The Civil Rights Movement

For most of the nineteen-sixties, African Americans stood up for their rights in novel ways, confronting mainstream American society with their realities and demanding greater equality. During the Second World War, many of them had fought abroad and seen the possibilities for a more racially equal society, which was very different from their reality in the United States at the time, especially in the South, where segregation was still omnipresent. In the North, racism was less institutionalized, but the racial situation was similarly bad and migration from the South exacerbated these problems and led to increasing ghettoization. Over the next decade black people increasingly made efforts to change the situation, for example the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956 and numerous sit-ins, starting around 1960. They mainly used techniques of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest to achieve their goals, demanding an end to segregation and greater equality. This not only attracted a significant number of black activists, but also gained support from whites, in some cases because they felt a moral obligation to help the United States live up to its ideals. This was also visible during the Kennedy administration, when plans were made for “the most far-reaching civil rights law in the nation’s history” (Isserman and Kazin 91), which would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although this gave the impression that Kennedy was something of a civil rights icon, minorities affected by these policies disagreed. Baldwin had voted for Kennedy in the 1960 election, but he later criticized him for breaking his promises and betraying the African American community (“We Can Change the Country”50), and Deloria also spoke out against the idea that the Kennedy brothers were “the only saviors of minority communities” (Custer 192), because their actual achievements were limited. The younger generations were increasingly disillusioned by the government’s reactions, and the violence they saw around them reminded them of what was happening in Vietnam (Hodgson 211), leading some to consider alternative approaches. That is why more militant groups began to emerge, with less emphasis on integration and more focus on separatism. Although not entirely related to the civil rights movement, the riots that were happening, for example in Watts in 1965, shocked the older generation of black activists and scared white liberals away, who ultimately wanted to preserve an orderly status quo. That is why many organizations, such as SNCC, which had started out non-violent, eventually turned to more radical strategies.

‘Martin Luther King’s death was a symbolic end to peaceful activism.’

That the civil rights movement was changing under the influence of these new movements is also clear from Martin Luther King’s changing views, and the decline of his organization, the SCLC. Before he died, he still helped to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington D.C. that intended to bring people from different minority backgrounds together in protest of economic problems. It took place after his death, but was not really a success and has mostly been overlooked in historical accounts. Most importantly, Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4 of 1968 was in many ways a symbolic end of the peaceful civil rights movement. That a new phase had begun was confirmed by the inauguration of Richard Nixon the following year, a president who had tried to attract Southern voters and spoke of bringing law and order to the cities to end race riots and control the African-American population.  In society, too, the civil rights movement lost legitimacy due to the many riots that had occurred and the repressive tactics employed by the authorities against organizations like the Black Panthers. Some white people grew tired of constantly hearing about civil rights, as can be sensed from Mailer’s writing (Miami 48), criticizing the constant talk of black superiority. Radical movements also began to fade and some activists instead moved on to fight for their causes elsewhere, for example in local and national politics. By the end of the decade, the civil rights movement had all but vanished into obscurity, but it had had a tremendous influence on improving minority rights. It had also inspired other movements, including the antiwar protests, to fight for their causes in a similar manner. Even though the ever-bleak reality of race relations at the end of the nineteen-sixties puts the progress that had been made in a slightly different perspective, the fact that minorities stood up for their rights on such a massive scale was unprecedented and perhaps the most important victory of all.

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