The Struggle for Racial and Gender Equality in America
The struggle for racial and gender equality in the United States is an ongoing battle. These two issues can be studied separately, or in conjunction with one another. These high-profile issues in our nation have nuanced debates taken up by political parties, activist groups, and the media (to name a few).
To understand these as contemporary issues, it is important to understand how the struggle for racial equality and gender equality started in the U.S. What are their origins? And how are they related to civil liberties in general and specifically?
These questions are important for your understanding of your country and your rights. Perhaps more immediately, you must be able to understand and discuss these issues for the TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ Social Studies subtest.
First, we will provide overviews of each topic individually. Then, we will briefly discuss how these two issues are connected to one another and to civil liberties.
Arguably, the fight for racial equality began with the Civil War and the abolitionists (white and black) who fought to free slaves. After the war, the 15th Amendment recognized the rights of all voters by making it federal law that voting rights could not be denied on account of race.
However, Jim Crow laws in the south complicated this amendment. Jim Crow laws were segregation laws, in which whites and blacks were deemed “separate but equal.” The History channel in its “Black History Milestones” timeline notes that by 1885, “most southern states had laws requiring separate schools for blacks and whites, and by 1900, ‘persons of color’ were required to be separate from whites in railroad cars and depots, hotels, theaters, restaurants, barber shops and other establishments.” The laws were based on the notion that black people were innately different than white people, and that the two races could not mix. The establishments for black people were often lesser. In other words, the people were separate and not equal. Despite the Civil War and emancipation, racism was still dominant in the South and North.
Unable to combat the laws, many African Americans sought to improve themselves through education. Individuals like Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois were considered inspirational figures for their ability to improve upon their situations, educate themselves, and find a level of freedom despite the restrictions placed on them by inequality.
One of the first major victories for racial equality in the nineteenth century came in June 1905, when W.E.B Du Bois led a group in demanding “civil rights for blacks, in the old spirit of abolitionism” and established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This was partially a reaction to an increase in violence against African Americans across the US (for example, this was around the time that the Ku Klux Klan was founded and their mission for “white supremacy” was at its height).
This violence, and the fight for equality, continued through the 1920s and 1930s. It was helped by the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement in which many black authors and poets used their writing to bring attention to racial inequality. It continued through both World Wars, in which African American soldiers were sent overseas to protect American freedoms that they themselves did not have in the United States.
It was not until the 1950s that racial equality began to gain significant traction. Take a look at the following timeline to see how the Civil Rights movement took hold of the nation:
- May 17, 1954: Brown v. Board of Education. The US Supreme Court rules unanimously that racial segregation in public schools violates the equal protection rights of African Americans. The “separate but equal” establishment is deemed unconstitutional, and Jim Crow laws begin to be overturned.
- December 1955: Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. Four days after her arrest, Martin Luther King, Jr. leads an activist organization to boycott the city’s bus company. The impact is immediate.
- September 1957: Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus calls in the National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering the school. “TV cameras captured footage of white mobs converging on the ‘Little Rock Nine’ outside the high school” after a tense standoff. The nation is rocked by the violent images of white supremacy.
- 1960: Black students in Greensboro stage a sit-in at a whites-only counter in Woolworth, which receives heavy news coverage and sparks similar movements across the nation.
- September 1962: When James Meredith is denied admission to the University of Mississippi, he files a lawsuit against the university for discrimination. When the Supreme Court rules in his favor and Meredith attempts to attend classes, riots break out. The struggle to integrate higher education continues.
- August 1963: 250,000 people (both black and white) come together in an organized march on Washington, D.C. The March remains “the largest demonstration in the history of the nation’s capital and the most significant display of the civil rights movement’s growing strength.” It is led by Martin Luther King Jr., who gives his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech in D.C.
- June 1964: The “Freedom Summer,” in which Northern white students were encouraged to help register black voters and build schools for black children in Mississippi, leads to the murders of three volunteers (two white and one black). The state made no arrests, though the white supremacists guilty of these murders were quickly identified. The culprits do not go to trial until 1967, where seven defendants are found guilty and nine are acquitted by an all-white jury. This marks the first time anyone in Mississippi was convicted of a crime against a civil rights worker.
- February 1965: Malcom X is assassinated.
