Civil Liberties, Civil Rights And African American Politics

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This paper examined the nature of civil liberties and African Americans struggle to have civil liberties extended to them. It emphasized the politics of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and argues that for all intents and purposes the civil war really ended in 1964, not 1864! It says that despite the election of the first African- American President of the United States that the struggle for civil rights must go on.

Civil Liberties, Civl Rights And African American Politics


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

         If you want to understand people study them. If you study people you will find out that apart from struggling to obtain what they need to survive, such as food, medications, clothes and shelter that probably the most important thing for them is their freedom. People want to be free. Even animals want to be free; if in doubt then catch a bird, cage it and keep it in your house for a very long time then open the cage and see what happens: it will fly away.  Human beings do not want to be caged; they want freedom to do their things (and not do what other people told them to do).

     Civil liberties have to do with freedom within the constraints of organized society.  Organized society by definition means the reduction of freedom.  As we noted the other day while talking about the origin of organized society and examining Thomas Hobbes conjectures, folks understand that there is such a thing as natural freedom, a freedom that could exist only in the wild but when they live in organized society they understand that they have necessarily reduced their natural freedom. In the wild you may do whatever you want to do and get away with it but in the context of organized society your freedom ends where the other person’s rights begins.

        If you do what detracts from other people’s freedom, what negates their self-interests you have attacked them. Those attacked, physically or psychologically, know that they are attacked and become defensive; they defend their rights and that means that they would attack you.  You attack others and in self-defense they attack you and both of you are now at a state of war and the more powerful wins until those who can gang up on the powerful defeat him.

        As Hobbes pointed out, in the state of nature we were at war with each other and life was nasty, brutish and short.  Seeking security we entered into civil society.  If we desire to live, we cannot afford to risk the insecurity of the state of nature.  In organized society we must pass laws that protect all of us. The laws that give us social security limit our natural freedom.  In society we can only have so much civil liberties not total freedom to do as we wish.

      Living in organized human society means living in the context of laws (laws made by the collective people or their representatives, the government). We cannot have absolute freedom in organized society but we can have some liberties within the law.  Civil liberties are those freedoms that are possible within the context of organized human society.

        In nature we have the freedom to talk and say whatever we want.  In organized society, in case you have not learned that fact yet, our freedom to say whatever we want is constrained by the consequences of our speech. Thus, civil society curtails our freedom of speech.  How so?

       In nature you can yell fire.  However, if you go into a packed theater and yell fire folks would think that there is actual fire and rush to get out. In rushing to get out some may be trampled to death (and many sustain injuries).  If therefore you yell fire in a packed audience your freedom of speech has caused injury and death to other people and they would come after you (in self-defense).  The relatives of those trampled to death will literally try to kill you.  In our society the police will arrest you, the judges will try you and you would probably be sent to jail. 

        The point is that your freedom of speech in nature is constrained in civil society.  The fact that people have to live together means that their natural behaviors that could hurt other people have to be curtailed. 

       Civil liberties looks at the nature of human freedoms, aka liberty in nature and in organized society. The struggle to retain for the people maximum permissible liberties is an ongoing phenomenon; it never ceases. In times of national emergency society is ready and always reduces people’s civil liberties but when the emergency is over the struggle to increase people’s civil liberties resume.

        On September 11, 2001 Arab Muslim terrorists attacked America.  The terrorists did what terrorists always do. Terrorists are merchants of fear. They are fearful human beings who understand that human beings are fearful animals. People are biological animals and want to survive at all cost. Nature built into them fear response mechanism that alerts them to threats to their lives. They have fight-flight response to fear. The goal is to survive.

        Terrorists realizing that people are fearful randomly kill some persons with the goal of arousing fear of death in the many. When folks fear is aroused they want to survive and will do anything to survive including reducing their civil liberties.  Thus Arab Muslim terrorists aroused fear in Americans. To survive Americans allowed their government to pass laws, such as the Patriots Act, that curtailed their civil liberties. These days folks submit to humiliating searches at airports (they would rather somebody searched their entire bodies and they lived than have a terrorist sneak into the plane and blow it up and they die).  These days government is permitted to randomly listen to people’s telephones, read their emails, letters, and examine the books they checked out of libraries etc.

         If you are suspected of trafficking in terrorism the police swoop down on you, pick you up and incarcerate you without due process of law (you may be held for years without consulting your attorney).  People who are afraid for their lives do away with their civil liberties. 

       Yet the people want some freedom for without it living becomes a chore. So how much freedom should organized society permit its citizens?  The debate continues; such debate and consequent laws inform civil liberties.


        In the 1400s Portuguese sailors for the first time began sailing to the Coast of West Africa.  By the 1460s they had pretty much made calls on most West African coasts. Around 1488 they reached South Africa (Cape of Good Hope) and in the 1490s they reached India.  The relevant point is that in the fifteenth hundreds Europeans reached Africa and began continuously interacting with Africans; that interaction has had dire consequences for Africans.

       In 1492 Christopher Columbus leading the Spanish reached what is now called America. The Portuguese reached Brazil in 1500.  Upon reaching Brazil the Portuguese tried to use the native Indians to do plantation work and mine work. The Indians either died or fled into the jungle and therefore were not good source of labor.

         The Portuguese realized that on their way to India they had seen Arabs with African slaves working for them at their various Indian Ocean island plantations and on the East coast of Africa.  They got to go get for them African slaves.  And not wanting to get into a fight with Arabs who controlled slavery on the East coast of Africa, they left East Africa to Arab slavery and came to West Africa. Thus, somewhere in the 1500s the Portuguese began obtaining slaves from West Africa and transporting them to the new world.

        Soon, other European nations entered the slave trade and thereafter Africans were routinely captured by their fellow Africans and marched to the coast and sold to the Europeans at the coast (Africans also captured their people and sold them to Arabs...some were marched across the Sahara desert and sold in the slave markets of the middle East, to as far away as Iran). 


        In 1607 The British settled at Jamestown, Virginia. In 1619 they imported the first African slaves into Virginia.   African slaves have been in these United States of America since the early 1600s.


        Whereas the organized society of white Americans struggled to define civil liberties for themselves, as all societies must, they made the assumption that those civil liberties did to extend to persons of African origin. African slaves were not given any kind of civil liberties; they were the properties of other people and that was all there was to them.

       Naturally, Africans like all people want freedom; even birds do.  There were slaves that fought for their freedom. 

         We can study history to tell us about the various slave insurrections in America but we really do not have to go to the past to find out how human beings behave. All we need to do is go into any black part of town in North America today.  You will find that the many are adjusted to their second class citizenship status and that a few resist social oppression and fight it. Extrapolating from that we can unequivocally say that right from the day Africans arrived at Jamestown that a few of them were fighting for their freedom.

        Many Africans ran away; some ran into the wilderness and perhaps formed unions with Indians.  Many Indians are really mixture of African and Indian (as are many whites, of course...James Watson, remember him, the guy who along with Francis Crick discovered the DNA; he was mouthing off on how Africans are a dumb people until someone did his DNA and found out that he had African genes in him! It is difficult to find a pure white or a pure black or a pure anybody).

         We know about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, the exploits of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas; however, we shall not detain ourselves with the examination of those efforts to end slavery in the land; suffice it to say that many black folk struggled for their freedom.


        The struggle to end slavery led to a civil war between 1860 and 1864.  We can review the events that led to the civil war but the salient point is that the slave holders refused to give their slaves freedom and equality.  Some folks, especially those in the Northern states wanted slavery ended (John Brown was called a mad man for trying to end slavery at Harpers Ferry, Virginia; I would like to have his brand of madness).

         Please note that whereas white men fought to end slavery they still did not believe that Africans were their equals. Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and the other stalwarts of the effort to end slavery in America believed that Africans were an inferior people.  You really do not have to go to the past to understand this phenomenon, I mean how folks could fight to end slavery yet believe that Africans are an inferior people. All you have to do is go to any white suburb of America, go to the schools, elementary, secondary etc.  You would find that most of the kids are opposed to slavery.  Now ask them if they think that Africans are equal to white folks. Are you ready for this? Most of them would tell you that Africans are an inferior people! Yes they do not want slavery but they see black folks as inferior to them. Many white folks cannot visualize a black person as smart as they are.

