How effective was the American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968)
in abolishing racial discrimination?
This essay defines the American Civil Rights Movement as the reform movement in the United States aimed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring suffrage in Southern states. It discusses covers the phase of the movement between 1954 and 1968. By 1966, the emergence of the Black Power Movement enlarged the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include racial dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from oppression by whites. It also enlarged the method of protest from civil disobedience (associated with Martin Luther King) to the use of violence (associated with Malcom X). 1954 marks the landmark court-case Brown v Board of Education, Topeka which declared segregated schools as unconstitutional. Thus we see three overlapping areas of discussion: legislative reform, civl (peaceful) protest and violent protest. The essay will attempt to measure the effectiveness of the Movement in each of those areas of protest. :
The system of overt, state-sanctioned racial discrimination and oppression that emerged out of the post-Reconstruction South and spread nation-wide became known as the “Jim Crow” system, and it remained virtually intact into the 1950s. Systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans took place in Southern states at the turn of the century and lasted until the civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-1960s. The characteristics of the “Jim Crow” system were segregation, disenfranchisement and exploitation, which frequently spilled over into violence against the black community.:
African-Americans and other racial minorities rejected this regime. They resisted it and sought better opportunities through legislative reform, new organizations, and labour organizing. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 and it struggled to end race discrimination through litigation, education, and lobbying efforts. Its crowning achievement was the legal victory in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that rejected separate white and colored school systems and by implication overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson.
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding the case called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which the plaintiffs charged that the education of black children in separate public schools was unconstitutional. The opinion of the Court stated that the “segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group.” The Court ruled that both Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had established the segregationist, “separate but equal” standard in general, and Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), which had applied that standard to schools, were unconstitutional. The following year, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ordered segregation to be phased out over time, “with all deliberate speed”.
And yet, despite this legislation, the experience of Little Rock in 1957 was to show just how unprepared many Southerners were to any movement towards racial equality. Arkansas was a relatively progressive southern state, but a crisis erupted, however, when Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent the nine African-American students who had sued for the right to attend Little Rock Central High School. Faubus’ order received the attention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the orders of the Federal courts. Critics had charged he was lukewarm on the goal of desegregation of public schools and so, in response,. Eisenhower deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.
The students were able to attend high school but had to pass through a gauntlet of spitting, jeering whites to arrive at school on their first day, and to put up with harassment from fellow students for the rest of the year. Although federal troops escorted the students between classes, the students were still teased and even attacked by white students when the soldiers weren’t around. Only one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green, got the chance to graduate; after the 1957-58 school year was over, the Little Rock school system decided to shut public schools completely rather than be forced to integrate. Other school systems across the South followed suit. A similar situation was faced by James Meredith, who won a lawsuit that allowed him admission to the University of Mississippi in September 1962. He attempted to enter campus only to be blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross R. Barnett, who proclaimed that “no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor.”
Invigorated by the victory of Brown in 1954 and yet increasingly frustrated by its lack of practical effect in places like Little Rock and Mississippi, private citizens began to reject gradualist approaches as the primary tool to bring about desegregation in the face of “massive resistance” by proponents of racial segregation and voter suppression. In defiance, they began to adopt a combined strategy of direct action with nonviolent resistance known as civil disobedience, giving rise to the phase under discussion.
During the period 1955-1968, orchestrated acts of civil disobedience intentionally produced crisis situations between protesters and government authorities. The authorities of federal, state, and local governments often had to respond immediately to crisis situations which highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans. Forms of civil disobedience included boycotts, beginning with the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) in Alabama; “sit-ins” such as the influential Greensboro sit-in (1960) in North Carolina; and marches, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches (1965) in Alabama.
