Shortcuts / 04 June 2020
Civil Rights in America
What started with the killing of a black man by police in the American city of Minneapolis in late May has turned into a coast-to-coast protest against racism. Fed up with inequality and violence at the hands of the police, thousands have taken to the streets to rage against the police, governments and the media. In this Squiz Shortcut, we go back to the beginning. How the South was developed with slave labour, and the movement for freedom and equal rights. And why, after hundreds of years, the rage that so many African Americans feel about their position in American society still burns so hot.
When did the discrimination against African Americans begin?
The problem goes back as far as nearly 500 years ago. In the 360 years between 1500 and the end of the slave trade in the 1860s, at least 12 million Africans were forcibly taken to the Americas – known then as the “New World” to European settlers. It was the largest forced migration in human history and it led to people from some 50 ethnic and linguistic groups being taken from their homelands. During that time, a small portion of the enslaved – less than 500,000 – were sent to the American colonies that we now recognised as the United States. The majority went to South America and the Caribbean.
How these slaves actually got there was part of an economic deal that underwrote the development of the Americas. In what was called ‘triangular trade’, European vessels took goods to Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves. The ships then sailed to the Americas to trade slaves for agricultural products – which were extracted by slave labor – which were sold in Europe after the return journey.
And the stories of the conditions that African men, women and children were held in on the ships for the 2-3 months that it took to get to the Americas are terrible. Many of them died while undertaking the journey.
Nearly a quarter of the Africans brought to North America came from Angola. And arriving later, another quarter came from Senegambia. Both of those are on the west coast of Africa.
What happened once the slaves arrived in North America?
40% of them went through Charleston, South Carolina, which was the undisputed capital of the United States slave trade. From there, they were sold to landholders and put to work on plantations along the southern coast, cultivating cash crops like rice and tobacco. And as the country became settled away from the coast heading west, slavery followed and crops like cotton were developed using forced labour.
The development of cotton saw a boom in agriculture in the US. By the middle of the 1800s, the southern states were providing two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton.
And during that time, the black population also grew. According to the Federal census, in 1790 approximately 650,000 slaves worked cultivating rice and tobacco crops. By 1850 the country had 3.2 million slaves, 1.8 million of whom worked in cotton.
The issue of white landholders rights to own slaves was central to the civil war that kicked off in 1861. How did they get there?
In 1860, the Abraham Lincoln-led anti-slavery Republican Party wasn’t seeking to abolish slavery – it just wanted to stop its extension into new territories and states in the American West. He was elected President in 1860 – and that led to seven Southern states breaking away from the United Stated to form of the Confederate States of America. Shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration in early 1861, the civil war started. And even though more southern states broke away, in 1862, the United States Congress moved to prohibit slavery in the US. territories.
And then at the start of 1863, Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all slaves – in the north and south slaves were “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” That was a turning point in American history when the Civil War was transformed from a fight against the southern states secession into a war for “a new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address later in 1863.
The war then staggered to an end in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was turned into law with the 13th Amendment. By then, it was 246 years after the first shipload of captive Africans landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.
And then we see two waves of migration of black people from the south to areas north and east of where they had been in numbers in those southern states. Between 1916 and 1930, and from 1940 to 1970, a total of six million African Americans left the South. Free under the law, African Americans were still very much at a disadvantage compared to the white population.
When did the civil rights movement begin in the US?
The civil rights movement sprung up almost as soon as the civil war ended in 1865. Their aim was to establish newly freed blacks equal protection under the law, give adult males the right to vote, and improve access to education and employment opportunities. This period is called Reconstruction and it focused on those southern states where the vast majority of the black population still lived. But by the time that effort was over in 1877, the concept of equal rights collapsed in the wake of legislative and judicial actions, and by 1883, the rights of blacks were very limited in many states. ‘Jim Crow’ laws, named after a black minstrel show character, legalised racial segregation. They lasted from that post-Civil War era until 1968, and they had the effect of marginalising African Americans by denying them the right to vote, get good jobs or an education and a host of other basic rights.
America was significantly changed by WWII which ended in the mid-1940s, and those changes extended to the ambitions of African Americans. That’s when the civil right movement really kicked into gear when returning servicemen wanted a better deal after putting their butts on the line for their country.
And then in 1955, there was a pivotal moment when a 42-year-old woman named Rosa Parks found a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus after work. Segregation laws at the time stated blacks must sit in designated seats at the back of the bus.
There were a number of cases like that throughout that era with civil rights activists testing the system. That occurred with school enrolments, the famous Woolworths Lunch Counter incident in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Freedom Riders bus tours through the southern states. And one of the most famous events of the civil rights movement took place on August 28, 1963. That’s when more than 200,000 people, black and white, congregated in Washington, D.C for the peaceful march, the highlight was Martin Luther King Jr. King’s “I have a dream…” speech. Just a month after that President Kennedy was assassinated – he’d been a champion for legislation for civil rights. And five years later Dr King was also assassinated.
What a recent example of race riots in the US?
One event to point out is the LA riots in 1992. They followed a case in March 1991, where officers with the California Highway Patrol attempted to pull an African American man named Rodney King over for speeding on a Los Angeles freeway. He was resisting arrest when four LAPD officers shot him with a TASER gun and severely beat him. And what caused the riots more than a year later was a finding of not guilty when the police officers went to court on charges of using excessive force. More than 60 people died in those riots that went off for five days in Los Angeles, more than 2,000 people were injured, and thousands were arrested, with property damage topping $1 billion. It’s the reference point for the violent protests that we’re now seeing with demonstrations occurring across the country.
So what sparked these riots that are happening now?
On Monday, 25 May, four police officers in Minnesota’s capital of Minneapolis were called to deal with a 46yo black man named George Floyd who was accused of trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill at a store. He was detailed with one officer restraining him by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes. He died in hospital shortly after. And with the incident videotaped by many witnesses, it wasn’t long before it went viral whipping up protests about the mistreatment of the black community at the hands of the police.
So why has this exploded now?
In 2020, racial inequality is still a thing in the US, as it is in much of the world, including Australia. By most measurable indicators, the black population lags behind whites on jobs, education, health, wealth, life expectancy, incarceration rates as they always have. And on the specific issue of their record with police, black Americans account for less than 13% of the US population but the rate at which they are shot and killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans.
It also comes in the wake of the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25yo black man who was targeted by two white men as he jogged through their neighbourhood – a case that authorities were accused of ignoring. And tensions have been further fuelled by the coronavirus crisis that has disproportionately affected black people’s jobs and health.
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