       If you understand the point I have just made you would understand the nature of American racism. Deep down white folks see black folks as inferior to them; in polite society they would not say it but when they are angry at you they tell you or treat you as they really see you as, a nigger.  As they see it Africans have not contributed anything to science and technology or built any worthwhile civilization; they must be less intelligent not to have contributed to physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and applied science or built civilizations like Greece, Rome, Western Europe and North America (was ancient Egypt a black civilization...many Africans say yes but many white folks say no).


         The civil war was fought and won. Northern states (union states) defeated southern states (confederates).  The union was saved. But nature always contrives to complicate things for us human beings; it is as if the gods always arrange things so as to laugh at our expense. Thus Abraham Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Booth.

       Lincoln’s vice president, a Southerner from the state of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson took over.  Mr. Johnson was a Democrat (Lincoln was Republican, the party that fought slavery).  Johnson was from a slave state and was himself an ardent believer that black folks were inferior to white folk (apparently Lincoln had selected him, a man from a different party and from the South to try building bipartisan relationships with the opposition Southern democrats).

      Johnson immediately tried to reverse the little gains made for blacks during the civil war.  But Republicans had the majority in Congress and fought to checkmate what Johnson did. In March of 1864 Congress was adjoined and did not return until November and during that time Johnson had free reign to institute practices that undermined the freedmen’s gains.

       Perhaps the best way to present this situation is to discuss the politics of the Reconstruction era in some detail.  The Reconstruction era was the era immediately after the civil war; it is generally believed to have begun in 1864 and ended in 1877 (when the Redeemers of the South, those fighting to relegate blacks to slavery and redeem whites from what they saw as Yankee oppression, won; blacks were practically re-enslaved).

      As noted, the civil war was championed by the North (northerners who like southerners still believed in the racial superiority of white men but who did not like slavery).  The war ended and certain measures were implemented to protect the freed slaves. Congress established what was called the Freedmen Bureau to seek ways to help the freed slaves. Remember that the slaves were hitherto the property of their white masters and had no property. When freed they had no property and no money. They could starve to death.  So what do you do to help them?

        In the 1860s there were no big cities in America that southern slaves could migrate to...America was then a rural society with towns of a few hundred persons.  There were semblances of big cities in the North, such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia.  Now get this: white Northerners did not want freed slaves to flock to the north; they feared the presence of blacks in their areas. As they saw it, inferior black folks should be contained in the South where they belonged.  They discouraged blacks from going up north.  Much of reconstruction politics was really efforts to keep blacks in the south and prevent them from going up north!

       The victorious north reestablished civil order in the south. Initially, they appointed military administrators to administer the defeated southern states.  These administrators were largely Northerners and they instituted reconstruction projects such as feeding freed slaves, establishing schools to educate them and generally trying to help them become independent citizens. But as we all know, the military are not equipped to rule society and could bring about order for a few months but civil rule had to be reestablished.  Thus, efforts were made to reestablish civil rule in the South.  Elections were held.

        Guess who won the elections?  You got it right if you said racist white southerners. That is correct; those that the North just fought and defeated at war returned to government in the many southern states (although efforts were made to prevent the leaders of the rebellion from participating in politics but their surrogates did). 

       The resurgent southerners immediately started dismantling the programs instituted by Northern military administrators, shut down schools (for educated niggers were dangerous, they said). In situations where the plantations of rebel leaders were appropriated and given to freed slaves by both Generals Sherman and Grant those lands were taken back from the freed slaves and returned to their owners. 

        Johnson in Washington kept quiet, if indeed he did not actively cooperate with his fellow Southerners as they dismantled what the Northerners had done to enable freed slaves survive.


        These events were not acceptable to Northerners who saw their work undone. Thus, when Congress returned in the fall of 1864 the Republican controlled Congress tried to undo what President Johnson and his fellow Southern racists did.  The civil war was about to resume and be refought. 