At the same time as civil disobedience was gathering momentum, there continued to be legislative reform: notably the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that restored and protected voting rights; the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, that dramatically opened entry to the U.S. to immigrants other than traditional European groups; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, that banned discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
So the strategy of mass action within the court system shifted after Brown to “direct action”—primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and similar tactics that relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience—from 1955 to 1965. Churches were very often the centres of the local black communities and so became the hub of the new protest movements. Civil disobedience was a more direct and potentially more rapid means of creating change than the traditional approach of mounting court challenges. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to get up out of her seat on a public bus to make room for a white passenger. She was secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and had recently returned from a meeting at the Highlander Center in Tennessee where nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy had been discussed. Parks was arrested, tried, and convicted for disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. After word of this incident reached the black community, fifty African-American leaders gathered and organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protest the segregation of blacks and whites on public buses. With the support of most of Montgomery’s 50,000 African Americans, the boycott lasted for 381 days until the local ordinance segregating African-Americans and whites on public buses was lifted. Ninety percent of African Americans in Montgomery took part in the boycotts, which reduced bus revenue by 80%. A federal court ordered Montgomery’s buses desegregated in November 1956, and the boycott ended in triumph. (W. Chafe, The Unfinished Journey, 2nd edition, 1992).
A young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that directed the boycott. The protest made King a national figure. His eloquent appeals to Christian brotherhood and American idealism created a positive impression on people both inside and outside the South. The Montgomery Improvement Association—created to lead the boycott—managed to keep the boycott going for over a year until the federal court order required Montgomery to desegregate its buses. The success in Montgomery inspired other bus boycotts, such as the highly successful Tallahassee, Florida, boycott of 1956-1957. In 1957 Dr. King and Rev. John Duffy, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, joined with other church leaders to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, offered training and leadership assistance for local efforts to fight segregation. The headquarters organization raised funds, mostly from northern sources, to support such campaigns. Importantly, it made non-violence both its central tenet and its primary method of confronting racism. Thomas Frazier wrote a pivotal paper entitled An Analysis of Nonviolent Coercion as Used by the Sit-In Movement in 1968, which was published by Atlanta University. The paper reflects on Martin Luther King’s adaptation of the Gandhian Philosophy of conflict (satyagraha). Luther King is quoted as saying that “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.” However, according to Frazier, Martin Luther King believed that Gandhi did not pay sufficient attention to the demonic nature of man and that Gandhi was “idealistic.” Nevertheless, the three steps in satyagraha proved powerfully influential: (1) reasoning; (2) dramatization of the situation and more reasoning; and (3) coercion with the tools of civil disobedience or non-co-operation.
Some of the success of the Civil Rights Movement can be attributed to television coverage. The taping and broadcasting of the images of civil rights workers, sit-ins, marches and clashes demonstrated as never before the severe and inhumane treatment of African Americans by authorities in the South. Such coverage wakened the conscience of mainstream or middle America as to conditions in the South. In “Television News and the Civil Rights Struggle” William Thomas argues that even “in the American South, local television news coverage had immediate and significant effects” on perceptions of social equality and segregation. One of Martin Luther King’s strategies was to challenge mainstream America on moral grounds to end the racial abuse and segregation in the South. The medium of television was particularly effective at conveying the news about the conditions of the quality of life for African Americans in the South.
Freedom Rides were journeys by Civil Rights activists on interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, (1960) 364 U.S. that ended segregation for passengers engaged in inter-state travel. The first Freedom Ride of the 1960s left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17.During the first and subsequent Freedom Rides, activists traveled through the Southern states to integrate seating patterns and desegregate bus terminals, including restrooms and water fountains. That proved to be a dangerous mission. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was firebombed, forcing its passengers to flee for their lives. In Montgomery, Alabama a mob charged another bus load of riders, knocking John Lewis unconscious with a crate and smashing Life photographer Don Urbrock in the face with his own camera.
The freedom riders continued their rides into Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested for “breaching the peace” by using “white only” facilities. New freedom rides were organized by many different organizations. As riders arrived in Jackson, they were arrested. By the end of summer, more than 300 had been jailed in Mississippi. The jailed freedom riders were treated harshly, crammed into tiny, filthy cells and sporadically beaten. In Jackson, Mississippi, some male prisoners were forced to do hard labour in 100-degree heat. Others were transferred to Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where their food was deliberately oversalted and their mattresses were removed.
