Unit Five: Those Who Were Brought Here Against Their Will- African Americans

To best understand race relations in early American history, the best place to start would be to focus on the nature of agricultural societies.  In agricultural societies, land and labor are the main factors of production. All groups living in the United States between the 1600’s and the 1800’s relied directly on farming for the necessities of life.  This is central to understanding the development of slavery in the United States, as well as the subordination of Native Americans and Mexican Americans.  The story of majority-minority group development begins with the origins of slavery.


The Origins of Slavery in the United States


In 1619 the first African slaves were brought to the Jamestown settlement.  At that point there was no slavery.  There were however, indentured servants.  Indentured servants were workers who signed a contract with a person to work for a specific number of years. At the end of the contract, the servant became a free citizen.  The early colonies were heavily dependent on indentured servitude. The majority of indentured servants came from Great Britain.  The first Africans who arrived in the colonies were treated as indentured servants, and not slaves.  But as the new nation approached the middle of the century, Africans were being seen more as slaves instead of servants.  By the 1660’s, the first laws defining slavery were passed.  By the 1750’s slavery had become institutionalized.

The Labor Supply Problem

Because agricultural production  in general is labor intensive,  most of the work performed is by hand.  That means there was a need for human labor.  The Plantation System was established to cultivate and export agricultural crops, using large tracts of land and a large, cheap labor force.  Profits could only be found in selling in volume and maintaining a disciplined and cheap workforce.  So why did the plantation system use Africans as slaves instead of whites, or Native Americans?  There are a number of reasons why Africans ended up as slaves. The first is that the number of white indentured servants began to decline.  After serving their time, white indentured servants were given their freedom.  They then went out and purchased land to farm on their own. This created high turnover rates for the agricultural sector as well as an uncertain supply of labor.

Attempts were made to try to enslave local Native American tribes to solve the labor supply problem but those attempts failed.   By the time the plantation system began to emerge, many tribes had their numbers greatly reduced through warfare and disease.  In addition, some tribes were still militarily powerful enough to resist enslavement.   Finally, because Native Americans knew the “lay of the land”, it was easy for them to escape and find their way back home.

Who did this leave?  The answer was black Africans.  There was already in existence a thriving slave trade between Africa and Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. It did not prove difficult to expand the slave trade to the British colonies.  The section below will expand on what has been previously discussed by taking a look at two theories which explain why blacks ended up as slaves and not whites or native Americans.

The Noel Hypothesis

In 1968 the sociologist Donald Noel created a theory to explain how the conditions that are present when different groups first meet help to determine if some form of inequality will exist.  The Noel Hypothesis states that if two or more groups come together in a contact situation characterized by ethnocentrism, competition, and a differential in power, then some form of racial or ethnic stratification will result.  The first condition that needs to be present is ethnocentrism,  which refers to the use of one’s own culture as a yardstick for judging the ways of other individuals of societies, which generally leads to a negative evaluation of their values, norms, and behaviors.  When ethnocentrism is present, it has the affect of having people sort out members of society by group lines, usually by using an easily identifiable characteristic (skin tone) into “us” and “them”.  But Noel cautions that ethnocentrism by itself is not enough to cause ethnic stratification.  There exist historical examples of groups with ethnocentric beliefs that lived side by side in peace.   A second condition cited by Noel that is needed for ethnic stratification is competition.  Competition is where there is a struggle for scare resources which could include anything from land, labor, jobs, and housing to educational opportunities.  The competition must be such that one group can benefit by subordinating the other.  But again, competition by itself or with ethnocentrism may not be enough to establish ethnic stratification. The third condition must also be present: differential in power.  Differential in power means that there is unequal power, that one group must be powerful enough to dominate and subordinate the other group to achieve its goals.  This power can manifest itself in three ways: 1) raw numbers, where the group with the largest numbers of members imposes its will on the smaller group, 2) better organization, discipline, and leadership, and 3) access to resources.  According to Noel, if we look at the development of slavery in the United States, all three conditions were present. Ethnocentrism, although present at the establishment of the colonies, grew so that by the end of the 18th century, black inferiority became an accepted belief.  There was competition over land and labor between the various groups (competition between whites and Native Americans, white indentured servants and black slaves, etc…).  An elite group, white, southern plantation owners developed which shifted the power balance and made it possible to subordinate and enslave blacks.  This third condition of unequal power, was a crucial factor in the development of black slavery.  Blacks became slaves through force and coercion.  They were colonized and did not freely choose to be part of the British colonies.