        As these things always work out, folks get tired of fighting the same war all over. Northern anti-slavery forces were exhausted and needed rest. As it were, they took a rest and somehow permitted Southern racists to do their things.  The emergent governments in the southern states systemically undid what the North did to help freed slaves.

        Those Northerners (carpet baggers) who had come south to help freed slaves (such as teachers etc.) were driven out. Even the scalawags (southern whites who sympathized with Africans) were silenced when told by their brother whites that the worst thing that could happen in America is to elect black senators, congressmen etc., to have black men rule America (we have seen this story repeat itself lately...Barack Obama was elected the president of the United States and whites went into shock because whereas they are ready to help blacks they do not want blacks to rule them, hence the emergence of the Tea Party Republicans).

      Above all white southerners engaged in outright terrorism. Whereas the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments had freed black folks and given them the right to vote they were literally killed if they tried to go exercise the right of voting. On election days white folks would station themselves at strategic points and literally kill blacks who tried to go vote. This is terrorism and as expected intimidated black folks and prevented them from voting.

        In 1865, in Pulaski, Tennessee, six ex confederate soldiers formed the Ku Klaus Klan (KKK); this was a white terrorist organization that adorned white robes and hoods and rode on horses to the houses of black folks known to desire racial equality and killed them (in the late twentieth century Arab Janjaweed terrorists did the same in Southern Sudan).  White militias sprung up everywhere and rifle clubs were organized all with the intention of intimidating black folks, arousing fear of death in them and to live they desisted from challenging white folks. 

      By 1877 the South pretty much had reverted to white racist control.  In 1896 the United States Supreme Court entered the fray and in the Ferguson ruling ruled that racial separation was constitutional.  That ruling, along with the 1857 Dred Scott ruling that black men have no civil rights that white men should respect, literally divided America to white and black; it initiated the reign of Jim Crow in the land of Christians. 

       Jim crow lasted to 1964 when Congress under another President Johnson passed the civil rights bill.


          The gains made by black folk during the Reconstruction era are often exaggerated. Only two black men briefly served in the US Senate and a few in the House of Representative; there were no black governors.  Simply stated not much had changed in the land.

        It is true that men of goodwill from the North established schools and colleges for black folks (General O. O Howard who headed the Freedman Bureau helped established Howard University in Washington DC to provide college education for blacks...even he would be horrified to see black folks go to the same schools with white folks); Tuskegee University, Fisk University, Lincoln University, Spellman College and other colleges were started for black folks by white Northerners.

       Such reconstruction era arrangements as sharecropping, however, lasted into the twentieth century (in sharecropping freed slaves worked for their ex-slave masters but not as slaves but as free men; they farmed the land and upon harvest were given half of what they harvested and the master took the other half, hence shared crops...this did not always work out so for the white masters found ways to take most of the crops that the freedmen were supposed to have, they deducted the cost of feeding and housing the ex-slaves).

       Laws were passed against vagrancy meaning that blacks without jobs could be arrested, thus leaving them no option but to stay on the farm and work for their ex masters as serfs.


         In the meantime America was becoming industrialized. Industrialization began in Britain in the mid-1700s and in the mid-1800s America and Germany struggled to become industrialized. This meant the establishment of factories and the congregation of workers in one place of work. Instead of workers working alone in their cottages they were brought to factories.

        By the 1860s America was on its way to becoming industrialized. By 1940 America was completely industrialized. What this meant in real terms was that rural farm folk left the land and went to live in the cities where they worked in factories. White farmers migrated to urban areas in search of factory work. Black folks did the same.

        Black folk migrated to the northern cities where factories were located (Detroit, Chicago, New York, Petersburg, Harrisburg, Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Seattle and Los Angeles). The North had used all kinds of measures to prevent black migration to them but now that they needed workers in their factories they welcomed blacks (and European peasants who flocked to America in search of work). 

       Black folks became an urban folk. As would be expected they were shunted into the inner cities, the ghettos where they still live.

        Urban folks have different attitudes than rural folks so the migration to northern urban areas drastically changed black America.  It led to blacks making enormous contributions to America’s urban cultures: think of the Harlem renaissance and the flood of writing it produced (think Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson); think of innovations in music such as Jazz, Blues, and Rhythm and Blues, Soul music. America’s pop culture to the present is really a black phenomenon.


