Learning Content: The African American Civil Rights Movement

“[T]he general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws: its jurisdiction is limited ot certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which re not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.” —James Madison, Federalist 14, 1787

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Causation: How did views of democracy contribute to the development of the African American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century?

Principles: Equality and Liberty

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963

The Civil Rights Movement was a decades long fight to secure rights and end longstanding racism throughout the United States. While the events of the 1950s and 1960s have become the most recognized in historical memory, the struggle had been taking place for far longer.

In this module you will analyze causes of the African American Civil Rights Movement. The Movement has been divided into three sections: 1865-1877, 1877-1945, and 1945-1968. Following an essay for each time period to build context, there will be an opportunity to review curated resources that can be used to support the teaching of each era of the movement. You will review the content and materials with an eye to causation as well as the constitutional principles of equality and liberty.

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Building Context 1865-1877

Causation: How did views of democracy contribute to the development of the African American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century?

Principles: Equality and Liberty

Adapted from an essay by Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State University

In this political cartoon from 1865, President Lincoln and Vice President Johnson attempt to sew the country back together.

With the end of the Confederacy’s quest for independence in the Civil War, Americans faced the challenges of reuniting and rebuilding the war-torn nation, restoring the former Confederate states to the Union, and determining the status of former slaves as well as free blacks. The success of the Reconstruction effort that followed the war was limited by the sometimes conflicting goals of those who simply wanted sectional restoration and those who wanted racial justice for African Americans (see the Cartoon Analysis: The “Rail Splitter” at Work Repairing the Union, 1865 Primary Source).The legacy of the Civil War included the central question of what emancipation meant beyond the destruction of the institution of slavery. Reconstruction also tested just how far people were willing to use government power to achieve political, economic, and social ends, and whether the war had transformed the Union and the role of the federal government in life.

During the war, Lincoln had explored paths toward reconstructing the Union, hoping to erode support for the Confederacy by establishing state governments in the South that were loyal to the United States. Even the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation can be viewed as a Reconstruction effort, for it tied emancipation to Confederate refusal to abandon secession and return to the Union. In December 1863, the president issued a pair of proclamations setting forth the terms on which individual Confederates could seek amnesty and pardon (depending on their classification) and erect new state constitutions and governments as the first step toward rejoining the Union in good standing. Although these new constitutions and governments had to end slavery, there was no provision requiring that black men be granted citizenship or suffrage. Moreover, with the 10 percent rule, only a tenth of the eligible electorate of 1860 needed to take an oath of loyalty to the United States and participate in the process for Lincoln to recognize it as legitimate.

Many congressional Republicans in the North, doubting the loyalty of white southerners, took a more punitive approach and disagreed with such minimal requirements. Those who favored more extreme measures, including keeping the former Confederate states under congressional supervision, called for a more demanding process that required the participation of 50 percent of each state’s electorate and restricted voting and office holding to those who had been loyal to the Union throughout the process of Reconstruction. However, Lincoln pocket-vetoed their effort to enact such a process through the Wade-Davis Bill in the summer of 1864, leaving those who became known as Radical Republicans to complain that he was being far too lenient toward the South and was not sufficiently invested in defining what freedom meant for the former slaves.

The Struggle for African American Rights

Through the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865, Congress and the president took an initial step toward shaping the contours of emancipation by providing for a transition from slavery to freedom (see the O. O. Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau Narrative). The bureau offered monetary relief to black refugees and white refugees struggling in the aftermath of the war, arbitrated disputes between white landowners and black workers, and did what it could to promote economic and educational opportunities for the freedmen. Some of the legislation’s advocates hoped the Bureau would oversee a much larger program of land confiscation and redistribution that would break the political and economic power of white landowners while providing a foundation of economic freedom for the newly emancipated. However, it took until the war’s end for those questions to assume new importance. (See the Comparing Views of the Freedmen’s Bureau, 1866 Primary Source.)

In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Radical Republicans eagerly awaited the Reconstruction policy of his successor, Andrew Johnson. Born in North Carolina, Johnson had grown up in Tennessee, where he became a prominent Democratic politician and wartime Unionist. Republicans welcomed his pledges to punish treason and traitors as foretelling a stern policy toward the defeated South, overlooking the new president’s relative silence about the fate of the freed people. Although Johnson had freed his slaves and supported wartime emancipation, Republicans in Congress were unaware that his passionate Unionism masked an equally fierce embrace of white supremacy and a deeply felt belief in the innate inferiority of African Americans.

Johnson’s initial acts of Reconstruction policy echoed Lincoln’s wartime initiatives, calling for the negation of the ordinances of secession, the abolition of slavery (including ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment by state legislatures elected under these new state governments), and the nullification of Confederate debts. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing black citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment granting black men the right to vote were known at the Reconstruction Amendments. But Johnson made no provision for African Americans’ citizenship, male suffrage, or economic and educational opportunity. Johnson’s pardon policy stopped confiscation of Confederate property for freed people in its tracks. It provided for the restoration of all property to people covered by the policy, although wealthy white southerners (as well as other classes of prominent Confederates) had to seek pardon from the president personally.

Encouraged by Johnson’s leniency, white southerners went about constructing new state constitutions and governments that sought to retain the hold white supremacy had had over the South. In a few cases, they debated whether to accept emancipation or seek compensation for their losses. None of the former Confederate states provided for black citizenship, and male suffrage was out of the question, as was government assistance to promote educational or economic opportunities. Instead, legislatures passed so-called Black Codes that provided a second-class status for blacks, limited their rights of citizenship, and established differential punishments, according to race, for individuals convicted of a crime . The new regimes also elected prominent former Confederates to office at the state and national levels (see The Emergence of Black Codes DBQ Lesson). Whatever reservations Johnson harbored about this outcome were concealed in his declaration that his policy was “an experiment” subject to modifications many Republicans were only too eager to suggest.

(a) In this 1868 drawing from Harper’s Weekly, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and freed people. (b) Contrast this image with the 1866 campaign poster from Pennsylvania opposing the Freedman’s Bureau. How do these images reveal the tensions facing the newly unified nation?

Such an approach to Reconstruction held out little hope to the freed people. Gone were notions of equality before the law, let alone suffrage. The almost exclusively white ownership of land and the continuing poverty of freed people, who now owned little but themselves, meant that most blacks remained agricultural workers for their former masters. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau did its best to arbitrate labor disputes, most whites were not willing to treat their workers fairly. Moreover, as blacks tested their freedom by moving about, entering town, seeking to reunite families, and establishing households that reduced the time women and children worked in the fields, whites claimed that the former slaves were lazy, shiftless, and disrespectful and had to be coerced to work. Sometimes whites sought to restore their preferred social order by vigorous application of the Black Codes; at other times they used intimidation and violence, slowly laying the foundation for more organized forms of terrorism embodied in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. (See The Ku Klux Klan and Violence at the Polls Narrative.)

Most Republican leaders were unsatisfied with the outcome of Johnson’s experiment in restoring white southerners to the Union while dismissing the needs of the freed people. When Congress convened in December 1865, Republicans refused to seat the southerners elected under Johnson’s plan. They commenced investigating conditions in the South and began to frame alternate proposals to protect the rights of blacks and promote opportunities for them. They also passed civil rights legislation that would have made equality before the law subject to federal enforcement in the absence of state action. Johnson struck back, vetoing a bill that would have expanded the authority of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congressional Republicans failed to override this veto, settling instead for the less ambitious Civil Rights Act of 1866 several months later (see the Andrew Johnson’s Veto of the Civil Rights Act, 1866). This time they overrode the president’s veto, thus setting the stage for a showdown over Reconstruction between the president and Congress.

A depiction of the violence of the 1866 Memphis riots.

Events in the South testified to the need for federal intervention to stop white supremacist terrorism against black southerners and their white allies. In May, a white mob in Memphis, Tennessee, attacked black Union veterans who had just been discharged from service; three months later, another mob, this time in New Orleans, attacked marchers protesting the actions of the Louisiana state government. However, the threat of a presidential veto limited what Republicans could achieve through the normal legislative process.

They chose instead to implement a fairly moderate Reconstruction program through the ratification of a new constitutional amendment, the Fourteenth. This defined U.S. citizenship to include African Americans, provided for all people to enjoy equal protection under law, and established which former Confederates could hold federal office. Of critical importance was that the amendment prevented the southern states from increasing their representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College by reducing representation for states that denied the right to vote to any adult men who qualified as citizens. Any former Confederate state that ratified the amendment was to be readmitted to full status within the Union. Tennessee was the first to take advantage of the opportunity.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, represented a fundamental expansion of federal authority to protect the rights of U.S. citizens, a group it defined for the first time. It was a measure behind which most Republicans could rally, and it was written to forestall Johnson’s opposition. It only indirectly addressed suffrage, for instance, allowing the states to determine qualifications for the exercise of that right, although it established new consequences for limiting it among adult male citizens. It said nothing explicit about securing the economic or educational futures of the freed people. Nevertheless, politicians and observers at the time recognized the importance of the measure for African Americans. The president might protest the amendment, but because as president he could not vote on it, he could not prevent its ratification unless he rallied fellow Democrats in opposition.

Radical Reconstruction and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Thus, the midterm elections of 1866 became a national referendum on Reconstruction, as Johnson sought to erode Republican congressional majorities while Republicans looked to secure veto-proof supermajorities. In a contest made memorable by a disastrous speaking tour by the president, called the Swing Around the Circle, Republicans prevailed by presenting themselves as the party that would best protect the fruits of northern victory against the threats posed by former Confederates and their northern Democratic allies. In the aftermath of defeat, Johnson urged southern state legislatures to reject the Fourteenth Amendment, persuading Republicans to renew their efforts to seek legislative solutions.

Republicans offered their answer in the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. The state governments established under Johnson’s plan in the ten former Confederate states that had not ratified the Fourteenth Amendment were declared provisional. They were divided into five districts, with each placed under the supervision of a major general. In this way the southern states were required to undergo the process of framing state constitutions and electing state and federal officials.

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 split the South into five military districts and required the states to create new constitutions and elect new officials. (credit: “Five Districts” by Bill of Rights Institute/Flickr, CC BY 4.0)

This time, however, African American men would participate in the process as voters, delegates, and elected officials—a broad act of enfranchisement accomplished through federal power. The intent was to secure black freedom, equality, and opportunity, although the acts still fell short of securing economic resources, most importantly land ownership, for the freed people. Radical Republicans could not convince enough of their moderate Republican colleagues to go along with more revolutionary measures, and the necessity of passing bills that could withstand the challenge of a presidential veto loomed large in the framing of these proposals.

As the idea of land confiscation and redistribution faded, those blacks who could not secure ownership of their own lands continued to negotiate with white landowners who needed their labor to till their plantations. In an economy short of cash and credit, both parties turned to sharecropping, a system in which landowners rented land, tools, seed, livestock, and housing to laborers (eventually white and black alike) in exchange for a significant portion of the crop.

This system proved unsustainable. In years when there was a poor harvest, workers struggled to meet their obligations, plunging themselves further into debt, whereas a high yield might mean a surplus of crops, leading to lower prices. Storekeepers also extended credit to workers to purchase food, clothing, tools, seed, and other commodities, with the same result: over time, indebtedness increased. Other systems of credit, such as the crop-lien system (in which the merchant provided the supplies for the workers, including tools and seed) and straight wage labor, competed with sharecropping to shape southern agriculture. Although sharecroppers enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy than slaves had and felt their fortunes depended on their own efforts, on the whole it was not a profitable system, and with the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872, federal supervision of the contracting system came to an end.

