Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

On this day in 1906, Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri and christened Freda Josephine McDonald by her mother, Carrie McDonald.  Homeless at the age of 12, she was discovered dancing on a street corner three years later and recruited to join the St. Louis Chorus.  She is perhaps best remembered for her performances at the Folies Bergères in Paris throughout the 1920s where she danced in her iconic banana skirt and often appeared on stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita.  Through the 1930s, she rose to fame as a singer, dancer, and actress.  In 1937 she became a French citizen, and as World War II progressed, she shifted her focus toward supporting the underground resistance movement.  After the war, she often returned to the United States where she was active in the American Civil Right Movement, speaking at the 1963 March on Washington and famously refusing to perform before segregated audiences.

Josephine Baker with the Nobel Prize winning political scientist, Ralph J. Bunche, ca. 1960. Image courtesy of the UCLA Special Collections via Calisphere, the Online Archive of California.

You can find more primary sources about activists and entertainers of the twentieth century through Opening History.


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Throughout the month of May in 1961, groups of civil right activists, known collectively as the Freedom Riders, boarded interstate buses traveling through the southern United States.  Three separate United States Supreme Court decisions —  Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company (1955) and  Boynton v. Virginia (1960) — had ruled segregation illegal on interstate buses and in the waiting rooms and restaurants that served those buses, allowing interstate travelers to disregard local laws upholding racial segregation.  The Freedom Riders sought to exercise their rights by testing the new federal law but were attacked by violent mobs and arrested by police willing to uphold local Jim Crow laws.

A group of Freedom Riders visiting with civil rights leader John LeFlore in Mobile, Alabama, 1961. Image courtesy of the University of South Alabama via Alabama Mosaic.

In Alabama, members of the Klu Klux Klan conspired with local police to end the Freedom Rides, and on May 14, 1961 Klansmen firebombed the first bus to arrive in the town of Anniston, Alabama and beat the riders mercilessly as they escaped from the bus.  Later, the injured riders were refused care at a local hospital because hospital staff feared the mob that has congregated outside.  Despite the severe brutality of these attacks, the Freedom Riders insisted on pushing forward and efforts continued throughout the month.  At the time, their actions were deemed disruptive and unpatriotic by much of the general public and even by the Department of Justice; however, by the end of the year, the Interstate Commerce Commission was fully compliant with the Supreme Court’s rulings, and the Freedom Riders served as an inspiration for many of the direct action initiatives that would soon follow.

You can learn more about the civil rights movement through Opening History, which includes such collections as the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive and the Civil Rights Digital Library among others.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed annually on the third Monday of January, which usually falls within a few days of Dr. King’s birthday on January 15.  King was a Baptist minister who rose to prominence as a leader of the civil rights movement.  He is best known for having organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and delivering the speech entitled “I Have a Dream” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism.  Tragically, King was assassinated on March 29, 1968 on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963. Image courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Though passed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1983, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was not celebrated by all fifty states until the year 2000.  In some states, the holiday is meant to commemorate civil and human rights more broadly. In the state of Pennsylvania and in many universities and organizations across America, residents, students, and employees are encouraged to use the holiday as a day of volunteer service in honor of Dr. King.

A memorial march in Mobile, Alabama following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Image courtesy of the University of South Alabama.

Further images and documents relating to Dr. King may be found across multiple collections in Opening History.

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On June 13, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated celebrated attorney and then-United States Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall is best remembered today not only as the first African American on the bench, but also as an advocate for civil rights who throughout his career fought to reform policies that unfairly discriminated against individuals and groups of people based on race.

NAACP Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall speaking at the 1956 NAACP Convention in San Francisco, California. Image courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Marshall himself was born in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, and graduated at the top of his class from Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. (He had wished to attend law school in his home state, but was not allowed to attend because of segregation policy.) At only 32 years old, Marshall became Chief Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Over the next two decades, he successfully argued many cases aimed at ending racial discrimination in education, voting, and housing. As a Supreme Court Justice, Marshall continued to argue for individual rights and freedoms, not only regarding racial injustice but also criminal procedure, labor law, and other issues.

Opening History offers many collections related to the history of the law in the United States, especially for individual states. One important collection, Ada Lois Sipuel v. Board of Regents University of Oklahoma, explores a Supreme Court case argued by Marshall that helped undermine educational discrimination in universities.

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On February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, allowing African American men to vote throughout the nation. The amendment signified one among many legislative and social actions taken during post-Civil War reconstruction to address the needs and rights of black Americans in a nation without slavery.

Like the Thirteenth Amendment, which expanded on Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery across the country, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave full citizenship to black Americans, the Fifteenth Amendment sparked significant political controversy over civil rights. Democratic senators, many of whom had supported the continuation of slavery or been part of the Confederate States of America, wished to curtail such rights, and not one voted to pass the amendment. Even after it became national law, numerous states, including border states such as Kentucky and Maryland, refused to formally ratify the amendment until well into the 20th century.

This cartoon illustrates a variety of people and events involved in bringing about black suffrage, as well as the positive effects of civil liberties on the African American community. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

For many African Americans, however, the promises of the Fifteenth Amendment and other laws passed during Reconstruction remained largely unfulfilled as they continued to face many hurdles on the way to independence and civil rights. During Reconstruction, strong federal enforcement kept most voter intimidation at bay, but by the late 19th century it was increasingly common, particularly in the Southern U.S., for black Americans to be kept from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, or even violence.

This political cartoon by Thomas Nast appeared in the March 16, 1867, issue of Harper's Weekly. Its purpose was to point out that black voters were as responsible, if not more so, than many of the white voters who rejected African American suffrage. Image courtesy of the LOUISiana Digital Library

Opening History has an array of collections with items related to Reconstruction, slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other issues. The Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper Collection from the LOUISiana Digital Library especially provides many examples of political cartoons directly related to black suffrage. The Civil War Photographs collection at the Library of Congress also contains many images of black troops and those recently freed from slavery.

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