The   Noel Hypothesis Applied to the Origins of Slavery
Potential Sources of Labor Ethnocentrism Competition Differential in Power
white indentured servants yes yes no
Native Americans yes yes no
black slaves yes yes yes


The Blauner Hypothesis

Sociologist Robert Blauner in his book, Racial Oppression in America (1972) theorized that minority groups created by colonization will experience more intense prejudice, racism, and discrimination than those create by immigration.  He also suggests that the colonized groups will have a more difficult time overcoming their disadvantaged position in society than will immigrant groups.   Blauner’s hypothesis helps explain why blacks from Africa became slaves and not other ethnic groups.  According to Blauner, blacks were forced into slavery by the superior military and political power of the white colonists.  They were forced into the subordinate position of a slave and were denied the opportunity to assimilate.  Because of their distinctive physical traits, black slaves could not escape from one part of the country and try to blend in in another.

The experience of blacks being colonized into slaves, differs from the other group that Blauner explores- immigrants.  Immigrant minority groups differ from colonized groups in that they have volunteered to become citizens of the host country.  Immigrant groups when entering the host country tend to band together. This means they can maintain internal organization and resources to improve their situations. This is in contrast to black Africans who had members of their tribe or even their family broken up and sent to different parts of the country.  Thus, it became easier for immigrants over time to assimilate into the dominant culture.  This helps to explain why over the span of a few centuries, descendants of immigrants have done measurably better in areas such as income, years of education, and employment, whereas African Americans, who were colonized and conquered, are measurably worse off than immigrant groups.

The Expansion of Slavery in the United States


As was discussed earlier, slavery was a response to the plantation system.  The plantation was dependent on a relationship between the dominant group and minority group called paternalism. Paternalism looks at the unequal system of power and control the dominant group has over the minority group, which is enforced through repression of the minority group and barriers between the groups.  Under paternalism, the powerful plantation elite created an elaborate set of laws and customs designed to control the lives of their slaves.  In these laws slaves were defined as chattel, or personal property, rather than free persons.  Since slaves were considered property, it meant that they could not own property, sign contracts, or testify in court (unless against another slave).  It meant that the master could control every aspect of a slave’s life, from names to work, to who they would marry.  With regard to marriage, slave marriages were not legally recognized, so that if the master deemed it necessary, husbands could be separated from wives, and parents from children.

Interaction between the dominant white community and black slaves was tightly regulated.  Slaves were expected to accept their lower social status. Slaves needed to adhere to a strict code of etiquette.  Failure to do so would result in severe punishment.  Masters for the most part could not be persecuted for abusing their slaves.  Slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write.   Interracial dating and marriage were forbidden.  Eyes were to be downcast.  Physical interaction was not acceptable.  Social interaction was allowed by having the slave adopt a humble, subservient position.

To maintain the unequal servitude of blacks, white plantation owners had to convince other whites that it was morally justifiable.  This was accomplished by convincing whites that blacks were less than human, and incapable of being civilized.  Although ideological racism and prejudice towards blacks was not the “cause” of slavery, over time it was used to rationalize and justify differences between whites and blacks and so became a “result” of slavery

  1. History of Slavery in America (Part 1)
  2. History of Slavery in America (Part 2)
  3. History of Slavery in America (Part 3)
  4. Stephen Colbert: How Southerners Today Don’t Like to Mention Slavery
  5. Conditions on a Slave Ship from the Movie Armistad
  6. Letter From a Freed Slave to His Old Master
  7. The African-Americans:  Many Rivers to Cross  (a PBS Series)
  8.  Lincoln Didn’t Have to Start the Civil War? (the Daily Show)


Slave Rebellions

Most white plantation owners lived in fear of a slave rebellion.  Although some serious slave rebellions did occur,  for the most part, the American slave experience produced little outward racial conflict.  It was difficult for slaves to protest their condition.  The power differential was severe.  Most slaves were on plantations of 20 or less.  This made it difficult to organize.  Slaves also did not have access to weapons.  In addition, acts of rebellion were met with severe punishment or death.

1.Slave Rebellions

2.Nat Turner Slave Rebellion

The most famous slave uprising was the Nat Turner Rebellion.  In 1831 Nat Turner led a group of slaves in a rebellion in Virginia.  His group killed 55 whites until he was captured, tried, hanged and skinned.

Historians and sociologists are interested in why there were fewer slave rebellions in America than in Latin America.  Modern research indicates the following reasons:

1)  Blacks were a numeric minority.  Being outnumbered and outgunned, black slaves were not in a position to rebel.  On the other hand, in Latin America and the West Indies, blacks were often the majority.