If congressional Reconstruction did not lead to a revolution in the structure of the southern economy or a massive expansion in economic opportunity for blacks, the new legislation nevertheless opened the door to large-scale participation in politics and public life for African American adult men. They voted for the first time in large numbers, served as delegates to state constitutional conventions, and won election to local, state, and even federal offices. The new local and state governments erected schools and provided for public education. Although significant numbers of southern whites did what they could to obstruct this process, by 1868, all but three of the former Confederate states had regained their representation in Congress, participated in the presidential contest of that year, and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.

Congress also took steps to prevent presidential obstruction of its Reconstruction initiatives. A rider to an army appropriations bill provided that the president had to issue orders through the general-in-chief (Ulysses S. Grant, an advocate of congressional measures), and the Tenure of Office Act stated that federal officeholders whose nominations required Senate approval could not be removed by the president without Senate approval, although they could be suspended while Congress was not in session.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1867, Andrew Johnson struggled unsuccessfully to hamper implementation of congressional measures, but once Congress recessed, he wasted no time in suspending Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a supporter of Republican measures, from the cabinet. In the fall elections throughout the North, Republicans suffered a series of setbacks, in part because of their efforts to secure black suffrage there. These losses signaled the limits of popular support for Radical measures.

This depiction of the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson before the Senate appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in March 1868.

Emboldened by this sign, Johnson sought to resist the Senate’s failure to concur in Stanton’s removal, finally deciding to remove him outright in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act. The House of Representatives responded by impeaching Johnson on February 24, 1868, although its articles of impeachment fell short of placing presidential obstruction at the center of the indictment. Seven Republicans joined Democrats to acquit Johnson by a single vote in the Senate trial; therefore, he was not removed from office and served the remainder of his term. Johnson’s acquittal occurred, in part, because of Republican concerns about the politics of the man who would replace him, Ohio Radical Benjamin Wade, and because most Republicans had rallied behind the candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant to secure control of the White House through more traditional means. (See The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson Decision Point and the Comparing Impeachments across U.S. History Lesson.)

The Grant Administration

In accepting the Republican nomination, war hero Ulysses S. Grant declared, “Let us have peace.” This pledge looked to an end of political strife, sectional disputes, anti-black violence, and partisan bickering, and it was offered by someone who seemed to be above partisan politics and who promised to restore order. It did not hurt Republican prospects that Democratic nominee Horatio Seymour had addressed New York draft rioters in 1863 as “my friends,” or that his running mate, Francis P. Blair, Jr., pledged to undo Reconstruction legislation.

In the contest that followed, Grant secured an easy victory in the electoral vote, but his victory in the popular vote was narrower. The main reason was that white supremacist terrorist groups, notably the Ku Klux Klan, suppressed the black vote throughout the South. The support given Grant by African American voters, casting ballots in large numbers in a national contest for the first time, helped overcome those efforts, though suppression secured Georgia for the Democrats. Congressional measures undid that result, however, relegating Georgia to Congress’s supervision. Furthermore, Republicans proposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which declared that race, color, or previous condition of servitude could not deprive citizens of the right to vote and provided for the passage of legislation to enforce that mandate. They sought to secure federal protection for black voters in the South while extending black suffrage throughout the North.

Many suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were bitterly disappointed and opposed the Fifteenth Amendment because mostly illiterate black men won the right to vote but not educated white women. The women’s suffrage movement split over the dispute. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, which opposed the Fifteenth Amendment and pursued an amendment for women’s suffrage. Lucy Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association, which supported the Fifteenth Amendment and pursued a state-by-state strategy for women’s suffrage.

During Grant’s first term, the remaining former Confederate states (Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas, along with Georgia) regained their full standing within the Union, while the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment appeared to be the culmination of Reconstruction efforts at the federal level. Republicans looked to address new issues, including financial and monetary policy, tariff legislation, and civil service reform, which promised to free federal officeholding from the grasp of partisan politics. Reconstruction was not over, however, in large part because of the persistence of white supremacist terrorist violence throughout the South. In response, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts, including the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which provided for federal intervention to subdue such violence and strengthened presidential authority to act vigorously by suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus during peacetime and declaring martial law as part of that effort. However, the measures were controversial, and an increasing number of Republicans believed the federal government could do no more to protect black rights. Others thought that by providing for black suffrage, Republican policymakers had ensured blacks could use the ballot to protect themselves and advance their interests.

This print celebrates both the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1870, and the hope for black rights it brought with it.

Grant’s attempts to advance black rights and interests had effects not only in Reconstruction policies but in foreign policy as well. In 1869, the administration opened negotiations to annex the Dominican Republic, a newly independent former Spanish colony. Although Grant appreciated the Dominican Republic’s strategic and economic value, he was particularly interested in the notion that African Americans could choose to migrate to the island if it became part of the United States. He thought they could use the threat of such migration, which would deplete the agricultural work force in the South, as leverage to secure southern whites’ recognition of their rights at home. However, several Republicans, led by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Missouri Senator Carl Schurz, had serious enough reservations about the wisdom of the measure and the circumstances surrounding the negotiation to ensure Senate rejection of the proposal.

The ensuing debate helped drive a wedge between Grant and Sumner, two leading advocates of black freedom. Schurz, in turn, became one of the founders of an anti-Grant movement within Republican ranks that eventually grew into a third party, the Liberal Republicans. Although some of this movement’s leaders claimed its followers supported civil service reform, free trade, an end to federal intervention in the South, and monetary reform, the diversity of the views represented when the party met to nominate a presidential candidate suggested it was largely an anti-Grant movement. Its nominee, Horace Greeley, lost in a landslide to Grant, who could cite his advocacy of Reconstruction and civil service reform as well as his successful diplomatic efforts in peacefully resolving outstanding issues with Great Britain dating from the Civil War.

