Racial tensions were high in America and this was due to the exposure that white and black people had of eachother in unequal statuses. As Africans had originally been brought over to America as slaves in the 1800s, Americans believed themselves to be far superior and this idea remained even after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that declared all African-Americans free from slavery. Restricting them from education and equality, Americans discriminated black people and kept them living in poor conditions with no way of escape. Many freed slaves found there were no opportunities for them to earn a living so they were forced back into labour with their old masters, working extremely hard for very little money. Of course, this situation led to resistance from some blacks and many began organisations to improve the lives of African-Americans. By 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) began and this supported any chance a black person acquired to try and push for a better future for black people. It was at the forefront of all the major events that helped shape the progression of the black Civil Rights movement right up to the current day. But to the extent of the events significance in the Civil Rights movement is what this essay will explore.
The Brown VS the Board of Education case in 1954 was a key step to aid black rights as it reversed the rulings during the case Plessy VS Ferguson. Segregated schools was ruled unconstitutional which resulted in some educational facilities beginning to integrate. This helped black rights as it showed that America was starting to realize that maybe black people didn’t deserve the way they were being treated. It also paved a way for the future for more and more black students to learn in schools to reduce illiteracy in the black community. Yet it also prompted a lot of resistance from white racists all over the country. This, in turn, could well have helped spur on the Civil Rights Movement. As there were many more federal civil rights acts from 1957 onwards, I can’t help but think that the way for these was paved by this initial decision. However, as only 20% of black students attended integrated schools 14 years after the decision, it also opened the way to more court rulings such as Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia in 1968, that were much more specific as to what America needed to achieve with racial equality.
Continuing in chronological order, comes the death of Emmett Till in 1955. A young school boy, Emmett had travelled down from Chicago to visit relatives but after whistling at a white woman, found himself being brutally murdered in Mississippi. Till was shot and beaten to death, afterwards his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. The two men convicted of his murder were acquitted (by an all-white jury) from a case with the highest amount of media attention a black case had ever received. As reporters came from all over the globe to the tiny courtroom, that remained segregated, they noticed how black people were still being treated in America. This raised black awareness everywhere and instilled a sense of union within the Southern African-Americans to help progress their situation along in the hope of more equality. This case also highlighted the differences in white attitudes in the Northern and Southern states of the USA. Blacks obviously had less discrimination in the North and more opportunities to mingle with whites. Just like Till, Northerners must have been shocked at how far behind the South were in achieving the same outcome. The horror of the case and the fact that it was televised made it a very distressing incident that may have tugged on the heart-strings of fellow Americans. Till’s mother demanded he had an open casket to display to all the horrors of what this 14 year old boy had been through. The murderers later confessed their crime to a newspaper many years later but were never prosecuted, black organisations made sure this would never happen again. Once again, this incident helped to spur on the beginning of the most important movement in black civil rights.
It was indeed only three months after the case of Emmett Till that the Civil Rights Movement began brandishing African-Americans new secret weapon, Martin Luther King. It all started when a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to move from her seat, in the still segregated buses, for a white person. She was thrown off and fined but she turned to help from the NAACP in the hopes of finishing segregation once and for all in the South. Martin Luther King held meetings in the local church of Montgomery and it was decided that a one day boycott of the buses would be demonstrated. It was a great success so the church decided unanimously to continue with it until they got what they deserved, equality on buses and other transport. It took over a year but integration was finally accepted. This emphasised the effect of ‘power in numbers’ as well as how successful peaceful demonstrating could be. It also opened the way to a short time of big changes as Martin Luther King used his charisma and peaceful ideas to pave the way for a brighter future for black Americans.
Yet King’s plans for quick change were disrupted by events such as those surrounding Little Rock in 1957. Nine black students had been accepted into a previously all-white school yet they were met by severe opposition. The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, blocked the doorway of the high school from the black students by using the armed forces. While the students kept together for protection, one girl was late and had to walk up to the gates on her own amidst hundreds of racists shouting, ‘Niggers get back to the jungle’ and other such disgusting language. Once again, media coverage was high and to see such racial hatred from the Southerners was another shock to the world. America really wasn’t as free a country as it had always declared. Yet a key element to this whole incident is that President Eisenhower felt he needed to involve himself for the protection of the black students. He used his federal power to take control of the guards and use them to escort the students for their safety. This was the first time that the Government had involved itself in an issue of race which was a major morale boost to the black community. It once again illustrated big changes to the country. Eisenhower may not have been enthusiastic about helping the black students but he claimed that they were Americans too that deserved protection under the laws of the Constitution. This opened the way to future Presidents involving themselves in the Civil Rights Movement.
In another case of racism in education, Autherine Lucy attempted to enrol at Alabama University in 1953, yet was rejected due to race. She went to the ever developing NAACP which provided funds for her to take the case to court. After three years of action she succeeded in getting a placement yet was stopped from entering classes due to angry white mobs. She was then prevented from entering the university again as they declared she’d damaged the reputation due to the court case, so was unable to take her degree until 1992. This incident at least demonstrated that it was getting easier for black people to win cases that concerned issues on race as well as illustrating issues of white resistance and its dangers. However, it mostly highlighted that even though the Federal Government was suggesting change, it could not be enforced in some states – especially in the South.
In conclusion I think the above events were significant in changing white attitudes towards black Americans because people such as Autherine Lucy demonstrated how black people were just as intelligent as anyone else while Emmett Till showed the horrors of what these people were going through at the hands of white extremists. These incidents were bound to increase sympathy and respect for black people. These changes in attitude occurred because every event mentioned, raised awareness on the plight of black rights all over the world. Some of the episodes also broke boundaries for black rights such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott which proved for the first time that blacks had the power to change rules using peaceful protesting. However, the significance of all these events is limited as Autherine Lucy showed when she couldn’t even attend a university despite the fact that integration was being encouraged. These events did only change attitudes slowly in the US as the racial hatred ran deep down anyway, so that demonstrates just how limited these significances would be. But I think it is best summed up with one of the teenage girls from Little Rock who, after only a short amount of time being in an integrated school, had changed her mind completely on the issue of racism. Claiming that she blamed parents for the continued racial hatred in the country and saying that all Americans should be equal – attitudes most certainly changed.