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Post-war race relations

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Civil Rights after 1945

After the end of World War II, black Americans' protests at the discrimination they faced on a daily basis increased. The Civil Rights movement owed its beginnings to several factors.

During the war, black Americans had served in segregated units in the US army. They had been told they were fighting for freedom, human rights and democracy. Yet, these ideas did not seem to apply to them, particularly if they lived in the Southern states. Black Americans were now more ready to ask why they did not share these rights.

Furthermore, the end of World War II signalled the start of the Cold War. The USA now saw itself as leading a world struggle against the spread of Soviet-backed Communism. As part of this struggle, the USA tried to demonstrate the superiority of its way of life compared to the Communist alternative. This meant that, increasingly, it was no longer possible for the federal government to ignore the racism endemic in the Southern states. If all people were held to have been born equal, then that meant black men as well white men.

For the first time, the federal Government was prepared to address some of the inequalities that black Americans suffered.

Also, a new generation of black leaders had emerged. Foremost among these, was a southern Baptist preacher called Martin Luther King. King and his supporters formed a new organisation - the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They adopted new methods and tactics in the struggle for equality, and found considerable success in doing so.

King had been impressed at the success of Mahatma Ghandi's fight against British oppression in India by using non-violent protest and civil disobedience. King decided to follow Ghandi's example. In doing so he gained widespread support from black Americans, and even from many whites. King wisely realised that television could help increase awareness of the plight of black Americans and spread his message. For the first time, white Americans outside the South became fully aware of the racist treatment of black Americans.

Education - the first steps

In 1954, the Supreme Court made a historic ruling - it declared that the doctrine of 'separate but equal' racially segregated schools was unconstitutional. This meant an end to segregated schools. Across the South, white segregationists were furious. They made it clear that they would resist any attempts at racial integration.

In 1957, a crisis developed in the town of Little Rock, Arkansas, where the state governor tried to forbid nine black teenagers from entering the local high school. President Eisenhower eventually had to send troops to Little Rock so that the teenagers could attend school.

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