History Essay

How far was the Ku Klux Klan responsible for the lack of progress towards civil rights for black Americans in the years up to 1941?

In the years leading up to the 1860s, the majority of black people in America were slaves. President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the 1860s, however, by the next century segregation and discrimination had been enforced to block black Americans from civil rights in the southern states in particular. A lot of obstacles were faced by black Americans, stopping them from gaining civil rights up to 1941. A huge obstacle in the way of civil rights was the Ku Klux Klan, an intimidating and influential organisation interested in nothing less than white supremacy and ensuring that anybody that was different to the WASP way of life was inferior to them. There were other reasons, however, including the popular prejudice of Americans, legal impediments, the Supreme Court's Separate but Equal decision of 1896, a lack of political influence and divisions within the civil rights movement and black community.

The Ku Klux Klan (or KKK) were important in the lack of progress of Black Civil Rights. Founded in the 1860s, they terrorised anyone who weren't WASPs, specifically black people. They still saw black people as slaves and therefore inferior to them, which was important because according to a boy in 1924, Robert Coughlan, "Half of the town belonged to the Klan when I was a boy. Most of the police were members." This shows that the Klan were influential, with members in the justice system and positions of political power, which meant they could easily stop any laws from being passed that may help black Americans to gain Civil Rights. Anybody else who tried to help would get the same treatment, which discouraged them from helping black Americans from gaining Civil Rights.

Another reason for the lack of progress towards Civil Rights for Black Americans was the popular prejudice and racist attitudes of Americans in general. The group of people most well known for their racist attitudes were the WASPs, though the Northern states became more and more racist as black Americans migrated north. This is because they felt black people were stealing jobs; they would take whatever work they could get, no matter how ill-payed. This meant Americans gradually became more and more angry and therefore racist, in the hopes of driving them out. However, racism in the North did not equate to any less racism in the South. In fact, the South especially didn't believe in equality, let alone civil rights. These beliefs were passed down through generations from the years and years of slavery before the slaves were freed. This shows that white people, after decades of owning the lives of black people, honestly believed they were superior to black Americans, so didn't think they deserved to have equal rights to them.

Legal impediments were another reason for the lack of progress towards Civil Rights. Jim Crow laws in particular, were designed to maintain white superiority, and they were considered to be completely legal. White people were used to being in charge, so they imposed these laws, some of which were ridiculous, for example, the segregated baths of Oklahoma within the same building, and the more common rule of separate schools. As these laws were designed to keep black Americans from having the same things as white Americans, people began to think that maybe they WERE different. This caused a lack of progress in that once they began to see themselves as different, they began to wonder if they were really the same, and therefore whether or not they should have the same rights.

The 1896 Separate but Equal decision essentially meant that segregation was fine as long as equal facilities were provided. When challenged, the Supreme Court said "Laws which keep the races apart do not mean that one race is better or worse than the other," which encouraged the Jim Crow laws by saying each state could create it's own laws, providing they kept the races equal. Segregation became accepted nationwide, a respectable alternative to allowing Civil Rights. After Separate but Equal, there was little hope for Civil Rights in the eyes of black Americans, as it simply meant the Jim Crow laws were legal, and backed up by physical force.

Another impediment in the gaining of Civil Rights for black Americans was the distinct lack of federal support and political influence. The politicians had little interest in civil rights, as it would merely annoy the majority voters and lose them power, as so few black people could vote. This lack of black voters meant they found it extremely difficult to get supporters, black or white in positions of power. In the 1930s, Roosevelt refused to support anti-lynching laws for the reason that any help he gave to black Americans would lose him white support; the reason he gave for not supporting Civil Rights.

The splitting of black Civil Rights organisations was another reason for the lack of Civil Rights. After the 1896 Separate but Equal decision, a number of organisations formed with the goal of improving the lives of black Americans and fighting against segregation. However, their leaders and organisations split and argued over the method with which to gain Civil Rights, which ironically hindered the progress with which they gained these rights. Historian Vivienne Sanders highlighted that these splits were not only in organisations, but in the communities; "The black community was divided: ex-slaves resented free-born blacks who saw themselves as superior." These divisions in social class, colour and careers developed and it became impossible for Black Americans to unite and fight against segregation for the rights they all knew they deserved.

To conclude, there are many reasons for the lack of progress towards civil rights for Black Americans before 1941. The Ku Klux Klan was mainly responsible for this, however, as their terror-tactics scared black Americans into refusing to come forward and try to change things. There were other reasons, including racist attitudes, legal impediments, the Separate but Equal decision by the Supreme Court, the lack of political influence and the splitting of organisations were also influential in the hindering of Civil Rights. However, the sheer impact of the KKK on history and people's lives has caused them to be by far the most memorable reason for the lack of progress towards black Civil Rights in America.