2)  American slaves had less contact with each other than slaves in Latin America.  Families were often broken up, the impact of the slaves codes, and the  restrictions on travel, made it difficult for slaves to have contact with other slaves even on nearby plantations.

3)  Most of the plantations in the American South had 20 or fewer slaves.  This differed from the Latin American plantation system which usually had 200 slaves or more.  This made it more difficult to organize a large rebellion.

4)  There were no isolated areas of non-slave activity were slaves could escape and organize.  If an American slave escaped, he was never more than a few miles from another supporter of slavery.  This is in contract to Latin America, where escaped slaves could go to remote regions, (jungle, mountains) to establish a stronghold.

It should be noted that just because it was difficult to organize a successful slave rebellion, that all slaves willingly accepted their inferior status.  Many slaves resisted through acts of sabotage, avoidance of work, or self-mutilation.



The ethical and moral problems associated with slavery had been with the white dominant class since the formation of the colonies.  Although at the formation of our country there was a “compromise” to deal with the issue of slavery, it never went away as a polarizing issue. By the 1840’s the abolitionist movement was in full swing.  Abolitionism was the movement to end slavery.  The abolitionist movement was strongest in northern states where slavery had been abolished.  Some slaves escaped on their own.  Others were helped.  An “underground railroad” was established, which consisted of an informal network of safe houses that provided shelter to slaves.  Harriet Tubman is probably the most famous person associated with the underground railroad.  The abolitionist movement produced many gifted speakers, most notably were William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas.

  1. The Supreme Court Ruling on the Dred Scott Decision 

A Brief Description/Timeline of Slavery in the Decades Leading Up to The Civil War

By the mid-19th century, America’s westward expansion, along with a growing anti-slavery movement in the North, provoked a national debate over slavery that helped precipitate the American Civil War (1861-65).

One of the first steps to ending slavery happened in 1808.  In 1807 the U.S. Congress passed the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves, which ended large-scale importations of slaves into the United States. The law went into effect on January 1, 1808. In the eight years before the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves made the trade illegal, the United States had imported about forty thousand new slaves from Africa. From 1808 until the Civil War broke out in 1861, less than a fifth of that number of slaves would be illegally smuggled into the nation. In 1824 the nation of Liberia is formed in Africa by freed slaves.

In January 1850, Henry Clay presented a bill that would become known as the Compromise of 1850. The terms of the bill included a provision that Texas relinquish its disputed land in exchange for $10 million to be paid to Mexico. The territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah were defined while leaving the question of slavery off the table, on the understanding that the issue would be decided when the territories applied for statehood. In addition, the slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia, although slavery would still be permitted in the nation’s capitol. It was agreed that California would be admitted as a free state, but the Fugitive Slave Act was passed to mollify pro-slavery states. This bill was the most controversial of all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850. According to its tenets, citizens were required to aid in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Fugitives had no right to a jury trial. The cases were handled by special commissioners, who were paid $5 if a fugitive was released and $10 if the captive was returned to slavery. In addition, the act called for changes that made the process for filing a claim against a fugitive easier for slave owners. The new law was devastating. Many former slaves who had been attempting to build lives in the North left their homes and fled to Canada, which added approximately 20,000 blacks to its population over the following decade.

In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, dividing the region along the 40th parallel, with Kansas to the south and Nebraska to the north, and providing both territories the right to vote on whether to be slave or free. For all practical purposes the act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, which had attempted to regulate the spread of slavery. As a result of the new law, both pro- and anti-slavery supporters tried to convince settlers to move to Kansas in order to sway the vote.

In 1846, a Missouri slave, Dred Scott, sued for his freedom. Scott argued that while he had been the slave of an army surgeon, he had lived for four years in Illinois, a free state, and Wisconsin, a free territory, and that his residence on free soil had erased his slave status. In 1850 a Missouri court gave Scott his freedom, but two years later, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed this decision and returned Scott to slavery. Scott then appealed to the federal courts. In March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney announced the Court’s decision. By a 7-2 margin, the Court ruled that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the territories.

The chief justice made two sweeping rulings. The first was that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court because neither slaves nor free blacks were citizens of the United States. At the time the Constitution was adopted, the chief justice wrote, blacks had been “regarded as beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Second, Taney declared that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the federal territories since any law excluding slavery property from the territories was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process of law.  Many who opposed slavery believed that the Dred Scott Decision had put the law on the side of the pro-slavery forces.


