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Civil Rights Struggle of African Americans


The civil rights struggle of African Americans began much earlier than it got its name. Despite the negative attitude towards slavery and inequality among many American leaders, the implementation of the principle laid down in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are born equal,” was postponed several times until Kennedy did not send to Congress the Civil Rights bill in August 1963. [1] This paper aims to analyze three primary sources to reveal in detail the various aspects of the struggle for African Americans’ rights.

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Freedpeople and the Movement for Freedom

Abram Colby’s Testimony, 1872

Although the movement for equal rights for African Americans and Whites defended the interests of the black people, this movement reflected the objective processes that took place in society. These processes were due to several reasons – political, economic, cultural, and social. Abram Colby was an African American legislator from Georgia who gave his testimony in 1872 in front of a congressional committee formed to investigate violence against freedpeople in the South.

Unfortunately, the events he described were a widespread practice since members of the Ku Klux Klan movement often beat to death activists who intended to protect the black people’s rights after the abolition of slavery, including voting rights. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, among whom were representatives of the highest circles in the Southern States’ society, advocated preserving the old American society as it existed before the advent of slaves from Africa. The movement was most widespread in Alabama, South, and North Carolina, where African Americans were forced to work on plantations growing cotton.

After they have freed thanks to the efforts of President Abraham Lincoln, the vast majority left the farms in search of relatives from whom the planters had separated them. African Americans were now able to participate in night rallies together with white politicians in defense of voting and civil rights. However, such processions were often attacked by proponents of segregation policies who were not ready to accept African Americans as equals. The segregation policy was essentially a continuation of the inequality policy. It assumed that blacks and whites would study in schools, attend public institutions, and use public transport separately. Although the South’s policies presented segregation as a compromise in favor of equality, as long as ‘equal treatment was ensured,’ in essence, segregation aimed to distinguish African Americans as second sort citizens.

In the submitted document, Abram Colby describes how on October 29, 1869, representatives of the Ku Klux Klan, Klansmen broke into his house, demanding him to refuse to vote for the Radical ticket. Colby described the attackers: “Some are first-class men in our town. One is a lawyer, one a doctor and some are farmers. They had their pistols, and they took me in my nightclothes and carried me from home.”[2] Colby refused to withdraw his voice, for which he was left in the forest and severely beaten.

The day before, the Klansmen tried to bribe him by offering a total of $ 7,500 to join them and allow another person to vote in his place. Colby sustained severe injuries and subsequent threats to kill him. On the eve of the election, the Klansmen attacked Colby’s home again, riddling it with bullets, which he witnessed while returning from a Saturday church service. As he confessed in the testimony, the attack broke his spirit, and he could no longer work with other people. Therefore, the Klansmen managed to punish the representative of African Americans in Congress.

Editorial of Hiram Wesley Evans, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, 1925

Despite the abolition of slavery, from 1869 to 1925, little changed concerning the policy of segregation. African Americans were still forced to attend schools, canteens, and barbershops for blacks and use segregated public transport. The aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the Great War, and the wave of inventions adopted by monopolists had little impact on Americans’ social and civic life. By the middle of the ‘roaring 20s,’ when feminist movements defended women’s rights, segregation policies were still supported by Southern government members. Therefore, it is not surprising that representatives of such radical and aggressive organizations as the Ku Klux Klan have openly expressed their ideas about preserving America for true Americans.

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In his editorial, Hiram Wesley Evans expresses two main ideas of the organization’s members, from which he and his colleagues are not ready to give up under any circumstances. The first idea was that “the pioneers who built America bequeathed to their children a priority right to it, the control of it and its future, and that no one on earth can claim any part of this inheritance.”[3] The second idea implied that “the mission of America under Almighty God is to perpetuate and develop just the kind of nation and just the kind of civilization which our forefathers created.”[4] Therefore, the Klansmen justified their inhuman cruelty with lofty ideals, forgetting that the original goal of creating a new state was to unite representatives of all classes, nationalities, and races as equals in the eyes of God.

The document directly indicates that the Klansmen adhered to the most radical form of racism. Hiram Wesley Evans, who wrote this appeal in hopes of gaining more followers, notes: “We believe that races of men are as distinct as breeds of animals.”[5] He stresses that “any mixture between races of any great divergence is evil; the American stock, which was bred under highly selective surroundings, has proved its value and should not be mongrelized.”[6] Consequently, this man directly considered white supremacy in a newspaper publication. This blatant racism can also be attributed to the state of the press, which was different from modern standards of morality and objectivity. Most newspapers expressed highly polarized opinions and felt no need for self-censorship. Moreover, newspapers were predominantly used as instruments of the struggle for political influence, which may also explain the deliberate dissemination of the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan.