This 1868 political cartoon warned scalawags and carpetbaggers of the fate that awaited those who attempted to oppose white supremacist groups.

Grant’s reelection could not in itself secure the success of Reconstruction. Throughout the South, Republican governments—a coalition of northerners labeled “carpetbaggers” by their foes (in reference to their suitcase made of carpeting material and testimony to their alleged opportunistically vagabond background), white reformist southerners (derisively called “scalawags” by unrepentant southerners), and African Americans—struggled valiantly against southern Democrats and their paramilitary groups that used violence and intimidation to suppress Republican voters. Efforts to promote regional prosperity through postwar recovery proved unavailing in the face of economic depression after a financial crash in 1873. Wealthier white southerners resented the increased tax burdens they shouldered to help provide for public schools and opportunities intended to benefit more marginalized southerners, including African Americans. In states where native white southerners were a key part of the Republican coalition, many Republicans eventually defected back to Democratic ranks in the wake of economic difficulties. This left violence as the main way to overthrow Republican regimes that depended on black votes to stay in power. The limited and ineffective federal efforts to subdue such violence exposed the regimes’ inability to defend themselves, undermining their legitimacy. (See the Cartoon Analysis: Thomas Nast on Reconstruction, 1869–1874 Primary Source.)

Grant’s second term proved far more challenging than his first. Investigations of congressional corruption and malfeasance, although they did not directly involve the administration, tarnished Republican prospects, and the crash in 1873 and ensuing depression brought hard times when the federal government’s ability to respond constructively was limited. Reconstruction proved less popular as it continued, with Republican governments throughout the South falling one by one even as racist violence oppressed African Americans. Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 1874, bringing an end to additional legislation to support Reconstruction, although the Civil Rights Act of 1875 represented a last effort to secure equal access to public facilities. The law banned racial discrimination in public transportation and accommodations, but it was declared unconstitutional in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases. Supreme Court decisions severely curtailed legislation designed to provide for federal enforcement of black voting rights, while an increasing number of northern voters, more interested in addressing the consequences of economic depression, had grown weary of continuing to pursue the Reconstruction experiment. Nor did it help that the Grant administration found itself beset by scandal after scandal, with the president coming under attack because of the actions of people he trusted.

By the presidential election year of 1876, only three southern states remained under Republican rule (South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida). The Republicans nominated Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a Civil War veteran with a reputation as a reformer, and the Democrats nominated New York governor Samuel J. Tilden, a reformer who opposed the operations of New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall machine. In the election, northern Republicans waved the “bloody shirt” of Civil War memory, linking the Democrats with a resurgent Confederacy. Northern Democrats, on the other hand, denounced the excesses of Reconstruction, held Republicans responsible for the continuing depression, and reminded voters of the corruption in the Grant administration. Having returned to power in a majority of the former Confederate states, southern Democrats, also known as Redeemers, argued for home rule (meaning an end to federal intervention and Reconstruction) and supported efforts to overthrow the remaining Republican-led state governments by whatever means were necessary, including more violence.

Garfield and Tilden supporters claimed victory in the three remaining Republican states. This led to the formation of an electoral commission to determine who, indeed, had prevailed in states where Republican fraud sought to overcome Democratic violence. Composed of five members of the House of Representatives, five U.S. senators, and five Supreme Court justices, the commission divided along partisan lines, with the Republicans claiming victory in critical decisions by a single vote. Hayes, who had already committed to a new approach to southern affairs that featured the withdrawal of federal support of Republican statehouses, took office in the wake of a so-called Compromise of 1877 that guaranteed that result along with other concessions, few of which ever materialized.

The northern victory in the Civil War confirmed the promise of an American union of republican liberty and equality. The slaves were freed during the war and received constitutional protections after. However, the promise was not fully met. African Americans lost their rights and lived in a segregated society rooted in racist beliefs of inequality (see the To What Extent Did American Principles Become a Reality for African Americans during Reconstruction? Point-Counterpoint). The nation continued to struggle with this contradiction as the rise of a new industrial order and social change created economic growth as well as new challenges.

Resource Review 1

Causation: How did views of democracy contribute to the development of the African American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century?

Principles: Equality and Liberty

There is a wealth of resources available in our Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness digital textbook. The resources are organized into different categories including:

📎 Inquiry Organizer: Summary of chapter objectives and resources

📖 Chapter Introductory Essay: In-depth overview of significant events in the time period

🔎 Narratives: Shorter essays on a dramatic story or individual

📍 Decision Points: Narratives that describe a pivotal decision in history

💬 Point-Counterpoints: Differing sides of an argument presented by scholars or historical figures

✒️ Primary Sources: Firsthand accounts from the time period

📝 Lessons: Instructions and handouts to engage students in the classroom

✏️ Unit Essay Activity: Culminating essay based on AP LEQs to assess chapter objectives

Using the provided reflection questions, review the following resources:

  1. 🔎 O.O. Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau
  2. ✒️ Cartoon Analysis: Thomas Nast on Reconstruction
  3. 📝 The Emergence of Black Codes DBQ

Then choose at least two more resources to review. In the discussion, you will be asked to share your reflections of these resources.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do these resources reveal about equality and liberty for African Americans from 1865-1877?
  2. How do these resources help in understanding the causes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century?

Other Resources

Building Context 1877-1945

Causation: How did views of democracy contribute to the development of the African American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century?