On May 24, 1856, John Brown led a party of militant abolitionists who slaughtered five pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie Creek.  Brown claimed that he did not participate in the actual killings, but unapologetically approved them as justified payback for a pro-slavery assault on Lawrence, Kansas.  For this act and for his defense of the “free soil” town of Osawatomie, Kansas, Brown became nationally renowned to abolitionists and infamous to slaveholders.

Subsequently, Brown, with funding from prominent abolitionists, raised a small paramilitary force.  In January 1858, raiders under Brown’s leadership liberated twelve slaves in Missouri, delivering them to freedom in Canada.

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown, now 59 years old, staged his final and most daring raid, an assault on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), which housed an arsenal of more than 100,000 rifles and muskets.  Calling his raiding force, the “Provisional Army,” Brown’s group of 22 men included three of Brown’s sons, a fugitive slave and four free blacks.  Brown’s goal was to seize the arsenal, distribute the guns and muskets, mobilize anti-slavery forces, incite slave insurrections and organize raids against slaveholders across the South.

Brown and his men initially took control of the armory, but within 36 hours, U.S. Marines under the leadership of future Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, stormed the facility, killed several of Brown’s band and captured Brown and the remaining raiders.

Brown was taken to nearby Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) where he was charged on three counts: treason, murder and conspiracy to lead a slave rebellion.  After a seven-day trial and forty-five minutes of deliberation, a jury found him guilty on all counts.  The court sentenced Brown to death. He was hung on December 2, 1859.  Many people in both the North and the South believed that John Brown’s actions signaled an end to any ability to compromise.

  1. Slavery and Abolitionist Links

In the beginning of this unit we saw the relationship between an agricultural based society and slavery.  That relationship had an enormous impact on dominant-minority group relations.   The move of the United States to an industrial society also had a profound impact on dominant-minority group relations. Both the period of industrialization (1820 – 1950) and the period of post-industrialization ( 1950 to the present) have had an important impact on dominant-minority group relations.

The Post-bellum South

segregation2 After the Civil War, there was a brief 15 year period where blacks had a break from  the long history of oppression and saw signs of an improved life.  This was the period known as Reconstruction.  Blacks made gains both economically and politically during Reconstruction.  Two blacks served in the Senate and twenty served in the House of Representatives.  However, in the early 1880’s northern troops left the South and a new form of oppression and exploitation was developed.  Pre-Civil War slavery was replaced by a new system of race relations- segregation.  The segregation that existed in the South from 1880 until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s is also known by other terms:  Jim Crow  and the Black Codes.  Southern society during this time period was an example of de jure segregation.  This type of segregation is characterized by the passing of laws (de jure means “by law”) which mandates the separation of the dominant group from minority groups.  This system differed from the de facto segregation that existed in the North.  De facto segregation is a system of segregation  that results from voluntary choices (de facto meaning “by practice”).  The de jure segregation system in the South came to encompass all aspects of life.  Virtually every institution was segregated from schools, to the workplace, to hospitals, parks, neighborhoods, and even cemeteries.  The de jure segregation of the South was formalized when the Supreme Court gave its approval in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.  In this court decision, the concept of “separate but equal” was found to be constitutional. In reality, Southern society emphasized the “separate” with respect to public facilities, but not the “equal”.  Under this system of segregation, a highly elaborate system social rules was developed.  Blacks were to adopt an inferior status by being addressed as “boys” or calling all whites, “mister” or “Ma’am”, while keeping their gaze downcast and moving over for whites on the sidewalk.  Failure to adhere to these rules could result in physical attacks or even death.

1.  Slavery by Another Name

 Many students of American history mistakenly believe that minorities received far better treatment living in the North under de facto segregation.  Although in many places the treatment minorities received was better, there were many places and many instances when the treatment minorities received in the North was just as oppressive as what minorities would expect in the South.  A closer examination of our nation’s history will allow citizens of the United States who live outside of the South to eliminate any feelings of superiority they may have towards the South with respect to the treatment of minorities.  Click on the link below for more information.

