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Week 5 Analyzing History The Early Struggle For Civil Rights Responses

Week 5 Analyzing History The Early Struggle For Civil Rights Responses

Week 5 Short Responses – Question 1

In the space below, specify which historical lens you’d like to use for this exercise.

Week 5 Short Responses – Question 2

Next, formulate a research question about the Civil Rights Movement, using the lens you’ve chosen.

The Early Struggle for Civil Rights (USe for question 1 and 2)

The end of the Civil War brought the legal abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, the first of the three so-called Civil War Amendments*. But the end of slavery did not bring equality for the former slaves.

While the southern states had to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment as a condition of their readmission to the Union, most of them quickly enacted laws to close off opportunities to the newly freed slaves and deny them the rights of citizenship. The postwar Black Codes*—based on older southern laws that sought to limit the freedoms of freed blacks in the years before the Civil War—barred African Americans from voting, denied them most legal rights, and restricted their ability to find work outside of plantations. Such laws laid the groundwork for the later Jim Crow laws, which institutionalized segregation in all walks of life throughout the South. (Dunning, 1907)

MLK Birthplace

The house in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. was born is now part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Click on the image above to go to the National Park Service’s “Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement” website. (Click button for citation) cc by sa

In response to the Black Codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which formally made African Americans citizens. To further safeguard the citizenship rights of the freed slaves, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. The Reconstruction Acts, passed in 1867 and 1868, essentially placed the southern states under military rule for a decade, allowing for a brief period in which freed African Americans in the South enjoyed political rights.

The profound significance of the Fourteenth Amendment was that, through its Equal Protection and Due Process clauses, it prohibited the states from abridging the rights and liberties guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution. In reality, however, for African Americans through the end of the 19th century (and well beyond), the promise of equal protection and due process went unrealized. The southern states flouted the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Supreme Court refused to interpret it as making the Bill of Rights binding on the states. (Foner, 1988)

The Black Codes also led Congress to pass the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870), which guaranteed African Americans the right to vote. It did so by decreeing that citizens’ right to vote could not be denied or abridged based on race, color, or prior slave status. Despite the Fifteenth Amendment, southern states continued to deprive blacks of their voting rights by imposing voter-qualification restrictions (e.g., literacy tests and property-ownership requirements) that effectively disenfranchised African Americans. (Valelly, 2009)

The Fifteenth Amendment divided the pioneering women’s rights movement, which sought the franchise for women as well as for African Americans. As we saw in Theme: Communicating Historical Ideas, some leaders in the nascent woman suffrage movement opposed ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment because it did not also extend the voting right to women. Women did not gain the right to vote until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Jim Crow Laws and the Segregated South

Unyielding southern resistance to black equality led Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial segregation in public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, and transportation. It also barred the exclusion of African Americans from jury service. But when the federal government ended its military occupation of the South in 1877, marking the end of Reconstruction*, the southern states further defied federal efforts to guarantee the civil rights of blacks. (Foner, 1988)

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“Colored” water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939. (Click button for citation) pd

Southern state legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws*, which discriminated against African Americans by requiring racial segregation of schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, and other public accommodations. Under Jim Crow laws, the southern states created separate facilities for whites and blacks in every walk of life, covering all public accommodations. This institutionalization of race-based separation throughout the South, which endured for a hundred years after the Civil War, was known as * because it was backed by law.

After Reconstruction, African Americans throughout the South faced state legal systems that denied them equal justice and routinely violated their due-process rights. The courts and law enforcement in the South abided lynching* and other white mob violence committed against blacks. And the federal courts, well into the 1900s, proved unwilling or unable to uphold the civil rights of blacks. (Equal Justice Initiative, 2015)

Disenfranchisement Despite the Fifteenth Amendment

After Reconstruction, the southern states devised obstacles to block African Americans from voting despite the Fifteenth Amendment, which decreed that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race or color. To circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment’s intent, southern states employed devices for determining voter eligibility which, though not expressly racial, had the particular effect of disenfranchising blacks, who were overwhelmingly poor and uneducated.

A poll tax receipt. Image courtesy of the African American Intellectual History Society.

These devices included literacy tests, poll taxes (a tax paid as a qualification for voting), and property-ownership requirements. Many states in the South also imposed a so-called grandfather clause, which restricted voting to those whose grandfathers had voted before Reconstruction (i.e., pre 1867). Grandfather clauses effectively denied the descendants of slaves the right to vote. (Valelly, 2009) All of these legally enacted devices represented forms of de jure segregation—as opposed to de facto segregation, which lacked the force of law.

Black disenfranchisement continued in one form or another throughout the South for a century after the Civil War.

Separate but Equal

Legal segregation in the South was validated by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision at the close of the 1800s. Homer Plessy, an African American, defied a Louisiana segregation law by riding in a “whites only” railroad car. He was arrested when he refused to move to a car reserved for blacks as mandated by the state law. Plessy challenged the constitutionality of the law on the grounds that segregation violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court rejected this challenge, ruling in * that state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities are constitutional if the facilities are “separate but equal.” The Court’s decision ignored the fact that most facilities available to African Americans were not equal but vastly inferior; nonetheless, Plessy and the doctrine of “separate but equal” remained the law of the land for more than half a century. (Medley, 2003)


Week 5 Short Responses – Question 3

First, go back and review the research question you developed in Step 1. For Step 2, first name two different primary sources that you might use to answer that question. Be as specific as you can.

Week 5 Short Responses – Question 4

Next, name two different secondary sources you could use to answer your research question. Again, be as specific as you can.

The Struggle for Civil Rights, 1900 – 1950 (use for question 3 and 4)

The first half of the 20th century saw limited progress in the fight to secure the civil rights of African Americans. Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute and the leading figure in the African-American community in the early 1900s, was an outspoken proponent of black education and entrepreneurship. But Washington was criticized within the African-American community for his strategic decision not to challenge Jim Crow laws* and the disenfranchisement of black voters directly.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918. (Click button for citation) pd

More militant African-American leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP*) in 1909, with the mission of actively fighting against racial prejudice. The organization focused in its early years largely on efforts to prevent lynchings* in the South and on mounting legal challenges to Jim Crow legislation. (Finch, 1981)

The return of thousands of African-American veterans of World War I highlighted the huge divide between America’s rhetorical commitment to democracy and individual freedom and the reality of segregation, disenfranchisement, and anti-black violence in the South. This gave rise to the New Negro movement*, which sparked the larger cultural and intellectual movement known as the Harlem Renaissance* (Gates, H.L., 1988)

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The Lafayette Theatre, Harlem, 1936. (Click button for citation) pd

Beginning shortly before World War I, the Great Migration* saw an estimated six million African Americans move from the deep South to the North, Midwest, and West over the next 60 years. Fleeing segregation and poverty, many of these African Americans found work in industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Gary, Indiana. While many African Americans had previously been suspicious of organized labor, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, became the leading voice for black workers within the labor movement. As the number of African Americans working in industrial jobs swelled, organized labor became increasingly outspoken in its advocacy for black workers’ rights; in the 1950s and 1960s, labor would be a powerful ally of the civil rights movement. (Lemann, 1992)

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit African Americans disproportionally hard; the collapse of cotton prices drove thousands of Southern sharecroppers to the brink (Thompson and Clarke, 1935), and the scarcity of factory jobs led to increased racial tensions in Northern industrial cities. The unemployment rate among African Americans was estimated to exceed 50 percent—more than twice the rate among whites. (Wolters, 1970)

African Americans, traditionally supporters of the Republican Party because of its historical opposition to slavery, were initially skeptical of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, who had won the Presidency with strong backing from the South. Early New Deal*programs were not aimed toward the African-American community, and some, such as the Federal Housing Authority, initially reinforced existing patterns of segregation. But other programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, provided jobs to substantial numbers of African Americans, especially in the North. By the end of the decade, many African Americans in the North were strongly behind the New Deal, and urban black voters began a major shift that would eventually make them an integral part of the Democratic electoral coalition. (Reed, 2008)

America’s entry into World War II effectively ended the Depression, as factories geared up for the war effort. At the same, time, more than a million African Americans joined the armed forces; when they returned from war in 1945, they embodied the argument that African Americans were entitled to the same freedoms for which America had fought in Europe and the Pacific. (Taylor, 2014)

While resistance to the campaign for African-American civil rights was still deeply entrenched, the late 1940s saw a couple of notable victories: Jackie Robinson famously broke baseball’s “Color Line”* in 1947, and in 1948, President Harry S Truman issued an executive order that desegregated the U.S. military. While these breakthroughs were largely symbolic, more substantive gains were just over the horizon.


Week 5 Short Responses – Question 5

Construct a thesis statement that provides an answer to the research question you posed in Step 1. Base your response on the historical evidence that’s been presented in this course so far, as well as any research you may have done on your own.

The Modern Civil Rights Movement, 1954 – 1968 (use for question 5)

The NAACP’s strategy of mounting legal challenges to Jim Crow laws* had produced minor gains in the first decades of the 20th century. In 1938, the Supreme Court sided with the NAACP in ruling that states that provide a law school for whites had to provide in-state legal education to African Americans as well. And in 1944, the Court struck down the “white primary” system that effectively barred African Americans from voting in Democratic primaries in the South.

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Thurgood Marshall, NAACP’s chief counsel, who argued the case before the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs. (Click button for citation) pd

The greatest victory, however, came in a case involving public elementary and secondary schools. In *, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”—overturning * and ushering in an intense period of activism that would, within a generation, tear down the facade of legal segregation. (Cottrol et al, 2004)

Because of the magnitude of the Brown decision, many scholars consider 1954 to mark the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement*. During the roughly 15 years following Brown, a wide range of African-American leaders and organizations sought to galvanize American public opinion—and, as a result, political will—against the structures of * in the South: segregated schools, “whites only” lunch counters and restrooms, and separate “colored” sections on public buses, to name only a few.

The movement’s tools were civil disobedience and nonviolent protests, including boycotts, sit-ins, and protest marches. Very often, nonviolent civil rights protesters met with violence at the hands of Southern law enforcement officers and civilians; some of these confrontations were covered on the network television news, and the images of police brutally beating peaceful protesters helped generate public sympathy and support for the cause of civil rights. (Bodroghkozy, 2012)

The modern Civil Rights Movement addressed a wide range of issues. While its immediate focus was on the South—the states of the former Confederacy, where segregation actually had the force of law—the movement sought to confront racial prejudice and injustice throughout American society. Click on the tabs below to learn more specifics about the civil rights movement.

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Public Education


James Meredith, escorted by U.S. marshals, integrated the University of Mississippi. (Click button for citation) pd

The Supreme Court’s Brown decision outlawed segregation in America’s public schools, but the process of school desegregation proved to be difficult, drawn-out, and highly confrontational. In 1957, the governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from enrolling at Central High School in Little Rock. President Eisenhower ordered troops of the 101st Airborne to escort the students to school, but a year later, the state closed all four high schools in the city, rather than integrate them. A year would pass before the Supreme Court ordered the schools reopened. (Bates, 1962.)

In 1962, the governor of Mississippi refused to allow an African-American war veteran, James Meredith, to enroll at the University of Mississippi. President Kennedy intervened, ordering 500 U.S. marshals to escort Meredith to class; thousands of white protesters responded with a riot that killed two people and injured more than 300, including 166 marshals and 40 soldiers. A similar but less violent confrontation took place at the University of Alabama in 1963, when President Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard and order the troops to enforce the integration order.

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Fifty years after the fact, societal perceptions of the modern civil rights movement tend to focus on a few heroic figures, such as Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. And many students who did not live through the era may assume that the movement itself was unified and had a clear-cut agenda.

In fact, there were many prominent civil rights leaders, not all of whom agreed at any given time. And there were a multitude of civil rights organizations; the so-called Big Four included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC*); the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE*); the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC*); and the NAACP*, among many others. Some of these groups were more inclined to compete with each other than to cooperate.

Elijah Muhammad

Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, at the podium (right). At left is heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. (Click button for citation) pd

These groups had somewhat different agendas, with some more focused on voting rights, say, and others more focused on housing and economic issues. Nor did everyone in the movement agree on the principle of nonviolent protest; some leaders, such as Robert F. Williams of North Carolina, believed strongly that African Americans needed to arm themselves and fight back against anti-black violence. Other, more militant leaders, such as Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, rejected the philosophy of nonviolence and argued that African Americans should separate themselves completely from whites.

While it is not accurate to say that the civil rights movement had any one, single leader, it is nonetheless clear that the movement began to crumble after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968. The loss of King as an eloquent advocate of nonviolent protest definitely hurt the movement. And perhaps more important, the wave of racial violence that convulsed many cities in the wake of King’s death shattered whatever fragile political consensus might have been forming behind the idea of comprehensive reforms to address the root causes of racial discrimination and African-American poverty. (Garrow, 2004)

While the modern civil rights movement succeeded, in large measure, in bringing about the end of legal segregation in the Old South, the problems of racism and inequality—the legacy of “America’s original sin”—have yet to be fully addressed.


Week 5 Short Responses – Question 6

Name three specific historical events that can be considered contributory causes of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Briefly explain why you believe each of these events contributed to the passage of the Act.

Week 5 Short Responses – Question 7

Based on what you read about the passage of the Voting Rights Act on Page 1 of this learning block, name one event that was part of the course of this bill’s passage by Congress.

Week 5 Short Responses – Question 8

Name three specific consequences caused by the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The Impact of the Voting Rights Act (use for question 6,7,and 8)

The immediate effects of the Voting Rights Act were quickly felt. Voter registration surged among African Americans in the states of the Old South, the region directly targeted by the law’s “special provisions.” By 1970, a majority of eligible African Americans had registered to vote in nine of the 11 former Confederate states. In Mississippi, black voter registration increased from just 6.7 percent in 1964, to 59.8 percent in 1967. (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2001)

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others look on. (Click button for citation) pd

This surge in voter registration has led some legal experts to characterize the Voting Rights Act as ” the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress.” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009) For a summary of the Act’s key provisions, click on this link.

Two key factors contributed to the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. The first was its limited scope: the “special provisions” of the Act applied to only those states and localities with a demonstrated history of discrimination against African-American voting rights. This limited scope allowed the Justice Department to use its enforcement resources most effectively, in areas where the potential for discrimination was greatest. The second was the Act’s preclearance provision*, which prevented any changes in voting laws from taking effect unless they were approved by the Justice Department or a federal court. [The Supreme Court suspended the preclearance provision in 2013.]

Increased voter registration did not, however, translate immediately into increased political power for African Americans in the South. White-dominated state legislators responded to the Voting Rights Act by enacting new measures to limit the effectivenessof African-American voting: turning some formerly elective offices into appointive ones and changing many other elective offices to “at-large” seats, which diluted the impact of new black voters. Those same legislators also engaged in racial gerrymandering*, redrawing legislative and Congressional districts to maximize white voting power and limit the effectiveness of African-American votes. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2001)

Over time, Justice Department lawsuits reversed many of these political ploys. Key Supreme Court rulings, including *, sought to reduce the impact of racial gerrymandering by applying the concept of “one person, one vote” to the issue of legislative redistricting. And later amendments to the Act required states, under certain circumstances, to create majority-minority districts* to increase the odds that African Americans and other minority-group candidates would be elected to Congress.

At the same time, the overall increase in African-American voter registration was not matched by a similarly sharp rise in African-American voter turnout. Nationally, the proportion of African Americans who actually cast a ballot in a Presidential election peaked at 58.5 percent in 1964—the year before the Voting Rights Act was passed—and did not return to this level until Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008. (Flippen, 2014) Obviously, African-American turnout increased in Southern states, where registration had increased so sharply, but it declined in non-Southern states.

Relatively low turnout among African-American voters is attributable to many different factors, including differences in income and education, as well as a perception that the political process is less relevant to their lives. (Fulwood, 2014) And relevance is, in some ways, related to race: like many other racial and ethnic groups, African Americans are significantly more likely to vote when a member of their own group is on the ballot. (Laney, 2011)

Without question, the Voting Rights Act has led to sharply increased representation of African Americans in Congress, state legislatures, and local offices. In 1964, for instance, only five African Americans served in Congress; by 2015, that number had increased to 48. (U.S House of Representatives, 2016) And between 1965 and 1985, the number of African-American state legislators in the former states of the Confederacy had increased from three to 176. (Grofman and Handley, 1991)

What remains open to question is whether increased African-American political representation has led to an improvement in the lives of most African Americans. On this point, there is conflicting evidence. Mississippi, for instance, in the mid-1990s had more African-American elected officials than any other state—yet per capita income for blacks in Mississippi was less than half that for whites, and levels of educational attainment were also significantly lower among blacks than among whites. At that same time, however, state spending on public housing and education had increased sharply in the years previous, and incidents of racial violence had decreased greatly. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2001) This mixed record is in fact typical of many states.


Week 5 Short Responses – Question 9

One of these scholars relied heavily on evidence about the substance of today’s political debate. Which scholar was that? What sort of evidence did he use?

Week 5 Short Responses – Question 10

One of these scholars relied heavily on evidence about the political process. Which scholar was that? What sort of evidence did he use?

The Voting Rights Act: Further Reading (use for question 9 and 10)

What effect has the Voting Rights Act had on American politics in general? While the Act has clearly had an impact on voter registration and representation among African Americans, has it affected the political system more broadly?

While race is certainly not the only factor affecting voter turnout and voting patterns in American politics, political scientists and pollsters have long recognized that it is one of the most highly consequential. (Junn, 2000) To the extent that the Voting Rights Act opened up the political system to many more African Americans, it is reasonable to conclude that it had a significant impact on that system.

One theory that’s popular among political scientists is that the Act, by bringing more African Americans into the political system as voters and as candidates, has made white voters more comfortable with the idea of voting for African Americans. Certainly, it seems reasonable to conclude that Barack Obama could never have won the presidency had the Voting Rights Act not been passed in 1965—or to put it another way, that Obama’s election was contingent on passage of the Voting Rights Act.

But the historical record is a bit more complicated than that. While the Voting Rights Act certainly brought more African Americans into the political system, it also produced negative reactions among some white voters; in the states of the former Confederacy, for instance, African Americans by and large win election to the state legislature only from districts where the electorate is overwhelmingly African-American, while majority-white districts rarely if ever elect African Americans. (Grofman and Handley, 1991) And it’s worth remembering that President Obama received only 43 percent of the white vote in 2008, and just 39 percent in 2012. (Roper Center, 2008; 2012)

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President Jimmy Carter meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, 1978. (Click button for citation) pd

Indeed, some political scientists believe that this pattern of “racially polarized” voting has contributed to more systemic changes in American politics. On the largest level, passage of the Voting Rights Act led to a major party realignment. After passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act by a Democratic-dominated Congress, white Southerners—who had previously identified strongly with the Democratic Party—shifted towards the Republicans, a move encouraged by President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Over time, Southern voters began to replace conservative Democratic members of Congress with Republicans; this meant more Republicans in Congress but it also meant fewer conservative Democrats, which had the effect of making Congressional Democrats more liberal as a group. As a result, Congress has become more sharply polarized along conservative-liberal lines. (Barber and McCarty, 2013)

Finally, the requirement that states create majority-minority districts* has also had an impact on the political system. While the creation of majority-minority districts resulted in the election of more African Americans and others to Congress, it also concentrated the minority voters in only a few districts and left surrounding districts with a higher proportion of white voters. As a result, majority-minority districts in the South send more minorities (who tend to be liberal Democrats) to Congress, but the majority-white districts tend to send more conservative Republicans. This factor, too, has contributed to the polarization of Congress. (Hill, 2013)

Scholars disagree about the extent to which the Voting Rights Act has contributed to the polarization of Congress. The following excerpts showcase an academic debate over this issue between two leading political scientists:

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Pildes: Blame the Voting Rights Act

The following excerpt, from a scholarly article on the impact of the Voting Rights Act, or VRA, focuses on the effect that the VRA had in ending the long-time Democratic Party dominance of Southern politics. It is excerpted from “Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America,” by prominent political scientist Richard Pildes. Click on the title of the article to read, download, and print a copy of the text. These readings are provided by the Shapiro Library. This reading is required. You will have to log into Shapiro Library with your SNHU credentials.

The 1965 VRA, and related changes in the era in constitutional doctrine and law, began the process of unraveling this system. The VRA began what might be considered the “purification” or “maturation” of the American political system. Put another way, the VRA initiated the rise of a genuine political system in the South, which meant the destruction of the one-party monopoly and the emergence, eventually, of a more normal system of competitive two-party politics. Just as the peculiar structure of the one-party South had projected itself onto the shape of national political parties, so too this dramatic transformation of Southern politics in turn reshaped the essential structure of the national political parties. As the VRA and related measures broke down the barriers to electoral participation in the South—literacy tests, poll taxes, manipulative registration practices, and durational residency requirement—a massive infusion of new voters, mostly black but white as well, entered and reconfigured Southern politics.

These voters were, on average, much more liberal than the median voting white Southerner had been before 1965. No longer could conservative, one-party political monopoly be maintained. Over the next generation, these new voters ripped asunder the old Democratic Party of the South, eventually fragmenting it into two parties: a highly conservative Republican Party, into which many of these formerly Democratic Southern voters fled, and a new, moderate-to-liberal Democratic Party that was more in line ideologically with the rest of the Democratic Party nationwide. There was, of course, a self-reinforcing feedback dynamic to this whole process as well; as the Democratic Party became more liberal in the South, more conservatives fled; as more conservatives fled, the Democratic Party became even more liberal. At the national level, the progressive strands on racial issues that had existed in the Republican Party diminished, to be replaced by a more conservative stance on racial issues, while the Democratic Party at the national level became the party of racial liberalism.


Week 5 Short Responses – Question 11

  1. What is the topic of this essay? Does the author make it clear in the introduction?
  2. What is the author’s thesis?
  3. What kind of sources and evidence do you think the author will use to support his thesis?

Writing an Introduction (use for question 11)

The passage below is excerpted from “‘The Fight Was Instilled in Us’: High School Activism and the Civil Rights Movement in Charleston”. Click on the title of the article to read, download, and print a copy of the text. These readings are provided by the Shapiro Library. You will have to log into Shapiro Library with your SNHU credentials to access this article.

Remember, this passage is a sample of an introduction written by a professional historian writing for a specific audience. The audience had an impact on the way this passage was written.

“The Fight Was Instilled in Us”: High School Activism and the Civil Rights Movement in Charleston

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The S.H. Kress & Co. building in Charleston, SC. (Click button for citation) cc by sa

“I remember people standing and staring at us like we were trouble makers and were trying to upset Charleston,” Harvey Gantt, a graduate of Burke High School in Charleston, recalled of the student led sit-in on April 1, 1960. “We at least got the attention of the community. We were feeling young and gifted and ready to tear down a broken social system. We felt like we were pioneers that day,” Gantt said. Gantt was one of twenty-four Burke High School students who marched to S.H. Kress & Co., a segregated five-and-dime store on King Street in downtown Charleston. The students occupied nearly one-half of the lunch-counter seats, humming, singing freedom songs, and reciting prayers. The students maintained their composure as the manager of the store asked them to leave, white patrons cleared the premises, and bystanders circulated rumors of a bomb threat. Police arrested the students, charged them with trespassing, and put them in jail. By examining the effort to desegregate public facilities through the lens of the first sit-in in Charleston, this article will illustrate how a small, committed group of local high school students and teachers played an integral, though overlooked, role in the civil rights movement.


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