Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

27.7: Beyond Civil Rights

  • Page ID
    10568
  • Despite substantial legislative achievements, frustrations with the slow pace of change grew. Tensions continued to mount in cities, and the tone of the civil rights movement changed yet again. Activists became less conciliatory in their calls for progress. Many embraced the more militant message of the burgeoning Black Power Movement and the late Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam (NOI) minister who had encouraged African Americans to pursue freedom, equality, and justice by “any means necessary.” Prior to his death, Malcolm X and the NOI emerged as the radical alternative to the racially integrated, largely Protestant approach of Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm advocated armed resistance in defense of the safety and well-being of black Americans, stating, “I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” For his part, King and leaders from more mainstream organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League criticized both Malcolm X and the NOI for what they perceived to be racial demagoguery. King believed Malcolm X’s speeches were a “great disservice” to black Americans, claiming that they lamented the problems of African Americans without offering solutions. The differences between King and Malcolm X represented a core ideological tension that would inhabit black political thought throughout the 1960s and 1970s.19

    Like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois before them, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X represented two styles of racial uplift while maintaining the same general goal of ending racial discrimination. How they would get to that goal is where the men diverged. Marion S. Trikosko, “[Martin Luther King and Malcolm X waiting for press conference],” March 26, 1964. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/92522562/.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois before them, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, pictured here in 1964, represented different civil rights strategies that both aimed for racial justice. Library of Congress.

    By the late 1960s, SNCC, led by figures such as Stokely Carmichael, had expelled its white members and shunned the interracial effort in the rural South, focusing instead on injustices in northern urban areas. After President Johnson refused to take up the cause of the black delegates in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, SNCC activists became frustrated with institutional tactics and turned away from the organization’s founding principle of nonviolence. This evolving, more aggressive movement called for African Americans to play a dominant role in cultivating black institutions and articulating black interests rather than relying on interracial, moderate approaches. At a June 1966 civil rights march, Carmichael told the crowd, “What we gonna start saying now is black power!”20 The slogan not only resonated with audiences, it also stood in direct contrast to King’s “Freedom Now!” campaign. The political slogan of black power could encompass many meanings, but at its core it stood for the self-determination of black people in political, economic, and social organizations.

    The Black Panther Party used radical and incendiary tactics to bring attention to the continued oppression of blacks in America. Read the bottom paragraph on this rally poster carefully. Wikimedia, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e7/Black_Panther_DC_Rally_Revolutionary_People's_Constitutional_Convention_1970.jpg.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Black Panther Party used radical and incendiary tactics to bring attention to the continued oppression of blacks in America. This 1970 poster captures their outlook. Wikimedia.

    Carmichael asserted that “black power means black people coming together to form a political force.”21 To others it also meant violence. In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. The Black Panthers became the standard-bearers for direct action and self-defense, using the concept of decolonization in their drive to liberate black communities from white power structures. The revolutionary organization also sought reparations and exemptions for black men from the military draft. Citing police brutality and racist governmental policies, the Black Panthers aligned themselves with the “other people of color in the world” against whom America was fighting abroad. Although it was perhaps most well known for its open display of weapons, military-style dress, and black nationalist beliefs, the party’s 10-Point Plan also included employment, housing, and education. The Black Panthers worked in local communities to run “survival programs” that provided food, clothing, medical treatment, and drug rehabilitation. They focused on modes of resistance that empowered black activists on their own terms.22

    But African Americans weren’t the only Americans struggling to assert themselves in the 1960s. The successes of the civil rights movement and growing grassroots activism inspired countless new movements. In the summer of 1961, for instance, frustrated Native American university students founded the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) to draw attention to the plight of indigenous Americans. In the Pacific Northwest, the council advocated for tribal fisherman to retain immunity from conservation laws on reservations and in 1964 held a series of “fish-ins”: activists and celebrities cast nets and waited for the police to arrest them.23 The NIYC’s militant rhetoric and use of direct action marked the beginning of what was called the Red Power movement, an intertribal movement designed to draw attention to Native issues and to protest discrimination. The American Indian Movement (AIM) and other activists staged dramatic demonstrations. In November 1969, dozens began a year-and-a-half-long occupation of the abandoned Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. In 1973, hundreds occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of the infamous 1890 Indian massacre, for several months.24

