Ushering in Racial Freedom in the U.S.

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

The inspirational leader of the movement was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., a courageous and eloquent orator who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and who 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 not to expect nor seek help from whites. "If someone puts a hand on you," said Malcolm X, "send him to the cemetery."

Both approaches eventually put pressure on the federal government to act. President Kennedy and his brother Robert (the 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.

Lyndon Johnson took up Kennedy's efforts after Kennedy's assassination. 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 through Congress the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 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 from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama was viciously attacked by state and local police as 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 who had marched and demonstrated as much as they cared to.

The anger broke out 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. Over the next two years, riots spread to 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. 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 was gone by the time Richard Nixon moved into the White House.

Challenging the system — La Raza

African Americans weren't the only minority group on the move in the 1960s. Those of Latin American descent had been treated as second-class citizens since the 1840s. While their numbers increased during and after World War II, mainly because thousands of Mexicans came to the country as a source of cheap labor, Latinos were largely ghettoized in inner-city "barrios" and rural areas of the Southwest and generally invisible in terms of the political process.

Between 1960 and 1970, however, the number of Latinos in the U.S. tripled, from three million to nine million, with perhaps another five million in the country illegally. Cubans came to Florida, Puerto Ricans to New York, and Mexicans to California. With the increase in numbers came an increased interest in better political, social, and economic treatment for "La Raza" ("the race"). Leaders, particularly among Mexican Americans, or "Chicanos," sprang up: Reies Lopez Tijerina in New Mexico, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales in Colorado, and Cesar Chavez in California.

Latinos began to pursue organized efforts to gain access to the educational and economic systems and fight racial stereotypes. Latin Americans were elected to municipal and state offices and gradually began to organize themselves into a formidable political force in some parts of the country.

Maintaining their culture — Native Americans

No minority group had been treated worse than American Indians or had been less able to do anything about it. They had lower average incomes, higher rates of alcoholism, and shorter life expectancies than any other ethnic group. And because their numbers were few, Indians had been largely ignored by the federal government since the turn of the century.

In the 1950s, federal laws and policies had tried to push Indians into white society and into abandoning traditional ways. But in the 1960s, some Indians began to push back. In 1961, the National Indian Youth Council was established, followed by the American Indian Movement in 1968. The efforts of these and other groups helped lead to the Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968, which granted U.S. rights to reservation Indians while allowing them to set their own laws according to tribal customs.

It would be nice to say that all the racial wrongs in America were made right by the tumultuous events of the 1960s. It would also be absurd. But it isn't absurd to say the period was an overall success in terms of civil rights. It established key laws, instilled a sense of self-pride in minority groups, and served notice that the issue would not be swept under the rug. "Lord, we ain't what we ought to be," observed Martin Luther King. "We ain't what we wanna be. We ain't what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain't what we were."

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