- March 1965: Civil Rights activists plan to march from Selma to Montgomery. However, state troopers attack the marchers outside of Selma. They are brutally whipped and beaten. The troopers use tear gas. The attack is captured on television, and many Americans are outraged. Violence continues to escalate.
- 1965: President Lyndon Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress and calls for federal legislation to ensure protection of black voting rights. This becomes known as the “Voting Rights Act,” and it seeks to overcome the voting barriers blocking African Americans at the state level.
- 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated.
This timeline only represents some of the events related to the fight for post-war racial equality in the U.S. By the 1970s, America saw the rise of the Black Power movement. New laws were put into place to support racial equality, and new figures rose to keep Dr. King’s dream alive.
On August 26, 1920, the U.S. passed the 19th Amendment. This amendment granted women the right to vote, guaranteed by federal law. Women had been fighting for the right to vote for decades, and Americans Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott hosted the famous convention for women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. It was at this convention that both male and female delegates adopted the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which was modeled on our Declaration of Independence.
Though women had been battling for their rights since before 1848, the 19th Amendment was the first step in recognizing women as equal to men in the eyes of the nation and its laws. Nevertheless, women were faced with restrictions at home and in public. For example, as Kenneth J. Bechtel notes in his educational resources for Teaching American History, a 1930s Gallup Poll “showed that the majority of Americans believed that a married woman should not work if her husband was employed.”
The Second World War dramatically changed this perspective, and motivated many women to begin fighting for gender equality more seriously. Follow this partial timeline to get a glimpse of the major movements:
- 1940s: The WWII “Rosie the Riveter” campaign promotes the idea that women can help defend the country by helping produce war supplies. Large numbers of women enter the workforce.
- 1945: With the end of WWII, many women are urged to leave the workforce and return to the home. Some women complain about the abrupt change in policy. Though they have voting rights, they do not have equal economic opportunities and are “forced from factory jobs into lower paid secretarial and traditional female positions, as well as back into domestic roles to make room for returning veterans in the factories.”
- 1950s: Deemed the age of conformity, many women remain in the home and traditional gender roles are at their height. Few women work outside of the home; they are primarily caregivers. Women who wish to work are considered unusual and undesirable.
- Early 1950s: The League of Women Voters undertakes two-year community education programs. These programs focus “on the individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution,” and become one of the main avenues for women to exercise their voice at this time.
- 1960s: Female activists gain traction alongside the Civil Rights movement. President John F. Kennedy establishes the President’s Commission on Women.
- 1964: President Johnson supports the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
- 1972: The Equal Rights Amendment of 1923 is re-drafted and sent to Congress for ratification. After years of debate, this amendment falls short of ratification, and the extremists who viciously fought for the amendment color both the Women’s Movement and feminism.
- 1972: The Educational Amendments Act of 1972 opens college athletics to female athletes. New professional teams, including the WNBA, are founded.
How Do They Connect?
Both of these issues reached the heights of their struggle in post-war America, from the years of 1945 to 1970. As you can see by comparing the timelines, many movements overlapped. Though each issue extends outwards, and is not limited to this timeframe, many of the most famous debates and events took place during this period.
Both racial and gender equality were impacted by domestic and international events at the time. Furthermore, it is important to note that these issues of equality were not restricted to the United States. Women and minorities across the world were fighting for their rights and taking inspiration from one another.
As Lynn Yeakel of The Huffington Post writes, “the fight for racial equality is intertwined in the fight for women’s equality in our country’s history. Ultimately, what history teaches is that there is no racial equality and no gender equality without equality for all.”
For example, when the 15th Amendment was passed, many suffragettes were disappointed that women were not included in the right to vote.
Yeakel provides another example, noting that women of all races “were inspired by the positive results of the 1963 March on Washington and other civil rights demonstrations and impelled by the sexism many encountered while making substantive contributions to civil rights.” In these ways, it is difficult to separate the two movements from one another. The women’s liberation movement was intertwined with the civil rights movement, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.
This may be because women felt empathy for their African American peers, and vice versa. Both were treated as minorities. Both were deemed “different” (albeit for different reasons), and regarded as being less intelligent, less powerful, and less able than their white male counterparts. By supporting each other, these two movements were able to gain more traction and recognition across the United States and the world.