1.  Examples of Racism Experienced by Minorities in the North

There were formal and informal methods used to keep blacks in a subordinate position. Besides the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the courts also passed other decisions to limit black participation in society. The right to vote was one of the first rights of blacks to be taken away. Various measures were enacted to take away the vote (disenfranchise) from blacks.  Besides the usual tactics such as violence (In 1873, a band of whites murdered over 100 blacks who were assembled to defend Republican officeholders against attack in Colfax, Louisiana.) and fraud (ballot box stuffing), other methods were used to discourage blacks from voting.  One method was the poll tax.  Georgia initiated the poll tax in 1871, and made it cumulative in 1877 (requiring citizens to pay all back taxes before being permitted to vote). Every former confederate state followed its lead by 1904. Although these taxes of $1-$2 per year may seem small, it was beyond the reach of many poor black and white sharecroppers, who rarely dealt in cash.  The purpose of the tax was plainly to disenfranchise, not to collect revenue, since no state brought prosecutions against any individual for failure to pay the tax. It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prohibit the poll tax in state elections.  Another method was the literacy test.  In 1890, Southern states began to adopt explicit literacy tests to disenfranchise voters. This had a large differential racial impact, since 40-60% of blacks were illiterate, compared to 8-18% of whites. Poor, illiterate whites opposed the tests, realizing that they too would be disenfranchised. To placate them, Southern states adopted an “understanding clause” or a “grandfather clause,” which entitled voters who could not pass the literacy test to vote, provided they could demonstrate their understanding of the meaning of a passage in the constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar, or were or were descended from someone eligible to vote in 1867, the year before blacks attained the franchise. Discriminatory administration ensured that blacks would not be eligible to vote through the understanding clause.

1.  Harvard Students Fail Literacy Tests

If formal methods did not work in forcing Southern black into accepting their subordinate position, then informal methods could also be used. The Ku Klux Klan  grew out of white Southern anger over the Civil War defeat and the Reconstruction that followed. Northerners saw in the Klan an attempt of unrepentant Confederates to win through terrorism what they had been unable to win on the battlefield.  The Klan used violence and murder to intimidate blacks into submission.  One method of violence used by the Klan and other members of the white community was lynchings.  Most lynchings were not done by the Klan, but by local white residents.  In the 1890’s an average of 138 people a year were lynched in the South, 75% of them black. It is estimated a total of 6,000 African Americans lost their lives in lynchings between the 1870’s and 1960’s.2

Historian Leon Litwack said about the people doing the lynchings: “They were family men and women, good churchgoing folk who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control, a way of combating an epidemic or virus that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community.”

1.  The Violence of Lynching

2.  Interactive Map of Lynchings and Race Riots

3.  Lynchings

4.  Without Sanctuary Online Postcards

5.  The Lynching of Jesse Washington

6.  Mexicans Lynched in America

7.  The Birth of a Nation:  100 Years Later

8.  Birth of a Nation: KKK Scene

The Use of Science to Justify De Jure Segregation

As the United States entered the twentieth century, the field of science was making new discoveries in the fields of genetics and biology. The new information in the hard sciences permeated into the social sciences. In the field of biology earlier discoveries made in the 1850’s by scientists like Charles Darwin brought new ideas to social thinkers. The idea that species evolved through the “survival of the fittest” where desirable traits were passed to a new generation were adapted to explain human society.  Herbert Spencer, a sociologists, is perhaps best known for coining the term “survival of the fittest,” later commonly termed “social Darwinism.” Spencer argued that the concept of evolution was necessary to explain the development of human society. In the late nineteenth century, the application of Darwin’s philosophies to human societies most often led to a supposedly scientific racism in which Caucasians were always the “fittest” for survival.

On the heals of Spencer’s ideas of the survival of the fittest came the new discipline of eugenics. Eugenics began as an elitist racial supremacist movement that enlisted highly respected academic scientists in a campaign to control human reproduction. Eugenics appealed to the elite members of the wealthy and academic class who believed that uncontrolled population growth by poor people and minorities posed a threat to the social order. American eugenic advocates believed that the same concepts determining the color and size of peas, corn and cattle also governed the social and intellectual character of man. There was a desire by adherents to have white, Nordic types reproduce but not groups deemed inferior. There was a belief that the genetic traits from undesirable groups not be mixed with the superior groups. To accomplish this, superior groups should be separate from inferior groups. Elements of the philosophy were enshrined as national policy by forced sterilization and segregation laws, as well as marriage. The ideas of Spencer and the Eugenics movements provided a “scientific” basis for the establishment of de jure segregation.

Agriculture in the Early 20th Century

After the Civil War most Southern blacks were employed in the agricultural sector.  An agricultural method of farming called sharecropping was developed. What was sharecropping?  According to D. E. Conrad sharecropping was a solution to a labor shortage problem.  “Many planters had ample land but little money for wages. At the same time most of the former slaves were uneducated and impoverished. The solution was the sharecropping system, which continued the workers in the routine of cotton cultivation under rigid supervision. Economic features of the system were gradually extended to poor white farmers. The cropper brought to the farm only his own and his family’s labor. Most other requirements—land, animals, equipment, and seed—were provided by the landlord, who generally also advanced credit to meet the living expenses of the cropper family. Most croppers worked under the close direction of the landlord, and he marketed the crop and kept accounts. Normally in return for their work they received a share (usually half) of the money realized. From this share was deducted the debt to the landlord. High interest charges, emphasis on production of a single cash crop, slipshod accounting, and chronic cropper irresponsibility were among the abuses of the system. Farm mechanization and a marked reduction in cotton acreage have virtually put an end to the system.”1     Under the sharecropping system, it was virtually impossible for black farmers to improve their situations.


