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The Liberal Agenda and Domestic Policy: The 1960s, The Civil Rights Movement

Otto Kerner, black separatism, Kerner Commission, Hispanic movement, black suffrage

African Americans had been struggling to gain equal rights for many decades. As the 1960s began, the civil rights movement gained momentum. Individuals and civil rights organizations assailed segregation in the South and discrimination everywhere. They protested with marches, boycotts, and refusals to tolerate segregation. Many organizations conducted their protests with nonviolent resistance. Civil rights protesters often faced harsh confrontations with their opponents. These confrontations, which appeared on network television, exposed the struggle for civil rights to a large national audience.

In the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) started Freedom Rides to the South to desegregate bus terminals and protest segregation in interstate transportation. The Freedom Riders, black and white, challenged white supremacy and drew angry attacks.

In the fall of 1962, a federal court ordered the University of Mississippi to enroll a black air force veteran, James Meredith. To prevent his enrollment, white protesters rioted, and President Kennedy sent federal troops to restore order. In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC led a campaign of marches, sit-ins, and prayer meetings to challenge segregation and racism. Clashes arose between black protesters and city police, armed with dogs and cattle prods. News coverage exposed the violence in Birmingham to people all over the world. Television news next covered the University of Alabama, where Governor George Wallace in June 1963 barred two black students from entrance.

Responding to African American calls for action, Kennedy in June 1963 declared civil rights “a moral issue” and proposed a comprehensive civil rights measure. Congress did not act on the bill, but the civil rights movement intensified. In August 1963 more than 200,000 Americans marched on Washington, D.C., to demand equal rights. The audience heard Martin Luther King, Jr., explain his dream of brotherhood, freedom, justice, and nonviolence. In July 1964, at Johnson’s prompting, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations; gave the federal government new power to integrate schools and enfranchise blacks; and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to stop job discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or gender. The law heralded a new phase of activism.

Since 1961 civil rights activists had worked on voter registration in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. In the summer of 1964, CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. The project recruited over 1,000 Northern college students, teachers, artists, and clergy—both black and white—to work in Mississippi. These volunteers, who helped blacks register to vote and ran freedom schools, met harassment, firebombs, arrests, beatings, and even murder. In August 1964 civil rights workers sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention to demand (in vain) the seating of delegates from the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Mass protests in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 again brought segments of violent confrontations to television news.

The voting rights campaign of the mid-1960s had results. In 1965 Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which authorized federal examiners to register voters and expanded black suffrage by suspending literacy tests for voting. The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, outlawed the poll tax in federal elections. A 1966 Supreme Court decision struck down the poll tax in all elections. These measures more than tripled the number of registered black voters in the South. Just as the federal government responded—after almost a century of inaction—to civil rights demands, waves of violence and disorder signaled a change in the civil rights movement.

In August 1965 frustrations with high unemployment and poverty led to riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, a primarily black neighborhood. For six days, rioters looted, firebombed, and sniped at police and National Guard troops. When the riots ended, 34 people were dead and hundreds were injured. In the summers of 1966 and 1967, urban riots occurred in the poorer neighborhoods of several Northern cities. The summer of 1967 saw 150 racial confrontations and 40 riots.

In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated; in the summer race riots broke out in over 100 cities. In the wake of the riots, the president appointed a National Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by Otto Kerner, a former governor of Illinois. The Kerner Commission blamed white racism for the outbreaks of violence. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the Commission report warned, “one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The report urged job creation, more public housing, school integration, and “a national system of income supplementation.”

As the urban riots of the mid-1960s voiced black rage, demands for Black Power changed the tone of the civil rights movement. Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights activist and SNCC member, led SNCC away from its commitment to nonviolence and integration. Carmichael popularized the call for Black Power, a controversial term. To some, Black Power called for racial dignity and self-reliance. For others, it meant that blacks should defend themselves against white violence, instead of relying on nonviolence. Still others believed that the Black Power movement called for black economic and political independence.

Black Power advocates were influenced by Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam minister who had been assassinated in early 1965. They admired Malcolm’s black nationalist philosophy, which emphasized black separatism and self-sufficiency. They also appreciated Malcolm’s emphasis on black pride and self-assertion.

Conflict soon arose between the older civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, and black power advocates, with their aura of militancy and violence. Some blacks called for racial pride and separatism instead of colorblindness and integration. Civil rights demands shifted from colorblinded to color-consciousness.

By the end of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had strongly influenced other groups, which adopted its protest tactics. Native Americans had mobilized early in the decade and convened in Washington in 1964 to press for inclusion in the War on Poverty. In 1968 Native American leaders demanded Red Power in the form of preferential hiring and reimbursement for lands that the government had taken from them in violation of treaties. Mexican Americans supported Cesar Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. Chavez sought improved working conditions for migrant workers and organized national consumer boycotts of grapes and other products. The Hispanic movement also campaigned for bilingual and bicultural education, and Chicano studies in colleges. Finally, the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, especially, derived inspiration from the civil rights precedent.



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