History race relations

race relations in the USA revision

  • Created by: ben allen
  • Created on: 30-04-11 14:07

Race relation in the USA

In the 1950s, most African Americans were treated s second-class citizens. They suffered discrimination in law and in their everyday treatment by many white Americans. However, with the actions of Rosa parks, the courage of nine black students at little rock high school, and the help of decisions by the Supreme Court, the legal situation changed significantly.  

Martin Luther King was the most famous name among those leading the demands for change, but even he found it difficult to change people’s attitudes. His dream of peaceful non-violent methods was at odds with the violence that occurred between white police and African American demonstrators and also in race riots such as Los Angeles.  When King was assassinated in 1968, many African Americans still lagged behind average American standards of living and levels of education. 

1 of 27

Segregation in the southern states in early 1950s

In the southern states of the USA, laws had been passed that enforced the segregation of whites and African Americans, and ensured that African Americans were seen as inferior to whites. These laws had been passed in the late nineteenth century, and their attitudes had been re-enforced in the first half of the twentieth century. These so-called Jim Crow laws, passed by many southern states, imposed radical segregation in every aspect of life – for example, education, transport and housing.

A million African Americans had migrated to the northern industrial cities where they could find jobs, but even here they were poorly paid and poorly housed. African Americans ghettos grew up in part of some cities such as New York. The only difference for African Americans in the north was that some were able to escape their poverty and isolation through sport or music such as jazz.


2 of 27

Segregation in the southern states in early 1950s

In the Second World War, many African Americans had fought and worked alongside whites. It was not a surprise, therefore, that some African Americans began to challenge the Jim Crow laws. In the short term, this encouraged many whites to tighten up existing laws still further in order to protect their privileged positions in society. 

3 of 27

Ku Klux Klan

This organisation was originally founded in 1866 after the American civil war. Its purpose was to make sure that African Americans, now free from slavery, still remained socially inferior to whites. In the 1920s, the Klan had a resurgence of support.

After the Second World War, when some African Americans were openly questioning laws that discriminated against them, the Klan gained yet more support. The bombing of houses, and the injuring or even murder of African Americans, continued as many whites were afraid of the growing civil rights movement in the 1950s.


4 of 27

Brown versus Topeka board of education

In 1986, the US Supreme Court had decided that segregated school were legal so long as they were equal. In most cases they were not. Schools for whites were better funded than those for African Americans children. In 1954, twenty states had segregated schools. The NAACP challenged this inequality, and chose to base its case on the situation in Topeka in Kansas.

In May 1954, the supreme court unanimously declared that segregated schools were illegal under the US constitution. In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled that all states had to carry out the policy of desecrating their schools. Many southern states objected, and either did nothing or moved very slowly. Very little had happened by the end of 1956. 

5 of 27

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott

  • In December 1955, Rosa Parks, aged 42, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in Montgomery in Alabama.
  • She was arrested and fined $10.
  • African American people, encouraged by a young minister, Martin Luther King, started a bus boycott. They would walk to work.
  • The boycott was very damaging to the bus company as African Americans made up about 75 per cent of the passengers.
  • In spite of being made fun of in the streets by white people, African Americans remained calm and dignified. They did not fight back, even when Martin Luther King’s house was bombed.
  • In November 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was illegal.
  • In December 1956, the bus company gave in.
  • Other bus companies in the southern states were slow to change their racist policy. White attitudes were deeply entrenched. 
6 of 27

Little rock high school, Arkansas

  • Little progress towards desegregating schools had been made by 1957.
  • In 1957, nine African American students registered to attend little rock central high school.
  • The state governor, Orval Faubus, who was against integration, posted members of the National Guard (the reserve army in the USA) outside the school to prevent the African American students entering.
  • National television showed film of the events outside the school, with an angry white mob jeering and jostling.
  • Eventually, the African American students entered the school through a back door.
  • President Eisenhower was forced to send federal troops to enforce the law that entitled these students to attend.
  • Inside the school, these students continued to be the subject of abuse from many white students.
7 of 27

Little rock high school, Arkansas (part 2)

The attitudes of many whites became even more extreme, determined not to give in to moves towards racial equality. Membership of the Ku Klux Klan grew. In many people’s eyes, governor Faubus was a hero. He remained governor of the state until 1967, though he had modified his views by the end e=of his period in office.

Moves in other schools towards racial integration progressed very slowly. However, a civil rights movement was developing, whit support from both African Americans and whites. It had some success – for example, in restaurants – but in other areas of life there was little evidence of change. 

