Social Studies book design_Public Image Private Shame
PUBLIC IMAGE PRIVATE SHAME will help you look, in depth, at the modern
civil rights movement of the 1950s to mid-1970s. Importantly, this
book provides exciting new material that encourages students to
see that the modern movement belonged to a tradition of protest
that first began on the shores of Africa and continues to this day.
A special feature of Public Image Private Shame provides fresh
perspectives from a range of people, including movement leaders,
grassroots supporters, white supremacists and political leaders.
The last two chapters of the book invite students to examine
race relations in the US today, and in particular, the importance,
impact and issues surrounding Barack Obama’s meteoric rise
in becoming the nation’s first democratically elected African-
The content of this book and the depth at which it is written means it can be
studied at level 1 and level 2.
9 7 8 1 4 4 2 5 3 7 1 3 2
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roydon Agent teaches history at Kamo High School in
Whangarei. He was a Fulbright Scholar to the US in 2007, and
in 2009 Roydon travelled to the US as a recipient of the State
Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. Roydon
is a specialist in black civil rights history and has travelled to the
US several times researching this book. During this time he had
the privilege of meeting with key civil rights legends, including
SNCC leaders Congressman John Lewis and Julian Bond, Little
Rock students Terrance Roberts, Minnijean Brown-Trickey,
Corretta Scott Young, Fred Gray (Rosa Parks’ lawyer), and Billy
Kyles (who was near King when he was assassinated).
9781442537132_COV.indd 1 10/3/11 11:49 AM
8 1957: Continuing to challenge
school segregation 58
Racist diehards resist change 59
Integrating Central High 59
9 1958–60: Black liberation 68
The tradition of black self-defence 68
Early black liberation leaders 69
Robert F Williams: Advocate for self-defence 74
10 1960–62: Student defiance 77
A new generation of protest 77
The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee 80
Freedom Rides 81
James Meredith and the University of Mississippi 86
11 The battle for Birmingham 88
Racism in Birmingham 88
12 1963–64: Pressing for real change 100
The Civil Rights Act 101
The Freedom Summer 109
13 Selma 1965: One man, one vote 116
The SNCC in Selma 116
King and the SCLC come to Selma 117
14 1965–67: The emergence of
black power 125
The seeds of discontent 126
The March Against Fear 131
Black power and cultural transformation 134
The Black Panthers 137
15 1968–70: Memphis and beyond 142
The fight against poverty 143
King’s assassination 145
16 1970–2009: Politics and protest 150
US presidents 1970–2009 151
17 Black rights in America today 161
America’s first black president 162
The black experience in modern America 168
Exemplars of student essays 175
The Underground Railroad 175
Frederick Douglass: From slave to statesman 176
Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932–1972) 178
The ‘N’ Word 179
Ella Baker and participatory democracy 181
Public Image Private Shame: Introduction
for teachers iv
Foreword from civil rights activists and others viii
From the author 1
1 Racism in America 2
Emmett Till’s America 2
The roots of racism 7
2 Slavery and resistance 9
Early Africa 10
The middle passage 11
Slave life in America 12
Slave resistance 15
3 The road to emancipation 19
Key causes of emancipation 20
Revolutionary republican ideals 20
The economic needs of the elite 23
Abolitionist pressure 23
The American Civil War 25
4 Neo-slavery 28
Black progress after Reconstruction 33
The challenge of World War Two 34
5 The modern black civil
rights movement 36
Grassroots change 36
The US system of government 37
Two approaches to activism 38
6 Brown v. Board of Education 42
Dismantling Jim Crow education 43
Alexander v. Holmes County 47
7 The Montgomery bus protest 48
‘It’s my Constitutional right!’ 48
1955–56: The Montgomery bus protest 49
Kennedy with students in HarlemMalcolm X
This textbook looks at the history of the black civil rights struggle in America
through the lens of the 2007 curriculum and requirements for NCEA Level 1 and
Level 2. In response to the new curriculum paradigm, this textbook differs from
previous ones in the following ways.