        In the early twentieth century some black folks had college education and started what is now called the civil rights movement.  Booker T Washington was sufficiently educated to ask whites to help him educate other Negroes. The man said that he was not going to challenge whites by providing intellectual education to Negros but instead would have them train in the trades (carpentry, mechanics and so on) so that they would have jobs and not challenge white supremacy. White folks loved the idea and gave him the funds with which he carried out his mission. 

       In 1909 W.E.B Dubois and a few other Negros challenged Booker’s approach to the Negro issue and called for Negros to be given liberal arts education.  The following year Dubois and others with the help of white liberals started the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).  With folk’s contributions to its legal defense fund, the NAACP hired lawyers who challenged the various laws that Southern states had enacted to relegate Negros to second class citizenship. 

        Folk like Thurgood Marshall led in this legal war.  The war took may twists and turns but culminated in the landmark 1954 Warren Court ruling in the Brown versus Topeka, Kansas Board of Education that segregation of schools is unconstitutional (in that suit a black child, Brown, was prevented from going to the school in her white neighborhood and had to go to school in the black neighborhood). 

       President Eisenhower, himself a racist dilly dallied in implementing the Supreme Court’s ruling (he reportedly told an aide that he was afraid that big black Negros would rape fragile white girls so he was afraid to integrate schools).  It took President John Kennedy in the early 1960s to start trying to implement the Warren court ruling.

       In 1955 a black woman, Rosa Park refused to get up and give her bus seat to a white man; she was arrested; the arrest led to the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts led by a twenty-something year old Baptist minister, Martin Luther King.  The boycott sparked the civil rights movement. Malcolm X was all over the country giving fiery speeches.  In the San Francisco-Oakland area of California Hughie Newton, Bobby Seal and Eldridge Cleaver formed the Black Panther Party to challenge police brutality towards black folk.  Julian Bond, Stockly Carmichael and his student nonviolent coordinating committee worked the college angle of the struggle.  These struggles culminated in the 1964 civil rights Act and the 1965 Fair Housing Act (that outlawed restrictive covenants...real estate folks used to steer black house buyers to black neighborhoods). 

       The 1960s finally ended the civil war. The 1970s was an era of already changed America, an America where blacks could now go to schools of their choice and struggle to secure jobs on merit.




        Civil rights are the name given to the mighty struggle by black Americans to obtain their civil liberties in America.  I will not dwell on specific laws in the legal struggle. For our present purposes what is salient is that black folks were originally slaves in America and struggled to be given the rights all free men should have in organized society. As noted, in organized society there can be no perfect freedom, rights must be circumscribed for one man’s right is another man’s harm; civil society can only have attenuated liberties for all people.

       As America eventually becomes a color blind society the notion of civil rights would end and the debate returns to where it should be: civil liberties, the eternal struggle to give men some freedom while they are bound by the laws of civil societies they live in.

      The election of the first black President of America, his way paved by Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson’s earlier runs, would seem to have ended the civil rights battle in America.  But as we have seen despite Barack Obama’s stay in the White House many Republican controlled states have enacted legislation restricting black voting rights (such as requiring government issued identification cards, such as driver’s licenses which many black folk do not have).

       The struggle for civil rights, the right to vote and have relative freedom in the land, must still go on. Those who ignore the struggle wake up one day to find their civil rights and civil liberties destroyed by a political system that cannot seem to have some things settled and taken for granted and stop monkeying with them (such things as provision of public education to students from kindergarten to university, health insurance to all people, social security for older persons  by now ought to be accepted as legitimate function of government, but those issues are always re-contested as Republican politicians always desire to gut them).

      So far, African-American politics has largely centered on the struggle for civil rights; that struggle was made necessary by deliberate efforts by those in political power, white folks, to deny them basic civil liberties. In normal political systems what we have is the eternal struggle for civil liberties, the quest to retain as much freedom as is feasible for human beings living in organized society where their freedom cannot be absolute.



Ozodi Thomas Osuji

April 25, 2012










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