African-American History 1865 to the Present Essay

Pages: 4 (1529 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Black Studies

African-American History: 1865 to the Present

How did Blacks define freedom and how did they realize ideas of freedom? Elsa Barkley Brown's essay "The Labor of Politics" (p. 75) delves into the social and political activities of African-American women between the years 1865 (the end of the Civil War) and 1880. She points out that during the transition from slavery to freedom the freed African-Americans had a very different definition of freedom than the "most supportive white allies" did (p. 76). The northern white liberals who opposed slavery and now sought to help freed Blacks, had no idea apparently that freed Black women in the South would engage in political campaigns, Brown explains. The "Rising Daughters of Liberty" went around raising money for candidates, educating the community and "getting out the vote" (Brown, p. 80).

Some freed African-American women were fearless, Brown writes; they did not have the ability to vote but they would walk up to 30 miles into Richmond, Virginia, to be involved in the 1868 election, and in the meantime they "placed themselves in potentially dangerous positions by wearing Republican campaign buttons" (p. 80). [the Republican Party at that time in U.S. history was the progressive party.] the freedwomen would "buy, beg, or borrow" a campaign button, and wear it "openly in defiance of… master, mistress, or overseer" (Brown, p. 80). Some Black Republican politicians took "women's participation seriously," Brown writes on page 82; the politicians encouraged the women "to refrain from sexual relations with any man who voted Democratic."

Six years after the end of the Civil War, and a year after the 15th Amendment was passed, some freedwomen were trying to realize their freedom but they were not free from brutal harassment and beatings by the Ku Klux Klan, according to Harriet Hernandes in Spartanburgh, South Carolina. The eight men that pushed into her house seeking to kill her husband came just after Christmas; "They told me they were going to shoot my damned brains out if I did not tell where my husband was" (Hernandes, p. 50). The second time the Ku Klux Klan arrived they dragged Harriet and her daughter out to a brush pile and beat them. They also whipped her 15-year-old daughter. Why? The Klansmen wanted to kill Blacks that had voted "radical tickets" but when the men were not home to kill, they "took the spite out on the women when they could get at them," Hernandes said on page 52.

On pages 38-39 ("African-Americans in Richmond, Virginia, Petition President Andrew Johnson, 1865") a letter to President Andrew Johnson (signed by seven freedmen) defined their freedom as "in many respects worse than when we were slaves" (Cook, et al., 1865, p. 39). In order to walk the streets of Richmond, freed slaves had to have a "pass" -- and even that did not protect them from "arrest, insult, abuse, violence and imprisonment" (Cook, p. 39).

William E.B. DuBois writes in "The Souls of Black Folk" that after 40 years of being freed from slavery the freedman has "not yet found in freedom his promised land" and the United States has "not yet found peace from its sins" (DuBois, 1903, p. 217). The DuBois essay defined the life that freedmen and freedwomen were leading after the war, and he defined it in terms of political, economic, social and cultural components of life. The Fifteenth Amendment (that supposedly made it illegal to deny any "citizen" the right to vote) came and went, and yet the freedman and freedwoman -- the "half-free serf" -- were left "weary, wondering but still inspired" (DuBois, p. 217). So after it appeared obvious to freed Blacks that they were not going to get much political power, they turned to "book-learning" and that too was a struggle.

DuBois said that thirty and forty years after being given the right to vote, and seeing very few changes in his social situation, "He felt the weight of his ignorance -- not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities." The free Blacks felt the "accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet" (DuBois, p. 218). There he was, years after being freed, but "without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings" and with this dearth of resources he was in "competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard," DuBois continued, "but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships" (p. 218).

Question TWO: Civil Rights, Black nationalism, Black Power, et al. Beverly Guy-Sheftall writes about the Black feminist movement in the United States, that was launched during the civil rights and Black nationalism movement. Very few if any national news media have looked into Black feminism or paid much attention to Black lesbian movements. Indeed, for many Black women, "The political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual black women's lives" was the spark that lit the fire to launch the Combahee River Collective." That political experience, Guy-Sheftall writes (p. 233) came from the realization that "racial politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives"; and moreover, this feminist movement understood in forming their organization that "…the history of rape of black women by white men [is] a weapon of political repression" (p. 234). The Combahee River Collective, as the group is called, believes it has "in many ways gone beyond white women's revelations because we are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex" (Guy-Sheftall, p. 235). On page 236 the most poignant and powerful phrase in this essay is presented: "There is a very low value placed upon Black women's psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist." Black lesbians and feminists may have a very different route to liberation from racial and economic oppression, but theirs is of equal cultural value.

Meantime, the 1960s in Mississippi the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was working to register voters, and Fannie Lou Hamer was struggling along with thousands of other advocates for voting rights, civil rights, and economic justice. But Hamer did more than just talk people into registering to vote. "For Hamer, a movement had little meaning or relevance if it did not address the everyday needs of people," Chana Kai Lee writes (Lee, 1999, p. 62). If people were worried about their next meal, if made "little sense" to take those people into a courthouse to register to vote, Hamer reasoned. In the Mississippi Delta, Blacks' average annual income was $456 while Whites' was $968. The history of the Civil Rights Movement features such iconic figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, among others. Their articulate, passionate oratory and the media coverage of brutality visited on Black protestors by the likes of Bull Conner, got most of the headlines. Hamer's approach was so different from the confrontational style of the Black Panthers and other Black Power leaders, but in the big picture, her efforts were equally effective because she got things done, got people registered to vote, and empowered people that hitherto had been disenfranchised.

People like Hamer worked in the background, but she was amazingly effective. She was guided by what she called "moral pragmatism" -- whatever the needs were, food, clothing, housing, Hamer was there to help make it happen (Lee, p. 63). In 1964 the Boston Friends of SNCC "donated ten thousand pounds of food," and hence, the shipments of food and the need to register voters "were inextricably linked" (Lee, p. 64).

Meantime the story of Dollie Burwell, an activist who fought the EPA, is very different than the stories of Civil Rights activists like Hamer but… [END OF PREVIEW]

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