Minority Relations and the Move to a Post-Industrial Society

The difficult conditions described above in the South caused many blacks to migrate to the North.  In the early 20th century, a mass exodus of southern blacks looking for jobs in Northern cities began. This is known as “The Great Migration“.  Many Southern blacks were drawn to Northern cities during World War I looking for factory jobs.  At the same time as blacks moved from the south to the north, immigration from Europe also increased.  The result was intense competition for jobs and housing between white immigrants and newly arrived blacks.   Most white workers saw blacks as a threat and tried to keep them out of the workplace. This mistrust had some merit, as white industrialists often hired blacks as strikebreakers and scabs during a strike.  In addition, most unions discriminated against blacks as well.  One negative consequence of using blacks as strikebreakers was that it increased racial tensions.  In 1910 black workers were brought to Waterloo, Iowa to break a railroad strike.  In 1916 black strikebreakers were brought in to to break a railroad strike. The use of black strike breakers in East St. Louis led to a race riot in 1917.  A nationwide steel strike was broken in 1919 by bringing in an estimated 30,000 – 40,000 blacks, mostly from the South.   Because of their lack of a bargaining position, poor black and white workers were easily played off against each other. Race riots were caused by a great number of social, political and economic factors. Joseph Boskin, author of Urban Racial Violence observed that there were certain general patterns in the major twentieth century race riots:

1. In each of the race riots, with few exceptions, it was white people that sparked the incident by attacking Black people.

2. In the majority of the riots, some extraordinary social condition prevailed at the time of the riot: prewar social changes, wartime mobility, post-war adjustment, or economic depression.

3. The majority of the riots occurred during the hot summer months.

4. Rumor played an extremely important role in causing many riots. Rumors of some criminal activity by Blacks against whites perpetuated the actions of white mobs.

5. The police force, more than any other institution, was invariably involved as a precipitating cause or perpetuating factor in the riots. In almost every one of the riots, the police sided with the attackers, either by actually participating in, or by failing to quell the attack.

6. In almost every instance, the fighting occurred within the Black community.

1.  History of Race Riots in the United States

2.  East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917

3.  Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

4.  Detroit Race Riot of 1967 Song/Video

The Origins of Black Protest

As was discussed in earlier units, there have always been members of the African American community who have always resisted their oppression.  The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments gave blacks more freedom to speak out against their disadvantaged position in society.  There were many leaders, with many different visions of how to deal with their oppression.  Below is a short description of some of the leaders.

bookertwashingtonBooker T. Washington.   Booker T. Washington was born a slave but eventually rose up to become a leader in black education, and a strong influence as a racial representative in national politics.  He became the first principal of the newly-founded Tuskegee Institute, a school for African Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Washington was known as a racial accommodationist. He rejected the pursuit of political and social equality with whites in favor of developing vocational skills and a reputation for stability and dependability.  His ideas won praise from the white community.  His admirers included Theodore Roosevelt, who invited him to dine at the White House in 1901 and consulted him as an advisor on racial issues and southern political patronage.  Washington secretly used his wealth and power to finance challenges to Jim Crow laws and invest in selected black newspapers. Washington gained further prominence with the 1901 publication of his best-selling autobiography, Up From Slavery.

W. E. B. Du Bois.  Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of racial uplift was bitterly opposed by some African American intellectuals, most notably W. E. B. Du Bois. W. E. B. Du Bois was born and educated in the North. In 1895 he was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  He helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.  Du Bois was opposed to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist policies.  Du Bois favored a direct and immediate pursuit of policies designed to end racial inequality. Du Bois championed global African unity and (especially in later years) separatism. In 1961 he emigrated to Ghana and became a citizen.

Marcus Garvey.  Marcus Garvey devoted his life to the cause of correcting the injustices that blacks were subjected to,  everywhere they were found. Garvey, in 1914, founded and became the charismatic leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.). Its purpose was to improve the conditions of black people everywhere. He was convinced that success demanded the building of a strong economic base so that blacks will be self-sufficient.  He believed that American society was racist and would never support equal integration for blacks.  He advocated for separatism and for blacks to return to Africa.  His emphasis on pride in African heritage would inspire later black leaders such as Malcolm X.