Principles: Equality and Liberty

Adapted from works by LeeAnna Keith, The Collegiate School; Melvyn Dubofsky, Binghamton University; Michael Parrish, UC San Diego; and Anthony Badger, Cambridge University

Introduction: 1877-1945

The late nineteenth century saw the rapid growth of the American economy as technological developments and immigration led to the rise of an industrial, mass-production society. American capitalism drew on the country’s vast natural resources, the ready supply of laborers, and the expertise and determination of a new class of industrialists. Railroads provided a powerful medium for wealth creation, giving rise to the modern corporation, innovations in finance, and increasing demand for steel, machinery, oil, and laborers of all kinds. As railroad networks expanded, the cost of freight plummeted, creating opportunities for national distribution networks, new consumer-driven industries, and the emergence of advertising and national brands.

The American economic and social landscape was changing. Large cities were crowded with new arrivals, leading to widespread poverty, pollution, and disease. Local and state government services were virtually nonexistent. Conditions in factories were often dangerous and unhealthy for employees. Millions of unskilled workers still lived on the edge of poverty and under the constant threat of unemployment or industrial accident. Contention was rife during worker strikes, farmer revolts, recessions, and attempts to restrict immigration. The end of Reconstruction left African Americans in a precarious position due to sharecropping, legal segregation, denial of civil rights, and violence that frustrated the promises of equality. Women struggled for equality and the right to vote in states and nationally.

The period from the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century became known as the “Gilded Age” because the United States became an industrial powerhouse with rapidly expanding national wealth. However, underneath the gilded surface, the period presented Americans with many challenges that shaped the course of twentieth-century American history.

African Americans in the Gilded Age

During the Gilded Age, African Americans in the South endured the emergence of the “Jim Crow” system. The progress and political gains made possible by post–Civil War constitutional amendments and Reconstruction soon regressed after a series of Supreme Court decisions and tactical victories by white supremacists. The first element of the unraveling was white violence, enabled by the retreat of the federal government from its role as the defender of black citizenship. By the 1880s, the terror conducted by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups after the end of Reconstruction had suppressed black voter participation to less than one-third of age-eligible men. Having seized control of politics, white southerners passed discriminatory laws, the worst of which aimed at the economic and political subjugation of black neighbors. A segregated and unequal public education system offered black students little opportunity to advance. Jim Crow laws and practices, such as segregation on railway cars and other accommodations, also attached daily humiliations to African Americans’ public life (see the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Narrative, the Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching Narrative, and the Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law,” 1893 Primary Source).

W. E. B. Du Bois, photographed in 1918, was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an early advocate of African American civil rights.

African Americans responded creatively to the challenge of economic and political subordination. One school of thought among black intellectuals argued for making progress in the South by building up black resources and skills. The leading figure of this so-called accommodationist approach was Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, which specialized in agricultural and mechanical instruction and inspired a wave of college and university development that white southerners tended to support (see the Booker T. Washington, “Speech to the Cotton States and International Exposition,” 1895 Primary Source). An alternate view was urged by W. E. B. Du Bois, who championed the idea that African Americans demand equal opportunity, civil rights, liberal arts education, and an end to discrimination (see the Debating Strategies for Change: Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. DuBois Lesson). Du Bois became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from Harvard, wrote groundbreaking sociological studies of the black experience, and helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Finally, a third way encouraged the migration of African Americans out of the South to destinations in the West, in Africa, and in northern cities.

America and a World at War

In the summer of 1914, Europe erupted into war as the Central Powers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, lined up against the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Tsarist Russia. Wilson wanted to maintain U.S. neutrality. He asked Americans to be neutral in thought as well as action.

However, neutrality proved impossible.

African Americans fought in the war to make the world “safe for democracy,” but they made only halting gains in enjoying democracy themselves. Whether they volunteered or were conscripted into the U.S. Army, they were eager to prove their patriotism to their country, even if it forced them into segregated units. Of the 400,000 black soldiers who served, most did menial labor, but the 92nd and 93rd Divisions served in combat alongside the French and fought bravely. At home, more than 500,000 African Americans moved to the North; others went to southern cities for job opportunities and to escape the ravages of the boll weevil infestation on southern cotton farms. However, they faced discrimination and segregation in jobs and housing even in the North. In 1917, race riots erupted, with 125 blacks killed in East St. Louis, Illinois, alone.

Postwar America suffered the chaos of labor strikes, race riots, and runaway inflation during its effort to demobilize the armed forces and return to peace. Four million workers went on strike in a massive labor action that included a strike by 300,000 steel workers, 400,000 coal miners, and textile and garment workers; a general strike in Seattle; and a police strike in Boston. The strikes generated widespread popular discontent and caused authorities to respond with severe repression. As a result, labor’s wartime gains in membership began to dissolve, vanishing by 1922. Women, who had enjoyed greater employment opportunities and higher wages during the war, returned to the home or to low-wage jobs defined as women’s work. African Americans suffered a similar fate, one that was compounded by race riots in 1919–1921, the worst of which occurred in Chicago in the summer of 1919 and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.

A Post-war World

World War I signaled great changes in the modern world. The conflict’s introduction of total warfare mobilized the industrial economies of the great powers and left 8.5 million soldiers dead, 21 million wounded, and 7.5 million missing or captured. The combined debts of the combatant nations totaled $232 billion. Four empires—Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and German—had collapsed, inspiring their subject people from Asia to the Caribbean to demand independence. In Russia, a communist-led coup by Vladimir Lenin enabled him to seize power; he negotiated a separate peace with Germany and vowed to spread revolution throughout the world. By 1920, a deadly influenza epidemic, likely spread by the movement of troops, had killed another 22 million people, including 675,000 in the United States. The almost wholesale destruction of an entire generation of young men led many to question old assumptions and traditional truths. The Versailles Treaty failed to establish a just and sound peace, sowing the seeds for future conflict, as many contemporaries noted. The United States could not escape the consequences of victory, peace, and demobilization in 1919–1920.

