Millions of Americans watched in awe from at home on their television as they watched Martin Luther King Jr gave his speech before the Lincoln Memorial. The 1960’s was perhaps the single most pivotal moment in recent American history for the various civil rights movements that rose up during this time. It was a time where liberalism was being reinvigorated by both President Kennedy and President Johnson who both continued the spirit of the New Deal by proposing several policies to try and combat poverty. Americans across the nation had their hopes sparked to revolutionize society.
President John F. Kennedy during his Inaugural Address
Most of the iconic protests against segregation and Jim Crow laws occurred between the years 1960 and 1965. On May 4th, 1961, black and white protesters took two buses from Washington D.C. to the Deep South to protest segregation of the public transportation system. One bus during a stop had it’s tires slashed and was pelted with stones, only to later be firebombed. The other bus made it to Birmingham where KKK assaulted a white man named James Peck when he entered a white-only waiting room. Members of the SNCC (student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) continued the journey where they were later arrested in Mississippi for violating segregation laws. some spent as much as four months in jail. In 1963, we see the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) leaders organize a campaign to end segregation in Birmingham through nonviolent protests. This included various sit-ins and boycotts. Protests were often met with hoses and police dogs. The brutality was popularized in various newspapers and magazines which gave the movement the national attention it needed for it’s next big step: the March on Washington.
Over 200,000 people marched from the Washington monument to the Lincoln memorial on August 28th, 1963. It was the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. There were various orations but perhaps the most famous of the bunch was MLK’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech. The whole event was organized to push for a federal civil rights bill. In 1964 we see Freedom Summer where activists fought in against white supremacy in Mississippi. Three activists two white Jewish New Yorkers and a 21-year old Mississippi black activist went missing after being arrested and jumped by Klan members. National headlines hit the issue and Freedom Summer continued. One other demonstration on March 7, 1965, where 600 protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery to fight for the right to vote ended on a bridge where they were met with state troopers and as they knelt to pray the state troopers were given the order to attack.
Finally the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as signed by President Johnson prohibiting the use of literacy tests or poll taxes and allowing voters to use the federal registrars in the case of states failing to adhere to the fifteenth amendment. This was a true victory for the movement which allowed thousands of blacks to register. However this was not the only movement during the time.
There was the Free Speech Movement which began in the University of California where students were forbidden to engage in political activism or debate, as well as restrictive codes of conduct were enforced preventing female students from wearing pants or mandating single sex dorms, so on so forth. The movement had kicked off in the wake of Freedom Summer, and resulted in various universities across the country to abolish codes of conduct and introduce new curriculum like black and women studies. However some movements became more extreme leaning towards admiration for Marxists and communist leaders and in order to receive press coverage began more theatrical and extreme demonstrations such as hurling bricks.
There was also the hippie counterculture movement, which emphasized peace, abandoning material possessions, and sexual expression and liberation. This movement was more so a backlash towards middle class suburban lifestyle, as young Americans refused to get the same home, car, the same life as their parents. These hippies would often use drugs such as marijuana and LSD to explore themselves spiritually.
Another major group was the Womens Liberation Movement. The Liberation Movement itself like many of these Left Movements was fractured. White-middle class women left the Civil rights movement often to join the Womens Liberation Movement and resonated with the idea of women being able to explore a life as fulfilling as men. They sought to be able to equally engage in politics, careers, and be more than just the suburban housewife. Others however followed an ideology of Helen Gurley Brown who advocated for women to use sex and looks to fill the void left behind by being underpaid compared to men and less valued in the society. She advocated strongly against the marry-and-have-kids role that was enforced onto women and instead said women should get a career and use sex and flirtation to rise in the ranks, explore themselves sexually, before finally getting married once their looks begin to deteriorate. This all lead to the formation of NOW (National Organization for Women) which along with criticizing the government for failing to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, advocated for equal opportunity for women in various male dominated aspects of life such as politics and employment. They also pushed for women to have more control of their bodies through open and easy access to contraceptives and legal abortion. While founders of NOW advocated for legislative change others pushed for society to change its attitudes protesting Miss America pageants, and throwing away bras, high heels, magazines like playboy, and any other items that pushed for the sex object they believed women to be represented as.
It’s important to note how these organizations even fought against one another such as women at the SNCC complaining about how all clerical chores for the organization were being left to women and resulted in a sit-in at heir headquarters. By the end of the decade as these movements finally died down and conservative republicans gained favor promising to end the cultural shifts that was tearing the country apart.
The 1960’s was a time of turmoil, divisions, and perhaps one of Americas greatest cultural revolutions. Many argued to much changed and many more believed not enough changed. Although each group did advocate for their own ideals it’s clear that some goals were more within reach than others. The Free Speech movement was perhaps one of the most successful of the many movements as it ended quickly and decisively after only 4 months. However it was probably one of the least radical in that it only brought small mitigated change. The Civil Rights Movement for blacks was perhaps the most extreme change during the decade and it’s rightfully the most remembered. In that decade alone America changed from being a stew of racism and segregation to quickly assimilating and protecting the rights of black minorities. In many ways the Civil Rights Movement was the most successful as it gave African Americans a position to finally be represented and end the Jim Crow laws and other segregationist practices that had haunted them for a century. Of course some might argue the movement did not succeed and it continues today in America. We see this with many movements in the 21st Century that are obviously greatly inspired by the change during the 60’s with movements like BlackLivesMatter and the MeToo movements. So by the very existence of these modern movements can we say the Civil Rights and Women Liberation movements were failures? That is more so a question that we will have to answer in the coming years.