In the past, study of the black civil rights struggle has focused on the modern civil rights
era (1950–1970) with little to no historical contextualisation. This book takes a different
approach. It clearly places the modern civil rights era within its historical context, with
a narrative running from the earliest days of slavery through to the election of Barack
Obama in 2008.
It also contains enquiry-based links with New Zealand history, where students are
asked to compare and contrast ‘race’ issues here with the issues they are reading about.
This textbook provides an enquiry-based framework to help students make their own
meaning from the content. Each chapter contains explanations and questions relating to
consequences of events, key perspectives and historical interpretations. This structure can
help students in two ways. First, it allows them to become better acquainted with the nuances
of racism in the USA. Second, it serves as a reminder that history is never set in stone, that it
is fluid, consists of many perspectives and is open to more than one interpretation.
The structure also makes it easier for students to research for internal assessments and
prepare for external examinations.
6.1: Understanding causes and effects
Understand how the causes and consequences of past events that are of significance to New
Zealand shaped the lives of people and society.
The material in this book explains the causes and consequences of racism against African-
Americans in the United States of America. The significance of this material to New
Zealanders is that students can readily draw parallels between racism in the USA and racism
in Aotearoa–New Zealand.
6.2: Understanding how perspectives differ
Understand how people’s perspectives on past events that are of significance to New
Differing perspectives are presented throughout Public Image Private Shame and students
have ample opportunity to compare and contrast them.
7.1: Understanding causes and consequences
The material in this book looks at white racism as a force in the USA. It also examines the
modern black civil rights movement as a response to that racism. Importantly, the text
encourages students to dig deeper into specific examples of black resistance (Montgomery
bus protest, black power, Black Panthers).
7.2: Understand interpretations differ
Understand that people’s interpretation of events that are of significance to New Zealand differ.
This book has a range of primary and secondary sources that require interpretation. These
include cartoons, speeches, newspaper clippings and photographs. In some cases, specific
questions are provided to develop students’ interpretation skills. Others have been presented
without questions to give teachers or students the opportunity to pose their own.
8.1: Understanding causes, consequences and explanations
Understand that the causes, consequences and explanations of historical events that are of
significance to New Zealand are complex, and how and why they are contested.
The material in this book provides in-depth alternatives to the sanitised, traditional approach to
the black civil rights movement. This includes a detailed look at black protest before and after
the movement began and a wide range of perspectives and interpretations of these events.
One of the intentions of this book is to show students that history is not always set in stone,
straightforward, or cut and dried. In other words, it is complex and can be contested. This
should make the study of racism in the USA (and its relevance to New Zealand) more interesting
8.2: Understand trends
Understand how trends over time reflect social, economic and political forces.
The material in this book provides an in-depth look at the forces – political, economic, social
and religious – that are inherent in the study of racism in the USA. An example of this is the
assumption by some whites that they are inherently superior to African-Americans and how this
conviction was used as a political justification for de jure and de facto racism in the USA.
Achievement standards: NCEA level 1, 2 and 3
With the new curriculum, students must now be able to relate historical material to New
Zealand in order to gain excellence in all levels except for AS 1.5. What students need to realise
is that this does not mean the other assessment standards at levels 6, 7 and 8 have to focus
entirely on New Zealand. Rather, meaningful connections must be made.
As an example of this, the material in this book recognises that racism is a global issue. It
provides opportunities to compare and contrast racism in the USA with racism in New Zealand
and elsewhere. One of the strengths of this book is that it provides ample opportunities to
compare and contrast.
Thinking, using language, relating to others, participating and contributing
High expectations, Treaty of Waitangi, cultural diversity, inclusion, community engagement,
learning to learn, coherence, future focus
The way Public Image Private Shame is written, students are afforded the opportunity to study
this material over successive years and in more depth, going as far as they wish or are able.
