The Slave Trade
Though blacks first stepped foot in the Americas in the late 1400s, they didn't arrive in earnest until after 1518, when King Charles I of Spain sanctioned the African slave trade. From then until abolition in 1870, at least 10 million Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas. In the American colonies, England became extensively engaged in trading slaves after setting up the Royal African Co. in 1663.
Early Collective Resistance
As white workers improved their status in the colonies, both free and bonded blacks were subjected to new legislation. These laws ensured that the political rights and economic opportunities granted to whites would not be extended to Africans, or their descendants.
However, literacy and Christianity both proved vehicles for individual and collective resistance, both to brutal treatment and to enslavement. After the Revolutionary War, many freed blacks migrated to cities. The more liberal climate there enabled them to establish their own social institutions and begin efforts to improve their conditions.
Increased discrimination - combined with the growth of black literacy, institutional strength, and economic resources encouraged a trend toward greater militancy after 1830. One such example was the Underground Railroad, through which such abolitionists as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth helped slaves escape.
Abolition and the Civil War
Though the Civil War was not initially waged to abolish slavery, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The document freed all slaves held by Southerners who remained in rebellion. The proclamation eventually led to the 13th Amendment, a constitutional prohibition of slavery. After winning their freedom, however, many blacks found it nearly impossible to gain independence. Most former slaves became sharecroppers, leaving them under the domination of white creditors. They also faced growing terrorism from white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. In cities, they continued to encounter institutionalized racism.
World Wars I & II
World War I marked a turning point for African-Americans, hastening the process of black urbanization and institutional development. This time also marked the creation of a cultural movement, called the Harlem Renaissance. The movement encouraged African-American artists, writers, and musicians to look to Africa for inspiration in their work.
World War II also provided a great stimulus for changes in national racial policies. There was an increased need for black labor during this time, and whites started developing a heightened sensitivity to the dangers of racist ideas.
Equal Rights Legislation
In 1954, a unanimous court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate education facilities are inherently unequal." The case was successfully argued by lawyer Thurgood Marshall. He later became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court. The South erupted into violence that shocked the nation, including the brutal murder of Medgar Evers. But the Brown decision inspired Southern blacks to launch a sustained movement to integrate all public facilities, led by such leaders as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.
Most protests took legal and nonviolent forms. Activists like Stokely Carmichael organized "freedom rides"; James Meredith became successfully enrolled at the University of Mississippi; Rosa Parks instigated the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott; and labor lawyer and civil rights activist, A. Philip Randolph, organized the famous March on Washington in 1963.
In 1965, a nonviolent protest in Selma, Alabama, prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to introduce new voting-rights legislation.
Even as blacks become more and more enmeshed in middle-class society, poverty and alienation continue to shield segments of the black populace from complete cultural absorption. Toward the end of the 20th century, however, blacks have made great strides in the areas of culture, education and politics.
During the 1970's, the best-known advocate of black nationalism was Malcolm X, whose ideas became increasingly popular after his assassination in 1965. In the 1980's, many African-Americans were elected to local and state offices.
The country and the world have also recognized the contributions of American blacks. Toni Morrison won Pulitzer and Nobel literature prizes; General Colin Powell became the first African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and in 2005, Condoleezza Rice became the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State. In 2008, Illinois senator Barack Obama made history when he became the first African-American president-elect of the United States.
Path to Equality