    Meanwhile, the Chicano movement in the 1960s emerged out of the broader Mexican American civil rights movement of the post–World War II era. The word Chicano was initially considered a derogatory term for Mexican immigrants, until activists in the 1960s reclaimed the term and used it as a catalyst to campaign for political and social change among Mexican Americans. The Chicano movement confronted discrimination in schools, politics, agriculture, and other formal and informal institutions. Organizations like the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDF) buoyed the Chicano movement and patterned themselves after similar influential groups in the African American civil rights movement.25

    Cesar Chavez became the most well-known figure of the Chicano movement, using nonviolent tactics to campaign for workers’ rights in the grape fields of California. Chavez and activist Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association, which eventually merged and became the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA). The UFWA fused the causes of Chicano and Filipino activists protesting the subpar working conditions of California farmers on American soil. In addition to embarking on a hunger strike and a boycott of table grapes, Chavez led a three-hundred-mile march in March and April 1966 from Delano, California, to the state capital of Sacramento. The pro-labor campaign garnered the national spotlight and the support of prominent political figures such as Robert Kennedy. Today, Chavez’s birthday (March 31) is observed as a federal holiday in California, Colorado, and Texas.

    Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales was another activist whose calls for Chicano self-determination resonated long past the 1960s. A former boxer and Denver native, Gonzales founded the Crusade for Justice in 1966, an organization that would establish the first annual Chicano Liberation Day at the National Chicano Youth Conference. The conference also yielded the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, a Chicano nationalist manifesto that reflected Gonzales’s vision of Chicanos as a unified, historically grounded, all-encompassing group fighting against discrimination in the United States. By 1970, the Texas-based La Raza Unida political party had a strong foundation for promoting Chicano nationalism and continuing the campaign for Mexican American civil rights.26

    The 1966 Rio Grande Valley Farm Workers March (“La Marcha”). August 27, 1966. Via the University of Texas-San Antonio Libraries' Special Collections (MS 360: E-0012-187-D-16)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The 1966 Rio Grande Valley Farm Workers March (“La Marcha”). August 27, 1966. The University of Texas-San Antonio Libraries’ Special Collections (MS 360: E-0012-187-D-16)

    The feminist movement also grew in the 1960s. Women were active in both the civil rights movement and the labor movement, but their increasing awareness of gender inequality did not find a receptive audience among male leaders in those movements. In the 1960s, then, many of these women began to form a movement of their own. Soon the country experienced a groundswell of feminist consciousness.

    An older generation of women who preferred to work within state institutions figured prominently in the early part of the decade. When John F. Kennedy established the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt headed the effort. The commission’s official report, a self-declared “invitation to action,” was released in 1963. Finding discriminatory provisions in the law and practices of industrial, labor, and governmental organizations, the commission advocated for “changes, many of them long overdue, in the conditions of women’s opportunity in the United States.”27 Change was recommended in areas of employment practices, federal tax and benefit policies affecting women’s income, labor laws, and services for women as wives, mothers, and workers. This call for action, if heeded, would ameliorate the types of discrimination primarily experienced by middle-class and elite white working women, all of whom were used to advocating through institutional structures like government agencies and unions.28 The specific concerns of poor and nonwhite women lay largely beyond the scope of the report.

    Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique hit bookshelves the same year the commission released its report. Friedan had been active in the union movement and was by this time a mother in the new suburban landscape of postwar America. In her book, Friedan labeled the “problem that has no name,” and in doing so helped many white middle-class American women come to see their dissatisfaction as housewives not as something “wrong with [their] marriage, or [themselves],” but instead as a social problem experienced by millions of American women. Friedan observed that there was a “discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image I call the feminine mystique.” No longer would women allow society to blame the “problem that has no name” on a loss of femininity, too much education, or too much female independence and equality with men.29

    The 1960s also saw a different group of women pushing for change in government policy. Mothers on welfare began to form local advocacy groups in addition to the National Welfare Rights Organization, founded in 1966. Mostly African American, these activists fought for greater benefits and more control over welfare policy and implementation. Women like Johnnie Tillmon successfully advocated for larger grants for school clothes and household equipment in addition to gaining due process and fair administrative hearings prior to termination of welfare entitlements.