Treaty of Waitangi
Like the United States, New Zealand has a founding document and like the people of the United
States, we should understand its original intention and use it to inform and shape us as a
people and nation.
Public Image Private Shame: Introduction for teachers
Cultural diversity, inclusion and community engagement
Like the United States, New Zealand is increasingly becoming a melting pot of different races
and cultures. Clearly there are challenges associated with this, but this book gives innumerable
examples of a better way in which families, whanau and communities can engage in working
through these issues in a non-discriminatory, inclusive way.
Learning to learn
This book provides activities and digging deeper exercises that will hone the students’ ability to
learn. The wonder of learning to learn is that these skills are transferable to other areas
of a student’s everyday life.
Coherence and future focus
Finally, Public Image Private Shame provides a springboard for digging
deeper into the issue of racism. In particular, it provides students with an
opportunity to explore racism as a continuing issue. As they focus on the
future, students can determine for themselves what kind of citizen they want to
be in regard to this issue.
Equity, community and participation, integrity, respect
The material in this book is constantly challenging students to dig deeper into the
causes and consequences of racism as a moral, ethical, religious and community
issue that involves real people in the here and now. Throughout the book, the
student can consider where they stand on issues raised. They can also imagine
other viewpoints. The book also encourages the student to address racism as
The greatest part of researching and writing Public Image Private Shame is that I have been
assisted in the task by a range of wonderful people. I am thankful that I can acknowledge
them now for I am truly indebted for their help, encouragement and friendship:
To Pearson for asking me to write this book. Fulbright New Zealand for their very generous
scholarship to study in the US in 2007. Jude Thomsen from the Whangarei District Council whose
introduction to the US Ambassador in 2008 resulted in a study opportunity in the USA. The US
Embassy in Wellington, and especially Richard Benge, for arranging for me to travel to the USA
to undertake research for my book in 2009 as a recipient of a State Department International
Visitor Leadership Program. Professor Stan and Anita Howard in Chicago, who have become dear
friends and mentored me through the writing of this book. Their wisdom and insights have been
invaluable. To Minnijean Brown-Trickey and Terrence Roberts of the Little Rock Nine, Joanne
Bland, a child participant in the Selma Voter Registration Campaign, and Grif Stokely, for allowing
me to interview them and for their encouragement in writing this book. To Hugh Freemantle for
organising my research programme and accompanying me, to ensure I got to where I needed to
go, on time. To Kelly French in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Elizabeth Silvermann in Memphis, for
putting together my research programme while visiting the USA in 2009. To Barack and Cynthia
Gibson and members of the Freedom Foundation in Selma, Alabama, for hosting my students and
me while we were visiting in Selma. I want to thank the Board of Kamo High School, our Principal
Bernie Taffs, and my HOD Phil Reynolds for allowing me to travel to the USA on scholarships and
for my research and to those staff who stood in for me while I was away. A special thanks to my
history students, who allowed me to bounce ideas off them, especially Louise Nagel and Sarah
Penwarden, who read each chapter and offered suggestions and changes. A special thanks to
Eve Tonkin, the creative editor of this book. I am so grateful that Pearson teamed us up, for
the truth is I could not have done without Eve’s suggestions, insights, promptings, and endless
commitment to the final shape of this book. Finally, a big thanks to my wife Caroline, who was
exceptionally patient and understanding; I could not have done without
her encouragement and support.
