Civil Rights in a Turbulent Decade
Civil Rights in a Turbulent Decade
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement built upon its achievements of the previous decade. Activists worked to counter discrimination, segregation, inequality of opportunity, and social problems particular to blacks.
Civil Rights in the Kennedy Years
JFK came to office wary of becoming entangled in the complex issue of civil rights. He did not stay removed for long, however. In the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality held a freedom ride through the Deep South to protest illegal segregation in interstate transportation. After whites in Alabama assaulted the freedom riders, Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect them. In the fall of 1962, Kennedy again sent federal marshals to the South to enforce civil rights, when students and angry white citizens attempted to prevent a black man, James Meredith, from attending the University of Mississippi.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a series of peaceful demonstrations in Alabama that police nonetheless attacked. These attacks, along with other high-profile abuses of civil rights, prompted Kennedy to propose a comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress. In support of this legislation, a quarter of a million Americans gathered in Washington, D.C., in August 1963. It was at this “March on Washington” that King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, outlining an idealistic view of what America could be. Despite this demonstration and King’s eloquence, Republicans in Congress blocked the civil rights bill.
In support of JFK’s civil rights bill, some 250,000 Americans converged on Washington, D.C., in August 1963, where they listened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
Civil Rights Under Johnson
Civil rights advocates had cause for optimism during Lyndon B. Johnson’s early years as president, since Johnson’s Great Society program aimed to achieve racial equality. In 1964, Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress, which outlawed discrimination in public facilities. Civil rights activists, however, demanded more—in particular, an end to black disenfranchisement. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a mass protest against black disenfranchisement. The demonstration, which took place in Birmingham, Alabama, elicited a violent police reaction. The police attacks were caught on television and cemented national sympathies behind the civil rights movement. This national response culminated in the Voting Rights Act, signed in August 1965, which protected and encouraged black enfranchisement. By 1968, one million blacks were registered in the Deep South, and many black representatives had been elected to office.
The Voting Rights Act was a major achievement of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It authorized the federal government to institute measures designed to encourage black enfranchisement.
The Black Power Movement
Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent strategies of resistance were supported by the majority of civil rights activists, both black and white. But not all supporters of the rights of blacks in the United States believed in nonviolence. The Black Power movement expressed the outrage felt by many African Americans. The movement began with the teachings of Malcolm X, who became a prominent spokesman for black rights after joining the Nation of Islam. Rejecting the goal of integration, Malcolm X taught American blacks that they should be proud of their blackness and remain separate from white society. Instead of nonviolence, he favored armed self-defense. In 1965, amid signs that he might be softening his stance and just after publicly breaking from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was assassinated. Nonetheless, he remained a powerful voice among African Americans, his influence preserved through his teachings and his autobiography, published the year of his death.
Malcolm X preached violent resistance and separation from white society to African Americans until his death in 1965.
After Malcolm X’s death, the mantle of Black Power was carried on by Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who came to reject nonviolence in favor of violent resistance. In 1966, Carmichael’s influence led to the founding of the Black Panthers by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The Panthers carried firearms and at times engaged in violent confrontations with police.
The slogan “Black Power,” however, did not apply exclusively to radical groups such as the Black Panthers; it also applied to more moderate groups who worked to reaffirm black culture as distinct from white culture and equally valuable. Off-shoots of the Black Power movement included “Native American Power” and “Chicano Power,” movements that sought to assert the value of ethnic heritage and to counter oppression from mainstream white society.
Assassination
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., the most prominent black leader of his era, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, by white racist James Earl Ray. Blacks responded by taking to the streets in anger in more than 100 U.S. cities, causing enormous property damage and social chaos. The riots led to 46 deaths, over 3,000 injuries, and 27,000 arrests. The effect of King’s death on the civil rights movement and on America cannot be measured.
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