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We Shall Overcome

We Shall Overcome: A History of Civil Rights and the Law

Alexander Tsesis
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    We Shall Overcome
    Book Description:

    Despite America's commitment to civil rights from the earliest days of nationhood, examples of injustices against minorities stain many pages of U.S. history. The battle for racial, ethnic, and gender fairness remains unfinished. This comprehensive book traces the history of legal efforts to achieve civil rights for all Americans, beginning with the years leading up to the Revolution and continuing to our own times. The historical adventure Alexander Tsesis recounts is filled with fascinating events, with real change and disappointing compromise, and with courageous individuals and organizations committed to ending injustice.

    Viewing the evolution of civil rights through the lens of legal history, Tsesis considers laws that have restricted civil rights (such as Jim Crow regulations and prohibitions against intermarriage) and laws that have expanded rights (including antisegregation legislation and other legal advances of the civil rights era). He focuses particular attention on the African American fight for civil rights but also discusses the struggles of women, gays and lesbians, Japanese Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Jews. He concludes by assessing the current state of civil rights in the United States and exploring likely future expansions of civil rights.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14531-1
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    The convergence of liberty and equality has been integral to the evolution of American identity. The aspiration to found a country committed to these two ethical standards came to fruition at a time when racial slavery and gender inequality were widely accepted. The young nation meandered through a series of controversies that no compromise between slave and free states resolved. Eventually, sectional disagreements became so acrimonious that brother fought brother in the Civil War.

    After the Union victory over the Confederacy, state ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments altered the dynamic between federal and state governments in matters of civil rights....

  5. CHAPTER ONE Liberty through Revolution
    (pp. 9-21)

    The founding generation of Americans thought of liberty in objective terms as an abstract principle requiring the state to protect natural rights. The revolutionary outlook on government differed from the twenty-first century’s relativistic perspective. Eighteenth-century writers believed that human reason could discover the characteristics of liberty and happiness. Like John Locke before them, revolutionary leaders believed that reason made people naturally free and capable of establishing political entities for the common good. Civil law, in the words of Samuel Adams, had to follow the “law of natural reason and equity.” Civil rights could be discovered from an examination of human...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Constitutional Republic of Equals?
    (pp. 22-44)

    The ideals expressed by the Declaration of Independence fed expectations that each American’s fundamental rights would be equally protected. Many contemporaries understood that justifications for the American Revolution were irreconcilable with persistent colonial slavery. Their view that the British Parliament’s taxation was despotic forced them to evaluate their own conduct toward African slaves. Talk of equality and representation made slavery an aberration where it had been a norm for more than a century. The revolutionaries’ justification for independence was not in keeping with the exploitation of human chattel and the enforcement of slave codes.

    For slaves, the struggle for freedom...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Controversy about Slavery
    (pp. 45-64)

    The Revolution failed to bring about the relief from slavery many contemporaries had expected. In theory, the framers had formed a government for safeguarding personal liberties to better the common good. Exploiting labor for the sake of agronomic success, however, became of greater import than civil rights when, about the time of the War of 1812, southern sugar and cotton belts began realizing greatly increased profits.¹ The dissemination of antislavery thought, by Quakers and some orders of Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, was too small in scale to make a dent in American attitudes. Southern society became increasingly dependent on slavery...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Sectional Compromise and National Conflict
    (pp. 65-82)

    Debates about the constitutionality of slavery were no asides. They probed the central question of the day, whether a federal republic that on the one hand guaranteed individual rights but whose Constitution, on the other, contained clauses used to augment slaveholders’ political power could remain intact. Beginning with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the South and North pursued alternatives to belligerence. They all proved to be stopgaps that perpetuated the misery of millions of Americans coping with slavery.

    Truces over slavery were tested repeatedly. Southern demands for more land to extend political power did not stop at Missouri. During the...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Reconstructing the American Dream
    (pp. 83-116)

    By 1861 slavery was deeply entrenched in the United States. Even among the institution’s opponents, few called for its immediate abolition. Most would have been satisfied to prevent its expansion into the American territories. When the South seceded from the Union, the nation was jarred from its complacent attitude. As the Civil War dragged on, victory became increasingly linked with permanent and uncompensated abolition.

    After the war, newly ratified constitutional amendments provided the federal government with an increased mandate to protect fundamental rights. The Thirteenth Amendment reversedDred Scott, abolishing slavery and giving Congress discretionary power to end any remaining...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Unraveling Constitutional Reconstruction
    (pp. 117-131)

    Reconstruction created a new constitutional reality in the United States. It reaffirmed the principles of individual liberty and equality through three constitutional amendments. The grant of enforcement authority provided Congress with the means of providing for the general welfare. A lasting commitment to civil rights, an assumed recognition of minority equality to enjoy the privileges and immunities of citizenship, and a continued willingness to confront the country’s past would have achieved lasting change.

    During this period many blacks won elections to state and national offices. On the local level, blacks served in many influential posts in the South, as sheriffs,...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Political Restrictions and Developments
    (pp. 132-161)

    A democratically run political process might have arrested the proliferation of segregation laws. Had blacks been part of the electorate, they could have chosen reliable representatives to protect their interests. In post-Reconstruction America, however, southern states increasingly circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition against racial discrimination. They chose the very methods for disenfranchisement that some Republican congressmen at the time of ratification had warned were outside the scope of the amendment. When given the opportunity, the Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on most state franchise laws and provided constitutional cover for the deprivation of political rights.

    Racial political exclusion...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Progressive Transitions
    (pp. 162-172)

    Racial issues continued to polarize Americans into the Progressive Era, which lasted roughly between 1890 and 1920. The systemic inequality that had plagued the country from its inception still afflicted it into the twentieth century. Racial tensions increased between 1910 and 1920, when about five hundred thousand blacks moved from the South to escape lynching, low-income jobs, and voting disqualification. Many northerners met black arrivals warily, concerned that their own property would depreciate and their jobs disappear. In response to an increasing black and immigrant urban population, some communities used intimidation, restrictive property covenants, and zoning laws to maintain racial...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Rights in the Regulatory State
    (pp. 173-209)

    By the 1920s the Supreme Court had severely diminished the Reconstruction Amendments’ effectiveness. Literalist interpretations of the amendments inPlessy v. Ferguson, theCivil Rights Cases, andWilliams v. Mississippihampered congressional ability to pass civil rights statutes. With time, economic liberty, rather than equality, came to dominate national affairs.

    At the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth, little suggested that the Commerce Clause would become the important constitutional provision for furthering civil rights that it became during the New Deal. To the contrary, laissez-faire, the leading economic philosophy, left it up to individuals to bargain...

  14. CHAPTER TEN The War against Tyranny
    (pp. 210-237)

    The cataclysmic events of World War II unified the country against common enemies. President Roosevelt referred to the need for cooperation of the citizenry in his 1944 state of the union address: “In this war, we have been compelled to learn how interdependent upon each other are all groups and sections of the population of America.” Langston Hughes, an activist black poet, had a different view of how minority groups were interlinked in a country that continued to tolerate Jim Crow attitudes: “It is not the Negro who is going to wreck our Democracy, (What we want is more of...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Expanding Civil Rights
    (pp. 238-250)

    After the Second World War, the federal government became increasingly responsive to demands for greater economic freedom, equal rights, and procedural justice. The availability of information about Nazi and Communist atrocities led to more self-realization of American shortcomings on matters of race and ethnicity.

    The NAACP, the Urban League, Robert Weaver, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gunnar Myrdal, A. Philip Randolph, and a host of others insisted that the military and civilian sectors afford African Americans the dignity and respect of equal citizens. Although only partially successful, President Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Committee created opportunities for blacks in the workforce, and women increasingly...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE The Warren Court’s Achievements
    (pp. 251-279)

    The Johnson administration acted in concert with other branches of the federal government. As early as the New Deal, in the famous footnote toCarolene Products, the Supreme Court had established a foundation for conducting exacting scrutiny in cases involving (1) fundamental rights, “such as those of the first ten Amendments”; (2) “legislation which restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation”; and (3) “statutes directed at particular religious, or national, or racial minorities.” Only the second set of cases concerned process alone, and all three were about substantive constitutional rights.


  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Sketches of the Continuing Legal Effort
    (pp. 280-304)

    The Warren Court and the Johnson administration consummated reforms that tied the equal protection of liberty to the general welfare. Their groundbreaking achievements were tempered by later permutations of the Supreme Court and presidential administrations, but their grand achievements remain intact. Overt segregation in schools and public places of accommodation has ended, “one person, one vote” is the national standard, political dissent has become more acceptable, criminal defendants have nationally recognized procedural protections, and the right to privacy is embedded in constitutional theory. The American people have continued on their unending quest of living up to the ideals of the...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 305-354)
  19. Index
    (pp. 355-369)