To our daughter, Hannah Ruth, who we lost to an inoperable
brain tumour at the tender age of 18 on 21 June 2008. I
thought of her often as I wrote this book because she was not
only the most precious and wonderful daughter, she was a
person who walked beyond the colour line. She also had a
deep sense of justice and had a heart for the marginalised;
many of whom ended up staying the weekend at our place at
Foreword from civil rights
activists and others
In the summer of 2007 I was given the wonderful pleasure of
meeting Mr Roydon Agent. Roydon was one of the 30 teachers
from around the world visiting the United States to learn
its history and culture. As a professor of political science
specialising in civil rights and civil liberties, it was part of my
duties to enlighten these travellers on how American racial
minorities have used the political and legal system to fight for
the equal rights guaranteed all Americans within the Declaration
of Independence and US Constitution. Without equivocation I
am able to report that even after so many years have passed, the
lectures that I offered this particular group remain vivid in my mind. And
I am equally certain that the uppermost reason for this is because Roydon
was a member of the group. The breadth and depth of knowledge on the black
civil rights movement he brought to these classes was simply amazing. It was like he had
personally lived the experience. He was always curious and inquisitive, and developed a
reputation for providing cogent analysis. His classmates and I were also impressed by the
level of empathy and genuine concern he showed for the dispossessed suffering within the
human family. It is for these reasons that I celebrate his latest work, Public Image Private
Shame. He has added immensely to the scholarship on this important period in American
life, and students and teachers in his homeland of New Zealand, America and around the
world will be richer because of it.
Dr Stan Howard,
Founder and President of the Law and Civics Reading and Writing Institute for Urban Males
This work by Roydon Agent seeks to fill a void in the conscious awareness of all those
who have not yet developed a world view predicated upon the notion of accepting
all others as peers in the universe. His insights and wisdom, on display in bold font,
metaphorically, are not to be missed. I recommend this book without the slightest
degree of hesitation.
Terrence J Roberts, PhD
Little Rock Nine
I am excited about this work by Roydon. Our first meeting was in Little Rock, Arkansas,
in 2009. As part of his research he interviewed me about my experiences at Central High
School. His questions demonstrated both his in-depth knowledge about the crisis, as
well as his keen interest in getting the story right. Roydon impressed me as a person
who wanted to understand my story and the issues I faced as one of the nine black
students at Little Rock Central High in 1958. Last year I also had the immense pleasure
of meeting several of his history students when they came to Little Rock as part of their
civil rights tour. Those students were very knowledgeable, purposeful and gracious. It
was a special pleasure to discuss the civil rights movement with them. Finally, I want
to endorse Roydon’s book, Public Image Private Shame. Knowing him as I do, I know the
book will deal honestly with the truth of complex issues. That will be a breath of fresh air.
I heartily recommend Roydon’s book.
Little Rock Nine
In 2010, I, along with 11 other history students from Kamo High School, travelled to the United
States on a civil rights tour. I have to admit that my decision was last minute and came after
several promptings from history teacher Roydon Agent. Time would prove that it was one of the
best decisions I have made. I had lost interest in school and had all but given up hope of going
to university; the trip changed that. Thanks to Roydon, his love of history and of his students, the
trip genuinely changed the direction of my life. His knowledge of the racial issues so long a part
of the American way of life, and his access to amazing people like Stan and Anita Howard, civil
rights legends Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, Fred Gray, Mr and Mrs Graetz, and
members of Selma’s Freedom Foundation, as well as visiting historical places, brought history
alive for me.
I want to commend Public Image Private Shame to you as a book that will challenge your
thinking because it addresses many of the issues that have often been glossed over or
Waikato University law student
From the author
When I first researched Public Image Private Shame in 2006, I never imagined that my
research would take me to the United States several times, and give me the opportunity
to meet key leaders and grassroots activists from the civil rights movement of the 1950s to
mid-1975. It has been a rich experience that has deeply impacted my life on many levels.
While it has been a thrill to travel to historic places, it is the American people whom I have
befriended that have been most memorable. At the risk of being accused of name dropping, I have
had the great privilege of having met and spent time with movement legends John Lewis, Julian
Bond, Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, Joanne Bland, Samuel ‘Billy’ Kyles and Carlotta
Walls LaNier. In addition, I have also had the joy of meeting a raft of people – black and white – who
were grassroots activists in the movement. Hearing President Barack Obama speak at the NAACP
centenary in 2009 was a particular highlight.
Throughout my travels in the USA, I have been overwhelmed by support for the writing of my book.
Initially I was tentative, believing that as an outsider looking in I was therefore not sufficiently qualified
to write on the subject; not only that, I was committed to writing a text that was radically different
from anything else I had seen. Certainly I did not want it to be a sanitised version, and was deeply
committed to raising questions and addressing issues that have been traditionally relegated to the
‘too hard basket’. I am deeply indebted to my American friends who were so tolerant and supportive of
my quest in achieving this goal.
Finally, this journey has caused me to search my own heart as to how I might
better address the prejudices in my own life. Of course, this is the hope of
this book, that you the reader, the student of history, will
do the same. The key to that is being committed to
a cause that is bigger and more important than
ourselves, or as the good book says, ‘to love your
neighbour as you would love yourself’.
In this worthy endeavour I pray you
will have great courage.
2 May 2011
for the sweat our fathers bore for you? … We ask it not. We are willing to let the
dead past bury its dead; but we ask you now for our rights.
State Representative Henry McNeal Turner to the Georgia House of Representatives, 1886
Racism in America
he America of the 1950s was different in many ways to the America of today. The widespread
social revolt of the 1960s changed American society a great deal. This chapter introduces
what life was like for African-Americans in the 1950s.
According to people who were at the grocery store, Emmett responded to a dare from local boys and
asked the white woman behind the counter for a date. She ran to get a handgun kept in her car outside.
Surprised by her reaction he left, giving her a joking whistle. Three days later, two white men (the woman’s
husband and a friend) dragged Emmett from his bed in the dead of night, beat him brutally, tied him to a
heavy fan with barbed wire and then shot him fatally in the head. Three days later his body was pulled from
the Tallahatchie River.
Although Till’s killers were arrested and charged with murder, they were both acquitted by an all-white,
all-male jury. The federal government decided not to interfere in the state ruling, and the killers were
Till’s killers sold their story to Look magazine,
explaining how they originally intended to ‘whup’
the boy, but his defiance and perspective on white
women made them decide to kill him. One of the
killers, Ray Milliam, told the magazine reporter:
[Till said to us] ‘You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve “had” white women. My
grandmother was a white woman.’
Well, what else could we do? [Till] was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like
niggers – in their place – but I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live
and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers
ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the
government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids.
And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white
woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him.
Ray Milliam, www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfeature/sf_look_confession.html
The murder and the trial made headlines all around the
world. Many Americans felt that Till deserved his treatment.
Countless others were horrified. For many African-Americans
in particular, Till’s murder was ‘the last straw’ and it led them
to join the growing revolt against the society that allowed this to
happen. For others already involved in the civil rights struggle, it
was an incentive to keep on fighting, continuing the long struggle
begun by their ancestors in America’s past.
The jury in court
Till’s killers in court
de facto segregation informal racial separation
de jure segregation legal racial separation
hegemony control or domination by a person or
group over another group, society or nation
heretics people who dissent from established
religious dogma, particularly Roman Catholicism
irony the expression of meaning by using language
that normally signifies the opposite, typically for
humorous or emphatic effect
nigger an offensive term for black people, historically
used by white racists to denigrate African-Americans
(the derivative ‘nigga’ is currently used by some
blacks to describe themselves)
segregated set apart from one another; here black
people kept separate from white people
sociologist one who formally studies the way human
society develops and functions
terra incognita unexplored regions
This chapter asks:
• What was the growing movement for
black civil rights seeking to change?
• Why was America this kind of society?
Emmett Till’s America
In August 1955, a 14-year-old
black boy named Emmett Till
was murdered by white men
for whistling at a white woman
in a grocery store in Money,
‘Money – a good place to
raise a boy’ read the sign on
the edge of town. Eight days
after arriving there from
Chicago to visit his southern
relatives, Emmett was dead.
Thinking it over
1 Look at the photograph of Till’s killers in court. The accused seem relaxed and
confident. What would you put their confidence down to?
2 Who do you feel sympathetic with when reading the narrative above? Why?
3 When historians study events like the one you have just read about, they ask
questions to find out what caused the event, like the following.
