The Civil Rights Era (1865–1970)
Twentieth-Century Roots: 1900–1950
In 1909, W. E. B. Du Bois and several other activists, frustrated by setbacks to the civil rights movement such as Plessy v. Ferguson, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP, whose leadership and membership consisted of both blacks and whites, published a monthly journal called Crisis and worked diligently to gain more legal and political rights for blacks.
Black women, meanwhile, formed their own associations geared toward providing social services and community support. The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, for example, worked to improve the lives of urban black women by building settlement houses, promoting public health initiatives, and providing child-care services for working mothers.
The Great Migration
The prospect of new jobs in the war industries encouraged as many as half a million black tenant farmers in the South to move to cities in the North during and after World War I. The Great Migration, as it came to be called, had a profound effect on blacks’ lives and on the cities in which they resettled, as millions of white Americans began leaving for the suburbs. Furthermore, the invention of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1940s made southern agricultural jobs scarcer and spurred more than a million additional blacks to leave the South. As more and more blacks moved to northern cities, more people became aware of the enormous economic inequalities that separated blacks from whites.
The Harlem Renaissance
Nowhere were the effects of the Great Migration clearer than in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, where as many as 200,000 blacks settled between World War I and World War II. Harlem quickly became one of the largest black communities in the world outside Africa. Although most of the blacks who moved to Harlem lived in poverty, a sizable group of middle-class blacks helped lead the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
During this Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. Du Bois’s “black consciousness” took root among black artists and intellectuals, who began to recognize, develop, and appreciate a distinctive black cultural identity. Black writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes expressed their immense pride in the creation of the “New Negro.” As black essayist James Weldon Johnson put it, “Nothing can go further to destroy race prejudice than the recognition of the Negro as a creator and contributor to American civilization.”
Marcus Garvey and the UNIA
No single individual contributed more to the development of black pride during this period than Marcus Garvey. Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914, moved to the United States in 1916. He settled in Harlem and established the U.S. branch of the UNIA to help blacks achieve economic independence in the United States and unite black communities around the world. He organized parades and massive rallies to boost black pride and encouraged black-owned companies to do more business within the community. On the other hand, the UNIA also encouraged blacks to leave the United States and resettle in their ancestral homes in Africa.
Even though most of Garvey’s business ventures failed and the U.S. government deported him for mail fraud in 1927, his contribution to the development of black consciousness empowered the “New Negro” and helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
World War II
The majority of the more than 1 million blacks who joined the Allied forces during World War II served in segregated, noncombat service and maintenance units, just as they had in World War I. There were exceptions, however, perhaps the most notable of which was the elite all-black Tuskegee Airmen bomber unit.
Segregated or not, black Americans made significant gains during the war. Civil rights leaders, for example, pushed their “Double V” campaign for both victory abroad and victory at home. NAACP membership soared during the war years to more than half a million people. The newly formed Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched peaceful protests in order to gain sympathy for the movement from white Americans. National Negro Congress President A. Philip Randolph even threatened President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a massive march on Washington, D.C., if the federal government failed to pass more civil rights legislation.
Roosevelt and Civil Rights
Hoping to avoid civil unrest, Roosevelt compromised with Randolph by signing Executive Order 8802 , which outlawed racial discrimination in the federal government and in war factories. Roosevelt also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee to execute the order. As a result, more than 200,000 Northern blacks found work in defense-related industries during the war. Roosevelt’s election victories during the Great Depression and World War II happened, in part, because a majority of black Americans began voting for Democrats rather than Republicans. Continued support from the Democratic Party proved to be vital in securing the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Truman and Civil Rights
After the war, in 1946, President Harry S Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The committee pushed for antilynching laws in the South and tried to register more black voters. Although symbolically powerful, the committee had little practical influence. More significant was Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces with Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Truman’s support for civil rights angered many southerners within the Democratic Party, though, and many left the nominating convention in 1948 to back their own presidential candidate, segregationist Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
Two major color barriers were broken shortly after the war’s end. The first was in 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black professional baseball player in the major leagues. Robinson’s contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers opened professional sports to black players and helped integrate blacks into white American culture.
The second occurred in 1950, when United Nations diplomat Ralph Bunche became the first black man to win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for his work in reducing Arab-Israeli tensions. Although President Truman offered Bunche a promotion to the position of undersecretary of state, Bunche declined the offer after learning that he and his family would still have to live in the segregated black quarter of Washington, D.C.