We all know, or have heard sometime in our lives, about the Black American Civil Rights movement. American media and mainstream historians have recognized and heralded leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as one of America's great leader of justice. Yet, there were many social movements and many leaders of great compassion and strength originating in Black communities across America that had a profound influence on the development of the following social concepts in the 20th century:

  • The concept of social consciousness and the need for equal justice

  • The concept of the right to vote regardless of race, class, or ethnic background

  • The right to have access to a free and appropriate education, regardless of skin color, ethnic origin, or intellectual ability

  • The concept of self-determination for oppressed persons in America, including self-determination for persons with mental disabilities

The social movements discussed in this paper are as follows: (a) Quilomboos of Brazil starting in the late 18th century and continuing on into the 20th century; (b) the Black Nationalist movements on the West and East Coasts beginning in the 1920s; (c) the Black Power movements, including the creation of the Black Panther political party in the 1950s and 1960s; and (d) the Black Muslim movements.

The first movement is rarely if ever heard of outside of Brazil. The following is a quote from an article about Quilomboos: “Communities of fugitive slaves were formed and thrived in the Caribbean and South America and developed relationships with the local Native American communities. Those communities were called Quilomboos (Franklin, 1974, p. 76). Palmares, the most famous of the maroon communities (communities consisting of fugitive slaves in South America), was located in what is now the modern northeastern state of Perambuca. It was the site of struggle between escaped African slaves and European colonists for most of the 17th century, and its leader, Zumbi, is a symbol of Black resistance among Brazilians to this day. Quilomboos still exist in the northeastern section of Brazil and have finally been recognized by the Brazilian government as having the right to hold title to their land (Franklin, 1974). To understand the profundity of the concept of the Quilomboo as it relates to the concept of self-determination for oppressed people in the United States, imagine North Carolina being a Black state separate from the United States but trading with other countries in the Western hemisphere, for example, Mexico. If you ask why there would be a need for a Quilomboo, think how this relates to the concept of self-determination for persons with or without disabilities. Think about how Black slaves in Brazil and America pre- and postslavery were not allowed to have their own businesses, conduct commerce, or live in places of their own choosing. These communities in Brazil gave persons of African descent the ability to be self-sufficient, independent, and self-determined in their right to choose how they desired to live as well as how they perceived and related to the world around them. The ability to think independently is an important indicator for self-awareness and a connection to one's humanity, an important step for all humans.

In America, freed Blacks built their own townships and started their own businesses, which were constantly destroyed by their White neighbors across the country, who at the end of slavery and the beginning of the 20th century created an organization called the Ku Klux Klan. The purpose of this organization was to stop Black townships from thriving as developed, self-sufficient economies as happened in the Caribbean and, especially, in the Quilomboos of Brazil. Because the Quilomboos created by Blacks in North America were not allowed to exist on a permanent basis, the next step taken by Black Americans was to attempt to create social movements that would challenge and dismantle the institutions of racism that existed in the United States.

These movements would ultimately have a much wider effect on American society than did the Quilomboos of South America because they allowed other oppressed to also use these movements as models on which to enhance their own journeys of self and equality, such as the feminist and disability movements. Quilomboos were self-contained communities not well-known or heard about outside of Brazil, except among Black American activists and scholars.

The Black Nationalist movements were important because they sought to redefine the status of persons of color in the United States and, like Black Power movements, felt that Black was beautiful and Blacks needed to be economically empowered and needed to define their place in the world and decide their own destiny.

One of the more famous Black Power movements was the Black Panther party. They sought:

  • The elimination of poverty in this society

  • The redistribution of wealth in American society

  • To announce that Black America would no longer negotiate with the American government for basic human rights but would demand that their rights be granted on their own terms

The Black Muslim movement is probably best known for one of its leaders named Malik Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X. He told America in very articulate terms that Black people would obtain their rights by “any means necessary” and would be independent, self-determined in their ability to choose how they desired to live as well as in how they perceive and relate to the world around them. But of all the movements just listed, the Civil Rights movement as led by groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and others, focused more on societal integration and on the rights of students to receive an education regardless of skin color or economic background. Through a series of often complicated lawsuits and public protests throughout the middle part of the 20th century, Black Americans paved the way for an appropriate education for all students and integration of schools and local public institutions. Remember, this movement differed greatly from the Black Nationalist movements, in that organizations such as the NAACP called for an end to segregation and access to public funded resources, wherein Black Power movements were not interested in integrating with or being treated as equals by White Americans. These other more radical movements believed that to be self-defining and self-determining, one must demand the dismantling of the entire economic structure and to create their own definition of beauty (hence, the concept Black is Beautiful), justice, and independence.