• How could such a thing have happened?
• How could people do what they did?
They also ask questions to find out how the event caused change.
Come up with some specific questions of your own that might help you
understand more about Emmett Till’s murder and its aftermath.
In 1950s America, Emmett Till’s world was different to that of a white boy his age. White racism was
widespread and an inherent part of society. Black Americans did not have the same opportunities or civil
rights as white people. White crimes against African-Americans often went unpunished, particularly in the
There are a number of measures and recorded trends that show the position of African-Americans in
the US during the 1950s.
In many states of the USA, education opportunities for
African-Americans were restricted to segregated schools,
colleges and universities. Black students attended blacks-
only schools, which received less funding per student
than white schools, and black students spent less time at
school than their white counterparts.
African-Americans in the 1950s were proportionally under-
represented in professional and managerial occupations
and over-represented in the fields of:
• domestic and service occupations (63.6% of black
women and 11.2% of black men)
• low-skilled labouring (15.4% of black women and 57.4%
of black men).
In the south, 75% of the African-American
population was in unskilled jobs. The
corresponding white proportion was
The income levels for the African-American
population were consistently below those of
the white population during the 1950s.
• In 1952, the median income for white males was
$3507 per year. For African-American males it was
• 61% of African-American incomes were less than
$3000. Only 28% of whites were at a similar level.
• In 1953, the family median income for whites was
$4392. For African-Americans it was $2461.
Because these figures were calculated nationally, they
do not show that for African-Americans living in the south,
incomes were usually significantly lower than the median.
The quality of black health care was significantly lower
than that of white American health care in Emmett Till’s
day. For example, the national infant mortality rate among
African-Americans in 1950 was 43.9 deaths per 1000 live
births, while for whites the rate was 26.8 deaths. Many
African-Americans could not afford doctors, and most
white-owned hospitals practised segregation.
‘Black’ wards were understaffed and poorly
equipped. Black doctors found it almost
impossible to get ahead.
A 1952 report written by the Women’s
Committee to End Discrimination in Medical
Services noted that in Detroit hospitals the lives
of African-Americans were put in jeopardy
because of discrimination.
How much state/county funding
each student received in 1953 in
the southern states
Mississippi $98.15 $43.17
Arkansas $99.08 $71.78
Louisiana $165.08 $122.07
Alabama $112.00 $105.00
In the southern states
At the end of the 19th century, southern
states had enacted de jure segregation
legislation that became popularly known
as ‘Jim Crow’ laws (see pp 31–33 for
more about these laws). These laws
created a racially segregated society
throughout the south. Jim Crow laws
were accompanied by a climate of
violence to keep the ‘nigger’ in his place.
While I am black I am a human being,and therefore I have the right to go intoany public place. White people didn’t knowthat. Every time I tried to go into a placethey stopped me.
A nation that continues year after year tospend more money on military defence thanon programs of social uplift is approachingspiritual doom.
Stokely Carmichael, black rights leader
Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr, black civil rights leader
In the northern states
While Jim Crow laws did not appear in the north, discrimination did exist in what is referred to as de facto
segregation. In major cities of the north this resulted in the following:
• Black ghettos emerged, as landlords in better areas would not rent homes to black people.
• Schools and colleges were linked to neighbourhoods, with many of these schools and colleges
becoming ‘blacks only’ schools.
• African-Americans faced discrimination in the job market.
• A lack of education and opportunity made it difficult for African-Americans to climb the economic or
employment ladder to better themselves.
1963 cartoon by Herbert Block commenting on the
difficulty faced by black doctors who experienced
discrimination and were restricted to segregated
wards despite their qualifications
While black Americans could vote in the
north in the 1950s, they had no political
representation and so many did not
bother. In the south, black voting was
actively prevented by local state laws and
by the threat of white violence.
Because so few African-Americans
voted it meant:
• few held offices in the local or state
government (as sheriffs, court
• the majority of white politicians were
determined to maintain the political
status quo of white domination.
Rev. Dr Martin
Jr, I Have a
We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro
in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New
York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
The percentage of blacks registered
to vote in 1954
State % State %
Alabama 11 Arkansas 36
Florida 32 Georgia 27
Louisiana 31 Mississippi 5
North Carolina 24 South Carolina 27
Tennessee 29 Virginia 19
Thinking it over
1 Create a mind map that shows what the black civil rights movement was fighting to change in
2 Re-read Ray Milliam’s statement to the reporter from Look magazine on p 3. Find evidence of
Milliam’s perspective on the civil rights movement. Do you see evidence that this perspective
influenced how he treated Till?
3 Take a look at the following cartoon, which appeared on the front of a postcard inviting the reader to
join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a multi-racial group
against white racism, in January 1956. Answer the following questions.
Historians often study political
cartoons because they can
provide invaluable information
on historical events, issues and
ideas. They include caricatures
of key people and the subtle
and not-so-subtle use of words,
phrases, speech and symbols to
convey pertinent and powerful
• There are at least two ways in
which the cartoonist depicts the
unequal relationship between
the white man and black boy.
Can you identify them?
• How does the cartoonist convey
the seriousness of Emmett
Till’s breaking of the social
conventions expected of African-
Americans towards southern women?
• What irony is evident in this cartoon?
• If you were an African-American living in the south at the time, would this cartoon make you want to
join the NAACP, or would it intimidate you into staying out of any political movement?
The roots of racism
Skin colour, or race, is the superficial measure used
by some for hundreds of years to define who we are and
our place in society.
To understand how Emmett Till could have been
murdered and his killers acquitted, we need to
understand the racism that has divided African-
Americans from white Americans from the time they first
came into contact with one another.
The nature of this division has changed over time, but it continues to shape people’s perspectives and
life experience in America today. The rest of this chapter asks what caused this division.
The concept of ‘race’
There are many complex reasons for white
racism in America, but the key cause is
the belief in ideas of ‘racial difference’ and
‘racial superiority’ that evolved in Europe
and England long before Christopher
Columbus first sailed to America.
From historical writings, we find
evidence that people in Europe and
England held folk superstitions (mostly
negative) about groups seen as ‘different’.
Soon these superstitions were linked to
physical features, and a belief in ideas
of ‘race’, ‘racial difference’ and ‘racial
superiority’ emerged – or the belief that
groups can be categorised by physical features and ranked as superior and inferior to one another.
Several historical factors intensified English ideas of their own racial superiority between 1500
Colonialism at home
From the 15th century onwards, the English began to intensify their efforts to colonise nearby Ireland.
In their desire to achieve political hegemony, the English implemented policies of forced colonisation,
exploitation of local labour, systematic extermination and
forced removal to the New World colonies for prisoners
of war and political troublemakers. The English began to
apply the idea of racial superiority to the Irish. Media of
the time often described the Irish as ‘savages’ without
morals, ungodly and incapable of being civilised, and
depicts them as angry and ape-like.
Colonialism in the ‘New World’
The 15th century to the early part of the 17th century
was known as the ‘Age of Discovery’ or the ‘Age
of Exploration’. In that time, European explorers
discovered Africa, the Americas, and, a little later, Asia
and Oceania. By the 15th century, European explorers
had discovered what they called the ‘New World’ of
Africa and the Americas. One of the great myths of
American history – and remember, a myth doesn’t have
to be right to be believed – is that, like Christopher
Columbus, the first English colonists believed that
Old English superstitions about ‘race’
• Gypsies are sneaky, volatile and liable to criminality.
• Jews are parsimonious and money grabbing.
• Irish are drunkards of only sub-human intelligence.
• People with red hair are irrational, volatile and
violent (this superstition began as an English
categorisation of the Scots).
• English are sensible, rational and decent.
