History is filled with pivotal moments within the political arena that have either pushed forward or held back racial and social progress in the United States. There are many decisions and events that have shaped the journey to justice, equality, diversity and civil rights.
While some of these significant developments covered in this article are well documented and may be known by most, they serve as a reminder that the reverberations of history still impact people today. Racism, with the structural and individual powers that perpetuate it, did not magically disappear when this nation confronted some of its darker truths. Progress has undoubtedly been achieved, but there is more to be done. Here are some influential moments that challenged the status quo ...
Perez vs. Sharp (1948) was a California Supreme Court decision, the first of the 20th Century, to recognize that the state enforcing marriage and intimate relations segregation (anti-miscegenation laws) was unconstitutional. Under California state law at the time, people of Mexican descent were classified as White so when Andrea Perez (a Mexican American woman) applied for a marriage license in Los Angeles to marry Sylvester Davis (an African American man) she was denied.
The undeterred couple decided to fight and ended up taking their case to the state Supreme Court. Represented by their attorney, Daniel G. Marshall, Perez and Davis argued that as their church was willing to marry them the anti-miscegenation laws violated their right to fully participate in the sacrament of marriage, therefore infringing on their First Amendment Rights. In a 4-3 ruling, Perez and Davis won their case, and California became the first state to overturn its anti-miscegenation statute.
This paved the way for Loving vs. Virginia (1967), perhaps the most well-known dispute of state laws banning interracial marriage in the USA. Mildred and Richard Loving (a woman of Black and Native ancestry, and a White man) were married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., one of the few states where it was legal for them to do so. Upon returning to their home in Virginia a few weeks after they married, they were arrested and jailed for unlawful cohabitation because of Virginia‘s state anti-miscegenation laws. They both pled guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison — this was suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return for 25 years.
After living in exile back in Washington, D.C. and raising their three children, they were desperately homesick and missing their family. When returning to Virginia to visit their loved ones after being away for 5 years, they were arrested again — this time for travelling together. Deciding to fight back, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to request his help in overturning their arrests and marriage ban. He referred them to the ACLU who spent a number of years trying to unsuccessfully appeal various court decisions that went against the couple. The ACLU didn’t back down and eventually managed to get their case before the United States Supreme Court where, in a unanimous decision, it ruled that anti-miscegenation statutes served no purpose other than to discriminate. This effectively struck down all state laws that banned interracial relationships and marriage.
From the post-Civil War era to 1968, America used Jim Crow laws to legalize racial segregation in all facets of society. This racist ideology was designed specifically to disenfranchise and marginalise African Americans. ‘Whites Only’ public facilities like schools, libraries, parks, restaurants, hotels and restrooms, for example, were allowed to exist because of a ‘separate but equal‘ doctrine that was solidified into constitutional law via Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896).
Essentially, this meant that Black people were barred from accessing White public amenities because they had their own equivalent services — this amounted to imposing a racial order that didn’t disrupt White power. But they weren’t equivalent. Chronic underfunding of Black communities, deliberate and excessive red tape to block programs to improve facilities and the ongoing denial or restrictions placed on Black voters meant that although their facilities were separate (if they existed at all) they were anything but equal. They were inferior, and that was the point.
In 1951, a Black father named Oliver Brown became deeply frustrated and troubled by the educational inequality his daughter experienced. With representation from the NAACP, Brown decided to file a class-action suit against the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education when it refused to allow his daughter, Linda to attend a better-funded and well resourced all-White elementary school.
Even though the U.S. District Court of Kansas found that segregated schooling was detrimental to African American students, they upheld the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in this case and nothing much changed. The NAACP, headed by Thurgood Marshall, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (combining several other similar cases from different states) and took Brown. vs. Board of Education (1954) to the highest political arena it could. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court recognized that segregated schools were inherently unequal and did not meet the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
Despite this groundbreaking moment, schools in the United States are now more segregated than they were in the late 1960s.
Black Women in Politics
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) delivered a pivotal speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention that highlighted the inequality and discrimination that infringed on Black people’s right to vote.
Born into poverty to a Mississippi sharecropping family she started picking cotton at 6-years-old. After she married her husband Perry ‘Pop’ Hamer in 1944 the couple worked on a plantation where Fannie Lou became the timekeeper because she was the only worker who could read and write. Devastated by repeated failed pregnancies, Fannie sought help from a White doctor in 1961 to remove a uterine tumour in the hopes of having one last chance to have a child (she was in her mid-40s). Instead, without her consent or knowledge, he forcibly sterilized her by performing a hysterectomy. This was so commonly used to limit and control the Black population that it was sickenly referred to as a “Mississippi appendectomy”.
