The civil rights movement looked dramatically different at the end of the 1960s than it had at the beginning. The movement had never been monolithic, but prominent, competing ideologies had fractured the movement in the 1970s. The rise of the Black Power movement challenged the integrationist dreams of many older activists as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X fueled disillusionment and many alienated activists recoiled from liberal reformers.
The political evolution of the civil rights movement was reflected in American culture. The lines of race, class, and gender ruptured American “mass” culture. The monolith of popular American culture, pilloried in the fifties and sixties as exclusively white, male-dominated, conservative, and stifling, finally shattered and Americans retreated into ever smaller, segmented subcultures. Marketers now targeted particular products to ever smaller pieces of the population, including previously neglected groups such as African Americans.16 Subcultures often revolved around certain musical styles, whether pop, disco, hard rock, punk rock, country, or hip-hop. Styles of dress and physical appearance likewise aligned with cultures of choice.
If the popular rock acts of the sixties appealed to a new counterculture, the seventies witnessed the resurgence of cultural forms that appealed to a white working class confronting the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. Country hits such as Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” evoked simpler times and places where people “still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse” and they “don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy like the hippies out in San Francisco.” A popular television sitcom, All in the Family, became an unexpected hit among “middle America.” The show’s main character, Archie Bunker, was designed to mock reactionary middle-aged white men, but audiences embraced him. “Isn’t anyone interested in upholding standards?” he lamented in an episode dealing with housing integration. “Our world is coming crumbling down. The coons are coming!”17
As Bunker knew, African Americans were becoming much more visible in American culture. While black cultural forms had been prominent throughout American history, they assumed new popular forms in the 1970s. Disco offered a new, optimistic, racially integrated pop music. Musicians such as Aretha Franklin, Andraé Crouch, and “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston brought their background in church performance to their own recordings as well as to the work of white artists like the Rolling Stones, with whom they collaborated. By the end of the decade, African American musical artists had introduced American society to one of the most significant musical innovations in decades: the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 record, Rapper’s Delight. A lengthy paean to black machismo, it became the first rap single to reach the Top 40.18
Just as rap represented a hypermasculine black cultural form, Hollywood popularized its white equivalent. Films such as 1971’s Dirty Harrycaptured a darker side of the national mood. Clint Eastwood’s titular character exacted violent justice on clear villains, working within the sort of brutally simplistic ethical standard that appealed to Americans anxious about a perceived breakdown in “law and order.” (“The film’s moral position is fascist,” said critic Roger Ebert, who nevertheless gave it three out of four stars.19)
Perhaps the strongest element fueling American anxiety over “law and order” was the increasingly visible violence associated with the civil rights movement. No longer confined to the antiblack terrorism that struck the southern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, publicly visible violence now broke out among black Americans in urban riots and among whites protesting new civil rights programs. In the mid-1970s, for instance, protests over the use of busing to overcome residential segregation and truly integrate public schools in Boston washed the city in racial violence. Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photo, The Soiling of Old Glory, famously captured one black teenager, Ted Landsmark, being attacked by a mob of anti-busing protesters, one of whom wielded an American flag.20
Urban riots, though, rather than anti-integration violence, tainted many white Americans’ perception of the civil rights movement and urban life in general. Civil unrest broke out across the country, but the riots in Watts/Los Angeles (1965), Newark (1967), and Detroit (1967) were the most shocking. In each, a physical altercation between white police officers and African Americans spiraled into days of chaos and destruction. Tens of thousands participated in urban riots. Many looted and destroyed white-owned business. There were dozens of deaths, tens of millions of dollars in property damage, and an exodus of white capital that only further isolated urban poverty.21
In 1967, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of America’s riots. Their report became an unexpected best seller.22 The commission cited black frustration with the hopelessness of poverty as the underlying cause of urban unrest. As the head of the black National Business League testified, “It is to be more than naïve—indeed, it is a little short of sheer madness—for anyone to expect the very poorest of the American poor to remain docile and content in their poverty when television constantly and eternally dangles the opulence of our affluent society before their hungry eyes.”23 A Newark rioter who looted several boxes of shirts and shoes put it more simply: “They tell us about that pie in the sky but that pie in the sky is too damn high.”24 But white conservatives blasted the conclusion that white racism and economic hopelessness were to blame for the violence. African Americans wantonly destroying private property, they said, was not a symptom of America’s intractable racial inequalities but the logical outcome of a liberal culture of permissiveness that tolerated—even encouraged—nihilistic civil disobedience. Many white moderates and liberals, meanwhile, saw the explosive violence as a sign that African Americans had rejected the nonviolence of the earlier civil rights movement.
The unrest of the late sixties did, in fact, reflect a real and growing disillusionment among African Americans with the fate of the civil rights crusade. In the still-moldering ashes of Jim Crow, African Americans in Watts and other communities across the country bore the burdens of lifetimes of legally sanctioned discrimination in housing, employment, and credit. Segregation survived the legal dismantling of Jim Crow. The perseverance into the present day of stark racial and economic segregation in nearly all American cities destroyed any simple distinction between southern de jure segregation and nonsouthern de facto segregation. Black neighborhoods became traps that too few could escape.
Political achievements such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were indispensable legal preconditions for social and political equality, but for most, the movement’s long (and now often forgotten) goal of economic justice proved as elusive as ever. “I worked to get these people the right to eat cheeseburgers,” Martin Luther King Jr. supposedly said to Bayard Rustin as they toured the devastation in Watts some years earlier, “and now I’ve got to do something . . . to help them get the money to buy it.”25 What good was the right to enter a store without money for purchases?