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Equality - Racial Equality - The Struggle For Racial Equality

rights civil defense strategy

To combat and dismantle racial inequality, a variety of groups and tactics emerged throughout the twentieth century in the United States and other countries. The predominant strategy has been nonviolent disobedience, the political mobilization of resources, and moral suasion to mobilize public opinion. However, some groups have advocated armed self-defense or violence as a strategy for revolutionary change.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, several strategies emerged to oppose Jim Crow and challenge the United States to live up to its professed ideals. Some reformers, such as Booker T. Washington, urged blacks to not push for civil and political rights but instead to work hard, acquire a trade, and eventually hope for white acceptance. Others, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, argued that black people had every right to mobilize for equal civil and political rights that were now constitutionally guaranteed and that to do anything less was to accept a permanent second-class status. Du Bois and other reformers formed what turned into the preeminent civil rights organization of the twentieth century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1909. The NAACP marched, protested, and, under the guidance of Charles Hamilton Houston, created a legal defense fund to pursue a strategy of social change through litigation.

This strategy came to fruition with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka decision of 1954, in which the Supreme Court overturned the Plessy standard of "separate but equal" and declared that separate educational facilities are inherently unconstitutional. In the 1960s and 1970s, the litigation strategy and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund itself were used as models for other groups: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), formed in 1968; the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDF), formed in 1972; and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), formed in 1970.

The economics of racial inequality were also opposed and changed with a range of tactics. In the United States there have been several campaigns organized under the "don't shop where you can't work" strategy. Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s, economic boycotts were used to withdraw financial support from businesses and public transportation systems that engaged in segregation. Many of these were successful, the most famous one being the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, which made Rosa Parks a civil rights icon and helped Martin Luther King, Jr., become a national civil rights leader. In 1962, Cesar Chavez helped form the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA) to defend the rights of Mexican-American and Asian-American agricultural workers. The NFWA helped negotiate contracts with corporate growers and was supported by consumer boycotts of targeted products, such as grapes. Also, in the 1980s, a global antiapartheid movement used economic and cultural boycotts, as well as pressuring companies and governments to divest from South Africa, to force the National Party to negotiate the dismantling of apartheid.

Nonviolent marches, sit-ins, and freedom rides were tactics used both to pressure private companies to end segregation but also to pressure the federal government to enforce civil rights laws in Southern states. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957 with King as its leader. The SCLC drew on the organizational support of black churches and ministers to organize marches and protests across the South as well as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at which King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. Other groups and tactics also emerged. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was led by college-aged black youth and eventually included white college-aged members. SNCC was active in sitins to integrate segregated lunch counters in Greenville, North Carolina. Together with members of the interracial Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SNCC members were active in "freedom rides" to desegregate bus terminals in the South, and members of both organizations were active in voter-registration efforts in Mississippi in 1963 and 1964 (Dittmer).

Such efforts finally pressured Congress and the president to act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal access and equal treatment under the law, banned segregated public accommodations, and prohibited discrimination in hiring on the basis of race, gender, or national origin. A year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned all discriminatory voter-registration laws and gave the Justice Department power to ensure that voting and election laws were not discriminatory. Indeed, with this act the promise of the Fifteenth Amendment was finally fulfilled. Also in 1965, immigration policies were reformed finally to dismantle any legacies of racial preference and discrimination. In 1968, the final major civil rights act of the era banned discrimination in the sale or rental of property and housing.

With these victories in the courts and in Congress, many Americans thought the nation's principles of equality were finally matched by its practices. In one way, this is true. For example, black voter-registration rates in Mississippi went from about 6 percent of eligible voters in 1965 to about 63 percent in 1971 and 1972 (Lawson). On the other hand, while legislation and litigation helped establish the principles of equality under the law, voting rights, and equal access to public accommodations, there still exists a legacy of economic inequity and social injustice.

Occasionally, groups pursued a strategy of armed self-defense or violence as a means to combat entrenched racial inequality. Contrary to the nonviolent philosophy of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, individuals such as Robert F. Williams in North Carolina and groups such as the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana advocated civil and political rights but also reserved the right to self-defense when facing violent opposition (Tyson). In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) was formed to resist apartheid and originally set out on a course of nonviolent disobedience. However, some within the ANC eventually adopted a strategy of limited armed resistance that used selective acts of force for purposes of economic sabotage (Fredrickson, 1995). For this, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned until 1990, when he was released as part of South Africa's dismantling of apartheid.

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