The Resistance: A Black American Tradition


By Niko Wagner | Contributing Writer

In the past several weeks the Black Lives Movement has been shot to the forefront of the American conversation, triggered by the senseless murders of innocent unarmed Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery to name a few. The Black Lives Matter campaign may be the first large scale Black uprising in the lifetime of those born after the civil rights movement, however, the act of resisting white supremacy is older than the country that so adamantly defends it.

Before the Pilgrims… (1500’s)

The very first demonstration of Black protest against European oppression dates all the way back to the 1520s, when captive Africans revolted against their captors, colonists from the San Miguel de Guadalupe settlement. These self-liberated Africans were taken in by nearby Native American communities as their kidnappers packed up and sailed back to the island of Hispaniola. That means not only were these captive slaves the first to revolt against enslavers, but also the first Africans to be successful at liberation!

The Holocaust of Slavery (1619-1865)

During the era of American slavery, Blacks  used a number of methods to resist their condition. Famous rebellions may ring bells, such as the Stono Rebellion and Nat Turner’s rebellion, however, other more cunning routes of protest were actually the mainstream. A popular approach was for field hands to collectively slow their pace, essentially sabotaging the plantation productivity and profits – sometimes playing a part in the demise of an entire plantation. Self-liberation was a very risky form of resistance, but if successful in making the treacherous journey into free territory, the reward was freedom with a side of stripping the slave owner of expensive assets. Martyrs may sometimes committed suicide by jumping off slavery ships or by other means if already on the plantation. Though this method was extreme and tragic, the act of suicide while in bondage was also a noble power move, asserting one would choose death over being another man’s property. Enslaved women knew to ingest herbs and cottonseed as contraceptives to keep from being impregnated, taking back some sense of ownership over their own bodies and refusing to be used for “slave breeding”. While colonists campaigned for severance from Britain, there was another unseen campaign for freedom happening on plantations. Captives who overheard rhetoric of ‘inalienable rights’ and ‘all men are created equal’, quoted this very ideology in their own letters and petitions to make a formal case for their freedom. These documents were then sent to governing officials but as we know, slavery would continue almost 100 more years before being abolished. Finally, the efforts of free Black activists, like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, would ultimately be the driving force behind terminating the institution of slavery in America.

Reconstruction (After the civil war)

Even after slavery was successfully abolished, freed Blacks now had a host of other obstacles to navigate through, and yes, resist. “Black Codes”, as they were often referred to, limited Black freedoms by imposing curfews, travel restrictions, barriers to education, and voter suppression – just to name a few. Confederate soldiers who lingered from the civil war were granted the title of judge, jury and executioner. This resulted in the mass incarceration of Blacks, many children, with some being carried off to jail for frivolous things like speaking too loud in public or walking on the wrong side of the train tracks. Because the 13th Amendment has a loophole that allows for slavery if you are held in legal confinement, Blacks were essentially rounded up and put right back to the task they fought 250 years to be liberated from. It was also during this period that the Ku Klux Klan materialized and resorted to establishing dominance through fear and violence. 

Black communities pushed back and formed their own neighborhood militias to protect themselves and each other from white murderous mobs. Reconstruction resistance efforts also saw 2000 Black men elected to public office, some of which were U.S. senate seats. By way of public office, these men advocated for policy reform and protections for their communities. In addition, leagues for equal rights erupted and justice conventions were organized. These platforms gave African Americans and liberal white allies the opportunity to discuss social and political inequalities and formulate progressive approaches to remedy them. The tangible effects of this Black activation resulted in legislative reforms, most notably voting rights were granted to Black men. However, these radical steps toward equity did not come without risks, as some 35 Black men elected to government positions were murdered by the Klu Klux Klan. 

Jim Crow (1870-1960)

The era of Jim Crow segregation brought a new wave of oppressive forces and, of course, new methods of resistance adapted accordingly. Jim Crow began as state laws across various southern states that served to keep the Black population distanced from whites in public spaces, often being left with worse alternative resources if any at all. In the 1896 Brown vs. Fergusson Supreme Court case, it was ruled that measures meant to keep Blacks and whites “separate but equal” were lawful under the constitution. While separation was achieved, the gross negligence (or blatant racism) of the Supreme Court decision left Black populations far from equal. Many southern Blacks were doomed to a life of sharecropping, basically performing the same back-breaking fieldwork of a slave as well as living in former slave quarters within the plantation they worked. It was common practice for white homeowners to manipulate data and lie to sharecropping families that they didn’t bring in enough crops. As a result, these families would rack up debt, becoming financially trapped on the plantation, sometimes for generations. It was also during this stretch of time that lynchings seemed to become a national pastime, with around 3,500 Black victims, according to the Tuskegee Institute. 

Despite constant efforts to keep African Americans under the thumb of white supremacy, they were determined to rise above it. What is referred to as the great migration of the early 1920s was a grand mass exodus of Black southerners, many educated, who were fed up and fearful of continuing life in the south. Around 6 million Black southerners would relocate to places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Some African Americans would even opt to establish all-Black cities that would serve as sanctuaries where they could truly thrive, examples include Mound Bayou, MS, Langston, OK, and Julian, CA (The Julian pie company was actually founded by a Black woman!). The summer of 1919 was dubbed “The Red Summer” due to the racially motivated riots that swept the nation over the course of several summer months. The rapid influx of Black people into cities where the Black population used to be a vast minority, paired with the almost 400,000 African American WW1 veterans who were now returning home, caused whites to grow exceedingly anxious about losing their stronghold on the power structure. White terrorism erupted across the country, their violence and murders of innocent Black people triggering country-wide race riots. Much like today’s Black Lives Matter protests, African Americans took to the streets to publicly to declare a new war on racism and white supremacy. Hundreds of people would be killed and thousands more would be left homeless after the red summer. 

