank and productive discussion was had between Crowley and Gates. They realized that because the national focus surrounding this issue was directly on them, they needed to rise above the ire and instead use it as a teachable moment for themselves and for the rest of America (“After Beers”). Obama would continue his crusade against discrimination and intolerance in the remainder of his term through acts like lifting embargos from Vietnam and making attempts to foster peace with previous adversaries.
In revisiting the different roles of these great leaders, a clear evolutionary track appears that traces a logical progression—Douglass: keeper of incidence, Delany: recognition of the incongruity of a black/white, or either/or solution, Du Bois: depth of study of the black American which provides a thorough education that includes the full context of what it means, Carmichael: reaching the multi-variant masses with a unified message split up across a spectrum of understandings, Obama: assuming equality as a model to operate within as time progresses. Time will tell where this continuing struggle for black equality will lead, but its leaders will undoubtedly continue to blaze the trail.
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Adeleke, Tunde. Without Regard to Race: The Other Martin Robinson Delany. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, (2003). Print.
“After Beers, Professor, Officer Plan to Meet Again.” CNN Politics: 2009.Web.
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Du Bois, W.E.B.. “Education and Work”. The Journal of Negro Education, 1.1: (1932). 60-74.
Du Bois, W.E.B.. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches: Chicago, Illinois: (1903).
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Holt, Thomas C.. “Political Uses of Alienation: W.E.B. Du Bois on Politics, Race, and Culture, 1903-1940”. American Quarterly, 42.2: (1990). 301-323.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York, NY: U of North Carolina P, (1982). Print.
Lewis, David L.. W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race. Holt Paperbacks. New York, New York: (1994). Print.
Stewart, Charles J.. “The Evolution of a Revolution: Stokely Carmichael and the rhetoric of Black Power”. Quarterly Journal of Speech 83.4: (1997). 429-446.