The Jim Crow laws – a brief summary

The Jim Crow Laws were created in 1876 simply to segregate black people from the white population. Some English Dictionaries define ‘Jim Crow’ as the name for an implement that can straighten or bend iron rails; or, along with ‘Jim Crowism’, systems or practices of racial discrimination or segregation.  The American English Dictionary suggests that the name only emerged in dictionaries in 1904, but it was clearly used generally in 1876, at least.


The origin of Jim Crow goes back to the 1820s and is credited to a song-and-dance man, Thomas Dartmouth ‘Daddy’ Rice.  He implied that he had seen a limping black slave singing the following verse:

‘Come listen all you galls and boys

I’m going to sing a song

My names is Jim Crow

Weel about and turn around and do jis so,

Eb’ry time I weel about and jump Jim Crow.’

Jim CrowIn 1828 Rice was the first man to blacken his face, dress as a plantation slave and perform such a routine, using his own compositions.  As he gained fame he expanded his repertoire and gradually penned forty-four verses, most of them extremely insensitive.  Indeed, his mockery of black people grew to the extent that his derogatory Jim Crow verses helped deepen the gulf between black and white communities.  In 1838, the Southern States passed various laws of racial segregation, focused against the black sectors.  By the turn of the century those laws were called the Jim Crow laws, both north and south.

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Ralph Abernathy – a brief summary

Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, a grandson of a slave, became a highly respected pioneer who, alongside Martin Luther King, strove for civil rights for African Americans.

Early Years

Ralph AbernathyAbernathy was born on 11 March 1926 in Linden Alabama.  He was one of William L. Abernathy’s twelve children and the family lived on his 500-acre farm.  Well respected, William was the first black man to serve on a grand jury in his county. Ralph attended the Linden Academy, a Baptist school founded by the first Mount Pleasant District Association.  Whilst there he led his first demonstration – protesting against the dire state of the college’s science lab.

Encountering Racism

During World War Two, Ralph Abernathy enlisted in the army. Before the war he had not been aware of the blatant and widespread hostility towards black people and was stunned by the strict black and white segregation. Despite the disadvantage of his skin colour he achieved the rank of Platoon Sergeant; but a bout of rheumatic fever finished his army career. He was given an honourable discharge and a flight back to America.

Higher Education

After the war, Abernathy enrolled at the Alabama State University; where he gained a Science Degree in Mathematics (with honours). Also, he earned a Master of Science Degree in Sociology while building the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King, Jr.  His thesis, The Natural History of a Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association, was later published in book form entitled The Walking City-the Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956.  During his studies Abernathy joined the ministry, delivering his first sermon on Mother’s Day, 1948.

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The Montgomery Bus Boycott – a summary

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American seamstress, seated in a segregated bus, refused to give up her seat to a white man. It sparked the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott and resulted in an early and significant victory for the Civil Rights movement. It brought to national attention a 26-year-old recently appointed Baptist reverend by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Three years earlier, in 1952, the US Supreme Court declared that segregation on interstate railways was unconstitutional, and, two years later, also outlawed segregation on interstate buses. However, the practice was not barred on state-run bus services and persisted in many southern states.

Whites Only

White people entered the bus from the front, black people from the back. If the bus was full, and another white person boarded, then a black person was expected to give up their seat. Martin Luther King described the situation: ‘Negroes (were forced) to stand over empty seats reserved for “whites only”. Even if the bus had no white passengers, and Negroes were packed throughout, they were prohibited from sitting in the front seats.’ Continue reading

Bert Williams – Funny Man

Egbert Austin Williams, who was known as “Bert Williams,” was born on November 12, 1874, and died March 4 1922. He was one of the most well-known entertainers of the Vaudeville era, and made a name for himself as one of the most popular comedians of the time.

One of Williams’s most noteworthy achievements was that he was the best-selling black recording artist before the year 1920. The New York Dramatic Mirror dubbed Williams, “one of the best comedians of the world.”

During his lifetime, Bert Williams played a key role in African American entertainment. Racial inequality was a fact of life and stereotyping was still commonplace in America. That didn’t stop Williams from becoming the first black American entertainer to step into a leading role on Broadway. He was not content with the status quo, and would go on to push back the number of racial barriers during his career. Comedian W.C. Fields once described Bert Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”

Early Life

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Oliver Tambo – a summary

Oliver Tambo was born on 27 October 1917 in the Eastern Cape where he attended primary school. He completed his high school education in Johannesburg and went on to study at Fort Hare University where he obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in 1941. As a result of joining a student boycott he was expelled and was unable to complete his honours degree.

Programme of Action

Oliver TamboOliver Tambo returned to his high school in Johannesburg as a teacher of science and mathematics and joined the African National Congress (ANC) becoming a founding member of the ANC Youth League. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others advocated a spirit of militancy in the ANC, and in 1948 he and Sisulu were elected onto the National Executive Committee of the ANC. This position allowed Tambo to impart impetus to the Youth League’s agenda at the top level of the ANC’s senior body. Tambo served on the committee that drew up the Programme of Action which was adopted as ANC policy in 1949. The Programme of Action included civil disobedience, strikes and other forms of non-violent resistance.

Soon after the adoption of the Programme of Action Tambo left his teaching post and set up a legal partnership with Nelson Mandela, forming the first black law firm in the country.

