It could be argued that the struggle for Civil Rights stretches all the way back to the shadows of 1619 when the trans-Atlantic slave trade began its genocidal journey across the ocean. Even as colonizers undertook the systematic ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples in order to seize more land for enslaved people to cultivate, there was always resistance, bravery, and perseverance in the face of impossible struggle.
(Image from Unsplash)
While many of their names, faces, and stories were erased by a colonial history that only saw them as a footnote to an overarching, glorious narrative told by the conquerors, their irrepressible song of struggle echoes through the generations, demanding acknowledgment.
The paradox of enslavement, forged into a constitution that aspired to the loftiest of ideals, like any great flaw eventually shattered the United States into warring factions. In the aftermath of the Civil War, while the Union prevailed militarily, a civilization founded on the enslavement of others was not easily reformed. As soon as the soldiers in charge of the reconstructed South left, circumstances reverted to a society strictly divided along racial lines, and enforced by violence. The “Jim Crow” era began in 1877 and lasted until the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed by congress and then signed into law by Lyndon Johnson.
The Library of Congress prepared a video "The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom", outlining the background of the passage of the Civil Rights Bill.
It is important to note that the passage of the Civil Rights Bill merely ushered in a new era of struggle, one filled with hope that things could foundationally change for the better, but one nonetheless still struggling to untangle the residual impacts of centuries of oppression baked into institutions, systems, and generational wealth.
It is also important to acknowledge the intersectional nature of this struggle for equality. Along the way, Indigenous voices, Asian-American voices, Chicano and Latin American voices, LGBTQ voices, and many others joined in the chorus demanding change. Black women, in particular, fought for equality on two fronts, as they fought for women’s rights concurrently with civil rights on the basis of race.
The Library of Congress has compiled an excellent Timeline of the Civil Rights Era, found here.
As you read through the timeline, we encourage you to click on the "View objects from this time period" to learn more about specific events included on the timeline and to concentrate your time on learning about people and events that are unfamiliar to you. Perhaps take some time to read Invisible Man, A Raisin in the Sun, or The Fire Next Time. Or watch interviews of civil rights activists.
On the multimedia section of the Library of Congress website, you can listen to the words of formerly enslaved persons testify to their experiences, listen to important speeches and biographies, among other moving historical interviews and explanations.
We encourage you to look through the additional timelines the Library of Congress has prepared about the fight for Civil Rights, including the Segregation Era timeline, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 timeline, and more. Pay close attention to the events outlined in each timeline as well as the aftermath.
We who live now have no control over the past, only a responsibility to learn as much as we can about the people and events that preceded us so that we are equipped in the best possible way to create a more equitable present and future, which are in our direct stewardship.
We cannot bury our heads, blindly ignoring everything that transpired before us, hoping that the “dead past will bury its dead.” If we do nothing, we are tacitly conspiring with the mistakes of our forefathers, and that is on us.
We hope you will join us as we keep learning, and as we learn better, that we will do better.