[NOTE: This is the concluding post in my treatment of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement from World War II through the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. For part 1, go here. A list of suggested sources appears below.]
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John F. Kennedy’s successor, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, was sincerely devoted to the idea of equality and seemed determined to prove that the South had at last turned its back on the heritage of slavery. Johnson asked Congress to enact civil rights legislation as a memorial to the slain Kennedy.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public places, unions, and hiring for federal jobs; and authorized the Attorney-General to file suits on behalf of victims of racial prejudice. This measure would accustom Americans to being in the presence of “the Other” regularly, in restaurants, theatres, stores. As was the case in education, the underlying idea was that frequent association with people of different races was especially important for children.
Congress also moved to extend the principle of equality to voting. In August 1962, Congress approved and sent to the states a proposed twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution ending the use of poll taxes by states in federal elections; the amendment was ratified by January 1964.
Congress subsequently enacted the Voting Rights Act (1965), which sent federal registrars to enroll voters in the South. In the long run, this measure would change the face of the American electorate. As the percentage of African American registered voters grew, even diehard racist politicians would have to begin paying attention to them. Moreover, blacks would themselves have increasing opportunities to run for and, eventually, to win elective office. At President Johnson’s urging, Congress also launched a “War on Poverty,” the key to Johnson’s effort to build a “Great Society.”
Yet, these measures, which dealt with de jure segregation (enacted by laws), a practice largely confined to the South, gave scant attention to de facto segregation (developed and enforced by custom rather than by law), the norm in the rest of the country. Moreover, this burst of Johnson-inspired legislation did little or nothing about economic discrimination.
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Like Americans who had hailed the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier, supporters of civil rights were quite optimistic over passage of the Voting Rights Act in July 1965. Yet, according to a noted Southern historian, optimists during both periods shared two assumptions that were to prove fallacious: “The first was that the legal end of the institution abolished meant the end of the abuse that was outlawed. The second was that the institution abolished was responsible for all, or nearly all, of the troubles of its victims.” (Woodward, Strange Career of Jim Crow, 188)
Even as de jure segregation was crumbling in the South, de facto segregation was on the rise in the North, as was the decay of the inner cities and the percentage of African Americans who were unemployed. (Nationwide, more than 40% of non-whites lived below the “poverty level,” more than three times the rate for whites.) These conditions were virtually untouched by the new civil rights laws.
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Only five days after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the black ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles exploded into flames. Hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed, thirty-four people were killed, and four thousand were arrested. Between 1965 and 1967, civil unrest broke out in seventy-six American cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and Newark, New Jersey. Many white Americans saw these disturbances as revolutionary upheavals, but sympathetic whites viewed them as symptoms of self-destructive despair. (Subsequent studies showed that 58% of Watts’ males were unemployed at the time of the riot there and 37.6% in Chicago.)
The federal government responded to this civil unrest in both symbolic and substantive ways. President Johnson appointed the first African American Cabinet member, Robert C. Weaver, at Housing and Urban Development; and the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. Congress passed an Education Act in 1967 that set up Head Start (pre-school) centers in areas where disadvantaged children entered schools already behind their peers and established special tutorial programs to help older students.
A 1968 law created employment guidelines (“affirmative action” quotas) that pressed employers to hire minorities in roughly equal ratios to their proportion of the population at large, and stringent real estate regulations attacked segregated housing patterns. Violations of this, or any other, civil rights law became a federal offense. (Note: Another source places the development of “affirmative action” in the Nixon years, when it grew out of the interpretation placed by federal officials and judges on “a vaguely worded section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” [The Great Republic, 573-574])
In the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riot, President Johnson appointed a National Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. The basic conclusion of the Kerner Commission’s report, issued in 1968, was that “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” (Quoted in Woodward, Strange Career, 195) The Commission reported the failure of the civil rights movement to achieve racial integration and reconciliation, but it did not abandon those goals or despair of ever achieving them. The Kerner report also deplored the persistence of segregation and “the continuing polarization of the American community.” Yet, it did not accept these conditions as inevitable nor consider them desirable.