Eventually, public sympathy and support for the freedom riders forced the Kennedy administration to order the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to issue a new desegregation order. When the new ICC rule took effect on November 1st, passengers were permitted to sit wherever they chose on the bus; “white” and “colored” signs came down in the terminals; separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms were consolidated; and lunch counters began serving people regardless of skin colour. The Freedom Rides can be seen to have been a highly effective form of civil disobedience.
After the Freedom Rides, local black leaders in Mississippi asked SNCC to help register black voters and build community organizations that could win a share of political power in the state. Since Mississippi ratified its constitution in 1890, with provisions such as poll taxes, residency requirements, and literacy tests, it made registration more complicated and stripped blacks from the rolls. After so many years, the intent to stop blacks from voting had become part of the culture of white supremacy. In the fall of 1961, SNCC organizer Robert Moses began the first such project in McComb in the Southwest corner of the state. Their efforts were met with violent repression from state and local lawmen, White Citizens’ Council, and Ku Klux Klan resulting in beatings, hundreds of arrests and the murder of voting activist Herbert Lee.
In the Spring of 1962, with funds from the Voter Education Project, SNCC/COFO began voter registration organizing in the Mississippi Delta area around Greenwood. As in McComb, their efforts were met with fierce opposition — arrests, beatings, shootings, arson, and murder. Registrars used the literacy test to keep blacks off the voting roles by creating standards that highly educated people could not meet. In addition, employers fired blacks who tried to register and landlords evicted them from their homes. Over the following years, the black voter registration campaign spread across the state. Similar voter registration campaigns — with similar responses — were begun by SNCC, CORE, and SCLC in Louisiana, Alabama, southwest Georgia, and South Carolina. By 1963, voter registration campaigns in the South were as integral to the Freedom Movement as desegregation efforts. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protecting and facilitating voter registration despite state barriers became the main effort of the movement. It resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Birmingham campaign in 1963 focused on one goal—the desegregation of Birmingham’s downtown merchants. It was helped by the brutal response of local authorities. The campaign used a variety of nonviolent methods of confrontation, including sit-ins, kneel-ins at local churches, and a march to the county building to mark the beginning of a drive to register voters. The city, however, obtained an injunction barring all such protests. Convinced that the order was unconstitutional, the campaign defied it and prepared for mass arrests of its supporters. King elected to be among those arrested on April 12, 1963. Supporters pressured the Kennedy Administration to intervene to obtain King’s release or better conditions. King eventually was allowed to call his wife, who was recuperating at home after the birth of their fourth child, and was released on April 19.
The campaign, however, was faltering because the movement was running out of demonstrators willing to risk arrest or violence. SCLC organizers came up with a bold and controversial alternative, calling on high school students to take part in the demonstrations. Television cameras broadcast to the nation the scenes of water from fire hoses knocking down schoolchildren and dogs attacking individual demonstrators. Widespread public outrage forced the Kennedy Administration to intervene more forcefully in the negotiations between the white business community and the SCLC. On May 10, the parties announced an agreement to desegregate the lunch counters and other public accommodations downtown, to create a committee to eliminate discriminatory hiring practices, to arrange for the release of jailed protesters, and to establish regular means of communication between black and white leaders.
The reaction from parts of the white community was even more violent. The Gaston Motel, which housed the SCLC’s unofficial headquarters, was bombed, as was the home of King’s brother, the Reverend A. D. King. Four months later, on September 15, Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. On June 11, 1963, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, tried to block the integration of the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy sent enough force to make Governor Wallace step aside, allowing the enrollment of two black students. That evening, JFK addressed the nation on TV and radio with a historic civil rights speech. The next day Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. The next week as promised, on June 19, 1963, JFK submitted his Civil Rights Bill to Congress.
