Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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Jim, Jackie, Martin?

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


The resilience of the African American people in American history, really is a genuine testament to the human spirit. Because after 250 years of slavery, and then another 90 years of legalized oppression, under what’s known as Jim Crow Laws, African Americans nonetheless demanded that the united States live up to its lofty ideals. Those ideals that were stated in the declaration of independence and the Constitution Bill of Rights. And despite the hurdles and obstacles put in their path, they consistently persevered. So in this episode, we’re going to look at what I call Jim, Jackie, Martin and Berky.

Jim Crow laws, Jackie Madison, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Berky Supreme Court case, give us kind of a big picture, and a big backdrop that I think nicely summarizes the African American history for us. It gives us a good context to look at it in.

After the Civil War, of course you had the Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which is in on the bonus materials and you really should read it carefully, because it’s kind of an interesting document. Because Lincoln actually freed all the slaves in the South, where he had no power. And really didn’t free anybody in the North. But it was symbolically very important proclamation, because it really was seen as freeing the slaves. Of course once the North won the Civil War, it did free all of the slaves who had been in captivity in the South.

After the Civil War, of course there were the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments, the Civil Rights, Civil War amendments as they called. We talked about those in an earlier episode, again those are in the bonus material.

And you should familiarize yourself with those. I can almost guarantee 13th, 14th, 15th amendments will be on the AP US history exam. But what you also need to know about, are Jim Crow Laws. Jim Crow Laws really were the South’s way of dancing around those amendments and not providing black people with equal protection under the law.

Jim Crow Laws basically were laws which created ways to deny black people their rights after the Civil War, and during reconstruction. And one way that Jim Crow Laws initially had some teeth, was they were backed by some very violent organizations; the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia. These were groups of armed hooded men who used to terrorize the countryside and really ensure that black people remained illegally, even though it was legal, legally oppressed in the United States.

Despite that, what we see as the 20th century doors, is this incredible outpouring of intellect at artistry from African American people. As we get to the 1920s, a period known as the Harlem Remissions a number of people who we see here, Langston Hughes, Haston writers, playwrights, and poets and novelists. James Weldon Johnson, Marcus Garvey as a politician, Langston Hughes as a poet. These people start to produce some of the great literary and artistic works at the time. You also see here some shots of the Jim Crow segregation. The black only, white only separation. We also had, I had mentioned in an earlier episode, this incredible outpouring of music, Luis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, really create the most genuine American vernacular of music.

And it established United States as an incredibly creative and inventive force in world music to this day. We really should take note that through all this struggle, all this oppression, the amazing resilience of the African American people in producing this stuff. And also, in preparation for that AP in US history test, recognizing that these are all contributions, in terms of culture in terms of social values, in terms of economics, in terms of literary contributions. We really should keep in mind for those essay parts especially.

It takes until World War II, when black fighting units, the Tuskegee element, most notably who had a movie made about them. But another battalion of black soldiers and like native Americans and Japanese Americans who went and really distinguished themselves in World War II. It really changed the way Americans had to look at their own country after World War II.

In July 26th 1948, Harry Truman, the president of the United States finally issues an executive order saying that the United States army has to be integrated. And that’s significant, because the federal government is finally taking a step saying separate but equal, which was still the law of the land. Remember 1896, Plessy vs Ferguson, separate but equal was the law. Truman says not in the US army. The federal government is not going to put up with that.

But probably more significant, and a year earlier, in the spring of 1947, Jackie Robinson, a young black man from Southern California, UCLA graduate, a veteran of the US Army, plays major league baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

And this is an incredible moment for the American History because baseball in 1947 was the spot that every American paid attention to. Robinson breaking the color line, is really one of the most incredible moments in US history. It opens the flood gates, then becomes the most momentous Supreme Court case, the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. I’ve talked about that in an earlier episode. I can't stress enough how important that is. I can guarantee it will be on the AP US history test, because it changed the United States. It said separate but equal in fact cannot be the law of the land. As soon as you separate people, things are not equal. Like the people in the photographs behind me, were finally going to be given an equal chance in the eyes of the federal government, at the very least. And slowly but surely in the eyes of the American people.

We’ve got Brown vs. the Board of Ed. It takes a while. America doesn’t change overnight. We know that. There is the 1957 integration of Little Rock Arkansas Central High School, which requires federal troops to allow the black students to actually attend Central High school in Little Rock. And we get a series of events in late 50s and early 60s, in which the south in particular, is incredibly resistant to integration. George Wallace, the governor of Alabama stands in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from entering and has to be removed by federal marshalls. But the federal government is really starting to step it up, and defend the rights of African Americans.

It probably wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King unior’s organization of the Civil Rights movement and his leadership, and his symbolic leadership certainly changes things. I’d mentioned earlier we’ve got Jim Crow, and then Jackie Robinson and now Martin Luther King Junior, who really gives impetus to Linda Johnson passing, leading passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And the real movement toward genuine equality for African Americans.

Nonetheless, this is the United States and things don’t change quickly. And for every progressive move forward, there’s always a conservative step back.

In the late 1970s, a case comes to the floor of the Supreme Court brought by a man named Bakke. In which he contends he is suffering from reverse discrimination. That in fact things have gone so far, in the direction of helping black people get their rights, that white people can’t in fact get equal treatment. This was really about admission to graduate school and it became a very controversial case. For us what’s most important is to recognize the term reverse discrimination. It enters the US vocabulary in 1977, 78, 79, and it continues to be heard out there, along with the term affirmative action.

Here is an idea that you need to put into action, to think about. What do you really know about affirmative action and reverse discrimination? I’ve got materials for you in the bonus materials section and you can look up some things about it. But before you look things up, I’m always going to encourage you to brainstorm and think about, what do I already know about the idea of affirmative action and reverse discrimination. Is it just something I’ve heard at the dinner table, is it something I’ve picked up at the locker room? Is it just word on the street or do I really working knowledge of these ideas? What I’ll encourage you to do is, brainstorm and then research. And then the challenge, the real idea and action challenge I’m going to give you, is to go out and survey people. Find out if people actually have correct information, or they’re just kind of flying by the seat of their pants and basing it on something they heard, here or there, or do they really know? What’s the legal situation and really let’s put some ideas into action here and have some fun with history, finding out, what are the facts?

That’s a quick look at really African American history in the context of US history. But really what we need to remember is race is that, still a huge hot button issue in this country. It’s really the elephant in the room. We don’t like to talk about it. It makes people uncomfortable. But the fact is, we’ve got to. And we also got to be educated and aware.

Certainly right now it’s the center stage with Barrack Obama running for president. And I think probably as we finish up this episode, what I would ask you to really reflect on and think about and maybe project ahead. And this might be a great connection for a document-based question or a free response essay that you’ll see on the AP exam is, what would an Obama presidency means to the United States? What does an Obama candidacy mean? That we’ve got a black man running for president, now in the 21st century. After all those years of slavery, after all those years of Jim Crow, all those years of fighting for equal rights, that we’ve now reached this point. It may not be ideal, but certainly it’s got to be a significant point in US history. And it’s one that you really, really need to think about and put it in the context of the big picture. And again, I think make a connection at whatever chance you get on the US AP History exam.

That’s our view of African American History. What we’ve got coming up next, of course ties to African American History in terms of labor. Well, African Americans provided free labor for hundreds of years. American workers provided incredibly cheap labor for sometimes very unscrupulous bosses and businessmen. And what we want to look at next is, the history of labor and working class people in this country, which is something we don’t always look at.

And it’s an important aspect and one that I think you’ll find has some real relevance to today as well as importance for you and doing the AP US History exam. So let’s take a look at that next episode on working class people.

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