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Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, 1916
Born in Jamaica, the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey founded his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) there in 1914; two years later, he brought it to the United States. Garvey appealed to the racial pride of African Americans, exalting blackness as strong and beautiful. As racial prejudice was so ingrained in white civilization, Garvey claimed, it was futile for blacks to appeal to whites' sense of justice and democratic principles. Their only hope, according to him, was to flee America and return to Africa to build a country of their own. After an unsuccessful appeal to the League of Nations to settle a colony in Africa and failed negotiations with Liberia, Garvey announced the formation of the Empire of Africa in 1921, with himself as provisional president. Other African–American leaders, notably W.E.B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) criticized Garvey and his "Back to Africa" movement; he was openly contemptuous of them in return. There was no denying the movement's appeal, however: Garvey's boast of 6 million followers in 1923 was probably exaggerated, but even his critics admitted that the UNIA had some 500,000 members. In 1923, the U.S. government successfully prosecuted and convicted Garvey for mail fraud in connection with selling stock in his Black Star Line shipping company. After serving a two–year jail sentence, Garvey was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge and immediately deported; he died in London in 1940.
Harlem Renaissance, 1920
In the 1920s, the great migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North sparked an African–American cultural renaissance that took its name from the New York City neighborhood of Harlem but became a widespread movement in cities throughout the North and West. Also known as the Black Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that mainstream publishers and critics turned their attention seriously to African–American literature, music, art and politics. Blues singer Bessie Smith, pianist Jelly Roll Morton, bandleader Louis Armstrong, composer Duke Ellington, dancer Josephine Baker, and actor Paul Robeson were among the leading entertainment talents of the Harlem Renaissance, while Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were some of its most eloquent writers. There was a flip side to this greater exposure, however: Emerging black writers relied heavily on white–owned publications and publishing houses, while in Harlem's most famous cabaret, the Cotton Club, the preeminent black entertainers of the day played to exclusively white audiences. In 1926, a controversial bestseller about Harlem life by the white novelist Carl von Vechten exemplified the attitude of many white urban sophisticates, who looked to black culture as a window into a more "primitive" and "vital" way of life. W.E.B. Du Bois, for one, railed against Van Vechten's novel and criticized works by black writers, such as McKay's novel Home to Harlem, that he saw as reinforcing negative stereotypes of blacks. With the onset of the Great Depression, as organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League switched their focus to the economic and political problems facing blacks, the Harlem Renaissance drew to a close. Its influence had stretched around the world, opening the doors of mainstream culture to black artists and writers.
Africanâ€“Americans in WWII, 1941
During World War II, many African Americans were ready to fight for what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the "Four Freedoms"— freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear—even while they themselves lacked those freedoms at home. More than 3 million blacks would register for service during the war, with some 500,000 seeing action overseas. According to War Department policy, enlisted blacks and whites were organized into separate units. Frustrated black servicemen were forced to combat racism even as they sought to further U.S. war aims; this became known as the "Double V" strategy, for the two victories they sought to win. The war's first African–American hero emerged from the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Dorie Miller, a young Navy steward on the U.S.S. West Virginia, carried wounded crewmembers to safety and manned a machine gun post, shooting down several Japanese planes. In the spring of 1943, graduates of the first all–black military aviation program, created at the Tuskegee Institute in 1941, headed to North Africa as the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Their commander, Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., later became the first African–American general. The Tuskegee Airmen saw combat against German and Italian troops, flew more than 3,000 missions, and served as a great source of pride for many blacks in America. Aside from celebrated accomplishments like these, overall gains were slow, and maintaining high morale among black forces was difficult due to the continued discrimination they faced. In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman finally integrated the U.S. Armed Forces under an executive order mandating that "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
Jackie Robinson, 1947
By 1900, the unwritten color line barring blacks from white teams in professional baseball was strictly enforced. Jackie Robinson, a sharecropper's son from Georgia, joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1945, after a stint in the U.S. Army (he earned an honorable discharge after facing a court–martial for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus). His play caught the attention of Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had been considering bringing an end to segregation in baseball. Rickey signed Robinson to a Dodgers farm team that same year and two years later moved him up, making Robinson the first African–American player to play on a major league team. Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947; he led the National League in stolen bases that season, earning Rookie of the Year honors. Over the next nine years, Robinson compiled a .311 batting average and led the Dodgers to six league championships and one World Series victory. Despite his success on the field, however, he encountered hostility from both fans and other players. Members of the St. Louis Cardinals even threatened to strike if Robinson played; baseball commissioner Ford Frick settled the question by threatening to suspend any player who went on strike.
After Robinson's historic breakthrough, baseball was steadily integrated, with professional basketball and tennis following suit in 1950. His groundbreaking achievement transcended sports, however: As soon as he signed the contract with Rickey, Robinson became one of the most visible African Americans in the country, and a figure that blacks could look to as a source of pride, inspiration and hope. As his success and fame grew, Robinson began speaking out publicly for black equality. In 1949, he testified before the House Un–American Activities Committee to discuss the appeal of Communism to black Americans, surprising them with a ferocious condemnation of the racial discrimination embodied by the Jim Crow segregation laws of the South: "The white public should start toward real understanding by appreciating that every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent any kind of slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he's going to use every bit of intelligence...to stop it..."
Brown v. Board Of Education, May 17, 1954
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its verdict in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling unanimously that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment's mandate of equal protection of the laws of the U.S. Constitution to any person within its jurisdiction. Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in the case, was one of almost 200 people from five different states who had joined related NAACP cases brought before the Supreme Court since 1938.
The landmark verdict reversed the "separate but equal" doctrine the Court had established with Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which it determined that equal protection was not violated as long as reasonably equal conditions were provided to both groups. In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren famously declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Though the Court's ruling applied specifically to public schools, it implied that other segregated facilities were also unconstitutional, thus striking a heavy blow to the Jim Crow South. As such, the ruling provoked serious resistance, including a "Southern manifesto" issued by southern congressmen denouncing it. The decision was also difficult to enforce, a fact that became increasingly clear in May 1955 when the Court remanded the case to the courts of origin due to "their proximity to local conditions" and urged "a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance." Though some southern schools moved towards integration relatively without incident, in other cases—notably in Arkansas and Alabama—enforcing Brown would require federal intervention.
Emmett Till, August 1955
In August 1955, a 14–year–old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till had recently arrived in Money, Mississippi to visit relatives. While in a grocery store, he allegedly whistled and made a flirtatious remark to the white woman behind the counter, violating the strict racial codes of the Jim Crow South. Three days later, two white men—the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half–brother, J.W. Milam—dragged Till from his great uncle's house in the middle of the night. After beating the boy, they shot him to death and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. The two men confessed to kidnapping Till but were acquitted of murder charges by an all–white, all–male jury after barely an hour of deliberations. Never brought to justice, Bryant and Milam later shared vivid details of how they killed Till with a journalist for Look magazine, which published their confessions under the headline "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi."
Till's mother held an open–casket funeral for her son in Chicago, hoping to bring public attention to the brutal murder. Thousands of mourners attended, and Jet magazine published a photo of the corpse. International outrage over the crime and the verdict helped fuel the civil rights movement: just three months after Emmett Till's body was found, and a month after a Mississippi grand jury refused to indict Milam and Bryant on kidnapping charges, a city–wide bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama would begin the movement in earnest.
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