That the developments alluded to in the Kerner Commission report had some basis in fact was clear not only from urban violence and white backlash in the mid-1960s but also from the emergence among younger African Americans of a new set of ideas, “Black Power.” This term meant different things to different people, from black-owned economic enterprises, to ghetto-centered political power, to emphasis on pride among African Americans in black history and culture.
For black leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of SNCC and the organizers of the militant Black Panthers, “Black Power” had “two aspects that inevitably proved divisive: the repudiation of integration and cooperation with white liberals; and the condoning of violence.” (Problems in American History, Vol. II: 421) “Black Power” badly split African American leadership, because established, older leaders like Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., and A. Philip Randolph would not countenance violence promised by some militant black leaders.
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There were other problems in the larger American society in the late 1960s. The civil rights movement increasingly came into conflict with whites, especially in the North, as its emphasis shifted from de jure to de facto segregation. Moreover, the militant rhetoric of “Black Power” advocates frightened many white citizens:
“Black Power stimulated white resistance and, perhaps, black riots. Blacks rioted because whites were not doing enough. The riots made whites want to do even less. Black resources were not adequate to meet black needs. Militance alienated white allies Negroes needed if conditions were to improve. Things therefore worsened, making black militants even angrier.” (William L. O’Neill, Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s, 175)
Urban whites blamed blacks for rising crime statistics and protested efforts to integrate their neighborhoods and schools. Politicians picked up on this and began to organize their campaigns around pledges to restore “law and order,” code words easily understood by angry white voters.
In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was at its height. The conflict in Southeast Asia was draining money away from President Johnson’s anti-poverty programs; bringing higher prices and higher taxes to the American people; killing ever greater numbers of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom were black and poor, cannon fodder inducted by the nation’s draft system.
And then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. For many urban blacks, this was the proverbial last straw. Bloody, destructive civil unrest flared anew in cities across the country. Stunned Americans, whether black or white, could only grapple blindly with the question of what the civil rights movement would do without Dr. King, who had been the face and voice of African American aspirations since the Montgomery bus boycott over a decade earlier.
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In a sense, the murder of the charismatic King brought the civil rights movement to a halt. Community integration seemed unsuccessful. Thanks to the Interstate highway system and the resulting growth of suburbia, middle and upper class white Americans could—and did—leave cities in growing numbers. Thus, the nation’s urban population increasingly became African American, but the tax base decreased because of what was labeled “white flight.” This meant that, as African Americans gained control of city governments, they found themselves without the financial resources they needed to govern effectively.
White students naturally accompanied their parents to the suburbs, which meant that urban school systems, even if they once had experienced some degree of integration after Brown v. Board, began to be re-segregated (this time through de facto rather than de jure means). The eventual, court-ordered solution to this dilemma was mandatory busing, which proved unpopular with whites (and with many blacks as well), especially in the North.
The worsening of the Vietnam War was a major factor in the election to the Presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1968. Unfortunately, the Republican nominee adopted a so-called “southern strategy” during the campaign to win support of whites opposed to integration. He also exploited demands for “black capitalism” and used the concept to attract the black middle class; while that might gratify racial pride, it solved no community problems. Part of Nixon’s re-election strategy in 1972 was to adopt a hardline stand against court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance in public schools.
White backlash was no longer violent. In recent years it had been subsumed in stances against busing, affirmative action, quota systems, and the sort of generalized opposition to the “welfare state” that was part of the appeal of President Richard Nixon to white voters. While much less vocal, various civil rights organizations from the 1960s still existed, along with newer ones like The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s PUSH, but in general the Civil Rights movement appeared to lack cohesion and a clear sense of direction.
By 1968, legal barriers to integration in voting, public accommodations, education, and social relations had pretty much been removed. But economic barriers remained. It was to the elimination of those hurdles that the Civil Rights movement, with continuing support from the federal government, might have turned. Whether this would happen, and whether, if it did, the effort would receive support from a majority of white Americans, were questions well worth pondering.
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Branch, Taylor. America in the King Years (3 vols., 1988-2006).
Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, eds. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Meacham, Jon, ed. Voices in our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement.
O’Neill, William L. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s.
Raines, Howell, ed. My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered.
Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff. The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.
Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality.
Sokol, Jason. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Right, 1945-1973.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Career.
END OF PART 2
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: