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A large swath of literature on the civil rights movement exists in the United States. Much of that literature focuses on the dramatic events of the African American resistance to Jim Crow and oppression from the mid 1950s through the early 1970s. Frequently, this material is scholarly and, at best, only marginally accessible to the general public. Moreover, many of the books on the modern civil rights movement focus exclusively on a narrow historical time frame and often on widely recognized public figures like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King.

Civil Rights For Beginners fills a major gap by placing the modern civil rights movement into a broader historical perspective. It also discusses the civil rights and liberation movements from the 60s to the present that the African American freedom struggles helped to catalyze including the Chicano Movement, the American Indian Movement, the Asian-American Movement, the Women's Movement, and the Gay Liberation Movement.

Unlike most civil rights books, Civil Rights For Beginners focuses less on major leaders and more on the ordinary African Americans who provided the backbone of the successful protests and demonstrations. Moreover, it deals with the expressive culture of the movement, surveying key developments in literature, music, visual art, and film, all of which served both as integral features of the movement as well as contributing to its enduring legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781934389898
Publisher: For Beginners
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Series: For Beginners
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 786,517
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Paul Von Blum is Senior Lecturer in African American Studies and Communication Studies at UCLA. He has taught at the University of California since 1968, serving 11 years at UC Berkeley before arriving at UCLA in 1980. He is the author of six books and numerous articles on art, culture, education, and politics. His most recent book is A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision, his 2011 memoir that chronicles almost 50 years of political activism, starting with his civil rights work in the South and elsewhere in the early 1960s. Paul lives in Los Angeles, CA. Visit him at

Frank Reynoso is a Brooklyn-based writer, cartoonist, and illustrator. His comics have appeared in BRKLYNR, Mint, World War 3 Illustrated, and Occupy Comics, and he's done illustrations for For Beginners Books, The Physics of the Impossible on the Science channel, and Mayfair Games. Visit him at

Read an Excerpt

Civil Rights

For Beginners

By PAUL VON BLUM, Frank Reynoso

Red Wheel

Copyright © 2016 Paul Von Blum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-934389-90-4



"No human history is rootless, and we see the fullest meaning of the post–1945 events only as we dig deeper. Such probing work could take us back to the coast of Africa, to the earliest liberation struggles on the prison slave ships, and could open up the long, unbroken history of black resistance ..."

Vincent Harding, We The People: The Long Journey Toward A More Perfect Union in EYES ON THE PRIZE CIVIL RIGHTS READER, 1991

Virtually all Americans and billions of people throughout the world know something about the American civil rights movement, often correctly viewing it as one of the most important political and moral crusades of the 20 century. The movement has entered even the most conventional U.S. history texts and is widely celebrated throughout educational, media, and political institutions in America and elsewhere. In the United States, the major highlights and figures of the civil rights movement are celebrated during African American History Month each February, with television specials, school pageants, public lectures and speeches, governmental resolutions, and a wide variety of special events throughout the nation.

Over the years, moreover, a vast civil rights literature has been created, much of it focusing on the dramatic events of African American resistance to oppression and segregation from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. Some of this material, however, is scholarly and only marginally accessible to the general public. Moreover, many of the more accessible works focus predominately or even exclusively on this narrow historical timeframe and on widely recognized public figures like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Parks and King are iconic figures whose courage and international fame are well earned and entirely justified. But both of these majestic figures would be among the first to proclaim that they stood on the shoulders of thousands who came before them — including countless anonymous women, men, and children who put their bodies, and sometimes their lives, on the line to free their people from slavery, Jim Crow, and more subtle forms of racism. A deeper, more comprehensive history of the civil rights struggles should equally include the lesser-known stories of black liberation struggles and incorporate the efforts of the ordinary people without whom such leaders as Dr. King and others would never have emerged.

The history of the civil rights movement has a continuing vitality in the early 21 century. Its focus on racism still affecting the African American community constitutes an intrinsic feature of a broader vision of modern civil rights history. Its profound impact on other liberation movements it helped to catalyze, including the Chicano Movement, the Asian American Movement, the American Indian Movement, the Women's Movement, and the Gay Liberation Movement, is likewise a crucial part of that history. And the expressive cultural expressions emerging from the political struggles, including powerful developments in literature, music, visual art, and film, also deserve serious attention as part of a broader history of the civil rights movement in America.

The Black Holocaust, from the start of the European slave trade before 1500 to the 19 century, killed millions of African human beings and was a human tragedy of colossal magnitude. Even today, this grotesque historical reality often remains underreported beyond simplistic notions of "the slave trade." Many Americans, including high school and university students, learn about Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and American slave traders who captured Africans of both genders and all ages and treated them as mere cargo, to be transported to the New World as cheaply and efficiently as possible. They also learn that these millions of people were treated barbarously and held as mere property, to be used and abused as labor in developing capitalist societies.