African Americans From WW II to the Present

The plight of African Americans began with their importation from Africa as slaves.  This condition lasted until the Civil War.  After the Civil War slavery was ended.  But a new, repressive system replaced slavery.  The period of Jim Crow laws established African Americans as second class citizens. Access to schools, restaurants, voting booths, hotels, and other public places were denied.  This section will take a look at how de jure segregation came to end.

As was mentioned above, after the Civil War there were leaders in the African American community who fought against the racial injustice in the United States. The struggle for civil rights gained momentum because of the events surrounding World War II.  On the home front, in 1941 labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph organizes a mass movement that forces President Roosevelt to take steps against racial discrimination in defense industries.  On the war front, returning black soldiers who had fought against Hitler’s racist ideology, found it difficult to return home and accommodate themselves to a racist, and segregated society.  Below is a short history of the Civil Rights Movement from the end of World War II to the end of the 1960’s.

Brief Chronology of the Civil Rights Movement From 1945 – 1970

In 1947, Jackie Robinson plays his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color bar in major league baseball.  In 1948, President Truman issues Executive Order 9981 which begins the desegregation of the armed services.

1.Hank Aaron Still Receiving Hate Mail

In 1954, the Supreme Court rules on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., unanimously agreeing that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The ruling paves the way for large-scale desegregation. The decision overturns the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that sanctioned “separate but equal” segregation of the races, ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” It is a victory for NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who will later return to the Supreme Court as the nation’s first black justice.

In 1955 fourteen-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till is visiting family in Mississippi when he is kidnapped, brutally beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Two white men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, are arrested for the murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. They later boast about committing the murder in a Look magazine interview. The case becomes a cause célèbre of the civil rights movement.  In December of 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat in the front of the bus and take a seat in the black section at the back of the bus. This begins the Montgomery Bus Boycott which will last a year until the buses were declared desegregated in December 1956.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott brings to national prominence for the first time the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  The strategy begun at the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Martin Luther King Jr., non-violent direct action, would be used throughout the Civil Rights Movement.  Non-violent direct action is a method of resisting oppression by using non-violence through speeches, sit-ins, and marches.  It is an attempt to win over those who oppress by winning their support and friendship through acts of courage and love, rather than through violent force or humiliation.  In 1957 Martin Luther King Jr. helps to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC becomes a major force in organizing the civil rights movement and bases its principles on nonviolence and civil disobedience.  In the fall of 1957 President Eisenhower uses federal troops and the National Guard who were called on to protect black students who had enrolled in Little Rock High School.

  1. The Death of Emmett Till (music/video)
  2. Little Rock High School Integration of 1957
  3. Little Rock High School 50 Years Later
  4. Non-Violent Instructions to Sit-in Demonstrators
  5. Notes From a Non-Violent Training Session in 1963
  6. Remembering the Officially Deleted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  7. Bull Conner and Segregation At All Costs
  8.  10 Things to Know About Non-Violent Struggle


Beginning in 1960 a new strategy is used.  Black college students start to use “sit-ins“.  The first one occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina where students sat down at a Woolworth’s restaurant to be served. But they were not.  Six months later the protesters are served. The success in Greensboro touches off similar sit-ins around the South at movie theaters, swimming pools, and other public facilities.  In 1961 the first “freedom riders” begin riding interstate buses in an attempt to desegregate them.  In the spring of 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. is jailed for his protests in Birmingham Alabama.  While in jail he writes his famous, “Letters From the Birmingham Jail”.  In August of 1963, 200,000 people meet at the Lincoln Memorial to here Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.   In 1964 the 24th Amendment is passed which bans the use of the poll tax.  During the summer of 1964 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a network of civil rights groups that includes CORE (Congress for Racial Equality)  and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), launches a massive effort to register black voters during what becomes known as the Freedom Summer.  In July of 1964, President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, gender, color, religion, or national origin. The law also provides the federal government with the powers to enforce desegregation.  In the summer of 1965 Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for Southern blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other such requirements that were used to restrict black voting are made illegal.  In April of 1968 two events occurred.  First, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.   Later that month, President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.

Why Did the Civil Rights Movement Succeed?

Briefly outlined below are a list of some of the reasons sociologists believe the Civil Rights Movement was successful.

1)  The industrialization and urbanization of society – the south in particular- weakened de jure segregation and minority group control.

