Black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement in the West

Black Americans and the Civil Rights Movement in the West

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ISBN-13: 9780806163482
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/14/2019
Series: Race and Culture in the American West Series , #16
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 322
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Bruce A. Glasrud, Professor Emeritus at California State University, East Bay, and retired Arts and Sciences Dean, Sul Ross State University, is the author or editor of more than thirty books.
Cary D. Wintz is Distinguished Professor of History at Texas Southern University and the author or editor of fifteen books, including Texas: The Lone Star State.

Read an Excerpt


Freedom Struggle

An Introduction

Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz

From the 1940s to the 1970s, in an effort similar to that taking place in the rest of the nation as African Americans and their allies challenged oppression and discrimination, an African American civil rights movement emerged in the United States West. While such western efforts had occurred sporadically over the previous decades, segregation, unequal treatment, antiblack violence, and economic dislocation continued to thwart civil rights endeavors in the West. That was not all; overcrowded housing, residential discrimination, loss of employment opportunities, and segregated education further engaged western African American activists. Black aspirants joined civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the National Urban League (NUL). Western activists often established their own local branches of these alliances or formed new associations. With their cadre of local officials and activists, numerous among them women and black professionals, they sought rights and opportunities comparable to that of their white counterparts. Western blacks benefitted from judicial decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court as well as by congressional actions that furthered their communities' civil rights aims.

In 1954, for example, due in large measure to the values, influence, and political skills of a former Californian and westerner, Earl Warren, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's newly appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the court declared in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate schools for white and black students were "inherently unequal." That momentous decision, encouraged by courageous and determined westerners from Kansas, overturned years of constitutionally allowed race-based school segregation in the United States. Even though the succeeding year the court declared that implementation only needed to proceed "with all deliberate speed," enabling school districts to delay desegregating their schools for years, such delays were not typical of all the twenty affected states. In Kansas for example, implementation soon followed. In some respects school desegregation began what is now referred to as the modern civil rights movement, which continued through the 1970s. However, in the West, as in much of the rest of the nation, the movement for African American civil, political, and economic rights started earlier and continued later.

Overlooked in the numerous studies and works devoted to the civil rights movement is the fact that this movement for black rights took place in the western United States as assiduously as in the rest of the nation, and frequently civil rights protests and events in the West overshadowed those in the South and East. Perhaps Texas A&M University scholar Albert S. Broussard phrased the complex relationship of black westerners to the national picture most clearly when he wrote, "Like their counterparts in other parts of the nation, black westerners challenged hostile white attitudes and racial discrimination and exclusion by insisting that they, too, deserved to enjoy all of the rights and privileges of citizens under the United States Constitution." In fact, much of what happened in the West predated the southern experience; the multiracial context of the West, as well as its varied social and political venues, shaped different trajectories in the conflicted western states.

The term "modern civil rights movement" is used to refer to the African American struggle for equal rights with the white majority in the mid-twentieth century. While the chronological boundaries of this movement are somewhat flexible, its period of greatest activity was from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, and it encompassed the legal and political battles, as well as the mass action struggle for voting rights, desegregation, educational opportunity, and other issues that obstructed black participation in the economic area. Certainly, in many western locales the movement can trace its roots to earlier in the twentieth century, and elements extend into the late twentieth century. But the greatest activity and advances occurred in the decades at the middle of the century.

As Hasan Kwame Jeffries phrased it, albeit for the larger national story, the civil rights movement was "a diffuse collection of local struggles." The chronological parameters were not identical, but in each state the overall civil rights focus was similar. Recurring issues, such as segregation and desegregation, suffrage and political participation, racial violence, and equal opportunity, surfaced in each, alongside grassroots efforts and the emergence of black leadership. National and regional events, such as the desegregation of the armed forces, the Brown decision, civil disobedience and the sit-in movement, the civil rights acts, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became part of the story with their impact on communities in the West. Issues and events peculiar to each community and state in the region have been factors in the western civil rights movement. To some extent, protests and confrontations started in the West before the South or North. The civil rights effort in the West was not a trickle-down endeavor from the South or North. Rather, such activity frequently began in the West — for example, the sit-in movements. In the West, civil rights activities were more likely to involve interests other than black concerns, and they did not always follow a pattern. Black women emerged as leaders and activists in Seattle earlier than in the South; on the other hand, Seattle activists lagged. As one Seattleite noted, in 1963 "the Civil Rights movement finally had leaped the Cascade Mountains." These similarities and differences are part of the story.

The western civil rights movement, though lesser known and studied, was important not only to the West but also nationally in a number of ways, not the least of which was the important role of women. But other factors such as the early sit-in and direct protest actions, and the effects of 1965 and 1966 events on the national scene, contributed to the rise of the civil rights movement in the West. In 1965 Los Angeles experienced the unexpected, albeit significant, Watts Riot, and in 1966 the Black Panther Party emerged in Oakland; later that year US started in Los Angeles. (It should be noted for the record that despite numerous erroneous statements about the nomenclature of "US," the letters do not stand for united slaves, as the Black Panthers labeled them, but for "us" as opposed to "them.") These events turned the western civil rights strategy to a focus on Black Power as a means to accomplish their goals; those ideas and strategies also began to permeate the remainder of the nation.

At this point, perhaps we should make one caveat, or at least offer it for consideration. That is the fact that "civil rights" may be a somewhat misleading and inaccurate term for encompassing this entire body of western efforts to improve the lot of African Americans with many varied goals, approaches, localities, and difficulties. As Robin D. G. Kelley put it so well, the term civil rights "falls short of capturing the wide scope and vision of the post–World War II black freedom movement, not just in the North but throughout the country." As a result we use the phrase "civil rights" hesitantly but also purposefully, while acknowledging and reflecting on Kelley's observation. What one realizes is that the western civil rights efforts worked together with other protests — such as the Black Power movement — that fought for economic, social, educational, and even cultural privileges and necessities and encompassed the Struggle for Black Liberation, a phrase that was sometimes used by activists and scholars in depicting the overall civil rights revolution in the United States West.

As important as these movements for African American rights and freedoms were in the West, the work is not yet fully accomplished. But a valiant effort effected change and affected many individuals and groups. Even as we wrote, pivotal civil rights actions transpired in the cities and rural regions of the West; they also continue to impact the entire nation.


Before Brown in the West

Jean Van Delinder

In this essay, Oklahoma State University sociologist Jean Van Delinder explores the diverse groups that settled in the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For blacks in the West, as for many of the other groups, segregation was a way of life. Many African Americans — who typically made up a small segment of the population — resided in segregated communities that looked after each other. Due to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and other legal supports, blacks in the West pressured for equal rights through a variety of tactics, including an early use of sit-ins. Among Van Delinder's professional accomplishments is the exciting book Struggles Before Brown: Early Civil Rights Protests and Their Significance Today.

The modern national civil rights movement credits the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka as the beginning of organized protest against racial segregation. Dating the pursuit for civil rights to this period obscures western dissent that occurred prior to the 1950s. Referencing Brown also characterizes the civil rights movement as a conflict between the North and South, neglecting what was occurring in other regions, such as the West. The boundary in racial relations between the East and West is just as significant as that between the North and South. This chapter addresses the significance of pre-Brown protest in the West by examining regional variation in demonstrations and how protest was tempered by local customs or folkways.

The West is both an imaginary place and a geographical region, its boundaries ever changing as new states were created. The West captured people's imagination as a place where there was the potential to begin anew. When considering pre-Brown civil rights activism, the West is a sober reminder that racial discrimination was not just a southern problem, but a national one. As European settlers moved west, they brought white supremacist ideals along with their hopes and dreams. Nevertheless, the African American settlers found new ways to challenge racism and discrimination, eventually erasing the color line separating black from white.

Though the story of the modern civil rights movement focuses on challenges to legal and economic injustices suffered by African Americans, less obvious was their everyday lived reality, how their disenfranchisement included social practices based on prejudice and persistent beliefs about their social and moral inferiority. Black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois categorized racial segregation or "Jim Crow" as the "color line" — an imaginary boundary separating black from white. As an all-inclusive system of exclusion, it justified African Americans' economic, political, and social inequality. Du Bois also recognized that the boundaries of the color line were recreated through everyday social interaction, something that could be challenged, and that the racial meanings associated with those boundaries were dependent on agreement by both whites and blacks. Disrupting these agreed-upon understandings of racial separation was a gradual process, involving numerous challenges and negotiations.