8 of 27

The living standards of African Americans

Living standards had improved a little compared with before the Second World War. However, in addition to unequal legal status, African Americans still had many of the worst paid jobs and had to work under the worst conditions. In 1957, the average income of an African American worker was 57 per cent of that of a white worker. Unemployment for African Americans was twice that for white. 

9 of 27

The freedom rides

Many states were not putting into effect the Supreme Court ruling about desegregating bus services.

·      Groups of activists (mostly African American, but with some white supporters) rode on buses in the Birmingham, Alabama area to highlight the issue.

·      They gained the name of ‘freedom riders’ – and were the subject of a lot of radical abuse and violence from white groups.

·      There were 60 freedom rides, many crossing state boundaries, which involved 450 people.

·      Two hundred freedom riders were arrested and put in jail.

10 of 27

The freedom rides (part 2)

·      Eventually, the governor of Alabama acted to protect the freedom riders after pressure from the new US president, Kennedy. In his opening speech as president, Kennedy had made it clear that he would support moves towards equality.

·      It was made clear that the law against segregation applied to interstate buses (that is, buses that crossed state boundaries) as well as local ones.

·      Through the new medium of television, civil rights had become a national issue.

11 of 27

Freedom marches

By 1969,martin Luther king and other civil rights leaders were keen to keep up the momentum of change. The city of Birmingham in Alabama had not changed any of its segregation policies, and king wanted to capture the medias attention. Therefore, he organized a series of freedom marches in the city.

·      The head of police in Birmingham, bull Connor, was racist and hot-headed. He would react badly to any African American attempts to gain sympathy.

·      The police instructed the marchers to stop, but they refused.

·      Television cameras were present as police and fire officers used dogs and fie hoses against peaceful marchers, who included men, women and children.

·      Over 1000 protesters were arrested and many, including king, put in jail.

·      Nationally, public opinion was outraged. Birmingham was forced to desegregate.

12 of 27

Freedom marches

·      However, many whites felt betrayed by the federal government, and there were outbreaks of violence in the following months. For example, in September 1963, a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members killed four African American children in a Birmingham church.

·      Over the country as a whole, there were many marches and demonstrations in more than 100 cities.

13 of 27

The Washington march

In august 1963, the most famous demonstration organized by martin Luther king took place. It was intended to put pressure on president Kennedy’s government to move further in the direction of civil rights for all, including African Americans.

A quarter of a million people marched to the federal capital, Washington DC. Having arrived in Washington at dawn on 28 august, they met at the Washington monument. At 11.30a.m. they marched to the Lincoln memorial. Both these sites had special significance – named after the first US president and the president who ended slavery. Marin Luther king gave his famous speech – ‘I have a dream’. 

In November 1963, president Kennedy was assassinated, but by then the issue of civil rights was high on the agenda for government action.

14 of 27

The black power movement in the 1960s

Various African Americans became famous during the development of the black power movement, especially Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X.

Martin Luther king believed in non-violence, and progress towards equality was gradually being made. However, even on key issues, such as voting, this progress was slow. Many African Americans, because of their own ignorance of what to do, or because of local restriction, were not registered to vote.

Even though progress in voting rights for African Americans was being made, some people thought a more violet approach would bring quicker results. The black power movement developed during the mid-1960s at a time when progress on civil rights was being made through legal reforms. The black power movement wanted to increase awareness of African American culture; it wanted African Americans to be proud of their African roots.

15 of 27

The black power movement in the 1960s (part 2)

Stokely Carmichael favored this more direct approach, using violence when it was thought to be necessary. He became president of the black panther party, which had been set up to promote black power and self-defiance. This organization also stirred up hatred of the Vietnam war at a time when most white Americans supported the USA’s involvement.

The black panthers reacted angrily at what they saw as police brutality against African Americans – for example, in the watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles. Violence was seen as a legitimate tactic against white supremacists. The black panthers had many clashed with the police, and several policemen were killed.


16 of 27

The black power movement in the 1960s (part 3)

Malcolm X became a Muslim when in prison for drug dealing and burglary. He led the Black Muslim organization. He wanted all African Americans to become Muslims. He saw martin Luther king’s policy of non-violence as weak, and he wanted to use violence to attack racism by whites who were usually closely identified with Protestantism, his own parents had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. He, too, was murdered in 1965, but by an African American gunman. 

17 of 27

Black power protests at the Mexico Olympic games

Tommie smith and john Carlos, African American sprinters, came first and third respectively in the 200-metres race. It was no surprise that they won medals, but what happened at the medal ceremony was a shock.