After this violation, Fannie Lou became mobilized to fight for civil rights and assisted the organization of the 1962 Mississippi Freedom Summer African American voter registration drive. She knew that Black voters represented a powerful force for change, a fact that was confirmed when most of the group was blocked by officials from registering — Fannie Lou managed to complete the form before they were stopped. The bus driver that drove them to register was arrested and even the plantation owner she worked for told Fannie Lou to unregister or lose her job. She refused and was ordered off his land. This didn’t stop her as she went on to join the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 as a direct rebuke of her state’s all-White delegation to the Democratic National Convention of the same year. In front of the committee and televised to the nation, Fannie Lou recounted her experience of trying to register to vote and the disenfranchisement and discrimination she met as a Black American.
Her words captured the attention of the delegates and the general public as they faced the realities that they knew existed but had yet to accept. Her speech wasn’t just groundbreaking because it was moving and impassioned, it was groundbreaking because it came at a time when Mississippi’s White Democratic leaders had always blocked Black delegates from speaking. By recounting her experiences Fannie Lou left no space for the Democratic elite to hide — they were a part of the ugliness that plagued American politics and they had to do something about it. When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into law, it sought to remove barriers that aimed to hinder African Americans from exercising their right to vote. This was a hugely influential moment and set in motion a lot of good, but voter suppression is still alive and well in the United States today — the fight Fannie Lou was instrumental in still continues.
You can listen to part of Fannie Lou Hamer’s notable speech in the video below and find out more about her life and work here.
Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005), became the first major-party Black American (and first woman) to run for U.S. President when she announced her bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 1972. As a relatively new Congresswoman who was first elected to office in 1968, Chisholm was unafraid as well as “unbought and unbossed” by political conventions of the time. A proud African American and a proud feminist, she campaigned to not only bring together Black and female voters but to represent all people — and she didn’t care how political rivals perceived her or tried to define her role. She fiercely stood as a candidate for a fresh, new era of political history in the United States.
As a House Representative, she became a founding member of the Congressional Women’s Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus championing racial and gender equality and improving opportunities for all those on the poverty line regardless of race or ethnicity. Her presidential fight was about securing a better future, no matter who you were, and tenaciously standing out as someone who didn’t do things the ‘traditional’ way. Confronting racism (and sexism) as a trendsetting Black woman running for president, Chisholm was blocked from taking part in the televised primary debates and only allowed to make one speech after she took legal action to have her voice heard. Facing disapproval and limited financial support from the predominately male Congressional Black Caucus (even though she was a founding member) her efforts were ultimately stymied and she only secured 152 delegates, effectively ending her campaign. Her political career continued and she ended up becoming a seasoned, seven-term Congresswoman that continued to do things her own way — you can read more about Shirley Chisholm here.
Structural racism in America is made very apparent when you look at the policy of redlining — the segregated exclusionary zoning laws allowing banks and other financial institutions to refuse loans and mortgages to customers in certain neighbourhoods based on their race or ethnicity. Upward mobility was effectively cut off, leaving certain groups of people (mainly Black and Brown but some poor Whites) roadblocked into remaining in areas that were continuously underfunded. Redlining crumbled infrastructure, strangled community services and left residents in a cycle of inequity. It began with the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation drawing up maps of American cities in 1934, to classifying and block off (red line) predominately Black neighbourhoods.
Even though it was eventually outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, those 34 years of discriminatory practice occurred during a historic period of economic and industrial growth in the USA. It essentially pushed social and financial progress in redlined areas back so far that its impact is still felt today. The build-up of suppressed growth during the decades of redlining left residents and community services, businesses, housing and schools, etc falling behind. The gap between White and Black homeownership has remained as wide as it was at the start of the 20th Century. Although the Fair Housing Act did seek to challenge this racist, egregious practice, redlining was so successful as a tool of segregation that its scars remain visible. You can learn more about the history of Redlining here or watch the video below.
Many other influential moments in Black History could be examined; this is just a small sample of what has been endured and overcome so far — there is much that still requires action and change. I would encourage you to undertake your own research into other key elements of civil rights, racial and gender equality and how equity can lead to justice. There is so much to learn, honour, celebrate and commemorate during Black History Month, this is just a start …
The Troubled History of American Education After the Brown Decision – Process History
How the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Started – Unstripped Voice Youtube
Mapping Inequality: Redlining In New Deal America – The Mapping Inequality Project
Contact the Department of Education (US) or find your Representatives to call for Black History to be taught nationwide at all educational levels as an evidence-based, robust, nuanced and well-resourced year-round core curriculum subject.