About twenty-seven million people, or a little more than one-tenth of all United States citizens, are descended from people brought across the Atlantic from Africa between 150 and 300 years ago as slave. The consequences of this ancient trade have brought trouble and embarrassment to the American Republic from the time of its foundation.
From the beginning the colonists in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England stayed out of the slave trade, but they could not stop the plantation owners of the South from buying slaves from Africa―a trade shared by the West Indies and the southern continent. Towards 1800 the southern states stopped the trade, and from then onwards no more slave ships came in, except for a few which came illegally. But by then there were nearly a million slaves in plantation of the South, and the U. S. Constitution had not changed their status. Southern slavery was ended only with the victory of the northern states in the civil war of 1861-1865. The U. S. constitution was amended so as to outlaw slavery, and to grant automatic citizenship and the equal protection of the laws to any person born in the United States.
But long after 1865 the dominant whites in most of the South were still finding ways of excluding black citizens from real equality. Several of these devices, particularly those affecting voting rights, were found at various dates to be unconstitutional after argument before the Supreme Court of the United States. But even in the 1950s there were cases of southern black people being intimidated (恐吓) when they came to register as voters; and in the South there were still separate school, separate seats in local buses, even separate hospital car parks―and whites-only facilities of many kinds. Black opposition to discrimination was led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, with strong support from liberally-minded whites. The 1950s brought the beginning of major change.
Back in 1896 the Supreme Court had ruled that if an education authority provided separate school of black and white children, there was no denial of the equal protection of the laws, as guaranteed by the Constitution―provided that the separate school were of equal quality. In 1954 the Court ruled that experience showed that separate school could not be of equal quality, so the "equal protection" clause of the fourteenth amendment could not allow states to provide separate education.
At this time a black clergyman, Martin Luther King, became the informal leader of active movements of non-violent protest against racial segregation of all kinds, and he gained admiring support from white Americans in the South as well as in the North. King came to the center of the stage at the time when television was becoming widely available. When defenders of the white supremacist traditions of the South reacted violently against a peaceful campaign for equal treatment, television showed the unpleasant scenes which they provoked. When the University of Mississippi admitted its first black student in 1962, he met with such threats of violence that he had to be protected by large groups of armed soldiers wherever he went. The people responsible for this intimidation soon learned that their actions were seen on television with hostile commentary, throughout the world. They could see that they brought shame, not just upon themselves, but upon their country.
After the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, his successor as President, Lyndon Johnson, expanded his ideas and led Congress to pass laws to eliminate racial discrimination. Southern racism was soon in full retreat, and its downfall owed much to the charisma (号召力) of Luther King, the symbol of the crusade against it. In 1969, Luther King became a martyr too, and like Kennedy and his brother, he was assassinated. Later the U. S. Congress set aside one day each year as a national holiday in his memory―an honor given to only one other man, George Washington, the nation's first President.
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