John C. Calhoun
Although a pro-slavery and states’ rights proponent that served as vice-president under two presidents, John C. Calhoun is best known for his senate career. Representing South Carolina, Calhoun argued that slavery was a “positive good” on the senate floor in 1837 and is frequently credited for laying the foundation for Southern states to secede, which, of course, resulted in the Civil War.
(AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery)
Appointed president of the Confederate States of America in 1861, former Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis led the Confederacy during the Civil War. Surprisingly, he only served two years in prison although he was indicted for treason. Charges against him were dropped in 1869. Davis penned two books on the Confederacy before dying in New Orleans at the age of 81 in 1889.
Robert E. Lee
Arguably the most famous general of the Confederate States Army, Robert E. Lee, a native son of Virginia, turned down Lincoln’s appointment to the Union Army and later led some of the Confederacy’s key campaigns during the Civil War. After surrendering Confederate forces at Appomattox, Lee eventually received money from the government for his plantation, which forms part of Arlington National Cemetery, and served as president of Washington College, present-day Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, until his death in 1870.
Assuming Abraham Lincoln’s presidency after the assassination, Andrew Johnson was the only Southern senator who did not resign his position after secession but he proved the most damaging in the end. A Confederate sympathizer, Johnson, who survived impeachment, pardoned all Confederates instead of punishing them in 1868 shortly before Ulysses Grant took office and foiled early attempts to extend full civil rights to African-Americans.
Taking its name from white performer Daddy Rice’s popular “Jump Jim Crow”, the system of systematic racism replaced slavery. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision declaring “separate but equal” acceptable under the law officially ushered in this other dark period that left African Americans, especially in the South, barely removed from slavery. Sharecropping made it nearly impossible to make ends meet and lynching deterred many black people from making strong political and economic strides. Voting, fair housing, a quality education were almost completely denied to most black Americans
Ku Klux Klan
Evolving out of the militia-like patrols that hunted down runaway slaves, the first official Ku Klux Klan reportedly appeared in 1865 on the heels of the Civil War but faded in the 1870s. The Klan re-emerged around 1915 after the film The Birth of a Nation glamorized its position advocating white purity and black subservience. A third installment popped up in the late 1940s after the second one ended in the mid-1940s. Lynching and cross-burning are two forms of intimidation associated with the Klan. Historically, Klan members, some rumored to be leading businessmen and lawmakers, have worn white robes and white hoods to hide their identity. David Duke carried the Klan torch in more recent decades.
The Birth of a Nation
Originally titled The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation has long been hailed as a cinematic triumph for its pioneering jump cuts, deep focus and close-up techniques. Its social damage, however, has been extreme. Based on writer Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, “The Birth of a Nation” celebrated the Ku Klux Klan while denigrating Reconstruction and African Americans. A hugely popular and high-grossing film that President Woodrow Wilson reportedly viewed in the White House, the depictions of black people were so detrimental it prompted the NAACP to launch its first all-out protest of a motion picture in 1915.
(AP Photo/Harris Lewine Collection)
While nothing new to American society, the many race riots of the early 20th century were particularly virulent. When Jack Johnson officially became the first black heavyweight champion, riots erupted in as many as 25 cities throughout the nation. During the Red Summer of 1919, riots in Chicago, Philadelphia, Omaha as well as Elaine, Arkansas, Longview, Texas and Knoxville, Tennessee were particularly brutal. In 1921, the Tulsa Race Riot destroyed the Greenwood community known as the “Negro’s Wall Street of America” for its prosperity. Knowing no geographical boundaries, race riots occurred in the North and the South, in rural and urban areas (AP Photo)
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954, former South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond was a noted segregationist, going as far as running for President of the United States in 1948 as part of the States’ Rights Democratic Party, more popularly known as Dixiecrats, in opposition to Harry S. Truman desegregating the armed forces and creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Remaining in the Senate until age 100, Thurmond supported segregation for much of his career. After his death, it was revealed that he fathered a child with a black woman. As governor, he surprisingly made sure that those responsible for the1947 lynch mob murder of 24-year-old Willie Earle were arrested
White Citizens’ Council
A version of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and slave patrols, the first White Citizens’ Council reportedly emerged in 1954 in Mississippi but quickly spread across the Deep South, particularly Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. Unlike the KKK, members of the White Citizens Councils did not hide their identity but were firmly opposed to any attempts of racial integration and sprouted specifically to oppose school desegregation.
(AP Photo/Gene Herrick)
Determined that school integration would not occur in Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to block the enrollment of the Little Rock Nine in Central High in 1957, prompting President Eisenhower to intervene with federal troops. Not to be outdone, Faubus closed all the public schools in 1958 and they didn’t re-open until 1959. Interestingly, Faubus is considered more of a political opportunist than a racist and even desegregated school buses and public transportation prior to 1957.
Ironically, the NAACP supported George Wallace in his failed attempt to become Alabama’s governor in 1958. By 1962, however, Wallace had adopted a position that the NAACP could not endorse. Famous for declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” during his inauguration for the first of his four terms as Alabama’s governor in 1963, Wallace was an ardent soldier against school desegregation, even personally standing before school doors to block the entrance of black students. To this day, he remains a poster child against integration despite his political change of heart in the 1970s.
(AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Calvin Hannah)
Personally blocking James Meredith’s entrance to the University of Mississippi as the Governor of Mississippi is how Ross Barnett is most remembered. His refusal to allow Meredith entry into Ole Miss prompted U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to send federal marshals to escort Meredith. When a riot broke out, President Kennedy sent in federal troops. Barnett is also well-known for jailing Freedom Riders as they entered Mississippi in 1961.
(AP Photo/Jim Bourdier)
Forever a symbol of racial hatred and bigotry, Bull Connor, who served several terms as Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, went to great lengths to prevent desegregation. Turning water hoses and letting dogs loose on civil rights protestors, which included children, during the famous Project C campaign in 1963, Connor’s tactics are well documented in photographs and video images. Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written under Connor’s watch.
The Affirmative Action Rollback
Hard fought gains began taking a hit almost immediately. As early as 1978, Bakke v. California Board of Regents charged that affirmative action was little more than a quota policy guilty of reverse discrimination and not one that could help rectify past inequities. The passage of Proposition 209 in California in 1996 eliminated affirmative action in public school admissions and government hiring, clearing a path for other states. Affirmative action challenges still persist, as evidenced during the Senate confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.
(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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Striving for full citizenship and equality over many decades has not been an easy for African-Americans. Throughout that struggle, there have been great obstacles. Some have been people; others have been systems, organizations, as well as horrific events. A few of those challenges are outlined below. African-Americans have been met with numerous road blocks to freedom but have nonetheless held firm that the Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom and equality for all, ensuring a better country for us all.