As a region, the West challenges conventional understandings of race due to the presence of four nonwhite groups of color: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and American Indians. These diverse racial and ethnic groups interacted differently with the dominant Anglo population, just as they were often thrown into competition with each other for jobs, housing, and social status. Even though Asians were usually signaled out, especially Chinese and Japanese laborers on the West Coast, African Americans still had to contend with significant racial discrimination and prejudice. Though they were granted citizenship status after the Civil War, it did not give them much of an advantage over other western ethnic and racial minorities. Closer examination of the West helps illustrate how racial segregation and the civil rights movement were much more complex and nuanced outside the South, and how social change itself is incremental and hard to see even while it takes place before our eyes.

Preexisting Brown protests included a range of events. There was a series of boycotts against southern Jim Crow streetcars starting in 1900 and ending in 1906. Between 1929 and 1941, northern African Americans organized "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns, boycotting white restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, and other stores that refused to hire blacks. Embryonic mass-based protest tactics included the mass march planned for Washington in 1941 (the March on Washington movement), lunch-counter sit-ins staged by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality, which emerged from the earlier FOR — Fellowship of Reconciliation) that same year in Chicago, and the first Freedom Ride in 1947. These earlier manifestations of protest point to the presence of black resistance and an insurgent ideology outside the South long before the 1950s.

Race and Democracy

The pre-Brown era cannot be understood without coming to terms with the inherent contradiction between racism and democracy. If democratic societies are based on the premise that its citizens freely elect its leaders, membership in those societies are based on the political franchise or the right to vote. The granting of voting rights to African American males with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 gave them the legal status of citizenship, though without any of its protections. Some even argued that once they were emancipated, blacks no longer possessed a special dependent status they had while slaves and therefore no longer needed the protection of the federal government. During this period, through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means of intimidation, southern states, controlled by the Democratic Party, were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. Given that their rights of citizenship were not supported, it is not surprising that many blacks began migrating in significant numbers after 1870. They moved north and west, where their voting rights were somewhat protected by the Republican Party during Reconstruction. However, as Republicans gained new voters in the West from white immigration, black votes were not as necessary. Attempts to regain voting rights would provide one basis for group action in the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Racial Uplift in an Era of White Supremacy

Between 1880 and 1930, after the end of Reconstruction and before the beginning of the New Deal, the federal government sanctioned the emergence of a nationwide order of white supremacy. The racial dimensions of governmental policy sanctioned a tightening of racial segregation starting with the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, when the Supreme Court invalidated the 1875 Civil Rights Acts forbidding discrimination in public transportation. This decision was followed by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, further reinforcing the second-class status of African American citizens not only in public transportation but in all facets of community life. Even during Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1877, the racial order both inside and outside the South meant a marginalized status for African Americans — politically, economically, socially — enforced by a culture of anti-black violence.


Excerpted from "Black Americans and the Civil Right Movement in the West"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Maps,
Foreword by Quintard Taylor,
Part I: Prologue,
1. Freedom Struggle: An Introduction by Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz,
2. Before Brown in the West by Jean Van Delinder,
Part II: The Far West,
3. Civil Rights Movement in the Pacific Northwest by Kevin Allen Leonard,
4. The Struggle on Multiple Planes: California's Long Civil Rights Movement by Herbert G. Ruffin II,
5. Civil Rights Movement in Nevada by Elmer R. Rusco,
Part III: The Mountain States and the Desert Southwest,
6. Breaking Racial Barriers: Civil Rights Movements in Montana and Wyoming by Kenneth G. Robison,
7. The Modern Civil Rights Movement in Colorado by George H. Junne Jr.,
8. Civil Rights in Utah: The Mormon Way by J. Herschel Barnhill,
9. Blacks and Whites Together: Interracial Leadership in the Phoenix, Arizona, Civil Rights Movement by Mary S. Melcher,
10. The Modern Civil Rights Movement in New Mexico by George M. Cooper,
Part IV: The Upper Midwest,
11. Civil Rights in the Dakotas by Betti VanEpps-Taylor,
12. The Modern Civil Rights Movement in Iowa and Minnesota by Donald H. Strasser and Melodie Andrews,
13. Challenging the Color Line in Kansas and Nebraska: The Revolution at a Regional Nexus by James N. Leiker,
Part V: The South and the West Collide,
14. Conceived in Segregation and Dedicated to the Proposition That All Men Were Not Created Equal: Oklahoma, the Last Southern State by Paul Finkelman,
15. The Civil Rights Movement in Texas by Alwyn Barr,
Part VI: Epilogue,
16. Western Civil Rights since 1970 by Albert S. Broussard,
Selected Bibliography,

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