Civil Rights for All Americans
Today the civil rights of all Americans are protected by law. But this was not always the case. When the United States was first founded people of color did not have the right to vote in local, state and national elections. Women couldn’t own property, hold public office or vote. State and federal laws did not protect the civil rights of all citizens of the United States as they do today. What has changed since our country was founded?
The Fight for Change
The Constitution begins with the words “…we the people.” Just as the colonists fought to gain their freedom from British rule, so men and women of all races and creeds fought for civil rights. The battle was mainly fought on two important issues. The first was to eliminate the Jim Crow laws. The second battle was to obtain the right to vote for all citizens.
Jim Crow Laws
After the Civil War, African-American people were no longer slaves but they were not free from discrimination, segregation and prejudice. From around 1880 until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, many states enforced segregation through "Jim Crow" laws. These laws were written to keep the races separate from each other. Segregation was not legal in Iowa but many Iowa communities segregated black people from white people anyway.
George Washington Carver
Etta May Budd met George Washington Carver when she taught art at Simpson College in Indianola. He was enrolled in one of her art classes. He was good at painting and at gardening too. Budd encouraged Carver to study plants rather than paint them. So he enrolled at Iowa State College in Ames to study agriculture. Etta visited Carver at Ames where she discovered something that made her very unhappy. Carver had to eat his meals in the kitchen rather than the dining hall with the other students because he was black. Segregation was unacceptable to Etta. She brought him into the dining hall where the white students took their meals.
At Iowa State Carver was a brilliant biology student. Upon graduation, he was offered a teaching position. He was the first black teacher at Iowa State College. Carver went on to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He changed agriculture in the southern states and researched over 300 uses for the peanut and 100 products that could be made from the sweet potato.
Like Carver, Valetta Fields fought racial segregation in Iowa. She was born in 1895 in southern Iowa. She was one of the first black women to go to college at the University of Iowa. Her husband graduated with a degree in law about the same time as she. When they moved to Waterloo in the 1920s, neither of them were able to get the work for which they were qualified. In addition, Waterloo businesses were segregated. Mrs. Fields recalled that black people “….had to be seated in a special place in theatres when we came. Restaurants had signs, ‘Negro patrons not solicited.’ A lot of our generation had not experienced that. My husband being red hot and fresh out of law school, knew the code of Iowa and he and the county attorney got together and said this thing is against the code of Iowa. And they got those signs removed.” Mrs. Fields’ experience shows how Iowans have fought for civil rights.
Like Valetta Fields, Edna Griffin also fought for civil rights for African-American people. In 1947 she and her husband, Dr. Stanley Griffin, moved to Des Moines. They knew that it was against Iowa law for business owners to discriminate against people based on race. In 1948 Mrs. Griffin sat down in Katz Drug Store in Des Moines. The store said that it was, "not equipped to serve colored people." Mrs. Griffin sued the owner and won in court. This was just the beginning. Mrs. Griffin founded a chapter of the Iowa Congress for Racial Equality and spent her entire life fighting for civil rights.
Jim Crow laws were used to keep the races separated from one another. Voting rights were another important part of civil rights. Following the Civil War many Americans didn’t have the right to vote. In 1870 the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It said that no citizen could be denied the right to vote on the basis of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” This meant that men of all races could vote. It meant former slaves could also vote. Women did not receive the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.
Despite the 15th Amendment, many citizens, particularly in southern states were restricted from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Poll taxes made it impossible for poor people to vote. Literacy tests allowed local officials to restrict the voting rights of African-Americans.
Carrie Chapman Catt
While African-Americans and other people of color fought for their civil rights, women of all races also fought for the right to vote. An Iowan, Carrie Chapman Catt, led the fight for women’s voting rights. She was born in Wisconsin in 1859. At age 7 she and her family moved to Iowa where she went on to graduate from Iowa State College in Ames. She was a hard worker and showed a lot of leadership ability. After college she worked as a law clerk, schoolteacher and principal. She became one of the first women to be appointed superintendent of an Iowa school. But her most important work was to help women receive the right to vote. Catt worked with the National American Women Suffrage Association and later founded the International Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA). Through her leadership and that of many other women, the right to vote was granted to women when the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1920.
Tinker vs. Des Moines
Racial equality and voting rights were not the only civil rights Iowans have fought for. In 1965 John and Mary Beth Tinker fought for free speech. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech. But school officials in Des Moines told John and his sister Mary Beth that they could not wear black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam. They wore them anyway and were suspended from school. Later, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tinkers’ decision to wear the armbands was protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Tinker vs. Des Moines (1969) is remembered as a landmark court case in the fight for civil rights and free speech.
Civil Rights for All Iowans
Today the long fought battle for civil rights for all of Iowa’s citizens is being helped by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. The purpose of this commission is to enforce the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965. This act works to prohibit discrimination or different treatment of Iowa citizens in the areas of housing, education and employment. The Commission works to eliminate discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, sex and other personal characteristics.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Lynn E. Nielsen.