The Long Struggle for Freedom Rights
Posted June 2, 2020
Topics: Civil WarMilitaryPresidents & PoliticsAfrican American HistoryDaily Life

By Kieran Robertson

Historians often split the African American civil rights movement in the United States into two pieces- the struggle for freedom, and the struggle for freedom rights. These categories are used to clarify the differences in the movement before and after emancipation.

Freedom rights are the rights granted by your government that give you the chance to truly enjoy your freedom as a citizen. These are rights like access to education, housing, jobs, and equal representation. If you are denied basic access to these rights you are not able to be truly free. After the Civil War ended, members of the civil rights movement turned to these rights as their next goal.

But the United States continued to deny these freedom rights to African Americans. By denying these rights, many white Americans could continue to benefit from the labor of African American communities, despite the end of slavery.

Progress has been made by the civil rights movement, but as evidenced by the protests today, the movement is not over. Freedom rights are still not guaranteed. The ways in which these rights are denied has changed, but the decision to deny black Americans these rights is still rooted in the racism that developed in the United States to support enslavement. It is not always easy to link passive actions like implicit bias to American slavery. But by looking at the civil rights movement as a whole, we can see the ways that white supremacy, the ideology that justified American slavery, has changed but prevailed.

History is important to helping us understand our present. Below is a brief history of civil rights protest in Ohio, beginning with the struggle for freedom from enslavement. This Ohio history, and the history of our nation make it clear that current civil rights struggles are related to a longer legacy of slavery, racism, and white supremacy. We can also see that today’s activists are part of an equally long legacy of brave agents of social change.

Abolitionist Era

During the era of slavery in the United States, Ohio was a free state. This did not mean that free black Ohioans were complete citizens. The Black Laws, a series of state legal codes, made it illegal for black Ohioans to vote, testify in court against whites, hold public office, serve in the state militia, own guns, or marry whites, among many other limitations. New black residents had to file a $500 bond and were required to have a white witness sign to guarantee their good behavior.

Never the less, black Ohioans got to work leading the movement to free the enslaved. Across the state, groups of black and white residents worked together to protect freed individuals from the terrors of the Fugitive Slave Act. Free men showed up at the State House or wrote letters to their local newspapers (or created their own newspapers) to make their opinions heard. Free black men and women risked their own enslavement to help others cross the border into Ohio and further on into Canada on the Underground Railroad.

In 1842, at the young age of 22, John T. Ward began to aid escaped slaves in their passage through the city of Columbus. By the dawn of the Civil War, Ward and his son, William S. Ward, worked on government contracts to transport military provisions to Camp Chase. William trained his own son, Earl E. Ward, in the business, leading to the great success of the family run E.E. Ward Moving and Storage Company. Today E.E. Ward Moving and Storage claims the title of the longest-running, black-owned business in the country.

John T. Ward Transporting Fugitives in Columbus, Ohio to Freedom, 1800s , 1982, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. Image Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art.


The era immediately after the Civil War, often called Reconstruction, was a time of increased freedom rights for black Americans. Black men voted and held political office at a fairly high rate.

It was during this time that Robert James Harlan of Cincinnati became involved in politics. A former slave, Harlan began his civil rights activism through speeches urging the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. He gained attention and was elected a delegate- at- large to the Republican National Convention in 1872 and appointed as a special agent of the Treasury Department by President Arthur. He later became a military officer and in 1886 was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives where he ensured the Black Laws were repealed.

Most historians mark the end of Reconstruction in 1877, as a result of the election of Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in 1876. After a dispute in vote counts, Democrats and Republicans ended the election in the “Compromise of 1877.” Democrats allowed Republicans to take the presidency, if they promised to remove the federal troops in the South that protected black citizens from racial terrorism. The deal was made, and Reconstruction began to come to an end.

Robert James Harlan, Image Courtesy of Ohio Statehouse.


During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Southern whites took control of the historic narrative, building a Lost Cause ideology that still permeates American life. In this view, the Civil War is about state’s rights and preserving a southern way of life. In addition slavery is considered a “peculiar institution” that was benevolent to black men and women who could not live on their own. Instances of racial violence grew, Confederate memorials began to pop up, and black names were removed from the legislature and voter rolls.

Unfortunately, Reconstruction had not provided one crucial freedom right that may have made this backlash easier to conquer: the access to land. Freed slaves in the South could not make a living without access to the 40 acres and a mule they had been promised. This meant a life of share cropping, where former masters were able to trap former slaves in complicated agreements that left white men in control of black labor yet again.

Complicating this issue was the growing criminalization of black behavior that led to arrests for the purpose of convict leasing. If black Americans were arrested, they lost any freedom rights and instead had to provide free labor while in prison.

Jim Crow Laws were not present in Ohio and most of the North, because there was not yet a large black population. Most black Americans lived in the South, because that is where they or their ancestors had been brought to work as slaves. This would not change until the Great Migration (1916-1970). The North was still segregated, but with fewer laws on the books.

The civil rights movement did not pause during this time. In Columbus, in 1894, a group of black businessmen formed the Afro-American Association of Columbus, Ohio. They stated that “for the want of an organization representing unity of Afro-American interests, there are but few avenues of employment and business open to the men and women of our race…” Mutual aid organizations like this were formed to protect and lift up others in the community, even during this dark hour of the movement.

Declaration of Principles of the Afro-American Association of Columbus, Ohio

Declaration of Principles of the Afro-American Association of Columbus, Ohio

Early 1900s- World War II

During the 1930s and 1940s, the seeds of the Mid-Century civil rights movement were planted. The NAACP, founded in 1909, began slowly moving through the courts, using test cases to break down the walls standing between black Americans and their freedom rights. This long-term strategy would eventually lead to the Brown v. Board decision that most Americans now see in their history books.

The movement also began to focus on the passage of an Anti-Lynching Law. (This law finally passed the U.S. Senate in 2018.) Lynching is defined as the murder of an individual without regard for the legal process. In many lynching cases, local law enforcement would look the other way (or worse), making this mob violence a state-sanctioned form of control. The Ku Klux Klan was also active in Ohio, parading to maintain a visible reminder of the violent threat they posed.

Photographs of lynchings were passed around as postcards, and a fair like atmosphere generally accompanied the event. This present threat of violence was meant to keep black communities in line.  According to the Tuskegee Institute, 16 black individuals were murdered by lynch mobs between 1882 and 1968 in Ohio (including in Urbana in 1897).

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Future Outlook League of Cleveland the Vanguard League of Columbus began using boycotts and direct picketing actions to desegregate public places and to open up the doors to two important freedom rights: jobs and housing. Both groups were eventually associated with the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.), a pivotal national organization during the later movement. The tactics used by each group would become very common in the 1950s and 1960s

Members of the Vanguard League sit down for a meal. The members of the League were friends even outside their tireless work. Photo from Ohio Memory


The mid-century era of the civil rights movement is best known among most Americans. This is the era of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the March on Washington, and the Little Rock Nine. Many members of this movement were pushed into activism by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, which echoed the lynchings of the early twentieth century. We are often taught that this movement was only occurring in Southern states. While there were clearer Jim Crow laws to protest in the South, northern organizers continued their work, including in Ohio.

The nation turned to the North in the mid-1960s, especially after the Watts Riots of 1965. Riots also occurred across the nation, and in multiple place in Ohio, after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. Both of these events are often considered major turning points in the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King visited Watts, and in the years before his death, listened to what he heard there and began to focus his activism on access to jobs, an important freedom right. It became apparent in Watts that even without Jim Crow looming, black residents in the North were still being denied the tenants of freedom, and a new movement was coming.

During the 1960s, CORE’s Target City Project, came to Cleveland and took on the name “Harambee.” Members of the Cleveland branch had always been active in the national organization, and had a large influence on its mission and goals. Harambee was an attempt at communal capitalism and black economic power that built the ideals needed to create the coming Black Power Movement.

Members of Cleveland CORE protest the city's Board of Education. Image Courtesy of Cleveland State University, via Harambee City.


As more and more white families left city neighborhoods, tax dollars were disinvested in local parks and schools. Highways were built through previously quiet and walkable neighborhoods. Black families had not inherited the type of generational wealth that comes from property ownership, so they had few opportunities to leave. Black Americans were frustrated that again their justice was being put on hold while others were thriving. This frustration led to the birth of two new movements during the late 1960s.

The term “Black Power” was first coined by activist Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He said that black power was “a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.”

At the same time that Carmichael was coining Black Power, the Black Panther Party was built in Oakland California with the intent of protecting residents from police brutality. One of their most successful programs would be the Free Breakfast Program, providing food to students from struggling neighborhoods so that they could focus in school. In Toledo, Ohio, the Black Panther Party provided Free Breakfast, a Free Clothing program, and testing for Sickle Cell Anemia.

Not withstanding the social services the Black Panther Party provided, the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, declared them an enemy of the U.S. government.

Black Panther Party Headquarters, Lima, Ohio, 1970. Photo from Ohio Memory


Today activists continue to fight for freedom rights in basic ways. The War on Drugs that took hold of the nation in the 1970s and 1980s led to disproportionately high rates of incarceration among the black community- robbing individuals of both their basic freedom while in prison and often their right to vote long term.  American schools are increasingly segregated as we operate on a neighborhood school system and have increasingly segregated our living situations. Disparities in our healthcare system mean that black Americans have a shorter life expectancy than their white peers.

Beginning in 1865 as the Civil War came to a close, black Americans began the long journey towards freedom rights. However it is clear that white Americans, both intentionally and unintentionally, have continued to erect road blocks to this success, with economic systems like share cropping, government programs like the War on Drugs, or implicit biases in hiring.

As Americans continue to debate the ways in which we live and work together, we must understand our past to inform the present. If we can understand the past, the day may come when the struggle for freedom rights lives simply in our history books.

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