Civil Rights in the Gilded Age 1940s 50s and the 1960s Thesis

Pages: 4 (1590 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Black Studies

Civil Rights in the Gilded Age, 1940s/50s and the 1960s

Civil rights in the Gilded Age, 1940s to the 1950s and the 1960s

Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education stand on two opposing sides of an era in the United States that lasted from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement. After Reconstruction, the South began to renege upon the few reforms that had been imposed upon it, reforms designed to create a society advantageous to securing the rights of African-Americans. Instead, poll taxes, and unequally administered voting rights tests kept black voting enfranchisement limited. Segregation between blacks and whites was legally as well as socially mandated.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Thesis on Civil Rights in the Gilded Age 1940s 50s and the 1960s Assignment

To challenge the mounting evidence that the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, the extension of enfranchisement to black voters, and the right of due process encoded in the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution was being violated, black civil rights leaders began to mobilize during the end of the 19th century, during what is known as the Gilded Age. Their test case was the Separate [railroad] Car Law. A civil rights organization made up of black professionals in New Orleans known as the Citizens' Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law staged a protest. Interestingly, they selected someone of mixed race whom, to most observers 'appeared' white, seemingly to rally support for the cause. "After successfully leading a test case in which the Louisiana district court declared forced segregation in railroad cars traveling between states to be unconstitutional, the committee was anxious to test the constitutionality of segregation on railroad cars operating solely within a single state...Homer Plessy, a native of south Louisiana who could 'pass' as white, agreed to be the test case. The committee arranged with the railroad conductor and with a private detective to detain Plessy until he was arrested" (Zimmerman 1996). The commission thus searched for the 'perfect' individual to act as a test case, much as during the 1950s Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks, because of her impeccable reputation and character, was selected as a test case. "Parks was not the first to be detained for this offense [of not moving to the back of the bus]. Eight months earlier, Claudette Colvin, 15, refused to give up her seat and was arrested. Black activists met with this girl to determine if she would make a good test case -- as secretary of the local N.A.A.C.P., Parks attended the meeting -- but it was decided that a more 'upstanding' candidate was necessary to withstand the scrutiny of the courts and the press" (Dove, 2003, p.2).

In 1896, Plessy's evident visual appearance of 'whiteness' was supposed to be proof of the absurdity of the law. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 disagreed. Much as the word of the high court of the United States is regarded as 'holy writ' by some idealists, the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson is evidence of how wrong the Supreme Court can be on a legal as well as a human level. The U.S. Supreme Court justices infamously upheld the idea that the 'races' could be separate but equal. Eight of the nine justices ruled that neither the 13th nor 14h Amendment were applicable in this case, as had been argued by Plessy's attorneys. "The majority opinion justified upholding segregation by distinguishing between political and social equality. "According to this distinction, blacks and whites were politically equal (in the sense that they had the same political rights) but socially unequal (blacks were not as socially advanced as whites)" (Zimmerman 1996). Laws were deemed "powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences," wrote the majority, and added "the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane" (Zimmerman 1996). This last statement is what the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement would so vehemently oppose -- in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was time to fulfill America's promise to 'cash the check' or IOU it had offered to blacks of supposed equality, and that the government must step in and protect the rights of an oppressed minority in situations of all forms of discrimination, social and political. Discrimination was a collective system of oppression, and could not be isolated to mere political oppression, yet be allowed in the educational or vocational sphere.

The most influential part of the majority decision of Plessy came in the wording where the majority argued "that enforced separation does not 'stamp' blacks with the badge of inferiority, because both blacks and whites were treated equally under the law -- in the sense that whites were forbidden to sit in a railroad car designated for blacks" (Zimmerman 1996). In Brown v. Board of Education, however, lawyers for Linda Brown, a girl forced to walk a mile to a blacks-only elementary school, when a white school was only a few blocks away, presented evidence that separate schooling created an inferiority complex for African-American children, and was no 'equality' at al. "In May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren read the decision of the unanimous Court: We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does...We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment" (Cozzens 2008).

While the Brown decision did not strike down all forms of segregation, it was a vital and important step in pulling away the legal foundation for allowing separation of the races, and enshrining racial inequities into law. The importance of the Brown decision is also manifest in the fact that for many years, the United States was in the strange position of supporting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN, passed after the horrors of the Holocaust were fully revealed to the world, and yet still denied its own citizens equality under the law. As early as Truman's "President's Commission on Civil Rights, to Secure These Rights" in 1947 the federal government had highlighted and openly admitted the problem of lynching and discrimination in the South, but the powerful 'Dixiecrat' wing of the Democratic policy, and a lack of interest and mobilization on the part of many white politicians had left African-Americans in the South almost permanently disenfranchised, even after the armed forces were integrated during World War II and many black soldiers nobly served a nation and fought for a freedom they would never fully enjoy.

Securing voting rights as well as legal rights in the court was the two-pronged strategy of the Civil Rights movement of the latter half of the 20th century. No matter how strong a statement the Supreme Court may have made in Brown, it was necessary for federal troops to back up its words, as occurred during the crisis of the Little Rock Nine in 1956. The integration of the Arkansas high school required federal troops to be sent to the state, a situation that was to reoccur during the integration of the University of Mississippi. To… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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