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An Outline of American History
Origins of the Civil Rights Movement
by U.S. Department of State


African Americans became increasingly restive in the postwar years. During the war they had challenged discrimination in the military services and in the work force, and they had made limited gains. Millions of blacks had left southern farms for northern cities, where they hoped to find better jobs. They found instead crowded conditions in urban slums. Now, black servicemen returned home, intent on rejecting second-class citizenship, as other blacks began to argue that the time was ripe for racial equality.

Jackie Robinson dramatized the racial question in 1947 when he broke baseball's color line and began playing in the major leagues. A member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he often faced trouble with opponents and teammates as well. But an outstanding first season led to his acceptance and eased the way for other black players, who now left the Negro leagues to which they had been confined.

Government officials, and many other Americans, discovered the connection between racial problems and Cold War politics. As the leader of the free world, the United States sought support in Africa and Asia. Discrimination at home impeded the effort to win friends in other parts of the world.

Harry Truman supported the civil rights movement. He believed in political equality, though not in social equality, and recognized the growing importance of the black urban vote. When apprised in 1946 of lynchings and other forms of mob violence still practiced in the South, he appointed a committee on civil rights to investigate discrimination based on race and religion. The report, issued the next year, documented blacks' second-class status in American life. It asserted the need for the federal government to secure the rights guaranteed to all citizens.

Truman responded by sending a 10-point civil rights program to Congress. When Southern Democrats, angry about a stronger civil rights stance, left the party in 1948, Truman issued an executive order barring discrimination in federal employment, ordered equal treatment in the armed forces and appointed a committee to work toward an end to military segregation. The last military restrictions ended during the Korean War.

Blacks in the South enjoyed few, if any, civil and political rights. More than 1 million black soldiers fought in World War II, but those who came from the South could not vote. Blacks who tried to register faced the likelihood of beatings, loss of job, loss of credit or eviction from their land. Lynchings still occurred, and Jim Crow laws enforced segregation of the races in street cars, trains, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, recreational facilities and employment.

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