Assess the significance of the role of individuals in reducing racial discrimination in the period 1877-1981. The post-civil war era of American history could be argued as one with great promise for African Americans. With the North winning the Civil War and Lincoln granting the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, surely the seeds had been sown for equality for all in America; blacks and whites included?
Despite the foundations having been laid for equality, it may not be surprising that only small progress was made when Lincoln- the “saviour” of Blacks- had little interest in abolishing slavery in the first place; “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it”. However, it cannot be disputed that, whatever his intentions had been, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did provide just a glimpse of hope for African Americans; De Jure, the African Americans throughout America had freedom and were able to leave the slavery of Southern plantation owners.
Why is it then, that De Facto, the years following the Civil War failed to provide this ‘new hope’ for Blacks and that racism & discrimination continued for many years to come? The idea of Blacks developing the mind set they needed in order to fight for their freedom can be categorised as their ‘developing consciousness’. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, it was evident that Blacks had begun to realise that they too had rights and were entitled to the same as the Whites.
Through the work of organisations such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and the Harlem Renaissance as well as individuals such as William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B) Du Bois; Blacks in American began developing their identity as a group and using this to fight back against the oppression of Whites. Du Bois was known as a vocal critic of Booker T Washington, being an educated Black- graduating from Fisk University in 1885 and studying history at Harvard University- he became the first African-American to receive a Ph.
D. From Harvard. In order to develop Black Consciousness, Du Bois joined forces with the like minded activists of the NAACP. The NAACP’s main focal points were: The abolition of segregation; equal voting rights; educational opportunities for black people; the enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Despite the main focuses of the NAACPs campaigns, it could be argued that the main thing they did for the progress of Black Equality was the uniting of Blacks under one force; by 1918 there were around 43,994 members in the NAACP.
This gathering of Blacks under one organisation cannot be ignored, for the first time the African-Americans of America were joining together in order to fight for their freedom. One key event which argues against the idea that individuals were significant in reducing racial discrimination is that of WWI; argued by Sander’s- “The First World War generated jobs and gave blacks soldiers a glimpse of greater equality”. The treatment of Blacks abroad- particularly France- showed the African-Americans that the treatment they were receiving at home was unfair and that they were indeed in a situation which needed to change.
It is a hard task indeed to decide whether or Black Consciousness increased due to the work solely of individuals such as Du Bois, organisations like the NAACP or events like WWI. Many would argue that it was not a single one of these factors which led to the increase of Black’s realisation of potential. One argument however is that surely without individuals behind the organisations, the work and impact of the organisation is nothing? Individuals are able to lead, organise and even inspire; something that events and organisations are unable to do.
The process of increased black nationalism is certainly one which cannot be overlooked; indeed it may not have achieved solid changes in law, and some go as far to say that it may have even hindered the advancement of Black Civil Rights. Despite this one could argue that the development of black nationalism catalysed the civil rights movement for many African Americans; installing a sense of pride inside the hearts of many which was drastically needed at the time. Before trying to pin any credible progress on the black nationalism movement it is first important to attempt to define ‘Black Nationalism’.
A simple definition of it would be that it was an ideology which stresses the desire for separatism of the black race; “unity as a people, pride in African heritage, the creation of autonomous institutions and the search for a territory to build a nation” (Cone, 1991, 122). However the ideology of black nationalists varies greatly between individuals; a perfect example of this is Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The two vary drastically between their methods in raising black nationalism.
The methods and effectiveness of Malcolm X’s campaign for the improved lives of black Americans are up for questioning by many. Indeed his tactics were more radicalised than his non-violent counterpart Dr King: Malcolm X even stated in Washington, 1964 that “I’m here to remind the white man of the alternative to Dr King”. This statement could be seen to sum up the purpose of Malcolm X; due to the lack of credible change attached to him, one has to question whether his purpose was merely just to show what could happen (increased radicalisation and violence) if the demands of Dr King were not met.
This lack of credible, positive actions and change by Malcolm X and his current organisation the Nation Of Islam is an idea which can be- and has been- argued in depth. One could argue that, in terms of De Jure, Malcolm X did not achieve anything significant and indeed many considered him to be irresponsible and negative; Thurgood Marshall even went as far as to say that the NOI was “run by a bunch of thugs”. Despite this, De Facto, one cannot simply ignore the fact that Malcolm X did indeed draw early attention to the awful conditions in the ghettos and according to the FBI, he was “The most successful recruiter for the Black Muslims”.
This can be credited to Malcolm X being a Zeitgeist; he was able to tap into the spirit of the time and the feelings of the people, using this to draw the huge amounts of support he did for the Nation of Islam. Indeed it may be seen that a radical, passionate individual like Malcolm X was needed at that specific time for the black nationalism movement; it cannot be ignored that Martin Luther King was not at his most successful stage and the fire of black civil rights and nationalism which had been burning brightly was indeed beginning to burn dimmer or some might even say had gone out at the time.
After looking at the impact in which individuals had on the civil rights movement and the contrast of events, one can still come back to the fundamentals of the debate; without an individual to start an organisation or instigate an event surely no progress at all would have been made? If one is able to look at the larger picture of the progress made in reducing racial discrimination in the years
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