They went on the podium in black socks and no shoes. On wore a black scarf and the other black beads. They did a black power salute with a clenched fist in the air. At the end f the ceremony, the athletes were booed. Their actions were criticized by many Americans for bringing internal American politics into the Olympic games. 

18 of 27

Martin Luther King’s role as a protest organizer

Before Rosa parks’ arrest in December 1955, martin Luther king had been working as a pastor at the Dexter avenue Baptist church in Montgomery. He became well known beyond his congregation when he helped to organize the non-violent bus boycott.

As a result of this, he became a national figure in the civil rights movement during the next few years, leading up to the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington DC august 1963.

19 of 27

The civil rights act

Civil rights were an important national issue at the time of president Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, a Texan from the south of the USA, made it clear that he would support voting reform. Although, in theory, African American people could vote, in practice many were disqualified by local laws.

In July 1964, the civil rights act was passed. This meant that:

·      Racial discrimination was outlawed in employment, entertainment, and government agencies.

·      Schools had to be desegregated if they were to receive any public funding.

·      Only private clubs and private organization could be ‘whites only’.

·      An equal employment opportunity commission was set up to investigate complaints.

20 of 27

The civil rights act (part 2)

This was followed up in 1965 with the voting rights act, which stopped racial discrimination in terms of voting. All local state restriction for African Americans became illegal. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that an state laws forbidding mixed marriages were unconstitutional.

Another civil rights act in 1968 concerned housing. It ruled that nobody could refuse to ell or rent a house to someone on the grounds of colour or race. Nor could house advertisements refer to colour or race.

21 of 27

Winning the Nobel peace prize

Martin Luther king received this award for his non-violent approach towards tackling racial equality. A the time he was just 35 years old – the youngest man to have received the Nobel peace prize.

During the presentation speech in Oslo, Norway, in December 1964, it was sais that: ‘Luther king’s name will endure for the way in which he has waged his struggle, personifying in his conduct the words that were spoken to mankind: “whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also!”

22 of 27

Race riots

The civil rights act of 1964 promised much, but many African Americans were becoming impatient, partly influenced by the black power movement.

In 1965, martin Luther king organized marches in areas that had the worst record for continuing racial discrimination. He was concerned to get voting rights for all African Americans, but only 2.4 per cent of those in Selma, Alabama, were registered to vote. Organized marches from Selma to Montgomery were stopped brutally by the police with the use of tear gas and whips. 

King was keen to avoid more brutality – as was president Johnson who pushed through the voting rights act (1965) as quickly as possible.


23 of 27

Race riots (part 2)

However, racial troubles were not confined to the southern states. By 1965, 50 per cent of African Americans lived in the north of the USA. Many suffered from slum housing, high unemployment, poorly paid jobs, poor education and much ill health. African American babies were twice as likely to die as white babies. Local government and the police were always under white control. Here, in overcrowded cities, it was easy for situations to arise that led to violence.

In august 1965, violence erupted in the watts area of Los Angeles. It was an African American ghetto, and white police officers had allegedly subjected some African Americans to unnecessary violence. Thirty-four people were killed in the riots and hundreds injured. Four thousand people were arrested.


24 of 27

Race riots (part 3)

Unfortunately, this sparked off riots elsewhere. In 1966m there were riots in Chicago after martin Luther king had tried to help African Americans get better treatment from the city government. King was no longer ale to control situations and persuade African Americans to be patient and non-violent.

In 1967, there were race riots in many North American cities. Eighty-three people died, most of them African Americans. Large areas of the cities such as Detroit were looted and burned. President Johnson was horrified by the violence and set up a commission to investigate the causes. The report mostly blamed white racist attitudes causing anger in African American communities. Whites still tended to put the blame on African American ‘lawlessness’ and demand tougher penalties.

25 of 27

The assassination of martin Luther king

By 1968, martin Luther king had become a controversial figure. Many citizens, both African American and white, still regarded him as a hero in the struggle for civil rights. However, some people had ceased to support him because they believed using violent methods would make faster progress. Others, both African American and white, criticized him for his opposition to the Vietnam War, which was reaching its height at this time. The government saw him as a troublemaker, and his telephone conversations were tapped by the federal bureau of investigation (FBI).


26 of 27

The assassination of martin Luther king (part 2)

In March 1968, king was invited to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike by African American refuse collectors. He led a march that turned into violence and, disappointed, he went home to Atlanta. However, in April he returned to Memphis. The speech he made the night before his assassination has become famous.

The next day, as king stood on his motel balcony, he was assassinated by James earl Ray a white American. Unfortunately, this led to another outbreak of riots across America, as king’s supporters bitterly accused whites of murdering their leader. 

27 of 27


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »