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Civil rights in Alabama

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Alabama sits at the heart of Civil Rights in the modern-day United States. This is attributable to the heroic reaction by the blacks against the discriminatory practices meted against them in the mid-20th Century. This reaction includes the March 7, 1965 protests against the violation of the rights of the black people in Montgomery (Gaillard, 2004). The reaction of the white people prompted the American government to heighten its efforts to fight institutionalized and systematic racial discrimination. Among these efforts was the targeted implementation of the Civil Rights Act (the CRA) that had been enacted in 1964. It is imperative to note that the Civil Rights movement in Alabama was at the center of the efforts that birthed the CRA. Following the March 7, 1965 protests, the government fast-tracked its efforts to bring on additional legislation to counter institutional discrimination. As a result, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act (the VRA) in 1965. The VRA was a game-changer in advancing Civil Rights in that it eliminated all discriminatory practices that inhibited black people from voting. This was instrumental as it encouraged more black people to register as voters. Consequently, black people acquired a vital voice in American politics. Progressively, this voice will be necessary for the progressive realization of civil rights in the United States. While the events of the 1950s and 1960s in Alabama stand out and cements their place in American Civil Rights, it should not be taken that Alabama was not active in civil rights activism before this period. Further, Alabama has been instrumental in the civil rights movement to date. However, this historiography seeks to place Alabama at the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. In doing so, this historiography discusses the history of civil rights activism in Alabama, the clamor in the mid-20th Century that was a game changer to civil rights in the United States, and the current state of the movement in present-day Alabama. Alabama in the Pre-Independence Period By the time colonists arrived in the 16th Century, the native Americans in Alabama had grouped as societies. These groups would attack and raid each other for native slaves. They would eventually trade these slaves with the colonists who had first arrived and settled in Florida and South Carolina. For example, Hernando De Soto (a Spanish Explorer) arrived in Alabama in 1950. His gold exploration activities were an enabler of slavery. Native slaves would be captured and used in exploration activities. In addition, the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes were in an unending war for the Choctaw's collaboration with the French. This collaboration would intensify the Choctaw's hunt for more slaves from the Chicksaws. However, these two tribes brokered a truce in the French and Indian War. The French and Indian War came to an end following the signing of the Treaty of Paris (February 1763). By this time, the French had lost the war to Great Britain. These tribes would later support Great Britain in the Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783 (Britannica, 2023). This period saw the native Americans lose huge tracts of land. The natives' trouble was exacerbated with the enactment of the Indian Removal Act (the IRA) in 1830. This piece of legislation massive loss of land by the natives. The United States gained independence gradually starting in 1776 when 13 colonies declared and became independent from Great Britain. It is imperative to note that the American government facilitated the injustices meted out to the natives. These include the IRA of 1830. Additionally, the US government did not take any measures to address these injustices, especially involving 'people of color'. On December 14, 1819, Alabama acquired statehood. This was a new dawn for the natives who saw this as an opportunity for reconstruction of the Alabama territory. However, this was not the case. The economy of Alabama heavily relied on plantation agriculture. During this time, mechanization in agriculture had not taken shape. Consequently, plantation owners had to devise ways to get cheap labor for their farms to support the economy of Alabama. This is how slavery continued and gradually increased post-independence. Slave trade later became the second most important sector of Alabama's economy. In reaction to the bulging demands for slaves, traders became intentional in the slave trade. Some opened auction warehouses, for example in Montgomery, where slaves would be housed waiting to be sold to the settlers. Even the banning of the international slave trade in 1808 would not stop this practice in Alabama. With the incentives attached to cheap labor and commodification of slaves, traders and plantation owners were not prepared to abandon the 'lucrative business'. In 1854, the United States enacted the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This Act legalized slavery in America. This resulted in heated debates between pro and anti-slavery crusaders. It was also instrumental in the establishment of the Republican Party, which opposed slavery. This was to counter the Democrats' influence on slavery. The provisions of the Act found support in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) where the Supreme Court ruled that black people were not citizens of the United States. The Supreme Court proceeded to assert that black people had no jurisdiction to claim protection from the US government or courts. The Scott case caused an uproar among anti-slavery crusaders. It would later be part of the fueling factors for the infamous American Civil War (Lincoln, 1857). Alabama's secession from the Union alongside 6 other States in 1861 to establish the Confederate States was an indication that it had no intention to end slavery and the attendant violation of human rights. The secession was in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 who the majority of the Northern State of Alabama feared would ensure that slavery was abolished. It is important to note that Nothern Alabama heavily relied on slavery. This was not the case for Southern Alabama. Accordingly, Southern Alabama did not support the secession. In 1861, the rivalry between the northern and southern States concerning, inter alia, slavery birthed the Civil War. At this time, seven States (including Alabama) had seceded to form the Confederation of States over fears of the abolition of slavery by President Lincoln. The situation would exacerbate with four more States joining the Confederation. The northern States had developed in terms of manufacturing and establishment of industries. Due to these developments, agriculture became a preserve of small-scale farmers. On the other hand, southern States (including Alabama) were heavily reliant on agriculture which they did on a large scale. This resulted in over-reliance on slaves. Consequently, more black people were enslaved to work in cotton and tobacco plantation farms. The economic differences between the southern and northern States created tensions between these parts. This was because the abolition of slavery was turning into a movement in the North and was gaining momentum. The southern States perceived this as a threat to their economy. This resulted in the Civil War which is arguably the deadliest war on American soil. According to Editors (n.d.), more than 600,000 soldiers were killed in the war. The war ended with the surrender of the Confederate States in 1865. Alabama surrendered from the Civil War on April 12, 1865. Consequently, it was readmitted back to the Union of States. To show its commitment to the abolition of slavery, Alabama abolished the slave trade in its territory. This was in consonance with the 13th Amendment, which essentially abolished slavery in the United States. The progress in Alabama was however short-lived as the Democrats became the majority in parliament in the 1870s. The Democrats passed the infamous Jim Crow Laws, which was a collection of laws that permitted racial segregation. This birthed a decade of systematic and institutionalized racial discrimination. To start with, the Jim Crow Laws allowed back slavery and back-tracked the civil rights that black people had shortly started to enjoy. Consequently, a majority of black people started migrating to cities to avoid slavery and in search of better opportunities. The Democrats had to find a solution to the influx of black people in cities. Consequently, they enacted more laws to size down opportunities available for black Americans. Further, the Jim Crow Laws permitted racial segregation in public spaces. Black people were prohibited from accessing public parks. In addition, black people were segregated in waiting rooms, restrooms, restaurants, elevators, theatres, and cemeteries. Segregation gained momentum and became popular across the United States. It would be enforced in neighborhoods (as blacks were prohibited from residing in specific neighborhoods) and in schools (where some schools had different textbooks for blacks and whites). Editors (n.d.) posit that it was popular to come across signs indicating that Africans were not welcome in specific neighborhoods, towns, or cities. The commodification of African Americans continued in Alabama and the entire United States with total disregard for human rights. The Jim Crow Laws that existed, approximately, for a decade enabled this. A clear example of this disregard in Alabama was the Tuskegee Experiments that commenced in 1932 (Norrel, 1985). At this time, syphilis became contagious and there was no known cure for it. The Experiments were meant to understand the disease and work on a cure. The project recruited 600 black people from Macon County, Alabama. This was against the backdrop of a promise of free medical cover to the recruits. It is important that as it is in the present-day United States, healthcare was unaffordable, and thus an offer for free medical coverage was too good for people who could not afford to turn it down. Thus, it was clear that the doctors were taking advantage of the black people's economic situation, which was largely attributable to the historical injustices meted against them based on their race and or skin color. The Public Health Service backtracked on its promise of free medical coverage. Even when doctors recommended the use of penicillin for the treatment of Syphilis, the doctors did not administer the same to the black people who were used for the experiment. Most were left to die as the doctors observed them to track and understand the disease fully. Others developed permanent health implications such as blindness. It took the intervention of a whistleblower known as Peter Buxton in the mid-1960s for the government to take steps to stop the experiment. This took more than 10 years, which shows the lack of commitment by government officials to act on issues affecting black. It is to be noted that it was anticipated that by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, systemic racial discrimination would come to an end. However, the continuance of the Tuskegee Experiments post-1964 was illustrative of how deeply embedded racism was. It also indicated a reality that it would take time to uproot racial practices that had been developed for over a decade (through the laws and practices adopted immediately after independence and the Jim Crow Laws). Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s The Montgomery Bus Boycott Due to Jim Crow Laws, racial segregation was prevalent in public places ( Editors, 2023). The black people harbored bitterness against the segregation practices. This would burst and lead to a fully-fledged civil rights movement in the mid-20th Century. This arguably started with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, which is discussed here below. Rosa Parks, an African American, was born and brought up in Montgomery where segregation practices were rife. In 1943, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where her husband was a member. The NAACP advocated for and advanced the civil rights of the ‘people of color’. This is where Rosa acquired and sharpened her activism against racial segregation. On December 1, 1955, Rosa was traveling back home from work by a municipal bus. The municipal buses had a rule where the front seats were reserved for white people and the back seats were reserved for 'negroes'. The drivers however had the discretion to order a black person to surrender a seat for a white person. On this day, Rosa was seated in the row immediately behind the whites' section. The whites' section was full and the driver ordered Rosa and the other 3 black people to give up their seats in the blacks' section to the whites. While the other three passengers obliged, Rosa did not. Fast forward, Rosa was arrested and placed in custody. Eventually, she was convicted of violating segregation laws and handed a suspended sentence (Mighty Times, 2002). This turn of events birthed the idea of boycotting Montgomery buses. The black people were obliged to the calls for boycotting the Montgomery buses ( Editors, 2023). This caught the authorities by surprise as at least 70 percent (%) of the bus users were black people. The white population resorted to the use of violence against the boycotters. This started to gain the attention of both the national and international communities. On the other hand, the black opportunity seized the opportunity to spur their calls for the abolition of segregation laws. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and elected Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr as the association's president. Rosa and MIA pursued her case until the Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court held that racial segregation was unconstitutional. It was until the Order of the Supreme Court was delivered to the boycotters that they agreed to stop the boycotts. These events earned Rosa the title "mother of the civil rights movement" (Stewart, 1997). The Martin Luther King Jnr Effect Martin Luther was a baptist minister and a civil rights activist. His election as president of MIA was instrumental in widening his platform for activism in the mid-1950 and in the 1960s until he was assassinated in 1968. Martin Luther's played a key role in planning, managing, and monitoring the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which renewed civil rights activism. He also lead peaceful protests against systemic inequalities and fought for equality and respect for the human rights of black people and other disadvantaged persons in society. Due to his activities and the attention he was attracting both nationally and internationally, Martin Luther became a target of white supremacists who even bombed his family home in January 1956. Further, history records that on September 20, 1958, a Miss Izola Ware Curry, walked into Martin Luther’s store and stabbed him with a knife. Martin Luther sustained serious injuries on his chest but survived the attack that appeared to be an assassination attempt by the white supremacists. Despite the violence meted against him, Martin Luther did not cower nor stand down. These violent events added to his energy for civil rights activism. However, his teachings were focused on nonviolent protests. He ensured that he did not facilitate or use a wrong to fight a wrong (( Editors, 2023). Following the success of the Montgomery Boycott, which he was in charge of, Martin Luther founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The founders and members of SCLC were mainly drawn from civil rights activists and religious leaders aligned to calls for equality. Martin Luther was elected the president of SCLC. He used SCLC to advocate for the equality of black people. He traversed the United States and the world giving lectures on civil rights and the use of nonviolent measures to achieve them. This offered him a platform to meet leaders and opinion shapers who became instrumental in pushing his agenda. In March 1963, Martin Luther organized the infamous March on Washington. In this peaceful march, about 250,000 people congregated at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The march aimed to air challenges that black people went through due to racial discrimination and inequalities arising thereto. This is when Martin Luther delivered the celebrated "I Have A Dream Speech". In this speech, he explained that he foresaw a day when equality would rule the United States and the world and people would not be viewed from a racial lens. In the speech that caught the attention of the government, Martin Luther asserted that the march was just a starting wave and promised a revolution for civil rights. Together with the other speakers, they pressed for passage of the CRA that had stalled in Congress. To counter the looming revolution, Congress fast-tracked the passage of the CRA. In 1964, Congress passed the CRA. The CRA was a new turning point in the recognition, protection, and advancement of equal rights. It abolished racial segregation and abolished all forms of discrimination, including racial discrimination. The constitutionality of the CRA was however challenged in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. (1964). In this case, the Supreme Court recognized the consistent calls for equality and ruled that the CRA was constitutional. The Bloody Sunday The CRA and its advocacy for equality equally received criticism and opposition from white supremacists (Garrow, 1978). This resulted in to use of violence against black people in protest and to assert their racial supremacy. This would result in another horrific incident in Alabama that stands on the black side of American Civil Rights history – Bloody Sunday. Despite the enactment of the CRA, which guaranteed black people the right to vote, African Americans faced insurmountable challenges in their attempts to register as voters in Alabama. To air their grievances concerning this issue, civil rights activists organized peaceful protests in Alabama. On February 18, 1965, white supremacists attacked protestors who were demonstrating peacefully in Marion, Alabama. Chaos ensued. In reaction to the chaos, a state trooper shot and killed Jimmy Lee Jackson who was among the protestors (Ashmore, 2008). On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Martin Luther and the SCLC organized a march from Selma to Montgomery in protest against the killing of Jackson. The march involved a group of about 600 activists. State troopers responded to the march by attacking the protestors shortly after they left Selma. The attack was brutal to an extent that it drew the attention of opinion shapers, political leaders, civil rights activists, and religious leaders who would later join the protestors. On the night of March 7, 1965, killed James Reeb, a white minister who had joined the protestors. Attempts to stop the march were unsuccessful. This day would later be called "Bloody Sunday". The Selma protests continued even after Bloody Sunday. This became the center of media and international discussion. Consequently, on March 15, 1965, the then President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson announced his support for the Selma protests and committed to fast-track enactment of the voting rights bill to address the concerns of the protestors. President Johnson showed his support to the protestors by providing security to over 2,000 protestors in their march from Selma to Montgomery. This commenced on March 21 and ended on March 25. The aftermath of the protests and President Johnson’s commitment was the passage of the Voting Rights Act (the VRA) in August of that year. The VRA eliminated all institutional and systemic practices that hindered black people from registering as voters and consequently exercising their right to vote. Along with the CRA, the VRA was celebrated as a milestone achievement towards ensuring that black people have a voice in American politics. Black people would now enjoy their civil rights without fear of segregation and actively participate in politics. This reversed the situation that the Supreme Court had created in Scott's case by holding that black people could not enjoy the protection of the United States government. In all these activism activities involving Martin Luther, the AME Brown Chapel in Selma (the AME Chapel) claims its place as it was instrumental in the civil rights movement in Alabama. During the clamor for recognition and protection of the civil rights of the African Americans, courts in Alabama issued injunctions stopping public meetings in black churches. However, the AME Chapel did not cower. It remained open to civil rights activists. Martin Luther and the SCLC used this venue to organize peaceful protests. SCLC also hosted its conferences in the Chapel. It is also important to note that Martin Luther used the Chapel to conduct rallies on civil rights. The Black Power Movement Even after the passage of the VRA in 1965, the Democratic Party (the DP) was the ruling party in Alabama. The DP was viewed as an embodiment of white supremacy as it opposed the civil rights movement. The new era, which took in African Americans as voters, projected a change in political power. The African Americans had thus to decide on the political cause to support. In Lowndes County, for example, the Christian and Human Rights leaders opted to form an all-black political party - the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). The leaders popularized this party across the United States. Well-wishers assisted in the formation and management of the party. In the 1966 general elections, LCFO fielded candidates in various positions. White candidates floored LCFO candidates. Their loss was largely attributed to rigging and ballot fraud. While this was an indication that racism was deeply embedded in American institutions, it was seen as a good start for black people to claim and exert their political power (Nyang, 2012). The progress became apparent when John Hullet rose to become the first black Sherriff in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1970 (Jeffries, 2009). The activities of black activists were necessary for the consolidation of black power. This assists black people in navigating out of the murky waters of institutional racism. Conclusion From the above historiography, it is apparent that Alabama sits at the heart of the civil rights movement in the United States. Differently put, there is no discussion on civil rights in the United States that can end without mentioning Alabama. Interestingly, history shows that Alabama has been at the center of subjugating civil rights. This goes back to the pre-colonial Alabama territory. It took a short break following the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution. The subjugation clawed back through the Jim Crow Laws that lasted for a decade. This presents a dark side of Alabama's place in the subjugation of civil rights. However, the subjugation in Alabama would breed heroes of the civil rights movement such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa and Martin Luther would later become instrumental in leading the movement for recognition, protection, and advancement of the civil rights of black people. Consequently, this achieved equality in law – through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is a safe guarantee that with time, equality may be realized, albeit, progressively (Abigail & Stephan, 1998).


Abigail T. and Stephan T. Black Progress: How far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. March 1, 1998.

Ashmore, Susan Youngblood. Carry It On: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, 1964-1972. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Ann Bailey." Encyclopedia Britannica, January 1, 2023.

Burns, Stewart, ed. Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).

Eyes on the Prize. Episode 1 "Awakenings (1954-1956);" Episode 3 "Ain't Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961);" Episode 4 "No Easy Walk (1961-1963);" Episode 6 "Bridge to Freedom (1965)"; and Episode 7 "The Time Has Come (1964-1966)." Boston: Blackside, Inc., 1986, 1990; distributed by PBS.

Gaillard, Frye. Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Garrow, David J. Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. (1964). Editors. 14th Amendment. A&E Television Networks. 29 August 2022. Editors. Selma to Montgomery March. A&E Television Networks. January 11, 2023.

Jeffries. H.K. Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

Lincoln, Abraham. Speech on the Dred Scott Decision: June 26, 1857. Teaching American History.

Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks. Los Angeles: HBO/Southern Poverty Law Center, 2002.

Norrell, Robert J. Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Nyang’, S.S. The African Immigrant Family in the United States of America: Challenges and Opportunities. (2012). Howard University, Washington D.C.: Unwin Publishers.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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