The Civil Rights movement in the United States paved the way for the creation of the disabilities movement. Black America, through the movements just described, helped America evolve from a segregated Jim Crow society, where citizens of color were restricted from fully participating in all aspects of American life, to an open society, where all citizens have access to a full range of educational and employment opportunities.

So drastic was the change that some Afrocentric theorists believe that the Civil Rights movement, as led by a host of national and local leaders, such as Bob Moses, A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Adams, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and others, significantly changed the social infrastructure of American society. So powerful was the political change that took place in America that it not only affected persons of color, but also forced the White American power structure to rethink its attitude towards the role of White women in America and the practice of institutionalization for persons with disabilities. As family members of children with disabilities in the United States watched Black Americans fight for their rights, they were inspired, as were oppressed persons from various countries around the world. As Howard and Orlansky (1980) so aptly stated:

In a very real sense, the current extension of educational opportunities to handicapped children in the public schools in an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the 1950‘s and 1960‘s. The well known case of Brown v. Board of Education Topeka (1954) was a challenge to educational facilities that were segregated according to race. . . . The Brown decision and the ensuing extension of public school education to Black and White children on equal terms began a period of intense concern and questioning among parents of handicapped children. (p. 356)

Several court cases that had an impact on the ability of persons with disabilities to get an education were initiated by civil rights lawyers (e.g., Hobson v. Hansen, 1968, and Diana v. State Board of Education, 1970). Important disability rights laws passed during this period include P.L. 94–142 (1975), which was a precursor to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (1990) and its later amendments.

Clearly, the “rights for the disabled” movement is rooted in the Civil Rights movement. Ironically, African Americans with disabilities continue to experience more barriers in obtaining effective and comprehensive services than do their White counterparts. In particular, factors such as poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination, and a lack of culturally competent service systems continue to interfere with the delivery of needed health care services (Robinson & Rathbone, 1999).

The movements discussed in this paper, including the Black Power, Black Muslim, Black Nationalist, Civil Rights, and other movements, changed the social infrastructure of America. Those movements led by Black American activists played a pivotal role in the development of the concept of self-determination and self-definitions for persons with disabilities in this country, if for no other reason than because of the incredible role models those activists became in their quest for justice and freedom. If physical slavery ended more than 100 years ago, psychological slavery, a phenomenon we called American segregation, ended less than 25 years ago.

Many facilities were inaccessible for Black Americans in the not too distant past. Persons of color, such as myself, were barred from entering most office buildings 30 years ago unless they were there to clean the floors or perform some other kind of janitorial function. As we continue to advocate for those individuals who are discriminated against in this and other societies, let us remember and honor those individuals who sacrificed their lives and paved the way for integration and social justice.

Let us sing a song of freedom and righteousness to thank the Creator for the sacrifices made in the fight for freedom and gains we have made. Let us sing a song of justice to give us the strength to continue to fight for equity in employment for persons with mental and/or physical disabilities. We need to sing a song of celebration for the rights we now have, and the gains made, and the victories won, for persons with mental disabilities who seek only to live ordinary lives in a chaotic and often hectic world.

Finally, we need to sing a song of hope and redemption to ask our ancestors to give us the strength to continue to fight the battle against poverty and break down the barriers that prevent anyone from living a life filled with dignity in a place of their own choosing.

NOTE: I thank Kiran Dixit for her support while writing this article and Terezie Bohrer for her guidance and love during this time in my life.


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Author notes

Author: E. Geronimo Robinson, CAS, President, People Changing the World, Inc., PO Box 3445, Arlington, VA 22203.