James Loewen, an American sociologist
said in 1995 that, ‘Perhaps the most
pervasive theme in our history is the
domination of black America by white
America. Race is the sharpest and
deepest division in American life’ (Lies
Our Teachers Told Us, p 136).
Caleb Agent, 2010
the United States of America was a ‘tabula rasa’ or ‘blank state’ of boundless virgin territory. In their eyes,
this tabula rasa held immense wealth and could be claimed by anyone to use according to their wishes
(whether economic, political, social or religious). For the next 400 years, European powers competed to
penetrate this terra incognita, and to establish colonies there. The idea of racial superiority became a
justification for the often brutal conquest and exploitation of indigenous peoples. These ideas reached their
height in the 18th and 19th centuries as colonisation intensified.
In the 15th century, the Catholic Church had a cast iron hold over
Spain, one of Europe’s most powerful nations and a primary
colonising power. The Catholic Inquisition persecuted Jews
and Moors (North Africans) in an attempt to eliminate religious
‘heretics’ and those from other ‘races’ or ‘castes’ (castas). This
played a very real part in the development of notions of white
superiority and greatly influenced the level of extreme brutality
that the Catholic Spanish showed the Native Americans from
the earliest days of their arrival in the Americas.
Even the Catholic and
Protestant missionaries who
went to the ‘New World’ in
peace sought to transform
the ‘savages’ there into
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many European and English
scientists focused on classifying the natural and human world.
Blumenbach (1789) identified different human groups based on skull
measurements and skin colour, but he made no value judgements
about these groupings. This came later in the 19th century when
some scientists applied Charles Darwin’s ideas of evolution as
a competitive biological struggle between species for existence
to human beings. These scientists became known as ‘Social
Darwinists’ because they applied Darwin’s biological idea to human
social life, ranking different racial groups on a scale from least to
most civilised, with whites at the pinnacle of evolution. (Darwin
himself was opposed to such thinking. He saw humankind as one
species.) These scientists also used it to justify oppression of
non-whites by whites as ‘the survival of the fittest’ in action.
John Elliot preaching to the Indians
This chapter has introduced the
fact that American society has
been characterised by a ‘division’
between blacks and whites since
its earliest days, and by ‘the
domination of black America by
white America’. Central to this domination has
been the belief in white racial superiority that Europeans and the
English brought to America from the beginning. Chapter 2 will look in more
detail at how white racism went hand-in-hand with the black experience in
A drawing from Josiah C Nott and George
Gliddon’s Indigenous Races of the Earth
(1857), which ranked black people
between white people and chimpanzees
in terms of intelligence.
Slavery and resistance
Few systems of mass exploitation have been as devastating or as effective in
the institutions [of slavery and segregation] following in its wake.
Norrece T Jones Jr, historian (Essays on African-American History, Culture and Society, p 78)
he transatlantic slave trade began in the
early 15th century and continued until the
19th century. Dutch settlers brought the first
African slaves to America in the early 1600s.
Africans (mostly from West Africa) were
captured from their homes and sent to the
Americas as slaves to work for white colonials. By
the mid-1700s, most Africans were being shipped
to what is now the United States. According to
historian James O Horton, by 1860 the dollar value
of slaves ‘was greater than the dollar value of all
the banks, all the railroads, all the manufacturing
facilities of this nation put together’.
Over the next two hundred years, the USA was
transformed into the biggest slave nation in
the world, as somewhere around four
million Africans formed the backbone
on which the nation’s great wealth
In this chapter you will consider:
• What was slavery and why did
• How did slaves and others
survive and resist slavery?
• What were the key consequences
abolitionist people committed to bringing an end
Black Codes Laws passed in the US (in the south
and north) after the Civil War, to restrict the freedom
of former slaves
feudal a historical, political and social system,
where ordinary people were given land and
protection by a lord; in return they worked and
fought for him
indentured contracted labour
paternalism following a paternalistic approach
paternalistic father-like authority exercised in a
way that limits individual responsibility
racial profiling use of race to justify the use