Sociocultural Conflict and Debate over Modernization

In addition to exacerbating racial and class tensions and restricting civil liberties, the war and its immediate aftermath also led to several movements inspired by great anxiety over modernization. Industrialization, immigration, and urbanization had wrought significant changes in the American economy, society, and culture. Deep divides resulted as some people embraced or adapted to modernism and others revolted against it. The 1920 federal census indicated that, for the first time, more Americans lived in metropolitan areas than in small towns and villages, but the cultural debates were less about city versus country and more about the debate over modernization.

Ethnocultural divisions defined the struggle over immigration restriction, which many proponents felt was necessary to protect the nation’s cultural and ethnic purity from immigrants. World War I had stirred toxic nativism against “hyphenated Americans,” especially German Americans, which spilled over into the government’s Palmer Raids, targeting aliens suspected of radical politics. Army intelligence tests, administered during the war, also gave credibility to false claims that native-born army recruits surpassed more recent immigrants in their mental capacities. Wilson had vetoed an attempt to impose a literacy test for all new immigrants during the war, but Congress overrode him. After the war, immigration restriction gained momentum and broad support.

The new immigration laws, adopted by Congress in 1921 and 1924, severely curtailed the opportunity for immigrants to move to the United States, which generally had had been open to immigrants since the American founding. The 1924 law capped transatlantic immigration at 150,000 people per year, apportioned by the national origins recorded in the census of 1890 and giving a higher quota to Northern Europeans than to those from Southern or Eastern Europe. Immigration from Japan and other Asian countries was banned entirely. The exceptions were people from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America, because of the agriculture industry’s demand for cheap farm labor. These laws remained the basic framework of American immigration policy until 1965 and were a potent symbol of the country’s retreat from Wilson internationalism in the 1920s.

Many Protestants sought to preserve traditional Victorian virtues and American culture. From 1915 to 1925, four million Americans, mostly white Protestants, joined the new Ku Klux Klan, the “Invisible Empire,” dedicated to preserving white supremacy, traditional values, and a Protestant America against the perceived threat from African Americans, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. Members feared the effects on American society of the crime, vice, and drinking they associated with immigrants in urban areas. With their hooded white robes and nighttime rituals, Klansmen and their female auxiliaries spread more than verbal bigotry and burned more than a few crosses; they often subjected their victims to beatings, whippings, and lynchings.

Unlike the post-Civil War Klan, the refurbished organization flourished far outside the Old South, recruiting members especially in the booming cities of the upper Midwest, the Plains, and the Northwest: Indianapolis, Denver, Dallas, and Portland. By 1925, the Klan, headquartered in Atlanta, was raking in $40,000 a month in dues and initiation fees, but it could not survive the rape and murder conviction of its Indiana Grand Dragon David Stephenson or the financial scandals that put other local Klan leaders behind bars by the end of the decade (Figure 11.6). The organization shed many members and lost its national reach until its resurgence in the civil rights era. (See The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s Narrative and The KKK during Reconstruction vs. the KKK in the 1920s Lesson Plan.)

Ku Klux Klan members, known for their white robes and head coverings, are pictured here c. 1925 initiating new members near the Capitol in Washington, DC.

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti revealed additional fault lines in the sociocultural divide over modernization in the 1920s. On April 15, 1920, two men stole a payroll of more than $15,000 in Massachusetts and in the process killed two people. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, immigrants with radical affiliations, were arrested and tried the following year. The presiding judge made biased comments against the defendants’ political views, and the jury found them guilty. After years of fruitless appeals, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927. They were idolized by many intellectuals for being victims of an injustice suffered by poor immigrants, but the evidence of their guilt was still being debated more than a century later.

African Americans

In a postwar America dominated by strident nationalism, racial chauvinism, and fear of foreigners, African Americans were the most oppressed minority group and responded in a variety of ways. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) arose, headed by Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, who advocated black pride and racial purity and railed against the integrationist ideology of other black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its leader W. E. B. De Bois. (See the Marcus Garvey, “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” 1920 Primary Source.)

By the early 1920s, Garvey’s UNIA operated a small life insurance business, grocery stores, a newspaper called Negro World, and a steamship line, the Black Star, intended to promote trade among Africans and their descendants throughout the world. It was also part of a black nationalist “Back to Africa” movement hoping to relocate African Americans away from a racist America. Sporting military uniforms and a red, black, and green flag, Garvey’s followers marched in urban areas from New York to Los Angeles, swelling the group’s membership to more than two million members in 800 local chapters on four continents. Echoing Booker T. Washington and black nationalists, Garvey preached economic self-reliance and racial autonomy, earning the enmity of the NAACP and the attention of the Department of Justice. The head of the Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover, launched an inquiry into the UNIA’s financial activities. Sloppy bookkeeping made Garvey an easy target. Convicted of mail fraud in 1923, he served a five-year federal prison sentence and then was deported as an undesirable alien. The UNIA soon collapsed without him.

The artists, poets, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance brilliantly expressed the hopes and fears of African Americans as they demanded their rightful place in American society. The Renaissance was rooted in the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities such as New York (home to the neighborhood of Harlem) during and after World War I. With its mixture of appeals to African Americans’ pride and their long history of cultural achievements and struggles, the Harlem Renaissance was a great flourishing of black culture. Poets such as Langston Hughes evoked ancient glories and staked a claim for equality. Novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, exploring the relationships of African American men and women in the postslavery South. Jazz and blues music spread from the South and were popular in clubs with patrons of different races. Black pride and cultural achievement helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II civil rights movement. (See the Langston Hughes, “I, Too” and “The Weary Blues,” 1920 and 1925 Primary Source and The Blues and the Great Migration Lesson.)

