A History of the Injustices that African-Americans have Faced and Where We Are Now

White opposition facing the Little Rock Nine at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

Welcome back to Making Sense of Injustice. In light of everything happening in the world today, this episode is centered on the history and the injustices that African-Americans have faced- in the past and in the present.

But first, let’s backtrack a bit in history- all the way back to the 1600s. This was when present-day North America was in full swing colonization. After the Spanish conquistadors brutally exploited Native Americans in their encomienda system, which meant Natives were forced into labor and had to work on sugar and other agricultural fields. However, when Native Americans began dying of the diseases that they had contracted from Europeans, the Spanish were forced to look for another solution. Indentured servitude- where someone agreed to work for a master for 7 years in exchange for the cost of the voyage and room and board- was becoming less and less popular as there were almost no benefits in the system. As a result, the Europeans found a new source: African slaves. European traders would negotiate with African leaders and kingdoms- they would request slaves, and in return, they had to pay tribute to African kings. Soon enough, the system of slavery became immensely popular in colonies, especially in the South, where there was a myriad of cash crop fields (ex: tobacco and indigo). Slaves were sold to masters and were forced to work on the fields. In the 17th century, a new concept called Triangular Trade emerged. English trade in enslaved Africans had been monopolized by a single company- the Royal African Company. However, after this monopoly expired, many New England merchants entered the lucrative slave trade. Merchant ships would regularly follow a triangular (three-part) trade route. First, a ship starting from a New England port such as Boston would carry rum across the Atlantic to West Africa. There, the rum would be traded for hundreds of captive Africans. Next, the ship would set out on the horrendous “Middle Passage”- the journey where slaves were transported to the West Indies and traded for a cargo of sugarcane. The Middle Passage was inhumane. Hundreds of slaves were crammed in below deck, and many died before their destination was reached due to starvation, disease, and heat. This “triangular trade” was so popular because the slave-trading entrepreneur usually succeeded in making a substantial profit.

Time passed, and the institution of slavery continued to grow. By 1750, half of Virginia’s population and two-thirds of South Carolina’s population were enslaved. The increased demand for slaves in England’s thirteen colonies was due to 1) reduced migration, as increased wages in England reduced the number of immigrants and indentured servants, 2) the need for a dependable workforce, as large plantation owners were disturbed by the political demands of small farmers and indentured servants and by the disorder of Bacon’s Rebellion, which as an uprising of farmers who rebelled against the governor of Virginia, and 3) cheap labor, because tobacco, rice, and indigo became extremely profitable crops. To grow these crops required a large land area and many inexpensive, relatively unskilled field hands. Unfortunately, slaves were the answer to all of these problems. As the number of slaves increased, white colonists adopted new laws to ensure that African Americans would be held in bondage for life and that slave status would be inherited through their children- also known as chattel slavery. It became customary for whites to regard all blacks as social inferiors, and racism and slavery soon became integral to colonial society. As time passed, slave laws grew more and more strict, with unsuccessful rebellions such as Nat Turner’s and Denmark Vesey’s resulted in Black Codes and stricter fugitive slave laws, which severely limited the rights and freedoms of slaves. Still, slaves continued to rebel in small ways, such as breaking tools and staging illness. They combated the horrors of slavery by finding peace and community and interacting with other slaves. They also established a mixed culture that contained both African tradition and American traditions.

Then, some changes occurred after the end of the American Revolution. Although many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, many of them wanted to emancipate the slaves, as slavery was already abolished in Europe. However, the founding fathers still decided to ignore the question of slavery in the Constitution, leaving it to be a problem to be solved by the future America- which proved to be a disastrous decision. But, slavery began to diminish a bit, and some Northern states even started to free slaves, as the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution directly contrasted the institution of slavery. How could the Declaration state that “all men are created equal” if that only applied to white men? Many people after the Revolution read this direct hypocrisy and started to question the institution of slavery. Soon, slavery became less and less common in the North, as industry started to boom, and by 1804, all Northern states had taken measures to abolish slavery. It’s not to say that freed slaves had a good life in the North, as racism was prevalent and their economic opportunities were severely limited, but their situation was much more preferable than slavery in the South.

