Chapter 3: Reactions to overt racism


Reactions to Overt Racism

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From the California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me (Woody Guthrie)

Legal revocations of overt racism in the nation started with the intervention of some liberals from the North. These liberals had become allies of the racial and ethnic minorities in question, because they believed that what was happening was inhumane and contradicted the founding ideals of the nation (Jones, 1997).

Freedom from slavery. During the third year of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, issued the Emancipation Proclamation (The White House, 1863) that liberated all the slaves held in states external to the Union (the Confederate States; Jones, 1997). Slaves held within the Union itself were not liberated and among the latter one could find those in the possession of Lincoln himself. Slavery was abolished in every state through the 13th Amendment in 1865. Section 2 of the 14th Amendment of 1868 revoked the Constitutional clause whereby a slave had been defined as three-fifths of a person. The 15th Amendment of 1870 guaranteed voting rights for everyone irrespective of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. 

Despite this legal progress, the situation of Africans in the US remained precarious, because the Black Codes remained in force in most states. This maintained de facto segregation between Whites and non-Whites. Moreover, in reaction to the constitutional and legal progress that had been achieved at the federal level, various states grandfathered additional measures into the Black Codes to strengthen and extend them. Among these measures one could find separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate busing sections, separate literacy tests for voting, and separate poll taxes.

Opposing Jim Crow. Opposition movements spearheaded by the Black movement started forming in the early 20th century to try and open up spaces for some form of collective power to attain some rights. These movements reached a critical mass in the 1960s and became transformed into the civil rights mass movement, which achieved some of the landmark revocations of both federal and state laws in American history.

Indian self-government. The Indian Citizenship (Snyder) Act of 1924 (43 Stat. 253) granted US citizenship to Native Americans and gave them the right to vote. However, this privilege was theoretical, because the natives remained unable to vote until 1957 due to the Jim Crow literacy tests and poll taxes. The Indian Reorganization (Wheeler-Howard) Act of 1934 (73 Stat. 383) reversed some provisions of the General Allotment Act and the Burke Act by restoring limited forms of self-government to Native Americans. Wheeler-Howard also gave the natives the right to form businesses and receive vocational education.

Moving toward integration. The SCOTUS ruled in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada of 1938 (305 U.S. 337) that Blacks had the right to a formal education. Gaines, an African American male, had twice been refused entry into the law school of the University of Missouri because he was Black. In the meantime, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Mendez v. Westminster School District of 1946 (9th Cir. 1947) that racial segregation in California was unconstitutional. It also mandated that Mexican Americans in the schools of Orange County be integrated with the mainstream. The Missouri and Mendez cases laid the legal foundation for the decision that was soon to ensue in Brown v. Board of Education. At the same time, Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the nation, ordered the racial integration of the US Armed Forces (The White House, 1948).

School desegregation. The year 1954 saw the landmark decision of the SCOTUS in Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483). The Court ruled that school segregation between Whites and non-Whites was illegal, and that separateness was inherently unequal. The SCOTUS reached this decision after reviewing evidence that separateness had harmed the personalities of non-Whites in an irrevocable manner (Benjamin v. Crouse, 2002; Clark, Chein, & Cook, 2004).

The comments made by Chief Justice Warren when reading the majority opinion illustrate the legal precedent set in American history by this decision, whereby personality damage was decreed to be a constitutional issue (Herman, 1995):

“To separate . . . [colored schoolchildren] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone” (Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483).

The Court also ruled that racial segregation violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In reaching these decisions, the SCOTUS took into account the findings of Kenneth and Mamie Clark on the effects of internalized racism in African American schoolchildren (Clark & Clark, 1939a, 1939b, 1940; Clark, 1950). The Clarks, both African American psychologists, had carried out racial identification studies with Black children and demonstrated that these children manifested significant levels of internalized racism in relation to the social desirability of White norms. The Clarks had also demonstrated the strong relationship between internalized racism and feelings of conflict about and rejection of the in-group, confusion about self-worth, defeatist attitudes, depressed morale, feelings of humiliation, inferiority, hypersensitivity, and self-hatred, as well as externally or internally hostile behaviors.

Brown v. Board of Education became the first case in US history whereby the courts used psychological research findings in the determination of a judicial ruling. This happened after a 10-year-long campaign had been waged by the legal and education defense fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP; Jackson, 2004), so that behavioral and social science research findings could start being taken into account in court decisions and rulings. The Brown decision reversed de jure racial segregation of more than 130 years’ standing. It also reversed the Plessy decision upon which segregation practices had been based in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Changes had started to occur. But for some people, these changes were unwelcome.

Resisting change. In 1955, a teenaged African American male was kidnapped, lynched, and mutilated. The house of the civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, jr., was bombed a year later (Jones, 1997). Whites started using physical force to prevent African Americans from enrolling in high schools across Texas and the Tennessee National Guard had to intervene to disperse violent demonstrators protesting racial integration in that state. In Alabama, 600 US federal marshals had to restore order after White crowds assaulted African Americans on an integrated interstate bus, beating them, overturning the bus, and then burning it. The racial hatred of the Whites of the Deep South toward non-Whites paralleled that toward Whites from the North who had dared to ally themselves with non-Whites.

Rosa Parks. Civil disobedience continued through the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 led by Martin Luther King, jr. (Jones, 1997). The boycott was held after an African American female, Rosa Parks, was arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, because she was tired when returning home from work. Blacks would walk for miles at the time, rather than sit in the segregated sections that had been allocated to them at the rear ends of buses to humiliate them. On being noticed at the front, Parks was ordered to move to the rear end of the bus to the Blacks-only section. Out of a combination of dignity and fatigue, Parks refused – and violated the Black Codes.

In 1957, Dwight David Eisenhower, the 34th President of the US, sent federal troops into Arkansas to restore order and protect African American children after the Governor had ordered his National Guard to support White protesters who had blocked school integration by physically preventing the children from entering an all-White high school. Militant, non-violent, non-White groups continued growing in power, leading to the “slow, painful integration of small numbers of southern white schools” (Jones, 1997).

Affirmative action. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the nation, issued Executive Order 10925 (The White House, 1961), which required federal contractors to undertake “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin” (ibid.). This Order was the first time that affirmative action was mentioned in US history and it was described by President Johnson (1965) as follows:

“Beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society – to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school . . . But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’ You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair . . . equal opportunity is essential, but not enough . . . Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability . . . is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man” (ibid.).

March on Washington, D.C.: I Have a Dream. Civil rights protests continued during the mid-20th century and included lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts, and other forms of civil disobedience (Jones, 1997). These protests culminated in the march on Washington, D.C., in 1963 when Martin Luther King, jr., led a massive group of protesters into the nation’s capital to demand enforcement of the right to freedom and jobs for racial minorities. Protesters who took part in the march included both racial minorities and Whites.

In his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, King likened the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to promissory notes signed by the Founding Fathers (King, 1963). He also likened the march on the capitol of the nation to presenting oneself at a bank to cash the check. In addition, he likened to a bad check the state of race relations at the time. King called for America to become a meritocracy-based society, rather than one based on race, and pleaded with great eloquence for harmonious domestic relations between the races.

The speech by King and the mass movement of the march resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (78 Stat. 241). Martin Luther King, jr., became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end racial discrimination through non-violent civil disobedience. However, for some it was again unwelcome. King was assassinated a few years later.