Unlike the planned 1941 March on Washington, for which Philip Randolph included only black-led organizations in the planning, the 1963 march was a collaborative effort of all of the major civil rights organizations, the more progressive wing of the labor movement, and other liberal organizations. The march had six official goals: “meaningful civil rights laws, a massive federal works program, full and fair employment, decent housing, the right to vote, and adequate integrated education.” Of these, the march’s real focus was on passage of the Civil Rights Bill.
The march was a success, although not without controversy. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. After the march, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy at the White House. While the Kennedy Administration appeared to be sincerely committed to passing the bill, it was not clear that it had the votes to do it. But when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 the new President Lyndon Johnson decided to use his influence in Congress to bring about much of Kennedy’s legislative agenda.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theatres, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discriminated based on colour, race or national origin. The Civil Rights Act also attempted to deal with the problem of African Americans being denied the vote in the Deep South. The legislation stated that uniform standards must prevail for establishing the right to vote. Schooling to sixth grade constituted legal proof of literacy and the attorney general was given power to initiate legal action in any area where he found a pattern of resistance to the law.
Three civil rights workers, James Chaney, a young black Mississippian and plasterer’s apprentice; and two Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology student; and Michael Schwerner, a CORE organizer from Manhattan‘s Lower East Side, were murdered by members of the Klan, some of them members of the Neshoba County sheriff’s department, on June 21, 1964 (see Mississippi civil rights workers murders for details). From June to August, Freedom Summer activists worked in 38 local projects scattered across the state, with the largest number concentrated in the Mississippi Delta region. At least 30 Freedom Schools with close to 3,500 students were established, and 28 community centers set up. Over the course of the Summer Project, some 17,000 Mississippi blacks attempted to become registered voters in defiance of all the forces of white supremacy arrayed against them — only 1,600 (less than 10%) succeeded. But more than 80,000 joined the MFDP.
Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it had a significant effect on the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down the decades of isolation and repression that were the foundation of the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, the national news media had paid little attention to the persecution of black voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by black civil rights workers. When the lives of affluent northern white students were threatened and taken, the full attention of the media spotlight turned on the state. The apparent disparity between the value which the media placed on the lives of whites and blacks embittered many black activists. Perhaps the most significant effect of Freedom Summer was on the volunteers themselves, almost all of whom — black and white — still consider it one of the defining periods of their lives.
Blacks in Mississippi had been disenfranchised by statutory and constitutional changes since the late 1800s. In 1963 COFO held a Freedom Vote in Mississippi to demonstrate the desire of black Mississippians to vote. More than 80,000 people registered and voted in the mock election which pitted an integrated slate of candidates from the “Freedom Party” against the official state Democratic Party candidates.
In 1964, organizers launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white official party. When Mississippi voting registrars refused to recognize their candidates, they held their own primary. They selected Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray to run for Congress and a slate of delegates to represent Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The presence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was inconvenient, however, for the convention organizers. They had planned a triumphant celebration of the Johnson Administration’s achievements in civil rights, rather than a fight over racism within the Democratic Party. All-white delegations from other Southern states threatened to walk out if the official slate from Mississippi was not seated. Johnson was worried about the inroads that Republican Barry Goldwater’s campaign was making in what previously had been the white Democratic stronghold of the “Solid South”, as well as support which George Wallace had received in the North during the Democratic primaries.
Johnson could not, however, prevent the MFDP from taking its case to the Credentials Committee. There Fannie Lou Hamer testified eloquently about the beatings that she and others endured and the threats they faced for trying to register to vote. Turning to the television cameras, Hamer asked, “Is this America?” Johnson offered the MFDP a “compromise” under which it would receive two non-voting, at-large seats, while the white delegation sent by the official Democratic Party would retain its seats. The MFDP angrily rejected the “compromise.” The MFDP kept up its agitation within the convention, even after it was denied official recognition. When all but three of the “regular” Mississippi delegates left because they refused to pledge allegiance to the party, the MFDP delegates borrowed passes from sympathetic delegates and took the seats vacated by the official Mississippi delegates. They were then removed by the national party. When they returned the next day to find that convention organizers had removed the empty seats that had been there the day before, they stayed to sing freedom songs.
