Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., on November 22, 1963, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson mournfully assumed the role of the nation's leader. Johnson, a former senator from Texas, served as the Senate Democratic Leader for most of his congressional career. His political role model was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Johnson openly followed Roosevelt's push for social welfare reform.
Johnson's social reform philosophy was based around his "Great Society" initiative. The initiative included measures to tackle poverty and increase the quality of medical care in America. In 1962, public support for Johnson's anti-poverty program was solidified when Michael Harrington published his book The Other America. Harrington reported that 20 percent of America's population—and nearly 40 percent of the black population—lived in poverty. Many Americans, who lived in relative prosperity, were startled by Harrington's findings.
Months after assuming the presidency, Johnson entered the 1964 election race to seek the office based on his own platform. Johnson won a landslide victory against Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Voters, fond of the Kennedy legacy and the promise of a Great Society, championed Johnson as a man who could lead the nation during troubled times.
As Johnson ran for president, legislators worked in support of poor Americans. In January 1964, Congress ratified the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which abolished any form of payment, usually called a poll tax, as a prerequisite for voting in federal elections. The Amendment was aimed at ending voting discrimination against impoverished Americans, specifically southern blacks who were often too poor to pay a tax to vote.
With Johnson's support, Congress passed Kennedy's Civil Rights Bill during the summer of 1964. Johnson, a skilled legislator who intimately understood the politics of Congress, argued that passing Kennedy's civil rights legislation "for which he fought so long" would be a fitting tribute to the fallen president's legacy. Johnson's appeal led to a groundswell of bi-partisan support and allowed him to break a Senate filibuster and pass the legislation.
The sweeping legislation ushered in a new era for the civil rights movement. For the first time in America's history, hotels and restaurants could not discriminate against blacks, employers had to end job discrimination based on race, and the federal government could sue school systems that refused to desegregate. By allowing the federal government to sue, private citizens no longer suffered the burden of having to litigate civil rights violations.
To enforce the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the federal government formed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The commission banned all discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and national origin in an act that became known as Title VII. Following passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the establishment of the EEOC, most businesses in the south immediately desegregated.
Despite the sweeping reforms that emerged from the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the legislation did not address the issue of voting. In 1965, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., announced a campaign to enroll three million black voters. Selma, Alabama was selected as the focal point of the voting drive. The lack of registered black voters in the city, only 383 of the community's nearly 15,000 black citizens, illustrated the need for change.
Civil rights leaders announced a 50-mile protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital. As protestors marched outside of Selma, state troopers quickly and violently dispersed the group with teargas and whips. The protestors fought back by taking their case to court, and a federal judge allowed the march to continue. To ensure a peaceful march, Johnson provided National Guardsmen and Military Police to protect the marchers.
In response to the violence in Selma, Johnson urged Congress to immediately pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The resulting law ensured that all citizens had the right to vote and authorized the Attorney General to dispatch hundreds of federal examiners to register voters in the south. The law made literacy tests illegal if fewer than 50 percent of all voting-age citizens were registered to vote, and outlawed other archaic voter requirements, including a well-known Mississippi law. The Mississippi law required that all prospective black voters have their names published in the paper for two consecutive weeks before registering to vote, virtually ensuring economic reprisals for those who wanted to register.
By the end of 1965, government reform seemed to be working as approximately 250,000 African Americans were newly registered voters. During the next three years, more than 700,000 blacks would exert political influence by registering to vote. For the first time since Reconstruction, blacks were moving back to the south, organized and ready to make a political difference.
As blacks benefited from new voting rights and school desegregation, the workplace remained a hostile environment for some. Many businesses openly flaunted hiring policies that excluded blacks or confined them to menial jobs.
To make the workplace more equitable, President Lyndon Baines Johnson issued an executive order in 1965 requiring that all federal contractors implement "affirmative action" hiring practices towards women and minorities. This meant that many large businesses that held contracts with the government were forced to increase the number of females and minorities in their organizations. In 1967, Johnson backed up his resolve toward civil rights by appointing Thurgood Marshall as the first African American to the Supreme Court.
Johnson's executive order was intended to protect individuals from discrimination, but there were no metrics by which to measure the success of his order. When Richard Nixon took office following Johnson's term, affirmative action measures were extended to protect other under-represented groups. Nixon's Philadelphia Plan of 1969 required that construction-trade unions that worked on federal contracts establish goals and timetables for hiring minorities. Unlike Johnson's order, Nixon's Philadelphia Plan included specific, measurable standards by which to judge the plan's success.
Soon after it was enacted, the Philadelphia Plan's measures were extended to include all organizations that worked on federal contracts. As a result, thousands of employers had to meet quotas or set aside a specific number of contracts for minorities. Similarly, colleges and universities that received federal funds were required to admit a certain number of minority applicants.
Fearful of losing jobs and educational opportunities, critics of affirmative action began to view the program as "reverse discrimination." Critics attacked the program because it was implemented by judicial mandate and executive order and not by a vote of the people. Critics charged that their rights had been violated because affirmative action placed more emphasis on race or gender than on ability or achievement.
Taking center stage in the civil rights movement along with affirmative action was the desegregation of schools. Although the government had begun a policy of forced desegregation in the 1950's, many schools remained segregated. In 1969, a unanimous Supreme Court declared an immediate end to all school segregation when it ruled in the case of Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education.
The Supreme Court forced the issue of school desegregation again when it ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971). The Court ruled that school systems must begin busing students to schools outside of all-minority neighborhoods to achieve integration. Many middle class suburban whites opposed forced busing, believing that busing students would destroy neighborhood schools. Major protests were held in Boston and Denver, and angry parents in Pontiac, Michigan, firebombed buses in an attempt to draw attention to the issue.
