The Civil Rights movement for African-Americans has been a history of ebb and flow since the end of the Civil War and the introduction of Reconstruction. In part, this non-linear movement toward full equality and integration with white Americans can be blamed on the inefficiency of outlining goals toward achieving equitable civil rights. While awarding political and social rights is a step in the right direction, it remains a fact of life that true enjoyment of civil rights in America cannot be accomplished without also granting economic equality and economic equality was never a vital element in the extension of rights to black citizens.
The legislation that made up the policy of Reconstruction sought to grant humanitarian rights to former slaves on the surface while actually having a political agenda of creating a reliable voting bloc for the Republican Party who were primarily interested in consolidating power following the end of the Civil War. While black men enjoyed the privilege of suffrage, the motivation was far from humanitarian; rather it was designed to create an obstacle to the election of enough to Democrats in the southern states to take control of Congress out of the hands of the Republicans (Ginzberg and Eichner, p. 153). The need for political power in the south also created inequality between blacks in the north and south; northern Republicans needed to rely on black voters less and as a result, the northern black experienced greater disenfranchisement. Despite having acquired newfound political power, however, the economic status of blacks barely changed in both the north and south. Once the presence of federal troops disappeared from the southern states in 1877 the ebb began to reverse and the gains that black had made began to crumble in the face of what came to be known as Jim Crow Laws.
Jim Crow Laws were laws enacted at the state and local level that were designed to provide treatment toward the races that were separate but equal. Although enacted across the country, these laws were practiced most extremely in southern states. In practice, the treatment of blacks was never equal. The result was a step backward in the process of civil rights in which blacks were systematically denied their right to vote. Because no allowances had been made during Reconstruction for the economic equality of blacks, they had no recourse with which to reply. The greatest failure of Reconstruction was its failure to include provisions for the equal distribution of wealth among an entire ethnic group that could not rely upon a heritage of empowerment such as the immigrant groups from Europe. Blacks in America had always been slaves, with no shared history of land ownership or entrepreneurial skills. It was dependence on the white power structure that resulted in the oppression of black citizens by southerners when blacks lost the protection of the federal government (Rabinowitz, p. 400).
Only after the extension of certain economic equalities following World War II did blacks begin to possess the necessary political clout to challenge their restricted status. Without the financial support of such groups as CORE and the NAACP, the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s may have been delayed significantly. The ebb and flow continue to this day, however, because economic equality has still not been realized by African-Americans as a group. Unless a black person in America today possesses either athletic or artistic talents, the challenges he will face in arriving at the same kind of economic circumstances as the average white American still looms large.
- Ginzberg, Eli and Eichner, Alfred S. Troublesome Presence: Democracy and Black Americans. London: Transaction Publishers, 1993.
- Robinowitz, Howard N. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.