Civil Rights in the 1960s

Although the civil rights movement began in the 1950s, it reached full steam in the 1960s, marked by several new tactics that proved effective in breaking down discrimination.

Enforcing their rights: African Americans

In February 1960, four African-American students sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave after they were denied service. The “sit-in” became a strategy used across the country, and by the end of 1961, some 70,000 people had taken part in sit-ins.

In May 1961, black and white activists began “freedom rides,” traveling in small groups to the South to test local segregation laws.

[Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS]
Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

The inspirational leader of the movement was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a courageous and eloquent orator who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work.

But not all African Americans were enamored of King’s non-violent-demonstration approach. They also didn’t believe equality could be attained through cooperation among the races. Leaders such as the Black Muslims’ Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X warned African Americans to neither expect nor seek help from whites. “If someone puts a hand on you,” said Malcolm X, “send him to the cemetery.”

Looking for legal remedies to discrimination

Both approaches eventually put pressure on the federal government to act. President Kennedy and his brother Robert (who was also his attorney general) used federal troops and marshals to force the admission of black students to the state universities in Alabama and Mississippi.

In June 1963, JFK proposed a bill that would ban racial discrimination in hotels, restaurants, and other public places and give the federal government more authority to clamp down on state and local agencies that dragged their feet in enforcing civil rights laws. Black organizers gathered 200,000 demonstrators for a march in Washington, D.C., to support the Kennedy proposal.

After Kennedy’s assassination, JFK’s efforts were taken up by Johnson. Despite his Southern roots, LBJ was a committed liberal whose “Great Society” programs mirrored the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

In addition to providing more federal aid to America’s down-and-outs, LBJ pushed the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress. It featured many of the same elements Kennedy had proposed. Johnson followed it with another bill in 1965 that strengthened federal safeguards for black voters’ rights.

But events and emotions moved faster than politics. In early 1965, Malcolm X, who had softened his earlier opposition to interracial cooperation, was murdered by Black Muslim extremists who considered such talk traitorous. A few months later, a march led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama was viciously attacked by state and local police, while a horrified national television audience watched.

Tired of waiting for an equal chance at the U.S. economic pie, many African Americans began demanding affirmative action programs in which employers would actively recruit minorities for jobs. “Black Power” became a rallying cry for thousands of young African Americans.

Taking it to the streets

The anger manifested itself in a rash of race riots in the mid- and late 1960s. The first was in August 1965, in the Los Angeles community of Watts. Before it was over, six days of rioting had led to 34 deaths, 850 injuries, 3,000 arrests, and more than $200 million in damages.

Riots followed in the next two years in dozens of cities, including New York, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit, where 43 people were killed in July 1967.

Then things got worse. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A white man named James Earl Ray was eventually arrested and convicted of the crime. More riots followed across the country, most notably in Washington, D.C.

The riots, in turn, triggered a backlash by many whites. George Wallace, a racist and ardent segregationist, got 13.5 percent of the vote in the 1968 presidential election, and much of the steam of the civil rights movement had dissipated by the time Richard Nixon moved into the White House.

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