Civil rights

Civil rights
   The modern civil rights movement had its origins in organizations formed early in the 20th century and in developments in the 1930s and 1940s. The leading black civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was established in 1909 by white progressives and black leaders. By the early 1920s, it had begun a largely black-led organization with an influential journal edited by African American educator and spokesman W. E. B. Du Bois. In the 1930s, the NAACP, led now by Walter White, had some success gaining access to the White House, particularly through the good offices of Eleanor Roosevelt. With or without President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s blessing, she spoke frequently on behalf of racial equality. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow black singer Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall, Mrs. Roosevelt publicly resigned her membership, and with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, she helped organize a performance for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial.
   However, the New Deal’s impact on African Americans was mixed. Roosevelt was reluctant to take any action that would jeopardize the support of the southern Democrats in Congress for his general reform program and so failed to speak out against race discrimination and violence. Nonetheless, the NAACP continued lobbying the government on behalf of antilynching legislation, continued working with trade unions, and in 1930 it was one of several groups to help block the confirmation of John J. Parker to the Supreme Court on grounds of his record on race and labor unions. The NAACP also helped defend the Scottsboro Boys, a case that became something of an international cause célèbre, but their involvement was always complicated by their relationship with other defending groups, like the Communist Party of the United States of America. From the start of World War II, black organizations campaigned to ensure a double victory at home and abroad. As the United States began to prepare for the possibility of war, African American leaders lobbied to end segregation and discrimination in the U.S. armed forces and for greater inclusion in the expanding defense industries. The demand for equal opportunity in defense industries brought the threat of a March on Washington organized by A. Philip Randolph in 1941. The possibility of such an event led Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in June ordering the end of discrimination in defense industries and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to ensure its implementation. Although the FEPC had limited impact, it had enormous symbolic and psychological importance, and a number of cities and states also established similar bodies during the war. The possibility of mass, nonviolent protest signaled by the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) was also an important precedent for future years. Another significant development was the formation in Chicago in 1942 of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that rose to prominence in the 1960s.
   The MOWM continued in existence during the war, but its activities were limited. However, black leaders and newspapers continued to press for greater inclusion in the military, and although segregation continued, African Americans were included in all branches of the military during the war. Attention returned to this issue with the reintroduction of the draft in 1947, and when A. Philip Randolph responded with the threat of a campaign of mass civil disobedience, it appeared to have considerable support among African Americans of military service age. In part as a response to this threat and in part in line with his developing policy, and also in a crucial election year, in 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order requiring an end to discrimination in the federal civil service and another order initiating the process of desegregation in the armed forces. The increasing demand for equality after World War II was evident in the number of black voter registration drives, often led by African American veterans. Voter registration in the South rose from 150,000 in 1940 to 1.2 million in 1952, from 5 percent of the voting age population to 25 percent. The increased expectations among African Americans were also evident in the rise in NAACP membership from 50,000 in 1939 to 400,000 in 1945. In 1947, CORE mounted its first “Freedom Ride” to test Supreme Court decisions on segregation in interstate transport in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Although it attracted little attention and less success, it too was a precedent for the future.
   African Americans were encouraged in their hopes for change after the war by the unprecedented action on civil rights by President Truman. Addressing the NAACP from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 29 June 1947 in a nationally broadcast speech, Truman called for an end to racial violence and said the federal government should lead the way. In 1946, he had established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and its report, To Secure These Rights, published in 1947, set out an agenda for racial equality across all aspects of American life. Truman began implementing some of this with the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. He also addressed black audiences in Harlem in the election campaign of 1948 and again in 1952, and the black vote significantly contributed to his surprise election victory.
   Although Truman’s actual achievements in civil rights were perhaps more symbolic than real, the Supreme Court issued a number of significant decisions in the 1940s and 1950s undermining the practice of racial segregation and exclusion. In Smith v. Allwright in 1944, they ruled against the white primary; in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia in 1946, they ruled against segregation in interstate transport; in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, they outlawed restrictive housing covenants; and in Sipuel v. Oklahoma Board of Regents in 1948, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents in 1950, and Sweatt v. Painter in 1950, they issued a number of rulings challenging segregation in education that paved the way for the 1954 landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . . 2015.

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