Nixon, an opponent of forced desegregation, asked Congress to impose a moratorium on all busing orders by federal courts. Although the House of Representatives passed Nixon's measure, a Senate filibuster blocked his anti-busing bill.
Opponents of busing won a limited victory in 1974 when the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley. The Court's opinion said that Detroit could not bus students from inner-city schools to suburban areas because doing so would require students to move across school district lines. As a result, suburban school districts were exempted from participating in desegregation, and many whites moved their families to suburbs where their children would not have to participate in forced busing.
Many historians view the civil rights movement that took place between 1954 and 1968 as the second Reconstruction. The gains made toward equality during this period in American history continue to encourage new generations. Many minority groups, including Native Americans, Hispanics, gays, and women look to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a blueprint for their own efforts to gain equality.
The civil rights movement continued to make progress during the 1960s through the controversial implementation of forced busing and affirmative action measures. Most people viewed Martin Luther King, Jr., as the principle leader of the movement. King maintained a large following who supported his promotion of non-violent protest. King hoped to integrate all neglected and oppressed peoples into American society and to ensure the same equality for everyone.
King's methods and ideas were not without opposition. Some in the black community questioned the merits of a racially integrated society. Others started to think that King's ideas were becoming outdated and obsolete, an opinion especially popular with the younger generation. Inspired by the actions of Marcus Garvey during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, black separatist groups began to form out of frustration with the slow moving progress toward civil rights. The goals of each separatist organization varied, with objectives ranging from a return to Africa campaign to the occupation of an exclusive land area in the United States set aside by the government.
The change in attitude in favor of direct action against inequality was demonstrated during the August 1965 Watts riots. Just five days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, a massive riot broke out in Watts, a black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Outraged by police brutality against African Americans, black citizens violently lashed out in protest—burning and looting hundreds of buildings. The riot lasted nearly a week, and by the end 34 people, mostly African Americans, were dead and over 1,000 were injured. The Watts incident foreshadowed a long string of riots the following summer in 1966. Cleveland and Chicago suffered from an outbreak of racial riots, along with 40 other cities across the nation. In the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit had to use federal troops and national guardsmen to control the violence, which even included the use of tanks in the cities' urban streets.
Concerned about the riots, President Johnson ordered the formation of an exploratory commission to help identify the reasons for the riots and any possible solutions that could help resolve the violence. Johnson appointed Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois to lead the commission. The Kerner Commission concluded that the fundamental cause behind the riots was the profound frustration of inner-city blacks due to white racism, which was preventing access to quality jobs, forcing blacks into urban slums, and depriving them of hope for a better future.
City leaders and white investors were doing too little to address the concerns of the African American community in urban environments, specifically the downward spiral of economic hardship and violence inherent in ghetto and slum areas. Kerner realized that the living conditions in these neighborhoods were in most cases unbearable and the dissatisfaction within these communities had reached its boiling point. The commission's recommendations to prevent further rioting included the need for a stronger public response to the issues concerning the black community and an increase in the quality of communication among all races.
These findings did little to resolve the issues that led to the riots, and in some instances only added to the rhetoric of black separatist groups. For some, the riots further polarized American communities across racial lines. The attitudes that led to the disturbances during the summers between 1965 and 1967 had been long in the making. Prominent black separatists like Malcolm X had been advocating a drastic departure from King's methods for a number of years.
Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X changed his surname to protest his "lost African identity in white America." Malcolm X was greatly influenced by the militant black separatist Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader and founder of the Nation of Islam. Like King, Malcolm X was a charismatic speaker and an inspiring leader. For most of his turbulent career, his message was that of "black power," black separatism, and the need to fight against the "blue-eyed white devils." To achieve his goals and to further African American rights, Malcolm X did not shy away from the use of violence, stating that the objectives must be attained by "any means necessary." He felt that nonviolent tactics would only encourage violence from white authorities.
Near the end of his life, Malcolm X began to change his perspective on race relations toward a more tempered attitude. In 1964 he broke off relations with the Nation of Islam and started his own organization devoted to seeking to unite all nonwhite people in the world and to seek methods for achieving racial harmony. His desertion from the Nation of Islam greatly upset the organization, and on February 21, 1965, he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam in Harlem, while he was giving a speech on racial harmony.
Other organizations were also following a separatist agenda. By the mid-1960s the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been affiliated with King for a long time, became a militant organization focused on opposing integration and interracial cooperation. Led by Stokely Carmichael, a West Indian who had grown up in Harlem, the organization called for black power and hoped to end nonviolent tactics toward race relations. Before joining the SNCC, Carmichael had worked tirelessly in the south for black rights. Carmichael, who drew much negative attention from Southerners because of his cause, spent time in several southern jails, often because of trumped-up charges by southern officials.
In 1967, Carmichael left the SNCC to join the Black Panthers, an organization of revolutionaries founded in Oakland, California. Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver led the group, which often resorted to extreme measures to promote their cause in northern and western U.S. cities. The Black Panthers, who openly carried weapons on city streets, were responsible for numerous bombings and killings of policemen and of African Americans who opposed the militant leaders' agenda.
Martin Luther King, Jr., abhorred the militant tactics of the SNCC and Black Panthers, believing that violence would not lead to equality. In April of 1968, the 39-year-old King visited Memphis, Tennessee to fight for increased wages for local trash collectors. On April 4, while King stood on a hotel balcony with friends, James Earl Ray assassinated the inspirational leader. King's assassination sparked massive riots in neighborhoods across America resulting in 40 deaths. As a devastated nation watched, Americans expressed palpable grief at the loss of the great leader whose work was far from complete.