During World War II, Black activists like Du Bois wanted to fight racism in the U.S. and fascism abroad. After the war, Du Bois participated in international activist meetings that tried to address racism and promote solidarity among people of African descent everywhere. The U.S.’s racism was affecting its global image, so in 1948, President Truman asked Congress to address the problem by passing a civil rights act. This idea infuriated Southern Democrats, who ran the racist candidate Strom Thurmond against Truman. But Truman still won reelection.
Like during World War I, during World War II, Black soldiers had political bargaining power beaucse of their importance to the military. International pressure got the 1948 law passed, which validates one of antiracism’s main principles: that equality and justice require building power and changing policies, not just building a following and changing minds. This was also the era of decolonization, when European colonies in Africa and Asia were fighting for their independence. Now that he was an antiracist focused on building political power to change policy, Du Bois clearly saw how Black Americans’ and colonized peoples’ freedom struggles were linked, so he worked with them to share knowledge and build racial pride.
Two major court cases changed the course of Black history during Truman’s next term. First, in Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court banned racial discrimination in real estate contracts, which let Black people live where they wanted. As a result, scared white people started moving to the suburbs. Second, in Brown v. Board of Education, the court integrated public schools. However, this was based on the racist idea that Black kids need to study around white kids to succeed. They could also receive a better education if their schools were just better-funded. Regardless, racists were angry about both court cases. A year later, in Mississippi, white men murdered a young boy named Emmett Till for the crime of “supposedly ‘hissing’ at a White woman.”
Like many of the popular abolitionist arguments in the run-up to the Civil War, these two Supreme Court cases advanced antiracist goals, even though they weren’t actually antiracist. Instead, they were assimilationist: they focused on letting certain Black people—those who could afford suburban houses and those lucky enough to get into certain schools—access to the same benefits as white people. So they were a huge step forward, but they still essentially just benefitted the elite: they didn’t give the majority of Black people the same rights and benefits as the majority of white people. The same pattern from colonial rebellions, the 1870s, and 1919 repeated itself again: racists responded to progress with terrorist violence. Readers should be used to this pattern by now—and they should know to expect it in the future. This is one example of how learning about history can make antiracists into better activists today.
After Du Bois, the Atlanta preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. soon became the civil rights movement’s most visible leader. Meanwhile, Black students led sit-ins at “Whites only” lunch counters and founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was an antiracist activist group. In 1963, King led a series of protests and wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” However, King also made the mistake of confusing antiracists with anti-white Black separatists, which lost him support. Around this time, Malcolm X was becoming popular as an antiracist alternative to Dr. King.
Virtually every young American has heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But Kendi and Reynolds think that his legacy too often gets distorted and too frequently overshadows the rest of the civil rights movement, which was really powered by millions of ordinary people who organized groups like the SNCC and put their own freedom on the line for the sake of justice. They also point out that many of King’s ideas were more assimilationist than antiracist, at least early in his career. (So were Malcolm X’s—he just came around to antiracism sooner.)
After the Birmingham police violently attacked civil rights protestors, President Kennedy asked Congress to pass another civil rights law. At the March on Washington, Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and led a moment of silence for W. E. B. Du Bois, who died a day before.
These are the best-known events from the civil rights movement—they received national attention and put enough pressure on the government to force it to act. Kendi and Reynolds emphasize that King was not only part of a broader movement, but also part of a broader legacy—past leaders, like W. E. B. Du Bois, set the civil rights movement up to succeed by helping train the people and develop the ideas that fueled it.