The Red Summer of 1919
Photo credit:
White children celebrating their burning down of a Black-owned building

The Civil Rights Movement (1940-1960’s)

Although the civil rights movement could technically be grouped into the Jim Crow section, this movement, sometimes referred to as the 2nd American civil war, is such a pivotal moment in the struggle for liberation it deserves a section all it’s own. It’s hard to believe that only 60 years ago Jim Crow laws were still alive and well, it’s also interesting to think just how much longer these laws would have survived if it had not been for the activation of the people. Rosa Parks famously ignited the movement by refusing to give her seat up to a white man and was arrested for this refusal. Inspired by the demonstration, Martin Luther King, Jr.  would lead a newly founded Montgomery Improvement Association (M.I.A) to boycott the city’s transportation system. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted over a year and resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that banned seating segregation in 1956. The Little Rock Nine refers to a group of nine high school students who volunteered to be the 1st Black students to join a formerly segregated all-white school after the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled segregated education unconstitutional. The students arrived at the school on September 3rd, 1957, and were greeted by a violent screaming mob as well as the Arkansas National Guard, ordered there by the state’s governor to keep the children from entering. President Eisenhower would intervene, sending federal troops to escort the students to and from school. The 1960 lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina gained traction, starting with just four students who were refused service at Woolworth’s lunch counter, which grew into hundreds of young activists demonstrating at every segregated lunch counter. This protest is what would birth the SNCC or the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC’s most notable feat was the Freedom Summer of 1964 when it’s chair, Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael, you know, the man who coined the term “Black Power”) marched through Mississippi to register Black voters. They would also form the Black Panther Party, a new political party altogether. The Freedom Riders were a group of Black and white student activists who decided to test the new Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling that prohibited segregation in interstate travel. The riders faced violent attacks from white mobs and police throughout their journey, at one point being bombed, beaten and left without a bus to complete their journey. Once the demonstrators did get back up and running, this time with police escort, they made it all the way to Montgomery (yes, this town, AGAIN) where they were abandoned by police escorts and left to the mercy of the angry mob that was awaiting their arrival. In May of 1961 the Freedom Riders reached Jackson, MS where they were arrested for trespassing onto a segregated facility. Their case would be brought before the Supreme Court who would overturn their convictions, releasing them to be joined with new ranks of hundreds more Freedom Riders who joined the cause. Eventually, the Interstate Commerce Commission would agree to prohibit racial segregation within interstate travel systems. Many more instances of resistance stand out during this movement: the march on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, or Bloody Sunday, where 600 peaceful protestors were met by brutal violence at the hands of Alabama police. These years-long efforts were not in vain, as many new significant laws and regulations were enacted as a direct result of the constant pressure of Black activation. On July 2, 1964, President Kennedy signed the civil rights act of 1964 which promised employment equality, squandered the use of literacy tests to register voters and granted authorities power to enforce integration efforts. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would further this progress by banning literacy tests completely and provide examiners in certain counties to ensure the measures were being respected. In the 1966 Harper v. Virginia case, the Supreme Court would also rule poll tax unconstitutional. Though the activists who were party to the civil rights movement faced terrible abuses and, at times, discouraging prospects, their resistance forced this country to truly recognize Black Americans as first-class citizens, at least in the eyes of the law, for the first time in history.

Though this list merely scratches the surfaces of America’s history of Black resistance, I hope readers will see the pattern that surfaces from the sea of words above. How the only constant in African American history is not only just the gross and unrelenting oppression of our people but our resilience, perseverance and instinctual response to RESIST such oppression. 

The resistance is in our blood. When you switch on the news and see the uprising in the streets today, know that it’s only a modern battle belonging to the larger war that’s been waged over the last 400 years. The face of oppression has worn many masks throughout the centuries, but different doesn’t mean better! Time after time Black America has been chastised for wanting equity, for not being content with what small advances towards liberation we are granted. Do not allow these pacifying tactics to avail. Murals, street names, and Black voice actors just won’t cut it. America’s government is one of the most powerful entities in the world but when Black America bands together to take a stand the results are time-tested and proven successful. Let us honor the bravery of our grandparents and all great grandparents that came before who risked their lives so that we may live as we do now. We honor them by telling their stories, carrying the baton into the next generation and furthering their progress. Resistance has become a time-honored African American tradition, one I am elated to observe continues strong today. In the words of our late brother Nipsey Hussle, “The Marathon Continues.”

Niko Wagner
Niko Wagner

Hey family! A little bit about me, I obtained my Associate’s in Black Studies from San Diego Mesa College and am now majoring in Africana studies with an emphasis on education at SDSU. I’m a mama to a 1-year-old young king who helps edit all my papers ( he’s very meticulous). Besides articles, I also write poetry and music, and occasionally a composition piece for 1 of my 5 instruments. As a certified yoga teacher and a self-proclaimed natural hair enthusiast, I have a YouTube channel dedicated to both! I love to serve my community in ways that cultivate unity & progression and I’m grateful that Black& has given me another way of doing just that. Spreading love & information ♡


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