Week 5 _African American Studies

Social and Economic Justice

Article 3


Week 5 is the start of our exploration of the Civil Rights Years.  Week 5 will go from 1945-1959 and will give you an idea of just how intolerable conditions were for black Americans in this age of television and inter-continental air travel.  Remember that the United States became the dominant power supporting democracy and capitalism after World War II.  How could the U.S. lead the world when it treated its own minorities so poorly?  Why should emerging nations in Africa and Asia trust white America to respect them when minorities in the U.S. were still being lynched and were segregated from the mainstream of American life?

We have to realize that for our nation’s first 236 years (1619-1865), we used the enslavement of black people to gain wealth.  With slavery gone, and the rise of the industrial revolution in the United States, after 1865, our nation’s economy still relied upon having millions of people of all races willing to work for very low wages.  Miners, factory workers, tenant farmers, and migrant workers — most have been paid sub-subsistence wages, unless they could form unions.  And, unfortunately, many unions were racist in not letting African Americans join them.  In the past, for a person to be hired, they had to be a member of the union that represented those workers.

Unions fought for higher wages, safer working conditions, and the right to meet with owners to set wages and other benefits, like health care.  The first black union was organized by A. Philip Randolph, who created in the 1920s the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters so that the black men who prevailed in those jobs would have decent pay and clean places to stay when their work on the trains took them away from home.  Randolph realized long before other civil rights leaders that it was necessary for black people to be able to join unions to get good-paying jobs.  Randolph helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Here is a brief introduction to Randolph and his commitment to gaining work opportunities for African Americans, starting in the early 20th century and ending with death in 1979. https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/asa-philip-randolph.  He was a mentor and guide to Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders, reminding them that JOBS JOBS JOBS should be at the heart of any movement to provide equality for black Americans.

One result of the deep-seated racism in this country has been that good jobs have often not been available to African Americans.  Working-class whites have frequently been resistant to the training and inclusion of black people in such jobs as factory work, plumbing, construction management, car repair, and office work (secretaries, book-keepers) etc.  Jobs that would give a high-school graduate the opportunity to earn a middle-class salary were hard to get.  If you saw the movie “Hidden Figures,” you can see that the U.S. government was more willing than private companies to hire black Americans, but in the 1950s and early 1960s, the women who worked for the space program had to be segregated in a separate building!

Since the 1896 Supreme Court Decision permitting segregation of the races, Plessy v. Ferguson, U.S. society had grown ever more discriminatory towards African Americans.  Travel within the U.S. was difficult so the a couple in New York City researched all the places it was safe for black travelers to get gas, eat, and find a place to sleep.  For more than 30 years, The Negro Motorist Green Book was the essential “Bible” for traveling African Americans.  Segregation was definitely inhibiting the ability of African Americans to gain their full rights as well as upward social mobility, so integration was the first major effort of the NAACP and the black rights groups that arose in the late 1950s.

In Week 5, we will see how difficult it was for black Americans to gain the political power to make social change.  Here is where the role of the U.S. president became central.  Although President Harry Truman used an executive order  in 1948 to integrate the U.S. military, his successor President Dwight Eisenhower held deeply racist views. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, Eisenhower was silent and did nothing to back up integration with the power of the federal government until the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, called in the state guard to prevent Little Rock High School from integrating in 1957.  After minimally settling the Little Rock crisis, President Eisenhower did nothing else to promote the rights of black Americans through the end of his presidency in January 1961.

Nothing was done in Congress, either, which was dominated by racists who claimed that they would never vote to integrate American society.  The Economic Justice Initiativehas prepared a report on the powerful white people who were against integration, with a short statement about why they held those views.  Read through this report to better understand what black people were facing in the 1950s.  How could their oppression end if the President, Congress, and state leaders and judges were against social and economic justice for black people?  Segregation Forever.

I have also included a documentary from 1960 that may surprise you because it is not just about black Americans but about all races of poor people.  Why did I do that?  Because the economic systems in our country require that we have cheap labor — indeed, many people today are not paid enough to cover the costs of their housing, food, and clothing.  It is called “Harvest of Shame,” and this film produced by CBS News shocked the nation.  Do you think much has changed for agricultural workers in 2020?

So, in weeks 5 and 6 of this class, we will touch upon economic justice as well as social justice for African Americans.  The documentary “Harvest of Shame” will introduce you to this topic — and, sadly, many of the conditions exposed in this 1960 film are still practiced today.