The opinion expressed by Hiram Wesley Evans was deeply subjective and did not reflect the real state of affairs. In particular, the appeal expressed fear that although “all foreigners were admitted with the idea… become a part of us, adopt our ideas and ideals, and help in fulfilling our destiny, but never that they should be permitted to force us to change into anything else.”[7] Such fears were characteristic of that time since, after the Great War, the United States met an influx of immigrants. Due to this, immigrant laws were passed, introducing quotas for the newcomers. However, African Americans settled on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean along with the first settlers. They could hardly change whites into anything else, as they helped them fulfill their destiny by growing rice and cotton on the plantations and serving planters to earn colossal fortunes. Hence, it is evident that Klansmen’s ideas distorted reality and offered to fight phantoms.

Martin Luther King on Vietnam, 1967

The Civil Rights movement was marked by the famous case when Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white gentleman on a white bus. Black women, now also involved in political movements, distributed leaflets that reported Rosa Park’s case and called on all African Americans to participate in the bus boycott in defense of civil rights. African Americans gathered in demonstrations and demanded to end segregation in schools, hospitals, and public institutions.

The rallies sparked an extreme backlash in the Southern States, where pro-segregationists attacked protesters, bombed and killed them. Best known for the number of violent attacks against civil rights activists was Birmingham, Alabama, with the largest number of bombings. John F. Kennedy, who was not a supporter of segregation, could not openly support the movement, as he was indebted to the politicians from the Southern states who supported him in the elections. However, he tried to stop the civil rights rallies and the violence they provoked, urging protesters to focus on reclaiming voting rights.

Representatives of communities such as the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC campaigned and ensured the registration of black voters who could have been easily refused in the voting right by election officials for fictitious reasons. The most famous demonstration organized by SCLC and Martin Luther King was D-Day when thousands of teenagers marched in Birmingham. Despite their young age and peaceful protest, they were arrested by the local police chief, nicknamed “Bull” Connor, and thrown into prison. [8]

SCLC decided to organize a Double-D Day, but this time the reaction was even more violent – the police beat protesters and onlookers and used electric cattle prods and fire horses. But people were not intimidated, and three months later, in August 1963, a quarter of a million Americans gathered in March on Washington to promote Civil Rights Bill. [9] Martin Luther King gave his first speech to people, which began with the words “I have a dream.” The Civil Rights Bill that Kennedy sent to Congress allowed the federal government to desegregate schools and guarantee the right to vote, but this was not yet a victory.

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An unexpected event that brought white and black civil rights fighters together was the Vietnam War. The presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who sent soldiers to Vietnam, had shallow support from the population, who considered this war unjustified and did not understand its goals. A considerable number of Americans died in Vietnam; others were physically and mentally injured. Therefore, the Vietnam War veterans felt they had a responsibility to educate American citizens about the war’s realities and stop it. They hoped to find support for the Civil Rights movement and African Americans, who, like whites, were recruited and forced to fight against their will.

Therefore, Martin Luther King took this opportunity to create an alliance. In the presented document, he delivers a speech on Vietnam on behalf of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. King notes that the time has come when “silence is betrayal,” acknowledging that “as I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.”[10] In return, King offered to join his belief that “social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.”[11] He also admitted that “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my government.”[12]

In light of these statements, he urged his listeners not to ignore the existing war and to admit that it poisons society. Later, President Nixon achieved peace with Vietnam and withdrew American troops. Noteworthy, King encouraged his supporters to refrain from violence, as he believed that the path of non-violence is the only way to win. King was assassinated in 1968 by a segregator; however, although he received numerous threats and pressure, this outstanding leader did not abandon his attempts to change the world for the better.


Thus, the three primary sources were analyzed to detail the various aspects of African Americans’ struggle for civil rights. The first source illustrated the Reformation Era’s events when Lincoln hoped to forever free the nation from slavery and inequality but met with strong opposition from the Southern states. This source describes a typical attack by members of the Ku Klux Klan group on a representative from African Americans in Congress during the Radical ticket vote. The second document reflects the situation of the 1920s when the Klansmen could still openly declare their beliefs and demonstrates the deep subjectivity of these beliefs. The third document is an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s speech about the Vietnam War. It proves that by 1967, civil rights activists had achieved parity and sustained support within American society


James West Davidson, A Little History of the United States, (Yale University Press, 2015), 276.

HIS220B, Week 1 Document Set 1.

HIS220B, Week 2 Document Set 2.

Davidson, A Little History of the United States, 275.

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Davidson, 276.

HIS220B, Week 4 Document Set 1.

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