World History Project - Origins to the Present
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- READ: Modern Latin America
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- READ: Political Decolonization, c.1945–1997
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After the Second World War, movements for civil rights and equality emerged. Despite some successes, racism and inequality were unresolved in the generations that followed.
Movements to End Racial Justice
By Sharika D. Crawford
After Second World War, movements for civil rights and equality emerged. Despite some successes, racism and inequality were unresolved in the generations that followed.
After the Second World War, the calls to end racial inequality grew in many countries. Many in the Allied countries had linked the fight against Nazism to the fight against ideas of racial superiority. In the United States, Black Americans fought in the war to end fascism and its racist policies. As veterans, they returned home to join others in demanding what Black Americans fought for since the end of slavery: full political rights. By the 1950s and 1960s, these actions to end racial discrimination became a mass movement known as the Civil Rights Movement. Mass movements soon emerged elsewhere to fight racial segregation and discrimination. Although mass movements successfully made racial segregation and discrimination unlawful in many countries, racism and racial inequality persists worldwide.
The long Civil Rights Movement
Black Americans had long fought against racial injustice and pursued different approaches for their advancement. By the twentieth century, activists became increasingly attracted to internationalist movements. Some, like labor organizer A. Phillip Randolph, became socialists, while an even smaller number, like entertainer Paul Robeson, joined the communist party. Other Black American activists organized transnational black movements. During the 1940s, there were many important movements to combat racism in the U.S., but no unified strategy or approach. For example, W.E.B DuBois began the Pan-African Congress, and Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Both had similar goals, but ideologically, DuBois and Garvey were notoriously at odds with how to reach those goals.
The Second World War presented another opportunity to fight for racial justice. The widely circulated Black American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier launched a “Double V” campaign. That slogan promoted both victory overseas and at home. The campaign publicized issues important to its Black American leadership. It boosted their ability to organize against the continuation of racially discriminatory laws. These early efforts helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
The Civil Rights Movement describes a diverse set of approaches used to achieve full political, social, and economic rights for Black Americans. Actions included the use of the legal system to fight discriminatory laws, which made sense. After all, racial segregation had been legal in the United States since the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. However, in 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka argued that it was harmful to have racial segregation in public schools. This time, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that having separate facilities was “inherently unequal”. Plessy v. Fergusson was overturned.
Other activists used civil disobedience by actively disobeying laws as a way to enact change. This is exactly what happened in 1955 when Rosa Parks—after being told to give her seat to a white passenger and move toward the back of the section reserved for Black American riders on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama—refused. Like organizer Ella Baker, Parks was one of the numerous Black women in the movement who took on informal and formal roles. Parks’s civil disobedience led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which drew the young activist Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a principal organizer. The boycott lasted nearly a year and only ended when the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on public buses. In addition to lawsuits and boycotts, civil rights activists also organized peaceful rallies such as the 1963 March on Washington.
Together, these various approaches brought pressure on Congress to pass landmark legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination unlawful in education, employment, housing, and public facilities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers such as literacy and poll tests, which stopped Black American southerners from exercising their right to vote. Beyond these gains, Black American women in the Civil Rights Movement extended the fight to gender equality. By the 1970s, some of these women pushed onward to fight for racial and gender equality.
Racial democracy challenged in Latin America
Although there was no legally sanctioned racial segregation in Latin America, racism and racial discrimination were widespread. Many Latin Americans drew inspiration from the legal victories won by American civil rights activists. In Brazil, Afro-Brazilians adopted a strong sense of racial identity, which often reflected a global sense of blackness. During the 1970s, Afro-Brazilians regularly wore an afro hairstyle, dressed in African attire, and attended parties playing soul music like James Brown’s “Black and Proud.” This outward embrace of a black identity was met with renewed efforts to end racially discriminatory policies.
In 1978, Brazilian activists formed the Black Unified Movement (or MNU, from Movimento Negro Unificado) to respond to the poverty and the violence affecting people of African ancestry. Their goals were ambitious. Since 1964, the Brazilian military had ruled the country with a repressive hand and banned the right to protest or organize. Military leaders considered groups like the MNU divisive and a threat to the country’s image as a racial democracy without racial injustices. Yet in the face of such harsh repression, the MNU met and successfully lobbied for November 20 as a National Day of Consciousness. It also gained ancestral rights to the descendants of the quilombo, which were communities of enslaved people who had escaped.
As in the United States, these efforts spurred on Afro-Brazilian female activists who separated and formed new organizations devoted to ending both racism and sexism. By 1988, they had organized the First National Encounter of the Black Woman to attain national recognition as a distinct collective identity in the country: a mulher negra or “the black woman”.
Following the momentum of Black movements in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, indigenous people also got organized. They were similarly motivated to end racially biased laws and assert both their cultural and political rights. By the 1980s, indigenous movements emerged in the region to end policies that had failed to protect their traditional languages and cultures. Some even fought against economic policies that harmed the environment or limited their economic opportunities. In 1986, Ecuador’s fourteen indigenous ethnicities formed the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). They, in turn, formed a political party to lobby for Ecuador’s recognition as a multicultural state and preserve the cultural rights of indigenous peoples. In Guatemala, indigenous communities openly protested against racial stereotyping and discrimination. Like CONAIE, the Guatemalan Maya peoples formed a unified political and cultural movement to create laws promoting the Maya language and cultural traditions. Unlike indigenous communities in Ecuador, the Maya faced insecurity as the government waged an ongoing civil war against them.
The plight of the Maya and the civil war gained international attention in 1992 when Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize. Menchú became the second Guatemalan awarded a Nobel Prize. She introduced readers to the hardships of the indigenous communities in her memoir I, Rigoberta Menchú. Despite the growth of indigenous activism in Guatemala, the 1999 legislature still refused to grant cultural and political rights to the Maya peoples.
By the late twentieth century, people worldwide began to organize around issues of racial justice. Through the civic and political movements in the United States and Latin America, governments made racial discrimination unlawful. Yet racism and racial violence persists as a powerful force shaping the lives of many people across the globe. In response, people are once again organizing to end not just racial discrimination, but also racial violence. This is seen from the United States to Brazil. In 2013, young activists formed the Black Lives Matter movement to denounce the alarming number of police shootings of unarmed Black Americans. Creating new communication networks using social media, Black Lives Matter launched a national and now global movement against state-centered violence toward Black communities.
These issues are not unique to the United States. In Latin America, Black and indigenous activists are the victims of violence due to their activism around issues of racial justice. Since 2015, over one hundred Afro-Colombian activists have been killed because of their work to protect ancestral land rights given to Black communities of the Pacific coast of the country. In 2018, the beloved Rio de Janeiro councilwoman and Afro-Brazilian organizer Marielle Franco was viciously gun downed. These tragic deaths are a terrible reminder that there is still much to do to attain racial equality and justice for all.
Sharika Crawford is an associate professor of Latin American history at the United States Naval Academy. Her scholarship has focused on modern Colombia, the circum-Caribbean, and the West African country of Ghana. Sharika has published her research in several academic journals and newsletters.