By- Angela Padrón
People usually associate the month of February with Presidents’ Day and Valentine’s Day, but one of the most important topics to recognize in February is Black History Month. During this month in particular, people study about and praise the impact that many African Americans have had throughout history. In addition, people look back on and appreciate the struggles that African Americans have endured throughout history in order to fight for justice and equal rights for all.
Although President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves during the Civil War in 1863, African Americans still had to cope with institutionalized racism and discrimination for decades, especially in the southern United States. Even though the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished, and even though many African Americans had stepped into leadership roles during Reconstruction (the rebuilding of the country and government after the war), it wasn’t enough to prove to some white Americans that everyone should be treated equally.
“Jim Crow” laws developed in the South in the late nineteenth century prohibited African Americans from having equal rights. These laws didn’t exist in the northern states, but African Americans were still discriminated against in their jobs, at school, and in their personal lives. It was illegal for an African American to marry a white person, and literacy tests were given to African Americans at polling booths before they could vote. Sadly, many were not able to pass, and thus were not allowed to vote.
For many years after Reconstruction, most African Americans worked as farmers, factory workers, or servants for very low pay. They were also not welcomed into the military. However, after many protests, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created jobs in the government and military and ordered that the jobs should be made available to all Americans, no matter the color of their skin. Still, despite serving their country valiantly, African American soldiers were discriminated against while deployed and when they returned home from war. It wasn’t until 1948 that an executive order was signed by President Truman to officially end discrimination in the military. Because of the discrimination so many experienced, movements demanding equal civil rights grew.
During the 1950s and 1960s, segregation in the United States continued. African Americans were not allowed to sit in the same sections as white people in restaurants or go to school with their white peers. They had to drink from water fountains and use bathrooms that were labeled for “colored” people. On December 1, 1955, a woman named Rosa Parks was riding the bus home from work in Montgomery, Alabama. At the time, African Americans in Alabama and other southern states were forced to sit in the back of buses. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, she was arrested. As people learned what happened to Rosa Parks, the incident empowered others to stand up for equal rights.
African American leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a boycott of buses, which lasted over a year and greatly hurt the bus company’s financial status. The Supreme Court then declared seated segregation illegal. In 1954, the Court also declared that segregation in public schools was illegal. In 1957, nine African American students in Little Rock, Arkansas agreed to attend an all-white school. After being threatened with violence, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort the nine students into school. Even though they could legally attend the school, they were still harassed and discriminated against. The same year, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which said people who prevented someone from voting based on their race would be prosecuted.
Throughout the south, people protested discrimination using peaceful means, such as refusing to move from segregated lunch counters and forming marches. On August 28, 1963, civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and Philip Randolph, organized the March on Washington. More than 200,000 people came to Washington, D.C. to participate in a peaceful demonstration to try to push the U.S. government to take more legal action for equal civil rights. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that talked about what the world would be like if everyone were treated the same, regardless of their race.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equality in employment, integrated public restrooms and other facilities, and limited voter literacy tests. In March of 1965, peaceful protesters were violently mistreated by police officers while crossing a bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This incident, known as “Bloody Sunday,” was aired on television, leading to great public outrage. Later that year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated voter literacy tests completely and provided certain protections and examinations of fairness at voting booths. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed to prevent discrimination against homeowners and renters based on their race, religion, national origin, or sex.
Every year in February, it’s important to revisit the hard work and dedication of so many in working towards equal rights for all, particularly African Americans, what they accomplished, and what improvements we still need to make today. In addition, commemorating Black History Month and the Civil Rights Movement can help students develop empathy and tolerance towards others.