Campaign of Defiance

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Sweatt v Painter

The Sweatt v Painter case of 1950 is an important but often overlooked landmark in the progress of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, writes Angelita Williams.

Sweatt v Painter

In February 1946, Heman Sweatt, a young African-American mail carrier, applied for admission to the University of Texas’ School of Law. Upon reviewing the young man’s application, the school refused admission on the grounds that Texas schools prohibited integrated education. Despite the fact that much of the nation already embraced integration, states in the Deep South – including Texas and Alabama – had resisted integration. Using the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, states were allowed to resist racial integration as long as the separate facilities they created for African Americans were of – you guessed it – equal condition.

Sweatt and his lawyer Thurgood Marshall challenged the UT School of Law in 1950, saying that the law school UT considered equal to theirs – the Texas State University for Negroes – was in no shape or form equal to the University of Texas’ School of Law, given that the UT Law School had 16 full-time professors and the Texas State University for Negroes only had 5 full-time professors; the UT Law School had 850 students and a 65,000-volume law library, while the Texas State University for Negroes only had 23 students and a 16,500-volume library; and the University of Texas Law School had many graduates working in public and private law practice, while the Texas State University for Negroes only had one graduate admitted to the Texas Bar Association.

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Malcolm X’s Influence on the Black Panther Party’s Philosophy

The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, was based on ideas such as black nationalism and a staunch belief in the necessity of violence and armed self-defence in order to obtain freedom from white oppression – ideas which are strongly associated with Malcolm X’s life work.

Following Malcolm X‘s assassination in 1965, it has been suggested by some historians that the Black Panther Party used his philosophy of gaining freedom “by any means necessary” both as a justification of their methods and as a means of inspiring other African Americans to join their cause. Although Huey Newton later stressed in his autobiography a belief that the party had not done things the way that Malcolm X would have done them had he lived beyond 1965, the fact that Malcolm X had a huge influence on the philosophy of the party is virtually indisputable.

Bobby Seale

It is also clear is that Malcolm X had a strong influence on the individual, personal philosophies of key Black Panther members, especially the two founding members. Both Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were drawn in by Malcolm’s speeches and agreed with many of the revolutionary ideas he expressed within them. Bobby Seale wrote about listening to Malcolm X’s speeches, proclaiming him to be “a better speaker than even Martin Luther King.” He went on to name his son Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, later explaining “Malik” was “for Malcolm X”. After Malcolm’s death, Seale wrote that he “cried like a baby” and announced soon afterwards: “I will make my own self into a motherf**king Malcolm X…they’ll have to kill me!” In the process, Seale made clear the extent to which Malcolm X had influenced his beliefs.

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John Brown and the Raid on the Harpers Ferry Armoury

John Brown, the radical abolitionist, ensured his place in US history when on 16 October 1859 he led a group of 21 men on a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The raid failed and Brown, wounded, was tried, convicted and hanged. But by his action, John Brown deepened further still the chasm between the anti and pro-slavery camps and by his death became a martyr for the abolitionist cause.

Pottawatomie Massacre

Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal was not his first. During a spell in Kansas, Brown was involved in more than one attack on pro-slavery supporters. After a group of pro-slavery supporters attacked the anti-slavery town of Lawrence in Kansas, Brown, who believed it was his divine mission to extract revenge, retaliated and led a nighttime attack on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on 24/25 May 1856.  Among his group of seven men were four of his sons and one son-in-law.  Three pro-slavery supporters were dragged from their homes and hacked to death.  Two more were killed before the sun rose.  Brown escaped the pursuing peace-keeping troops of the US Army.

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Harriet Tubman – a summary

As the concept of banning slavery within the United States grew, so did the number of people who were willing to risk their safety and security to help runaway slaves.  One such person was Harriet Tubman. Here, Kat Smutz summarizes her life.

Harriet Tubman was a fugitive slave with a high price on her head in the American South.  Born Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman, the eleventh child, was often called Minty. Harriet was a name she chose for herself as an adult.

“I felt like I was in heaven”

In 1844, aged about 25, Harriet sought permission from her owners to marry. She married John Tubman, a freeman, and lived with him in his cabin, but was obliged to continue working for her master. She once confided in her husband her dreams of running away and obtaining freedom. John Tubman threatened to denounce her if she ever tried it.

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W. E. B. Du Bois – a summary

Born 23 February 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was perhaps the most influential African American leader of the first half of the twentieth century. The first black graduate from Harvard, W.E.B. Du Bois believed in protest and activism to advance the rights and conditions of African Americans.

WEB Du BoisHis views were in stark contrast to his fellow campaigner, Booker T Washington, who believed that through education and hard work, blacks could eventually win the respect of whites and thus gain greater equality. Du Bois became increasingly critical of what he considered Booker T Washington’s accommodating approach to racial integration, believing that Washington’s approach undermined the black person’s status in society. Instead, Du Bois believed in a more proactive approach, and strove to achieve greater political representation for blacks. He believed education should do more than merely teach vocational trades; it should teach black people how to live assertively, fighting for equality and to be demanding of their civil rights.

Du Bois was also critical of fellow black campaigner, Marcus Garvey. ‘Without doubt,’ wrote Du Bois of the flamboyant Garvey, ‘he is the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.’


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