The 1964 Democratic Party convention disillusioned many within the MFDP and the Civil Rights Movement, but it did not destroy the MFDP itself. The MFDP became more radical after Atlantic City. It invited Malcolm X, of the Nation of Islam, to speak at one of its conventions and opposed the war in Vietnam. On December 10, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest man to receive the award; he was 35 years of age.
SNCC had undertaken an ambitious voter registration program in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, but by 1965 had made little headway in the face of opposition from Selma’s sheriff, Jim Clark. After local residents asked the SCLC for assistance, King came to Selma to lead several marches, at which he was arrested along with 250 other demonstrators. The marchers continued to meet violent resistance from police. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a resident of nearby Marion, was killed by police at a later march in February.
On March 7,1965, Hosea Williams of the SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC led a march of 600 people to walk the 54 miles (87 km) from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. Only six blocks into the march, however, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers and local law enforcement, some mounted on horseback, attacked the peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, tear gas, rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire and bull whips. The national broadcast of the footage of lawmen attacking unresisting marchers seeking the right to vote provoked a national response as had scenes from Birmingham two years earlier. The marchers were able to obtain a court order permitting them to make the march without incident two weeks later. After a second march to the site of Bloody Sunday on March 9, however, local whites murdered another voting rights supporter, Rev. James Reeb. He died in a Birmingham hospital March 11. On March 25, four Klansmen shot and killed Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma at night after the successfully completed march to Montgomery.
Eight days after the first march, Johnson delivered a televised address to support of the voting rights bill he had sent to Congress. In it he stated:
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6. The 1965 act suspended poll taxes, literacy tests and other subjective voter tests. It authorized Federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used. African Americans who had been barred from registering to vote finally had an alternative to taking suits to local or state courts. If voting discrimination occurred, the 1965 act authorized the Attorney General of the United States to send Federal examiners to replace local registrars. Johnson reportedly told his concern to associates that signing the bill had lost the white South for the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future. The act had an immediate and positive impact for African Americans. Within months of its passage, 250,000, one quarter of a million, new black voters had been registered, one third of them by federal examiners. Within four years, voter registration in the South had more than doubled. In 1965, Mississippi had the highest black voter turnout—74%—and led the nation in the number of black public officials elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.
Blacks’ regaining the power to vote changed the political landscape of the South. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, only about 100 African Americans held elective office, all in northern states of the U.S. By 1989, there were more than 7,200 African Americans in office, including more than 4,800 in the South. Nearly every Black Belt county (where populations were majority black) in Alabama had a black sheriff. Southern blacks held top positions within city, county, and state governments.
Atlanta elected a black mayor, Andrew Young, as did Jackson, Mississippi—Harvey Johnson—and New Orleans, with Ernest Morial. Black politicians on the national level included Barbara Jordan, who represented Texas in Congress, and Andrew Young was appointed United States Ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration. Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1965, although political reaction to his public opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam prevented him from taking his seat until 1967. John Lewis represents Georgia’s 5th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987.
Rev. James Lawson invited King to Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968 to support a strike by sanitation workers. They had launched a campaign for union representation after two workers were accidentally killed on the job. A day after delivering his famous “Mountaintop” sermon at Lawson’s church, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Riots broke out in more than 110 cities across the United States in the days that followed, notably in Chicago, Baltimore, and in Washington, D.C.
Robert Kennedy came to be consumed by the Civil Rights movement. He carried it forward into his own bid for the presidency in 1968. On the night of Governor Wallace’s capitulation, President Kennedy gave an address to the nation which marked the changing tide, an address which was to become a landmark for the change in political policy which ensued. In it President Kennedy spoke of the need to act decisively and to act now:
“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes? Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can.. choose to ignore them.”
Assassination cut short the life and careers of both the Kennedy brothers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr but the essential groundwork of the Civil Rights Act 1964 had been initiated before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The dire need for political and administrative reform had been driven home on Capitol Hill by the combined efforts of the Kennedy administration, Dr. King and other leaders, and President Lyndon Johnson.