The Great Crash and the Great Depression

After the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, anxious crowds gathered outside the New York Stock Exchange as the nation’s economy imploded.

From 1927 to 1929, banks and corporations loaded $7.6 billion into the stock market to encourage the buying of shares on credit and to foster the belief that continued increases in common stock values had become inevitable. Shares of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), for example, soared from $85 to $420 without the company paying investors a single dividend. Wright Aircraft stock increased $220 per share in 19 months, and shares of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain jumped $52 in one day of trading. The reckoning came at the end of October 1929, when company earnings faltered and panic about their stock values set in. Investors sold off six million shares on October 21, another 12.9 million on October 24, “Black Thursday,” and yet another 16.6 million on October 29, “Black Tuesday.” Even blue chip stocks like AT&T, General Electric, and Standard Oil lost half their value. Crafty investors were wiped out in the Great Crash. The banking system, the heart of the nation’s credit network, stopped functioning. America entered the longest economic decline so far in its history .

On Saturday, March 4, 1933, newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” However, the economic collapse called the Great Depression meant the American people had every reason to be fearful. On the morning Roosevelt took office, the governors of New York and Illinois had closed the great financial centers of New York City and Chicago, the culmination of six weeks during which state after state had closed its banks to halt the runs as desperate customers lined up to withdraw their money. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) had fallen by one-third since 1929. Between one-quarter and one-third of the industrial work force was out of a job, and many of the rest were working only part-time. Agriculture, which employed one-third of the nation’s workforce, was stricken. World commodity prices had collapsed, and cotton and wheat farmers found themselves with huge surpluses that sold well below the cost of production, if at all. In some areas, conversely, drought had destroyed what crops there were. Everywhere, indebted farmers lost their farms when they could not pay their taxes or repay mortgages. In the cities, 1,000 homeowners a day were losing their homes.

The New Deal and Minorities

Many white southern politicians feared New Deal interference in segregation in the 1930s. The New Deal did not challenge segregation or the disfranchisement of African Americans. In fact, it discriminated against African Americans in the administration of its programs through outright exclusion and lower wages and by leaving the distribution of funds in the hands of state and local officials who favored segregation. Moreover, Roosevelt refused to support the demands of African Americans, despite the lobbying of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for an antilynching bill, because he feared the political consequences of offending powerful southern committee chairs in Congress.

Nevertheless, African Americans were one of the poorest groups in the country and received more government assistance than ever before. As a result, from 1934 on, many African Americans in northern cities transferred their political allegiance from the Republican “Party of Lincoln” to the Democratic Party of Roosevelt. African American leaders in the South saw the potential for the federal government, which had transformed a region’s economy, to transform that region’s race relations as well (Figure 12.4). What those leaders saw as potential salvation, however, many white southerners saw as potential disaster.

Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” a group of African Americans who worked as public policy advisors to the Roosevelts, helped advocate for assistance to African Americans during the New Deal. (credit: Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

The United States in World War II

The overwhelming priority of President Roosevelt and his advisers was to defeat Germany. Hitler helped make the case for that by declaring war on the United States immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. American industrial power was expected to contribute greatly to an Allied victory, but it still took time for the nation to assemble and train the necessary troops and produce the weapons they needed. In the meantime, the United States had to help Britain and Russia survive the Nazi onslaught, which looked unstoppable through 1942. The United States joined Great Britain to open a second front in North Africa in 1943, followed by invasions of Sicily and Italy.

On the American Home Front in World War II

The federal government used precedents from World War I to mobilize millions of workers to produce supplies for the war and to draft millions of soldiers for the armed forces. Executive agencies were again created to rationalize the war effort and manage the American economy and society. The Office of War Information managed popular opinion through propaganda posters and films such as the Why We Fight series (see the World War II Propaganda Posters, 1941–1945 Primary Source). The War Production Board, Office of War Mobilization, and National Resources Planning Board helped manage war production. The National War Labor Board helped negotiate labor-management relations.

The American industrial achievement in becoming the “arsenal for democracy,” as Roosevelt described the country’s production capacity to supply itself and its allies, was astonishing. In 1939, defense spending was a mere 1 percent of GNP; by 1944 it was 44 percent. Government spending increased from $9 billion a year at the beginning of the war to $98 billion in 1944 and totaled approximately $300 billion. During the war, the country produced 100,000 tanks, 300,000 airplanes, 1,500 naval vessels, 2.3 million trucks, 35,000 landing craft, dozens of aircraft carriers, and the technology to manufacture two atomic bombs.

To meet demands for labor, the defense industries and the armed services had to turn to African American workers and military recruits. African American leaders in World War II demanded concessions for their participation in the war effort (see the A. Philip Randolph, The Call to Negro America to March on Washington, 1941 Primary Source). A threatened march on Washington forced Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which aimed to eliminate racial discrimination in firms with defense contracts and to end discrimination, but not segregation, in the armed services. One million African Americans left farms and moved to the southern and northern cities to work in factories. Another million served in the military. African American leaders campaigned for a Double V, victory against segregation and racism at home and victory overseas (see the Double V for Victory: The Effort to Integrate the U.S. Military Narrative). African Americans also flocked to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and participate in lawsuits against segregation. They increasingly held the electoral balance of power in northern cities. In the South, black servicemen returned from the war with raised expectations and a determination to assert their civil rights.

Additional Resources

Resource Review 2

Causation: How did views of democracy contribute to the development of the African American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century?