Slavery was dwindling slowly, and as America began to industrialize, the South was struggling to keep up with the newly booming economy. Because of the South’s geographical location, their primary source of goods came from the fields; they were an agricultural-based economy. To keep these giant plantations profitable, owners still needed the cheap labor that slavery provided. Thus, slavery remained prevalent in the South but was also simmering down. But then came the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The cotton gin revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly increasing the speed in which seeds could be removed from cotton. Plantation owners saw the cotton gin as a way to profit off of cotton in a much faster way, and eureka! Slavery skyrocketed, as plantations now needed more slaves to work on picking cotton and running it through the cotton gins. Who knows, if the cotton gin was never invented, perhaps slavery wouldn’t have gotten as big as it did. But there was no denying it: with the cotton gin, America’s South became the number one producer and exporter of cotton, which greatly boosted America’s overall economy.

And so it continued. Slavery kept increasing, and the South, desperate to keep slaves on their plantation, began to use new ideas to justify slavery. They claimed that slavery was a “positive good” and that no one was “happier than a slave in the South”. They used biblical, racial, and scientific beliefs and theories to try and justify slavery. Of course, this was all some B.S. It’s disgusting to think people used to think that way, that slaves were merely objects (based on the court case Dred Scott v. Sanford) that could be bought and sold, that they weren’t even considered a whole person (based on the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution). Southerners grew increasingly defensive and racist, and the North had no way to stop these ideas from spreading. Early abolitionists, such as William Llyod Garrison and Frederick Douglass, attempted to stop slavery through the publications of their newspapers with limited success.

Soon enough, slavery, along with many other factors, culminated in the bloodiest war America has ever seen: the Civil War. And then we all know the rest of the story: the Union defeated the Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy and established new rights with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which consecutively freed slaves, made them citizens of America, and allowed them to vote. It was a huge victory for slaves- they were free and had all of these new rights that made them supposedly equal to whites, right? Wrong. After Lincoln was assassinated, his successor, President Andrew Johnson undid a lot of things Lincoln established. He was a southerner himself, and also quite racist. Reconstruction, the rebuilding of the destruction of the South after the war, went awry after he took office. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and all of the Reconstruction Acts Congress passed. A weak president, Johnson allowed the South to kind of do whatever they wanted to do, and so the South did. The South, angry at all of the new rights African-Americans now had, were determined to establish white superiority. They implemented things such as the poll tax, the literacy test, and the grandfather clause to prevent blacks from voting. The rise of the KKK lynched thousands of innocent blacks based on only the principle of hate. The passage of Jim Crow laws separated blacks and whites in public facilities, and the black facilities were always more low quality than the white ones.

For blacks after the Civil War, it was a whirlwind of emotions. First, they were happy that they were freed and had new rights, then they slowly lost hope, as every right they gained were somehow taken away from them by whites. By 1860, only 2% of blacks were registered to vote because southerners used tactics to instill fear in blacks trying to vote. Even if they could get past the poll tax, the literacy test, and the grandfather clause, Southern officials, the chances of voting were zero to none due to the intimidation tactics of Southern authorities. The 1896 court case Plessy v. Ferguson deemed that Jim Crow laws were okay, as long as the public facilities were “separate but equal”. The facilities were not equal, and they never were. Fear arose as the KKK gained members, and African-Americans were always scared of getting killed. Because of racism, no one wanted to hire newly-freed slaves, and economic opportunities were close to zero. Instead, blacks were forced into sharecropping and tenant farming on fields, which was basically slavery all over again, as sharecropping paid very, very little and many former slaves lived in poverty and had almost no new economic opportunities.

After Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 after Rutherford B. Hayes won the election of 1876 and negotiated the Compromise of 1877, the South was free to do anything without the North fighting over it with them. This was because the Compromise of 1877 officially pulled military troops out of the South, and without this authority present, the South had almost no restraints on them. The North’s waning resolve and the South’s determination to keep blacks inferior to them resulted in the racism prevalent in the South. For the next half-century, the KKK, segregated facilities, and racism towards blacks spread throughout the South like wildfire and stayed in full-swing until the 1960s.

