During the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement emerged with velocity. While Americans are familiar with individuals such as Rosa Parks and events such as the Freedom Rides, five historical events/conditions that preceded the movement created the conditions that led to the long struggle for African American equality.
1. Economic conditions of the early Colonies
PBS does a wonderful job of tracing the origins of slavery. The need for colonial farm labor ignited the Atlantic slave trade, cementing slavery in the United States. Without the economic conditions of the colonies, slavery would have never been employed and the chasm between Americans and slaves would have never been that deep.
2. The Declaration of Independence is written
This most celebrated document exposed the contradiction in the ideals of equality and the American condition. America in 1776 was a unique place – struggling to forge a path of its own against the British Empire. While the document states that ‘all men are created equal’ not all men were treated equally. The concept of being treated as equals did not apply to slaves, nor to poor men who did not have property, nor women. Still, the concept that anchored the Declaration would be used to propel the fight for equality centuries after it was written.
3. The Liberator Gives Voice to Abolitionists
As Sharon Grimberg writes, William Lloyd Garrison’s anti slavery magazine of the 19th Century helped ignite opposition to the evil institution of slavery. His work, along side other writers, helped use the power of newspapers, magazines, and books to grow opposition to slavery. Both written and spoken words became crucial for the fight against slavery and were a key feature of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century.
4. Women’s Suffrage Movement lights the way
While most people are familiar with the culminating victory of the women’s rights movement in the form of the right to vote, the movement was born in the early 19th Century. Questioning their position in society, women provided fuel to the abolitionist movement and provided examples on how to change society’s views.
5. Plessy vs. Ferguson created separate but equal – making a wrong that had to be corrected
Elizabeth Berlin Taylor writes how the decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 solidified the segregated South. This legal segregation created a situation in which American citizens were systemically denied being full citizens protected under the law. Without this case, the quest to seek legal restitution would not have existed.
While Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Had A Dream Speech may be one of the most important events of the Civil Rights Era, history created the circumstances for the movement. Without understanding the roots of slavery and inequality, one cannot appreciate the courage it required to ignite massive societal change.
‘Slavery and the Making of America’ — PBS.org
‘The Declaration of Independence’ — Archives.gov
‘William Lloyd Garrison’s Fight Against a National Sin’ – Huffington Post
‘Plessy vs. Ferguson’ — The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History