Principles: Equality and Liberty

There is a wealth of resources available in our Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness digital textbook. The resources are organized into different categories including:

📎 Inquiry Organizer: Summary of chapter objectives and resources

📖 Chapter Introductory Essay: In-depth overview of significant events in the time period

🔎 Narratives: Shorter essays on a dramatic story or individual

📍 Decision Points: Narratives that describe a pivotal decision in history

💬 Point-Counterpoints: Differing sides of an argument presented by scholars or historical figures

✒️ Primary Sources: Firsthand accounts from the time period

📝 Lessons: Instructions and handouts to engage students in the classroom

✏️ Unit Essay Activity: Culminating essay based on AP LEQs to assess chapter objectives

Using the provided reflection questions, review the following resources:

  1. 🔎 Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching
  2. 📝 The KKK during Reconstruction vs. the KKK in the 1920s
  3. 📝 Debating Strategies for Change: Booker T. Washington vs W.E.B. Du Bois

Then choose at least two more resources to review. In the discussion, you will be asked to share your reflections of these resources.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do these resources reveal about equality and liberty for African Americans from 1898-1945?
  2. How do these resources help in understanding the causes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century?

Other Resources

Building Context 1945-1968

Causation: How did views of democracy contribute to the development of the African American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th century?

Principles: Equality and Liberty

Adapted from works by Patrick Allitt, Emory University; Maurice Isserman, Hamilton College

The Movement Grows

Encouraged by early signs of a change in national racial policy and by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), African American organizations intensified their efforts to challenge southern segregation. Martin Luther King Jr., then a spellbinding young preacher in Montgomery, Alabama, led a Montgomery bus boycott that began in December 1955. Inspired by the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a city bus, African Americans refused to ride Montgomery’s buses unless the company abandoned its policy of forcing them to ride at the back and to give up their seats to whites when the bus was crowded. After a year, the boycott succeeded. King went on to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which practiced nonviolent resistance as a tactic, attracting press attention, embarrassing the agents of segregation, and promoting racial integration. (See the Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Narrative and the Rosa Parks’s Account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Radio Interview), April 1956 Primary Source.)

In 1957, Congress passed the first federal protection of civil rights since Reconstruction and empowered the federal government to protect black voting rights. However, the bill was watered down and did not lead to significant change. In August, black students tried to attend high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, but were blocked by National Guard troops. Over the next few weeks, angry crowds assembled and threatened these students. President Eisenhower decided to send in federal troops to protect the nine black students. In the postwar era, African Americans won some victories in the fight for equality, but many southern whites began a campaign of massive resistance to that goal.

Thus, the pace of school desegregation across the south remained very slow. White southerners in Congress promised massive resistance to the policy. When it came to the point, however, only one county, Prince Edward County, Virginia, actually closed down its public schools rather than permit them to be desegregated. Other districts, gradually and reluctantly, eventually undertook integration, but widespread discrimination persisted, especially in the South.

The 1960s opened as an optimistic decade for Americans. The strength of the country’s industrial and consumer economy was preeminent in the postwar world. The Cold War had spawned a broad anti-communist consensus against the Soviet Union among most Americans despite fears of a nuclear war. African Americans and women continued to work to attain greater equality in civil rights. President John F. Kennedy represented a new generation that was coming to leadership, and in his inaugural address, he called for a shared vision of progress.

By the end of the decade, however, the political, economic, and foreign policy consensus had begun to fray. Americans were deeply divided over the Vietnam War, social movements challenged the status quo, the economy faltered, and more Americans began to distrust politicians and the government. Over the course of the decade, American society became increasingly fragmented.

Civil Rights and Black Power

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the civil rights movement maintained pressure on President Johnson and Congress with its voting rights campaign. In 1965, the SCLC launched its campaign in Selma, Alabama, in a county where only 300 of 15,000 blacks of voting age had been allowed to register. After weeks of demonstrations at the county courthouse, on March 7, 1965, Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC led 600 marchers across the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River. They planned to continue on to the state capitol in Montgomery to present their grievances. Instead, Alabama state police and a mounted sheriff’s posse charged the peaceful demonstrators, beating them to the ground with clubs, cattle prods, and whips. Scores of marchers, including Lewis, were hospitalized, and television footage of the assault outraged much of the nation.

With Martin Luther King Jr. in the lead, a second march to Montgomery set out two weeks later, reaching the Alabama capital 25,000 strong. As a result, to combat literacy tests, poll taxes, and other impediments used to disenfranchise African Americans, President Johnson proposed voting rights legislation, which he signed into law on August 6.

Five days after the Voting Rights Act became law, rioting broke out in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles, sparked by the arrest of Marquette Frye, a black man pulled over for allegedly driving recklessly. A violent altercation followed in the wake of the arrest, and it was another five days before peace was restored to the city, requiring thousands of police, highway patrol officers, and the National Guard to curb the disturbances. In the end, 34 people died, 1,000 were injured, and 4,000 were jailed (Figure 14.10). Rioting spread to other cities, including Newark and Detroit, in the long, hot summer of 1967.

The Watts riot in the summer of 1965 resulted in more than 30 deaths and caused immense damage to property in Los Angeles.

The early integrationist vision of the civil rights movement was challenged by younger black militants like Stokely Carmichael, who became chair of SNCC in 1966 and popularized the slogan Black Power (see the Black Power Narrative). The young activists were drawn to militant racial separatism, such as that preached by Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X, who broke with the Nation of Islam in 1964 and formed his own black nationalist group before being assassinated in February 1965. In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California. The Panthers, who dressed in black leather jackets and black berets and brandished firearms, captured media attention with their brash style and militant slogans, such as “Off the Pig!” which promoted violence against police officers. Within two years, the Panthers had grown into a national organization with thousands of members, an ever-increasing number of whom were dead or jailed (the latter group included Newton himself, arrested in 1967 after a deadly street confrontation with Oakland police). The radicalism of the Black Power movement and the violence it sometimes spawned divided African Americans and shocked many others who believed greater equality had been achieved by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.