    Yet another mode of feminist activism was the formation of consciousness-raising groups. These groups met in women’s homes and at women’s centers, providing a safe environment for women to discuss everything from experiences of gender discrimination to pregnancy, from relationships with men and women to self-image. The goal of consciousness-raising was to increase self-awareness and validate the experiences of women. Groups framed such individual experiences as examples of society-wide sexism, and claimed that “the personal is political.”30 Consciousness-raising groups created a wealth of personal stories that feminists could use in other forms of activism and crafted networks of women from which activists could mobilize support for protests.

    The end of the decade was marked by the Women’s Strike for Equality, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of women’s right to vote. Sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), the 1970 protest focused on employment discrimination, political equality, abortion, free childcare, and equality in marriage. All of these issues foreshadowed the backlash against feminist goals in the 1970s. Not only would feminism face opposition from other women who valued the traditional homemaker role to which feminists objected, the feminist movement would also fracture internally as minority women challenged white feminists’ racism and lesbians vied for more prominence within feminist organizations.

    The women’s movement stagnated after gaining the vote in 1920, but by the 1960s it was back in full force. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and fed up with gender discrimination, women took to the streets to demand their rights as American citizens. Warren K. Leffler, “Women's lib[eration] march from Farrugut Sq[uare] to Layfette [i.e., Lafayette] P[ar]k,” August 26, 1970. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003673992/.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The women’s movement stalled during the 1930s and 1940s, but by the 1960s it was back in full force. Inspired by the civil rights movement and fed up with gender discrimination, women took to the streets to demand their rights as American citizens. Photograph, August 26, 1970. Library of Congress.

    American environmentalism’s significant gains during the 1960s emerged in part from Americans’ recreational use of nature. Postwar Americans backpacked, went to the beach, fished, and joined birding organizations in greater numbers than ever before. These experiences, along with increased formal education, made Americans more aware of threats to the environment and, consequently, to themselves. Many of these threats increased in the postwar years as developers bulldozed open space for suburbs and new hazards emerged from industrial and nuclear pollutants.

    By the time that biologist Rachel Carson published her landmark book, Silent Spring, in 1962, a nascent environmentalism had emerged in America. Silent Springstood out as an unparalleled argument for the interconnectedness of ecological and human health. Pesticides, Carson argued, also posed a threat to human health, and their overuse threatened the ecosystems that supported food production. Carson’s argument was compelling to many Americans, including President Kennedy, but was virulently opposed by chemical industries that suggested the book was the product of an emotional woman, not a scientist.31

    After Silent Spring, the social and intellectual currents of environmentalism continued to expand rapidly, culminating in the largest demonstration in history, Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, and in a decade of lawmaking that significantly restructured American government. Even before the massive gathering for Earth Day, lawmakers from the local to the federal level had pushed for and achieved regulations to clean up the air and water. President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law in 1970, requiring environmental impact statements for any project directed or funded by the federal government. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency, the first agency charged with studying, regulating, and disseminating knowledge about the environment. A raft of laws followed that were designed to offer increased protection for air, water, endangered species, and natural areas.

    The decade’s activism manifested across the world. It even affected the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII to modernize the church and bring it in closer dialogue with the non-Catholic world, operated from 1962 to 1965, when it proclaimed multiple reforms, including the vernacular mass (mass in local languages, rather than in Latin) and a greater role for laypeople, and especially women, in the Church. Many Catholic churches adopted more informal, contemporary styles. Many conservative Catholics recoiled at what they perceived as rapid and dangerous changes, but Vatican II’s reforms in many ways created the modern Catholic Church.

    • Was this article helpful?