The Struggle for Civil Rights: From the Emancipation Proclamation to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted by Doug Morrow, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

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This year, we mark two important landmarks in African-American history, and in the United States’ long march toward racial equality and civil rights. January 1, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which U.S. President Abraham Lincoln freed most African-Americans from slavery. August 28, 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in which the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, calling for all people to be treated equally, regardless of the color of their skin.

Slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation

In 1860, over 3.9 million African-Americans were enslaved in the United States; in certain states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, over half of the total population was enslaved, and in states such as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia, enslaved people made up over 40% of the population. Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia also had significant slave populations. That year, led by South Carolina, several southern states began seceding from the United States (to form the “Confederate States of America”), upset that the northern (“Union”) states were refusing to return runaway slaves, among other complaints, and fearing that newly-elected President Lincoln would seek to end slavery in the United States. 

Slave and Free States in 1861
Slave and Free States in 1861

By 1862, the United States was in the midst of a bloody and brutal civil war between the southern slave-holding states and the northern abolitionist states. The South and the North had been sparring for years over the future of slavery. The states of the South believed that they had the right to secede from the Union and determine their own laws; the North countered that states had no constitutional right to secede, and their public opinion was firmly against slavery. The South’s economy was heavily dependent on cotton, picked with slave labor; meanwhile, the North was in the midst of industrialization, which improved the productivity of individual workers, lowering labor costs.

Battle of Gettysburg, lithograph by Currier and Ives
Battle of Gettysburg, lithograph by Currier and Ives

While President Lincoln originally said that, in order to keep the Union together, he would not end slavery, as the war ground on, Lincoln issued an executive order on January 1, 1863 freeing all slaves in “rebel” southern states. (The order did not apply to slaves in states which were not trying to secede: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.) The war thus changed from one of national reunification to a war against slavery. The Proclamation allowed freed slaves to join the Union Army, and soon over 200,000 African-Americans, mostly ex-slaves, joined to fight the South. Their efforts were significant in helping turn the tide of the war. The reframing of the war as one for liberty also made it impossible for European powers such as Britain or France to continue helping the South, such as by selling them warships, as they feared being cast as pro-slavery.

Martin Luther King’s Dream

One hundred years later, racism and segregation were still enshrined in U.S. society and law. After the end of the Civil War, many states adopted laws making it difficult or impossible for African-Americans to vote, hold public office, or enter certain restaurants or stores. By the 1950s, even public water fountains were segregated, along with schools and buses. Both extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and police alike enforced segregation. Racist mobs attacked and killed (“lynched”) thousands of African-Americans, who they believed had violated social norms, creating a climate of fear for all.

An African-American drinks from the “colored” public water fountain
An African-American drinks from the “colored” public water fountain

In 1955, in a key moment in the U.S. civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, an African-American woman from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white woman, and was arrested. Outraged, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where African-Americans refused to ride city buses until racist laws were changed. [In response, extremist whites firebombed local black churches.] King was arrested, but the prosecution backfired, bringing national attention to the issue, with public opinion firmly behind King. After 381 days and a series of court rulings, the boycott ended with a law allowing African-Americans to sit anywhere on city buses.

King continued to use non-violent civil disobedience to attract attention to his fight for civil rights. He helped organize sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 to protest unfair and racist laws; in response, local police used water cannons and police dogs against peaceful protestors. The nation was horrified. The police chief lost his job, and local segregation started to crumble.

Later that year, King helped organize the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” which brought over a quarter million people to Washington, DC, to demand the passage of civil rights legislation, the end of segregation in schools, a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, and protection from police brutality, as well as a minimum wage law. At that time, it was the largest public protest in the capital’s history. On August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington, King gave a 17 minute long speech, the best remembered lines of which include:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

The speech is widely considered to have helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Two Leaders, a Tragic Fate

In the pantheon of U.S. civil rights champions, both Lincoln and King can be found at the top of the list. Tragically, both of them were assassinated by extremists who were angry with the direction in which they were moving the nation. President Lincoln was murdered by pro-slavery actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, while Lincoln was watching a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 by escaped convict James Earl Ray, an avowed racist who attempted to flee to white-ruled Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) following the murder. The fight for equality in the United States has never been simple or fast; its leaders have literally sacrificed their bodies and lives to advance freedom. In this year of important civil rights anniversaries, let us honor those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf, while continuing to support the human rights of all people, wherever they may live.


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