African Americans in the 60's

James Merdith
James Meredith

A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans in the South were still denied access to good housing, high-quality education, employment, and basic amenities. Many had begun to fight the complex web of racism that characterized American society, especially in southern states. The 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, encouraged many to believe that racism could be eradicated, or at least tamed. The success of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56 further encouraged civil rights workers. Thus, the African American community entered the 1960s with the belief that nonviolent protest and legal action could make a difference.
Beginning in 1960, students held sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the South in order to desegregate them. This was one of the first signs of the increased youth participation that would characterize the civil rights movement in the sixties. Young black activists formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) aiming to desegregate public facilities and register black voters.

Students also played a critical role in the freedom rides organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, and later by SNCC. In 1960, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered that buses and station facilities on interstate lines be desegregated. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to put this legislation to the test by organizing a series of "freedom rides," in which people of different races would take buses from the North and try to ride through the South. The freedom riders would sit where they wanted to sit on the buses, and the racially-mixed groups would attempt to integrate the stations which, by law, were forbidden to discriminate against blacks. In states like Alabama and Mississippi, buses were stoned and burned, and riders were attacked by angry mobs and arrested. Much of this violence was captured on film and transmitted to millions of Americans on television news, although many reporters and cameramen were attacked and beaten.

In addition to integrating lunch counters and bus stations, the civil rights movement continued the campaign to integrate the American educational system. National attention focused on the University of Mississippi in 1962, when federal troops were called in to enable James Meredith to register. Civil rights was again at the center of national discourse in the spring of 1963, with the television coverage of police brutality against non-violent demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama.
The climax of the non-violent civil rights movement was the 1963 March on Washington. Assembled at the Lincoln Memorial were over 200,000 people, lobbying for civil rights legislation and hearing a stirring oration delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the March, however, it became clear that many activists were disappointed and frustrated with the results of non-violent protests. Individuals like Malcolm X persuaded many with their support of black separatism, while others advocated an armed struggle against oppression.

In 1963 and 1964, a coalition of civil rights organizations in Mississippi launched Freedom Summer, a project to register black voters and promote voting rights. Enthusiastic young volunteers signed up in colleges across the country. After going through training sessions, the young people headed out to help register black voters to give African-Americans a greater voice in the political process. By the end of the summer, however, fifteen volunteers had been killed, including Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. That same summer, riots broke out in New York; and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, representing the black Mississippians excluded from the Democratic party, were refused seating as representatives of their state.

A month after a 1965 voter registration march to Selma, Alabama, Malcolm X, who had begun to rethink his anti-white stance, was assassinated in New York. During a 600-person civil rights march from Montgomery to Selma, the state trooper attack known as "Bloody Sunday" occurred, injuring more than 50 individuals. Two people, both white, died as a result of attacks during the course of the march. Rioting broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
Many Americans were shocked at the rioting, and could not understand why many blacks were so angry despite the gains in the civil rights movement. After all, laws had been passed which protected Americans from discrimination. More and more minorities were represented in various aspects of American life from which they had been previously barred. The issue of racism had received much press attention, and the nation was moving toward a more integrated state.
The progress of the civil rights movement was not without its critics. One of the major criticisms was that the resulting legislation lacked "teeth." In order to pass civil rights bills through Congress despite the opposition of many senators and representatives who were either racists or at least represented racist constituents, the enforcement aspects had to be watered down and even eliminated. Similarly, Supreme Court decisions against discrimination and the Interstate Commerce Commission's mandate to integrate interstate buses and bus station facilities lacked enough force to turn the law into reality. Even in those state which abided by the federal laws, which were by no means universally adopted, individuals habitually attacked and discriminated against blacks and supporters of black rights. Thus, black Americans were free according to the law (de jure), but not necessarily in fact (de facto).
In addition, the hidden racism which pervaded much of the North remained largely unchallenged by civil rights legislation and judicial action. The major concerns of southern blacks was the eradication of Jim Crowism. Legislation backed by federal authority and troops was enough to take away the legality of the system. For northern blacks, however, there was no simple, straightforward way in which to combat the problem of racism and racial discrimination. Once the ostensible signs of apartheid, the segregated lunch counters and buses, had been removed, many rested in complacent ignorance of the depth to which racial hatred had corroded the heart of American society. Many Northern whites could watch protesters in southern cities on television being attacked by the police or rioting in the streets, safe in the belief that the blacks of the north had no such cause for fear or anger. And yet, in terms of achieving economic, social, and psychological equity, blacks in the north were arguably as impoverished as blacks in the south.
Another criticism of the movement as established and led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and CORE was that they did not make enough of an effort to address the social ills plaguing the black community. Even when freed from the chains of racism, many black Americans were still slaves to their lack of education, housing, jobs, and economic power. As Michael Harrington described in The Other America, "after the racist statutes are all struck down, after legal equality has been achieved in the schools and in the courts, there remains the profound institutionalized and abiding wrong."
One of the most profound and philosophical concerns of many black Americans was the question of black identity in the United States. First of all, the movement had glorified the role of the man or woman strong enough to withstand the blows of the oppressor and refuse to either back down or strike back. Such a role, however, requires a tremendous amount of self-esteem and self-assurance. Without it, black protesters might perceive themselves as passive victims being further victimized, rather than active warriors taking a stand against oppression.
It was not at all clear, however, that most black Americans possessed such inner confidence to match their inner strength. The fact that most black women, and some black men, would not be seen in public, even at a civil rights demonstration, without their hair processed into line with socially-accepted standards of presentability, standards which automatically included the natural state of most whites and excluded the natural state of most blacks, was a telling observation. Having been taken from a land in which they belonged and forced to conform to a society in which they could claim no human status, African Americans were largely a people without a self. The physical and cultural characteristics which made them unique were the very objects of scorn and marginalization by the larger society. Only when black culture was "cleaned up," as in the music of Motown, could it be palatable to the general American public.
In addition, some activists were concerned that the battery of images of black people being brutalized would create a national perception of blacks as being weak and meek. Some criticized any attempt to obtain equality and justice through legal channels, in effect asking for freedom from the same white-dominated society which had denied that freedom in the first place. These critics demanded that freedom and justice be seized from a position of power, rather than requested from a position of subservience.
These are among the concerns that led individuals like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael to move the central focus of the civil rights movement from nonviolent preaching and protest to militant rhetoric and action. Fundamental assumptions were also at issue. Nonviolent protesters had had to believe that the oppressors, or at least the bulk of the larger empowered white society, were basically decent people with consciences and an interest in justice. Otherwise, the goals of shaming oppressors and shocking the nation with the realities of the war of racial discrimination and hatred being waged against innocent, peace-seeking black people would be impossible to achieve. Without a sense of decency, fairness, and justice in the majority white society, nonviolent protesters would be knocking on the door of an empty room. The more militant protesters, however, seemed to work from a more pessimistic view of human nature in general, and of white society in particular.
At James Meredith's "March against Fear" in the summer of 1966, the critical change of emphasis in the civil rights movement became clear. When Stokely Carmichael, the new national chairman of SNCC, roused the crowd with shouts of "black power," he ushered in the "Black Power Era." The newly-militant SNCC joined forces with the Student Organization for Black Unity and the Black Panther Party, which had been formed in Oakland, California.
While the slogan "black power" helped create a positive sense of racial pride in many blacks, it also fostered violence and anti-white hatred in others. Riots occurred in Chicago, Cleveland, and San Francisco in 1966, then in Newark and Detroit the following year. In 1968, the coalition of SNCC coalition broke up. Clashes between black militants and police forces led to many deaths and arrests. In the same year, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, causing a series of riots across the nation.
The Vietnam War proved generally problematic for the fight for civil rights. Many African-Americans were disturbed by what was perceived as a disproportionately high number of black people fighting in the American forces in Vietnam. Some, including singer and actress Eartha Kitt, took the Vietnam War as one of the explanations for urban violence and rioting in black neighborhoods. On January 18, 1968, Kitt was among 50 black and white women invited to the White House by First Lady Mrs. Johnson to discuss urban crime. Kitt remarked, "you send the nest of this country off to be shot and maimed, they rebel in the street." As with other previous wars, including World War II, many civil rights activists were struck by the irony of having the United States fight for the freedom of foreigners when a large number of Americans still faced the oppression of discrimination within their own country. In addition, many prominent cultural figures and civil rights leaders, including Mohammed Ali and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., opposed the war, thus alienating some Americans from supporting the civil rights movement.
Despite the blows to the African American community, including the national losses of John and Robert Kennedy, the later sixties produced some civil rights gains. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 protected housing rights. A number of black Americans obtained prominent and obscure positions in government and other areas of influence and importance. In colleges and universities, black students formed all-black activist groups, some of which began demonstrating in favor of establishing Afro-American studies departments. Several colleges assented and, when Harvard University set up its department in 1969, it lent credibility to the idea of African-American studies.
By 1969, individuals attacking blacks were more aggressively prosecuted than ever before, helping to deter racist violence against blacks. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that schools had to be desegregated immediately. Affirmative Action policies for employment were introduced. Nevertheless, there were still many problems to address. African Americans had obtained full legal rights according to federal law, but, in many sectors and regions, those laws were not fully enforced. In addition, the black community lacked unity of purpose and mission, as many members of the black bourgeoisie began to seek their own interests, leaving behind those rural and inner city blacks in need of support. The African American community exited the sixties with more legal rights and opportunities than before, but with less optimism and focus than at the beginning of the decade.