Civil Rights Movement of the USA in the 1960s

Essay 2010 9 Pages

History - America


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 constitute arguably the greatest achievements in African American history. (Lawson 2009: 49 f.) These landmarks of civil rights legislation indicated a new period of black resistance to the white previlege american society. The charismatic and well known priest Martin Luther King gave the movement a unified voice ( Heale 2001: 114; Lawson 2003: S. 97 f.). King acted as the mediator of the movement, however after 1965 the situation changed. The unity of the movement began to brake (Williams 2003: 118 f.). This paper will analyse the reasons for this erosion.

Ultimately, this essay comes to the conclusion that the black community could not exert a common agenda, because the northern black community focused on a different perception of problems relating to racial equality than their counterparts in the south. As a result, the black movement in the north defined a new agenda which aimed at the demands of lower-class blacks, whereas earlier attempts of leaders in the south focused on the interests of the middle-class.

First, light will be shed on the civil rights coalition and the gains which they achieved. This section shall provide a look at the facts concerning racial equality. Based on this analysis, the fundamental difference in perception of racial inequality of the african american community can be evaluated. Furthermore, this essay points at analyzing the consequences of this development. Accordingly, it will point out that the construction of a more radical political agenda by the black movement in the north was caused by this disjuncture between North and South. The essay pictures the boundary of King's attempt to continue his non-violent agenda, which were challenged by nationalistic attitudes of black leaders in the north.

Lyndon B. Johnson, the successor to John F. Kennedy, took over the presidential office in 1963 and continued the liberal political agenda. (Lawson 2009: 51 ff.).

Johnson's presidency can be evaluated as an attempt to build a coalition between the Civil Rights Movement and governmental institutions on the federal and state level. He proclaimed the political goal of a “Great Society”. One main goal of the Great Society was to realize racial equality, which had long been a constitutional requirement, but was not sufficiently established in american society. Accordingly, Johnson defined as his main presidential task the fostering of the spread of human well-being beyond material progress by fulfilling demands for social justice and racial equality (Milkis 2009: 257 ff.). Johnson attempted to place himself as a driver of the movement, believing that only a reform-oriented government could lead socially progressive movements to success. In the eyes of King and Johnson, the legislative success until 1965 indicated that there was a chance that the civil rights coalition could make a difference.

But after the implementation of essential rights, established by the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the focus of the Civil Rights Movement shifted in its regional context from the south to the north. Several incidents of black resistance took place, although the above-mentioned essential rights had already been obtained. Most of the scientific research claims that a differing perception of racial equality in the north changed the thematic focus of the movement (Bloom 1987: 186). Racial equality was not the common perception of what was needed in the north. This analysis is undoubtedly correct, but one should take into account that the federal government also played a role in framing this issue. As Johnson put it, his government attempted to gain “not just equality as right and theory, but equality as a fact and as a result” (Lawson 2003: 148). Accordingly, Johnson's administration initiated social policy programs in order to fulfill this claim.

One cannot underestimate the efforts to establish real equal opportunity and to label the announcements of Johnson as mere rhetoric. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 initiated the buildups of local initiatives for educational efforts, job training, medical services and emergency food stations. At this point, it is only possible to sum up the research results on matters of social equality. These efforts, as described above, definitively had an impact. More blacks could complete college and the number of blacks who gained an average income above 16.000 US-Dollars increased. The number of blacks below the poverty level decreased significantly until the end of the 1960s. But the crucial point is that the major gap between whites and blacks had not been resolved. Although blacks benefited from increasing social and economic opportunities, whites equally profited from this development. As a result, the white population remained in its prestigious social position (Williams 2003: 132-152). Based on this fact, the disintegration of the movement can be analysed.

Although a partial success was achieved and racial equality was established in theory, the mass of African Americans did not enjoy the same opportunities like whites (Garrow 2007: 177 f.). Already in 1964 many riots broke out in the mostly northern ghettos, where the poverty-related problems were most obvious. Taking into account that the initiatives created by the Economic Opportunity Act only started one year later and that they were designed as long-term measures, the development of a more separate movement in the North becomes more understandable. Housing segregation kept blacks out of more expensive areas, and also gave rise to black ghettos by the 1950s. This also implied that, over and above the issue of substandard, white skilled teachers often refused to teach in schools of ghetto areas.



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University of Warwick – Department of History
Bürgerrechtsbewegung USA Lyndon Johnson Richard Nixon Martin Luther King Civil Rights Act Voting Rights Act Great Society Malcolm X Radikalisierung NAACP



Title: Civil Rights Movement of the USA in the 1960s