Rekindling Civil Rights, 1900-1941

Massive social and governmental changes took place in America in the first decades of the twentieth century, fueled by the Progressive Era, World War I, and the Great Depression. Efforts to combat discrimination found expression in biracial activism and reform movements. Hopes for equality soared for many minority groups, but most ended in grave disappointment. The Progressive Era of 1900-1920 brought the largest electoral change in U.S. history. After a decades-long struggle, women gained voting rights under the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Despite the adoption of the amendment, however, black women as well as African American men in the South remained disfranchised, as they and poor whites and immigrants were denied or lost voting rights by state-imposed literacy tests and residency and registration requirements.

Military service and increased employment during World War I brought minorities new hopes for greater equality and economic opportunity. Activists argued that fighting to make the world safe for democracy and for the rights of the oppressed would dismantle racial inequality at home. After the war, however, black veterans encountered the same racial restrictions that were in place previously, and many of those who sought wartime job opportunities in the North faced the same discrimination that existed in the Jim Crow South. Hispanics who came to fill worker shortages were viewed merely as cheap labor. By the 1920s and 1930s, Hispanic Americans were fighting for decent wages and organizing farm workers.

After the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression, the federal government's New Deal programs offered opportunities for employment reform. Responding to charges that many blacks were the "last hired and first fired," the Roosevelt administration instituted changes that enabled people of all races to obtain needed job training and employment. These programs brought public works employment opportunities to African Americans, especially in the North. Roosevelt also advanced black interests by using his executive powers and avoiding the predominantly southern Democratic majorities of the House and Senate, and by creating the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department. Those blacks who could vote began switching their party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, thereby becoming the first wave of black voters to shape social and political reform.

With the loss of voting rights and continued enforced segregation, minorities began to form organizations to litigate for their civil rights. Examples of such organizations included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established in 1909 (initiated as the Niagara Movement in 1905);the National Urban League in 1910;and the Congress of Spanish Speaking People in 1939.

Some organizations began launching legal challenges to segregated schools late in the 1930s. As with the racially segregated schools in the South, southwestern school districts systematically segregated Mexican children into so-called "Mexican schools" or "Mexican classrooms." The first precedent-setting local and state level court cases to desegregate Mexican and African American schooling were decided during this time.

The debate regarding citizenship for Asian immigrants and its accompanying rights continued. Asian immigrants faced changing immigration laws and remained ineligible for citizenship. Sixteen states denied land ownership, among other rights, to Asian Americans. Racial prejudice was reflected blatantly in a 1923 Supreme Court decision that Asian Indians as nonwhites were ineligible for U.S. citizenship, because although ample historical and anthropological evidence established their "whiteness," American society did not accept them as such. Also during this time period, the gay and lesbian movement started taking shape. Social analysts began rejecting prior medical definitions of "inversion" or "homosexuality" as deviant.

Communities of men and women with same-sex affiliations began to grow in urban areas. Their right to gather in public places such as bars was tenuous, and police raids and harassment were common.

Content used with permission from Eastern National's Guidebook to African American History in National Parks.

Last updated: April 12, 2016

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