The first half of the 20th century, unfortunately, did not bring many new rights to African-Americans. However, a cultural, intellectual, and artistic movement changed American culture forever- the Harlem Renaissance. This was a revival of pride for many African-Americans, as many authors and poets, such as Langston Hughes, wrote influential poems and pieces of literature that defined what it was like to be an African-American living in the United States. The 1920s also brought in the Jazz Age- which took its roots from African-America musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, whose music influenced many white people in America- even to this day.

Then in 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which called for the desegregation of armed troops. Before this year, African-Americans fought in segregated troops commanded by white men and were rarely recognized for their bravery. The desegregation of troops allowed all soldiers regardless of race to fight alongside one another. Then, in 1954, a monumental court case decided by the Warren Court overturned the previous decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of races in public schools was not allowed, thus deeming public segregation illegal. In 1957, 9 brave African-American teens took on segregation in schools and registered and attempted to attend a previously all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas. However, they were met with such fierce opposition from whites that they were unable to attend. Even the mayor of Arkansas refused to do anything about it. However, President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to escort the “Little Rock 9” into the school, upholding the decision of Brown v. Board. This was also the first time a president had stepped in on the side of African-Americans. Still, many schools in the South were stubborn to change, and racism continued to be prevalent.

However, major change started to occur during the mid-20th century, when a woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and thrown in jail. However, this one act sparked off a monumental movement- the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Soon, many African-Americans began to protest their lack of rights, especially in the heavily segregated South. Famous leaders of this movement included Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC, who advocated for peaceful, non-violent protests, as seen in the Washington to Selma March, and Malcolm X, who was more radical. Events such as the Greensboro Sit-Ins and the Montgomery bus boycotts were effective in getting their efforts noticed. Even through extreme opposition, police brutality, and violence, these brave African-Americans never gave up and continued to fight for their cause. And they were successful. In 1964 and 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the two most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. These legislations got rid of Jim Crow laws, the barriers of poll taxes and literacy tests, and combated racial discrimination. The 24th Amendment to the Constitution deems poll-taxes to be illegal. The way to equality seemed to be running smoothly.

And now here we are today, almost 400 years later. We’ve come a long way from where America was at the very start, but we have so much more to go. Today, we must focus on the unfair treatment of African-Americans in the justice system and police brutality. Statistics show that black men are incarcerated in state or federal prison at a rate 6 times that of White men and that African Americans were significantly more likely to be handcuffed, searched, and arrested when pulled over. Police are much more likely to be violent and rude to a black man than a white man even if they committed the same crime. As seen in the brutal murder of George Floyd, the blatant disregard for human life was obvious, which finally caused America to act. For the past few weeks, protests, looting, and awareness have spread throughout all fifty states of the United States. It’s sad to think that another person had to die to make this happen. My hope is that the Black Lives Matter movement sparks new legislation, new inspiration, new determination to combat racism in the U.S. After all this time, after all these centuries, after all these deaths of innocent black people, when is the prejudice going to stop? Racism and stereotypes still exist in the United States, and blacks are associated with gangs, violence, and poverty. This shouldn’t be the stereotype about African-Americans. African-Americans are strong, beautiful, and brave. When can we see them as our equals? When can we finally break through these stupid race barriers? No wonder America is the most racist country in the world, this country was basically built on the back of slavery and white superiority! Hell, this country split in half and fought a bloody war over slavery!

Do you see a pattern? I sure do. Throughout history, every time African-Americans gain some sort of rights, whites somehow find a way to take away from those rights and render them useless. They take away from these rights, diminish them until they’re nothing. Even with new rights, the feelings of racism and prejudice never quite go away.

It’s taken us nearly 400 years to come to where we are now. How many more years to eradicate racism? A hundred years? Two hundred? Three hundred? This is the time to take action. Say their names with me. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Tony McDade. Dion Johnson. And thousands of others whose lives were wrongfully taken away from them as a result of hate. When can this hate end? It needs to stop now.

Last year on this day, I was celebrating the 4th of July in the very capital of this country. I was proud, sporting my red, white, and blue outfit. This year, I will not be celebrating America. Instead, I will be celebrating what America should’ve been: a land where there is liberty and justice for all, and I hope you all do the same.

Thank you for listening.

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Amy Zhang

Injustice from the eyes of a high schooler. Activist. Lover of history. Here to educate and inspire.