- Exploration & the Settlement of the Americas
- The Revolutionary War
- The Growth & Expansion of The Nation
- The Civil War & Reconstruction
- The Gilded Age & the Second Industrial Revolution
- World War I & The Roaring Twenties
- The Great Depression and The New Deal
- World War II
- The Cold War
- The Civil Rights Movement and The Sixties
GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Civil Rights Movement and The Sixties
As previously noted, the lives of African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War were wretched. The Jim Crow laws enshrined segregation and humiliation as law, and the majority of the country’s blacks lived in agricultural poverty in the south, working as tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Blacks and whites lived, shopped, prayed, and traveled in segregated facilities as the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court in 1896 allowed “separate but equal” facilities (though facilities for “colored people” were never “equal” was the law of the land).
Blacks in urban areas lived in segregated neighborhoods and were excluded from many employment opportunities. In the North, there was not formal segregation, but de facto (“in fact, if not in law”) segregation ruled black-white relations. Most higher educational opportunities were closed off to blacks, and segregation was evident in elementary and high schools and many industries.
During World War I and World War II, African-Americans had more employment opportunities, but as soon as those wars were over, defense-related jobs were often eliminated, and of those jobs that remained, blacks were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
Since the Civil War, African-Americans in the Army served in segregated units commanded by white officers. Their exploits were no less heroic — and they fought and died just like any other soldier — but the mixing of black and white troops was believed to be bad for morale and fighting ability. Only in the Navy did black and white men serve together.
Early Events in the Civil Rights Movement
In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces by an executive order (as commander-in-chief, he could do this without consulting Congress). White officers and enlisted men grumbled, but integration was complete by the early 1950s and — contrary to what critics had said — unit morale and cohesion (togetherness) did not fall apart.
The 1948 Democratic Party platform also called for civil rights legislation (laws) and new federal anti-lynching laws. These met with tremendous resistance from Southern lawmakers, who still made up a sizeable chunk of Congressional leaders.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Oliver Brown was fed-up. A father and pastor in Topeka, Kansas, his nine-year-old daughter could not go to the “white” school only six blocks from home, and instead had to cross a train yard in order to attend the “colored” school almost two miles away. When he tried to enroll the child in the all-white school, he was turned away.
With the help of the legal team of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Brown and other parents brought a lawsuit, claiming that segregated schools violated the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, a brilliant African-American attorney working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued that “separate but equal” could never be equal. In addition, he and he team introduced evidence from psychological studies that showed the harm segregation caused children. A number of studies indicated that black children were taught to feel inferior and that “white” was inherently “better.”
Marshall’s argument found favor among the members of the Supreme Court, which was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was strongly committed to fairness and justice in American society. In a 9-0 vote in May 1954, the Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. The court noted the key role of education in modern life:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and
local governments… . In these days, it is doubtful that any child may
reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity
of an education… . We come then to the question: Does segregation
of children in public schools solely on the basis of race…deprive
the children of minority groups of equal educational opportunities?
We believe that it does.
Formal segregation was dead. But changing peoples’ attitudes does not come overnight, and there was great resistance to the decision in the South. Politicians there swore they would mount “massive resistance” to court orders to desegregate their schools and other facilities.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1955)
Montgomery, Alabama’s public bus system was still segregated after the Brown decision. Whenever the bus was full and more white people got on, African-Americans had to “move to the back of the bus.” One cold evening, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was removed from the bus and arrested.
To combat the systematic racism and show the power of unity, the black community of the city, led by a charismatic young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a boycott (a movement pledged to not use or buy a product or service) of the public bus system. Using borrowed cars, carpools, and second-hand school buses, they organized a rival transportation system, depriving the public buses of passenger revenue. After a year, the city dropped its segregation law and the buses became integrated. Dr. King’s name had become synonymous with nonviolent protest.
Civil Rights Struggles – and Challenges
While some progress on civil rights had been made during the Kennedy years (1961-63) [such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in August 1963], real forward movement occurred during Johnson’s administration — but often at a horrific price in violence and conflict. In 1963 alone, an NAACP official, Medgar Evers, was assassinated and a bomb in a Birmingham, Alabama, church killed four little girls. African-Americans were barred, by racist governors, from enrolling in state universities in the South. Only federal intervention allowed students to enter — and even then, only a handful actually went on to the colleges.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was perhaps the foremost leader of the civil rights movement. Well-spoken, charismatic, and inspiring, he helped raise Americans’ consciousness of the real gap between our image of ourselves and the reality.
The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act brought real results, but African-Americans (and others, such as Mexican-Americans and Native Americans) began to protest the slow pace of reform and the resistance of, it seemed, much of white America.
Rioting in Northern cities became common, especially during the summers. Cooperation gave way to confrontation, and black vs. white was a common theme in many situations. In the summers of 1965, 1966, and 1967, many cities experienced rioting and looting. Violence often ensued when the police attempted to deal with the situations.
The Black Muslim Movement rejected cooperation and integration, stressing black self-sufficiency, racial pride, and economic development. Malcolm X rose up in the ranks to become the voice of the movement, but later split with the organization. He was assassinated in 1965.
The Black Power Movement grew out of what had started as non-violent student groups. But as the decade wore on, many young Afro-Americans (as they called themselves) grew more militant. “Black is Beautiful” became a rallying cry. Out of this movement arose the Black Panthers, a group dedicated to revolutionary social change and the creation of self-contained black communities.
Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society
The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had been miserable as JFK’s vice president. A gifted legislator, he had been given little to do by Kennedy. Now, he would use Kennedy’s death to prod Congress to pass meaningful civil rights legislation.
The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965)
LBJ’s legislative talents were never on greater display than in the first two years of his presidency. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in all public accommodations (such as restaurants, hotels, stores, etc.). No discrimination in public programs is permitted, and the law has teeth — a person can bring a lawsuit alleging discrimination under the act. One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, Jim Crow was finally dead.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, allowing the federal government to step in and supervise voting in areas (usually in the South) with a history of voter discrimination. While African-Americans had the constitutional right to vote, few in the South did, due to literary tests, poll taxes, and outright intimidation. After only one year, voting by African-Americans in the South increased by almost 50%.
In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson outlined his plans for a “Great Society,” a collection of programs that would do for social issues what the New Deal (see Chapter 5) had done for economic issues. Johnson laid out his vision of a society that would end poverty, promote racial justice, and create new programs for education, care for the elderly, and promotion of the arts. he noted, “The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”
Working with the 88th Congress, Johnson — a superb legislator — created (and Congress enacted) a host of programs in 1964 and 1965. A federal government that was big and bureaucratic got even bigger and more bureaucratic. Some of the major programs were:
Medicare. This program assists the elderly with their medical bills.
Medicaid. This program assists low-income people with their medical bills.
Head Start. This created early-education programs, particularly for inner-city youth.
The National Endowment for the Arts. This created and funded cultural programs.
The Immigration Act. Ended the discriminatory immigration laws enacted in the 1920s.
Housing Act. Provided funds for slum clearance and construction of low-income housing.
Clean Air Act and Clear Water Act. Created the first pollution controls.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Provided funding to low-income school districts.
Looking back, it is clear that the Great Society did give assistance to the most vulnerable members of American society, but many programs were inefficient and costly.