One of the first major race riots took place in Harlem, New York, in the summer of 1964. A white Irish-American police officer, Thomas Gilligan, shot a 15-year-old black named James Powell for allegedly charging at him with a knife. In fact, Powell was unarmed. A group of black citizens demanded Gilligan’s suspension. Hundreds of young demonstrators marched peacefully to the 67th Street police station on July 17, 1964, the day after Powell’s death.
Gilligan was not suspended. Although this precinct had promoted the NYPD‘s first black station commander, neighborhood residents were tired of the inequalities. They looted and burned anything that was not black-owned in the neighborhood. This unrest spread to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a major black neighborhood in Brooklyn. That summer, rioting also broke out in Philadelphia, for similar reasons.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, but the new law had no immediate effect on living conditions for blacks. A few days after the act became law, a riot broke out in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Like Harlem, Watts was an impoverished neighborhood with very high unemployment. Its residents had to endure patrols by a largely white police department. While arresting a young man for drunk driving, police officers argued with the suspect’s mother before onlookers. The conflict triggered a massive destruction of property through six days of rioting. Thirty-four people were killed and property valued at about $30 million was destroyed, making the Watts riot one of the worst in American history.
With black militancy on the rise, increased acts of anger were now directed at the police. Black residents growing tired of police brutality continued to rebel. Some young people joined groups such as the Black Panthers, whose popularity was based in part on their reputation for confronting abusive police officers. In Detroit, a comfortable black middle class had begun to develop among families of blacks who worked at well-paying jobs in the automotive industry. Blacks who had not moved upward were living in much worse conditions, subject to the same problems as blacks in Watts and Harlem. When white police officers shut down an illegal bar on a liquor raid and arrested a large group of patrons, furious residents rioted.
As a result of the riots, President Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967. The commission’s final report called for major reforms in employment and public assistance for black communities. It warned that the United States was moving toward separate white and black societies. Fresh rioting broke out in April 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Riots erupted in many major cities at once, including Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., where damage was especially severe.
At the same time King was finding himself at odds with factions of the Democratic Party, he was facing challenges from within the Civil Rights Movement to the two key tenets upon which the movement had been based: integration and non-violence. Black activists within SNCC and CORE had chafed for some time at the influence wielded by white advisors to civil rights organizations and the disproportionate attention that was given to the deaths of white civil rights workers while black workers’ deaths often went virtually unnoticed. Stokely Carmichael, who became the leader of SNCC in 1966, was one of the earliest and most articulate spokespersons for what became known as the “Black Power” movement after he used that slogan, coined by activist and organizer Willie Ricks, in Greenwood, Mississippi on June 17, 1966.
In 1966 SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael began urging African American communities to confront the Ku Klux Klan armed and ready for battle. He felt it was the only way to ever rid the communities of the terror caused by the Klan.
Several people engaging in the Black Power movement started to gain more of a sense in black pride and identity as well. In gaining more of a sense of a cultural identity, several blacks demanded that whites no longer refer to them as “Negroes” but as “Afro-Americans.” Up until the mid-1960s, blacks had dressed similarly to whites and combed their hair straight. As a part of gaining a unique identity, blacks started to wear loosely fit dashikis and had started to grow their hair out as a natural afro. The afro, sometimes nicknamed the “‘fro,” remained a popular black hairstyle until the late 1970s.
Black Power was made most public however by the Black Panther Party which founded in Oakland, California, in 1966. This group followed ideology stated by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam using a “by-any-means necessary” approach to stopping inequality. They sought to rid African American neighborhoods of Police Brutality and had a ten-point plan amongst other things. Their dress code consisted of leather jackets, berets, light blue shirts, and an afro hairstyle. They are best remembered for setting up free breakfast programs, referring to police officers as “pigs”, displaying shotguns and a black power fist, and often using the statement of “Power to the people.”
Black Power was taken to another level inside of prison walls. In 1966, George Jackson formed the Black Guerilla Family in the California prison of San Quentin. The goal of this group was to overthrow the white-run government in America and the prison system in general. This group also preached the general hatred of Whites and Jews everywhere. In 1970, this group displayed their ruthlessness after a white prison guard was found not guilty for shooting three black prisoners from the prison tower. The guard was found cut to pieces, and a message was sent throughout the whole prison of how serious the group was.
Also in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while being awarded the gold and bronze medals, respectively, at the 1968 Summer Olympics, donned human rights badges and each raised a black-gloved Black Power salute during their podium ceremony. Smith and Carlos were immediately ejected from the games by the USOC, and later the IOC issued a permanent lifetime ban for the two. However, the Black Power movement had been given a stage on live, international television.
King was not comfortable with the “Black Power” slogan, which sounded too much like black nationalism to him. SNCC activists, in the meantime, began embracing the “right to self-defense” in response to attacks from white authorities, and booed King for continuing to advocate non-violence. When King was murdered in 1968, Stokely Carmichael stated that whites murdered the one person who would prevent rampant rioting and burning of major cities down and that blacks would burn every major city to the ground. In every major city from Boston to San Francisco, racial riots broke out in the black community following King’s death and as a result, “White Flight” occurred from several cities leaving Blacks in a dilapidated and nearly unrepairable city.
By 1968 the civil rights movement had achieved almost unimaginable success in a short period of time. The black population had gained legal equality and a sense of pride, the well publicised successes of the movement did however mask a continuing problem of discrimination and poverty in the black population. Ghettoism in the North and racial prejudice in the South had still not been solved. The South was inherently racist. Throughout the civil rights movements most states had actively opposed desegregation. Governor Faubus of Arkansas closed schools rather than integrate them. States found loopholes in the laws and exploited the rights of the states over federal government to continue to discriminate against blacks. This was possible because many of those in positions of authority were racist so the black population had no protection. Politicians responded to public opinion in this case it was to segregate so they lacked political representation to change things as well. The KKK was a strong force in the South and violence and intimidation was frequent consequently however many campaigns for voter registration there were by the SNCC when they left the black population would be too scared to make a stand. It would take time for a new generation to control the South and for traditional ideas to be broken down.
The ghettoism in the North was a less obvious form of discrimination but equally difficult to solve and to some extent applied to the South as well. Here black people were discriminated against in socio-economic terms. Kennedy had promised that housing could be solved at the stroke of a president’s pen — as the Watts riots proved he had been unsuccessful. Black people had been discriminated against for so long that they lacked opportunities and skills to break out of the poverty cycle. Public opinion and the economic system in America could not be changed through legislation. By 1968 the majority of the civil rights legislation was fairly recent it had only been in place a decade or less, on such large issues as race relations it would take time, generations for education legislation to take effect. Children were getting better education but their parents still couldn’t get a better job. The new legislation was poorly enforced due to public opinion and often sounded more impressive than it was, a 100% rise in black employment could mean a rise from 1 black employee to 2 black employees. Even for poor white people the cycle of poverty is difficult to break out of but when faced with racial prejudice as well it would take time to change
.By 1968 the Civil Rghts movement had to some extent backfired, the death of Malcolm X and the establishment of the Black Panthers followed by the death of MLK led to a far more militant movement. Rioting in Northern cities created a white backlash. People felt the black population was being ungrateful and responded accordingly. Some of the respect gained for the black population was being eroded. Despite the problems still facing the black population employment had improved as had education. Middle class Black families enjoyed many of the privileges of the white population. The movement had exploded the myth of segregation and shown integration could work. The march on Washington showed that the black population did have a political voice. The position of black people could only improve with the legal protection they now had. The black population was facing a barrier in 1968, they had achieved constitutional and limited de-jure change but de-facto change was proving much harder. It would prove that time was the only thing that could change this. Opinions and opportunities slowly changing, the racial problems that still exist in America show that these problems couldn’t as Kennedy argued be solved at the stroke of a president’s pen it was the people who decide and by 1968, though the situation had improved, full integration remained a future hope rather than a present reality.