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.
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.