We often use our blog to highlight materials on our website or in our collections. It has been several years since we have highlighted our commemorative observances pages. As 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, it seems particularly timely to highlight the page for African American History month. I thought it would be interesting to look at the actions which helped establish African American History month and link them to events in the Library of Congress exhibit, The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.
As the African American History month page notes, this month had its origins in 1915 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. In February 1926 Dr. Woodson established the first Negro History Week. As the Civil Rights Exhibit notes, this was during a time period when segregation was becoming more deeply entrenched in our society and Jim Crow laws were in force to prevent African Americans from voting. At the same time, various activist associations for African Americans were being established. The Niagara Movement came into being in 1905, while the National Urban League was established in 1910, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed in 1915. These organizations worked to fight discrimination in employment, voter disfranchisement, and various forms of segregation. Then in the 1920s there was the New Negro Movement which reflected new self-confidence of African Americans who had moved to the industrial cities in the previous decade for work. Though they still faced discrimination and segregation, voting was easier for African Americans in the northern industrial cities.
During the 1930s, Africans Americans suffered along with the rest of the country in the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies provided federal aid, but it was not until the early 1940s that progress was made on racially biased employment practices. In the fall of 1940 Roosevelt had met with A. Philip Randolph who was the president of the Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph left the meeting with assurances that Roosevelt would look into discriminatory employment practices as well as the desegregation of the armed forces. When nothing happened, Randolph undertook to organize a massive march on Washington. Randolph called off the march in exchange for Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 which prohibited discrimination in the defense industry.
Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, African Americans continued to struggle for equality. During World War II African Americans struggled to end segregation in the armed forces, finally achieving victory during President Truman’s administration when in 1948 he issued Executive Order 9981 desegregating the military. The 1950s and 1960s were decades of significant struggle in the fight for civil rights with major achievements such as Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott while at the same time, civil rights legislation was repeatedly filibustered in the U.S. Senate by a group of southern Senators. The Civil Rights exhibit covers many of the key events and persons of these decades which culminated in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In the decades following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, presidents and Congress have come to formally recognize and lift the achievements and struggles of African Americans through the promulgation of messages, proclamations, and laws culminating in the establishment of African American History Month through Public Law 99-244 which directed the president to issue an annual proclamation reminding us to observe and commemorate this month. President Obama’s 2014 Proclamation 9080 provided a succinct and moving summary of the challenges and achievements of this struggle:
As we pay tribute to the heroes, sung and unsung, of African-American history, we recall the inner strength that sustained millions in bondage. We remember the courage that led activists to defy lynch mobs and register their neighbors to vote. And we carry forward the unyielding hope that guided a movement as it bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Even while we seek to dull the scars of slavery and legalized discrimination, we hold fast to the values gained through centuries of trial and suffering.