2)  From World War II until the early 1970’s the United States economy enjoyed a long period of prosperity.  When the economic “pie” is expanding, there is less inter-group conflict and resistance to change weakens.

3)  The goals of the Civil Rights Movement were consistent with the American values of liberty, equality, and freedom.  The legitimacy of the movement created alliances with other groups (white liberals, Jews, college students).

4)  Three was sympathetic coverage from the mass media, especially the new medium of  television.  Many Americans were outraged when they saw Eugene “Bull” Connor use fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators. These images of brutality, which are televised and published widely, are instrumental in gaining sympathy for the civil rights movement around the world.

Protest and the Black Power Movement

The successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not remove all of the problems created by  Jim Crow segregation. In the mid 1960’s many urban black communities erupted in violence.  In August of 1965, Watts, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles experienced one of the most destructive riots in our nation’s history.  In 1967 major riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey and Detroit, Michigan. The riots of the 1960’s were different from those of the past.  The race riots that occurred after World War I, involved whites coming into black neighborhoods to engage in violence.  The riots of the 1960’s were different in that they usually involved blacks attacking objects of their oppression, such as white owned businesses.

Paralleling the Civil Rights Movement was the Black Power Movement.  The Black Power Movement was a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that emphasized racial pride, African heritage, and black nationalism.  Instead of working towards assimilation into white society as the Civil Rights Movement had, the Black Power Movement instead focused on increasing African American control over schools, neighborhoods, police departments, and other public services.  The Black Power Movement tried to empower the black community to fight the racism and inequality inherent in American society and to be proud of black heritage.

The Nation of Islam


The Nation of Islam is one of the better known organization that promoted black power. It was founded in 1930 and reached national prominence under Elijah Muhammad.  The most recognizable speaker for the Nation of Islam was Malcolm X.   The Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, made Malcolm a minister and sent him around the country on speaking engagements. Malcolm spoke about black pride and separatism, and rejected the civil rights movement focus on integration and equality.  In March 1964, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. A month later, he took a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It was there that his view of separatism changed. He discovered that white and black Muslims could coexist together. While he still advocated Black Nationalism, he also accepted a more orthodox Islam view of the “true brotherhood” of man and believed that there was a potential for cross-racial alliance.  Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

  1. Malcolm X Explains Black Nationalism
  2. F.B.I. Cointelpro Program to Monitor the Black Panthers
  3. Malcolm X on Love and Non-Violence

Was the Black Power Movement successful? That is a difficult to question to answer. With the death of Malcolm X, the imprisonment of many of its leaders, and the advent of the Vietnam War, the movement lost much of its momentum.  However, the idea of black power has become entrenched in the African American community.  The Black Power Movement helped to create a new identity for African Americans, and it helped destroy some of the myths that penetrated American society that blacks were lazy, irresponsible, and inferior.  By the 1970’s black-white relations had evolved into something new and different.  Although progress had been made in some areas for blacks (voting),  other problems remained deep rooted and difficult to overcome.  The succeeding units will look at continuing problems facing the African American community with respect to law enforcement, the courts, economics, and the schools.

Malcolm X, infamous for his anti-pacifist rhetoric and his direct attacks on Martin Luther King’s strategies, nonetheless stressed to Dr. King’s wife his awareness of the value of a diversity of tactics: “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”

1.Jon Stewart and How the Race Card is Maxed Out

The State of African Americans Today

The state of African Americans in the United States today contains both good news and bad news. The good news is that the formal, by law Jim Crow segregation has been dismantled. The bad news is that prejudice, discrimination, and racism have not gone away. In subsequent units, issues that have negatively impacted the African American community ( deindustrialization, housing segregation, the War on Drugs, and police brutality) will be discussed.

 action Movies Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Rosewood. A dramatization of a 1923 horrific racist lynch mob attack and riot on an African American community.

2.  The Color Purple.  The life and trials of a young African American Woman living in the segregated South.

3.Armistad.   A 1839 mutiny aboard a slave ship that is traveling towards the Northeast Coast of America. Much of the story involves a court-room drama about the free-man who led the revolt.


books03 Books Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Better for All the World : The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity (Hardcover)   by  Harry Bruinius

2.Letter From a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

3.The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X


Farley, John E.
2005   Majority-Minority Relations  (5th Edition)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:   Pearson Education

Healey, Joseph F.
1998   Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class  (2nd Edition)  Thousand Oaks, California:   Pine Forge Press

1   Conrad, D. E. , The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal (1965)

2  Feagin, Joe R.  Racist America:  Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 147



Copyright ©2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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