Less well known is the story of resistance in Africa. Many natives, understandably determined to avoid capture, torture, and enslavement, fought their oppressors as soon as the "trade" in human beings began. Many Africans on shore attacked slavers' ships while those already in captivity sometimes revolted against their captors, including at such infamous locales as the Goree Island Slave House (in contemporary Senegal). Even after being driven in chains and with whips from their African homelands, many captured people overcame major difficulties and organized revolts on the slave ships to the Americas. Slavers and their crews responded with larger forces, heavier and more lethal weapons, and even greater brutality and terror.

The 1839 revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad is probably the most famous example. Sengbe Pieh, known later as Joseph Cinque, led his fellow 53 African captives being transported from Havana against their captors. After gaining control of the ship and armed with machetes, the rebels killed the captain and the cook and ordered the ship returned to Africa. The U.S. Navy captured the Amistad and jailed the African rebels in New Haven, Connecticut, charging them with murder. Abolitionists in the United States rose to their defense, and former President John Quincy Adams defended them in court. The black rebels eventually prevailed and the following year returned to Africa.

Steven Spielberg's 1997 film Amistad dramatized the events, allowing this early slave ship rebellion to enter American popular culture.

All these resistance activities represent the early origins of the modern civil rights movement. In the truest sense, the civil rights movement began the moment the first Africans resisted the attempt at their capture and enslavement. A fuller glimpse into slave rebellions, in fact, is a valuable foundation for a deeper understanding of the spirit of resistance that motivated the hundreds of thousands of people, predominately but not exclusively African American, who took to the streets, commercial establishments, legislative bodies, and courts of America and finally brought a reluctant nation to an understanding of its brutal, racist past. That understanding must also extend to its continuing legacy into the present.


Human beings crave freedom. Despite the thoroughly racist view that slavery delivered African natives from barbarism to Christian "civilization," the involuntary immigrants who were forced to labor long hours and were regularly beaten and sold as chattel property hated the oppressive conditions into which they have been forced. Thousands of slaves engaged in small individual acts of resistance that provided modest emotional relief and solace in the absence of structural change in their conditions. They worked more slowly in fields and houses than their masters wished; they damaged tools and engaged in minor acts of sabotage; they met secretly and practiced their African religions and spoke their African languages; they produced arts and crafts that indicated their zeal for liberty; and they spoke among themselves of their contempt for their white oppressors in much the same way that their descendants in the South during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s spoke disparagingly about their white overseers and employers even while maintaining a surface servility in their presence. All of that reflects the underlying attitudes that formed the roots of the modern civil rights movement of the late 1950s onward.

In addition, opposition to slavery took the form of individual and group escapes from bondage to freedom in the North or to Canada. From single departures to organized mass escapes through the Underground Railroad, these activities also reflected the resistance spirit that has always motivated African American freedom struggles.

Iconic figures including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, after they themselves fled from bondage, became major leaders in the abolitionist movement that played such a major role in the ultimate ending of America's most shameful historical chapter.

Yet the leading expression of black resistance to oppression in the United States was organized slave rebellions, and those efforts should be viewed as the chief early antecedents of later 19 century and 20 century civil rights activities. American slavery was always characterized by violence, mostly by white masters against their captives. This intolerable arrangement generated fierce opposition, often resulting in counter-violence directed against the oppressors.

Historians have documented slave rebellions for many decades. A classic 1943 work by radical historian Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, documented approximately 250 slave revolts from the 1600s to the end of the Civil War. Other historians dispute his figures, asserting that some were minor incidents that were swiftly suppressed. The ultimate number and the specific gravity of the rebellions, however, are far less significant than the underlying spirit of resistance that the slaves revealed in captivity. Aptheker's work was a major catalyst for scholars seeking to understand history from the vantage point of the oppressed rather than from that of the oppressors.

The most widely recounted slave revolts in U.S. history are the Denmark Vesey uprising in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822 and the Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Vesey was a free black man who despised the institution of slavery, with all its attendant cruelty and viciousness. He incited an insurrection, calling on slaves to rise up and liberate the city. Two slaves betrayed Vesey and his confederates, leaking the plot to authorities. Vesey was arrested along with numerous others. In the end, he was convicted and hanged along with 34 others.

Nat Turner, a deeply religious opponent of slavery, organized his rebellion after receiving what he believed was a divine signal. Following his apocalyptic vision, Turner began his mission by gathering supporters, who went from house to house in August 1831, killing the whites they encountered during the insurrection. Approximately 60 whites were killed before heavily armed white militias defeated Turner and his supporters, who had been equipped with knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments. The militiamen killed 100 or more blacks, and another 56 of the insurgents were captured and executed. Violence against blacks continued well after the rebellion had been defeated. Turner avoided capture until October 30 and, after his arrest, was swiftly tried, sentenced to death, and hanged on November 11, 1831.

In the aftermath of the Turner rebellion, Virginia passed restrictive laws making it even more difficult for slaves to practice religion or to learn to read. Upon execution, Nat Turner became a legendary if controversial figure in U.S. history. In many segments of the African American community, his legacy is regarded as heroic, reflecting the actions of a man who refused to submit to illegitimate power. He is widely regarded as a symbol of militant resistance, a vision that has permeated American civil rights activities since the inception of the American colonies.

Lesser-known slave revolts began long before the formal declaration of U.S. independence in 1776. An early example was the New York slave revolt of 1712, in which several black captives set fire to a building in the city. When white colonists attempted to put out the blaze, the rebels attacked them with guns, hatchets, and knives, killing nine and wounding several others. Twenty-seven slaves were condemned to death in court, and twenty-one were actually executed. Among these were several who were burned alive and one who was broken on the wheel, an especially barbaric punishment involving bludgeoning to death that originated in Europe during the Middle Ages.

A revolt in Louisiana in 1811, also known as the German Coast Uprising, is a key example of a major rebellion that is typically overlooked in conventional U.S. historical narratives. A small army of enslaved men, upwards of 200 or more participants who spoke different languages and who lived on different plantations, mounted a revolt on January 8, 1811, after many months of secret planning. They marched from sugar plantations on the German Coast (located on the east banks of the Mississippi River) toward New Orleans, collecting more men as they progressed. Along the way they burned plantation houses and crops and, armed only with hand tools, killed two white planters while sparing women and children.

But they failed in the dream of establishing a black republic on the shores of the Mississippi River. As ever, white landowners had superior firepower, and territorial officials formed militias to hunt, kill, and capture the black rebels. The results were familiar and brutal: forty-four slaves were tried, convicted, and executed for their role in the uprising. In an especially grisly aftermath, some of their heads were put on spikes and displayed at plantations, presumably to deter other slaves from any form of disobedience.

All of these rebellions, however underreported or insufficiently appreciated, are vital links in the broader origins of modern civil rights activities. Above all, these rebellion showed that African Americans were active participants in the process of liberating themselves — not mere passive observers waiting for a superior or supernatural force to bring them freedom and justice.


In 1964, at the height of the modern civil rights movement, historian Howard Zinn wrote a book about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that he titled SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Zinn understood intimately the close links between the modern movement and its abolitionist predecessors. The abolitionists and their movements are richly represented in historical and media accounts. The crusade against slavery was never a unified, organized movement and encompassed an extremely large array of organizations with different ideologies and individuals of different races and personalities from the 18 century to the Civil War. From religious groups like the Quakers to political antislavery groups to major African American figures like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, and Harriet Tubman, these disparate groups and individuals helped end the horrific institution of slavery through their cumulative efforts over decades.

The specific actions and attitudes of black abolitionists and their white colleagues and supporters strengthened the foundation established by slave revolts. A key element was the militant vision of these people — a vision that pervaded anti-racist protests throughout the 19 and 20centuries and that had a profound resonance in the modern civil rights movement, as Professor Zinn revealed in his book. David Walker, an aggressive black abolitionist, for example, published Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829, which advocated black unity and inspired such others as Frederick Douglass to continue the struggle. This radical publication called for slaves to revolt against their masters and was uncompromising in its tone and content. Walker's spirit and passion continued on with subsequent African American resistance figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and many others.

Escaped slave Frederick Douglass, of course, is one of the iconic Americans of the 19 century. His life, political activities, and oratorical, journalistic, and literary accomplishments have been comprehensively treated, and most Americans have at least a modest acquaintance with his stature and significance. His 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is a compelling view of slavery's barbarism and the spirit of resistance that pervaded Douglass's life and work. Of the many features of this remarkable book, Douglass's encounter as a teenager with Edward Covey, a "slavebreaker," is especially revealing. After numerous beatings by Covey, the young Douglass fought back, eventually prevailing. The result was that Covey never assaulted him again.

Douglass transformed his vigorous resistance against individual brutality, with its enduring implications for personal dignity and worth, into an entire career of fighting for the oppressed. The same perspective permeated the modern civil rights movements, including Black Power efforts that insisted on the legitimate right of African Americans to self-defense. His abolitionist efforts, encompassing that deeper vision, make Frederick Douglass one of the major figures of African American civil rights history.

Harriet Tubman, too, belongs in that select category, reinforcing the historic contributions of black women to the liberation of their people. Like her abolitionist colleague and ally Douglass, Tubman is also well represented in traditional historical accounts in the United States. A former slave who endured savage beatings as a child, she escaped in 1849 and subsequently became a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. Most dramatically (and effectively), Tubman returned to the South 19 times or more to lead slaves from bondage to freedom, often across the border to Canada. During the Civil War, she served as a spy, scout, and nurse, augmenting her record as a fierce resistance fighter for people of African descent. Her legacy inspired thousands in the 20 century and beyond to join the continuing efforts for freedom and justice.


Excerpted from Civil Rights by PAUL VON BLUM, Frank Reynoso. Copyright © 2016 Paul Von Blum. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel.
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.

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