How long have black people been free in America? What decade or period in history comes to mind? This blog is the first in a series that will seek to use the occasion of Black History Month to wrestle with our racial history as Americans. Typically when Black History is spoken or written about, it seeks to highlight the positive accomplishments of African-Americans in American history. While I hope to do some of that in this series, I also believe it’s equally important to tell the entire story of black history in America—good, bad and other.
The United States of America has had forty-five Presidents. Twelve of them owned slaves; five of them were KKK members, three of them enacted overtly racist policies or policies that contributed to the destruction of the black community after the Civil Rights era. Even Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator was an admitted white supremacist. In his 1858 debate with Sen. Steven Douglas, Lincoln maintained, “And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
We are less than two years away from the 400th year commemoration of the first people of African descent coming to this country arriving in August of 1619 in Virginia. From 1619 -1863, there was 244 years of legal chattel slavery. The civil war was fought for two years and was followed by twelve years of reconstruction which was probably the most important period in history for the overhaul of the racial caste system in America in terms of massive change. It was during the period of reconstruction that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (known collectively as the Civil War Amendments), were designed to ensure equality for recently emancipated slaves.
The Compromise of 1877 came along and was a purported informal, unwritten deal that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election. It resulted in the United States federal government pulling the last troops out of the South and formally ended the Reconstruction Era. Progress had been made in government, but unfortunately not as much progress had been made in the hearts of people. So the Reconstruction Era was followed by Jim Crow.
The Jim Crow laws were a set of laws passed to keep black people in America in an inferior societal position. A black man and white man could not shake hands because that would imply they were equal. Blacks and whites couldn’t eat together and if they did, whites had to be served first and a partition was to be placed between them. Whites had the right of way at all intersections. If whites and blacks were in a vehicle together, the blacks had to ride in the back. The Supreme court ruled and upheld that these laws were constitutional in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s that these laws would come to be seen as immoral and made illegal. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
The Fair Housing Act provided for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, religion, or national origin and made it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone … by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin.” The Act was signed into law during the King assassination riots by President Lyndon B. Johnson on April 11, 1968. Johnson had previously signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law. Affirmative action came into play in 1969-1970 with Arthur Fletcher, an African-American, who became Assistant Secretary of Labor to President Richard Nixon.
He devised a plan that became a model for federal affirmative action policies aimed at creating a level playing field for hiring in terms of race. So if 1970 is the marker for when overt racist policies and legislation in government was done away with, that means that African-Americans have only been fully recognized as citizens of the United States for 47 years. Our country has come so far. Our country still has a ways to go. I view both of those statements as equally important. Happy Black History Month.