The struggle of African Americans for equality reached its peak in the mid-1960s . After progressive vic- tories in the 1950s, African Ameri- cans became even more committed to nonviolent direct action . Groups like the Southern Christian Leader- ship Conference (SCLC), made up of African-American clergy, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinat- ing Committee (SNCC), composed


“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave

owners will be able to sit down together at the table

of brotherhood.”

Martin Luther King Jr., 1963



of younger activists, sought reform through peaceful confrontation .

In 1960 African-American col- lege students sat down at a segre- gated Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina and refused to leave . Their sit-in captured media atten- tion and led to similar demonstra- tions throughout the South . The next year, civil rights workers organized “freedom rides,” in which African Americans and whites boarded bus- es heading south toward segregated terminals, where confrontations might capture media attention and lead to change .

They also organized rallies, the largest of which was the “March on Washington” in 1963 . More than 200,000 people gathered in the na- tion’s capital to demonstrate their commitment to equality for all . The high point of a day of songs and speeches came with the address of Martin Luther King Jr ., who had emerged as the preeminent spokes- man for civil rights . “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Geor- gia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” King proclaimed . Each time he used the refrain “I have a dream,” the crowd roared .

The level of progress initially achieved did not match the rhetoric of the civil rights movement . Presi- dent Kennedy was initially reluc- tant to press white Southerners for support on civil rights because he needed their votes on other issues . Events, driven by African Americans

themselves, forced his hand . When James Meredith was denied admis- sion to the University of Mississippi in 1962 because of his race, Kennedy sent federal troops to uphold the law . After protests aimed at the deseg- regation of Birmingham, Alabama, prompted a violent response by the police, he sent Congress a new civil rights bill mandating the integration of public places . Not even the March on Washington, however, could ex- tricate the measure from a congres- sional committee, where it was still bottled up when Kennedy was assas- sinated in 1963 .

President Lyndon B . Johnson was more successful . Displaying negotiating skills he had so fre- quently employed during his years as Senate majority leader, Johnson persuaded the Senate to limit delay- ing tactics preventing a final vote on the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimina- tion in all public accommodations . The next year’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized the federal gov- ernment to register voters where local officials had prevented Afri- can Americans from doing so . By 1968 a million African Americans were registered in the deep South . Nationwide, the number of African- American elected officials increased substantially . In 1968, the Congress passed legislation banning discrimi- nation in housing .

Once unleashed, however, the civil rights revolution produced leaders impatient with both the pace of change and the goal of channel-


ing African Americans into main- stream white society . Malcolm X, an eloquent activist, was the most prominent figure arguing for Afri- can-American separation from the white race . Stokely Carmichael, a student leader, became similarly dis- illusioned by the notions of nonvio- lence and interracial cooperation . He popularized the slogan “black power,” to be achieved by “whatever means necessary,” in the words of Malcolm X .

Violence accompanied militant calls for reform . Riots broke out in several big cities in 1966 and 1967 . In the spring of 1968, Martin Lu- ther King Jr . fell before an assassin’s bullet . Several months later, Senator Robert Kennedy, a spokesman for the disadvantaged, an opponent of the Vietnam War, and the brother of the slain president, met the same fate . To many these two assassina- tions marked the end of an era of in- nocence and idealism . The growing militancy on the left, coupled with an inevitable conservative backlash, opened a rift in the nation’s psyche that took years to heal .

By then, however, a civil rights movement supported by court de- cisions, congressional enactments, and federal administrative regula- tions was irreversibly woven into the fabric of American life . The major issues were about implementation of equality and access, not about the legality of segregation or disenfran- chisement . The arguments of the 1970s and thereafter were over mat- ters such as busing children out of

their neighborhoods to achieve ra- cial balance in metropolitan schools or about the use of “affirmative ac- tion .” These policies and programs were viewed by some as active mea- sures to ensure equal opportunity, as in education and employment, and by others as reverse discrimination .

The courts worked their way through these problems with deci- sions that were often inconsistent . In the meantime, the steady march of African Americans into the ranks of the middle class and once large- ly white suburbs quietly reflected a profound demographic change .

Place Your Order Here!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *