Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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Why did the civil rights movement fall apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

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I would not say that the Civil Rights Movement "fell apart." Instead, I would agree with the second Educator's description of a movement which "unraveled to some degree" and lost momentum. To say that the movement "fell apart" would be to diminish contemporary efforts to address the excessive policing of black and brown people in public spaces and police brutality, efforts related to prison reform and unfair sentencing policies, and activism which addresses the inhumane treatment of non-white immigrants at the hands of American bureaucracy. The movement which occurred from 1955 to the early 1970s is notable for how much it accomplished in a short period, but it is one phase in a sustained effort for black Americans, particularly, to attain freedom and equality.

In regard to the mid-century decades that we characterize as the Civil Rights Era, the death of Dr. King was pivotal. Under his leadership, black people made great strides in voting rights and equal access to public accommodations. King had access to the highest corridors of power, such as the presidency, but remained rooted to grassroots efforts to effect change. When he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was working to help organize sanitation workers, shifting toward addressing the interconnected problems of racial discrimination, exploitation, and poverty.

By the late 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement seemed divided into two factions—a radical wing emerged, led by the Black Panthers and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) under Stokely Carmichael, who assumed leadership of the group in 1965. Carmichael's radicalism evolved as a result of his participation in efforts to help black Mississippians vote, an effort that would have placed him in concert with King and NAACP leaders.

However, Carmichael and the Panthers began to see these leaders, including King, as overly conciliatory to white supremacy. They were not interested in turning the other cheek with civil disobedience; they wanted to defend themselves against violence. The Black Panthers visibly exercised their Second Amendment rights in California by carrying rifles and handguns in public, much to the consternation of Governor Ronald Reagan, an otherwise vocal proponent of gun rights.

The division in the Civil Rights Movement, which one Educator mentions, began around this time. Though this ideological division began to show in the early 1960s, when Malcolm X made the Nation of Islam more visible, the NOI was regarded largely as a fringe movement whose Muslim values also placed them somewhat at odds with black Americans, who generally tend to be Christian.

Though it is true that black people sought more economic advantages—and, arguably, economic equality could fall under the American value of "the pursuit of happiness," as well as our conceptualization of the American Dream—they did not always look to the government to accomplish this. The Black Panthers embraced a rather conservative, Booker T. Washington–inspired notion of self-sufficiency. They fed school children in their own communities through self-funded free breakfast programs (some of the money was gained from the fundraising efforts of wealthy white people, even some celebrities). They also set up free clinics to address medical needs.

It is rather well-known now that the U.S. government was not hospitable to the Black Panthers, despite the message from some politicians that black people would be better served by efforts toward self-sufficiency. One of the links that I have attached includes documents showing how COINTELPRO, a wing of the FBI designed to combat what were viewed as extremist groups, worked to sabotage the Black Panthers. In addition to government interference, the organization also collapsed from within, due to poor leadership and drug abuse.

It is important to mention, too, that the Civil Rights Movement included women and homosexuals, but it very often side-lined them. I propose that the movement's hyper-masculine image and leadership did not leave much space for burgeoning feminist and gay liberation efforts.

Finally, the 1968 election resulted in the presidency of Richard Nixon, an authoritarian figure who was rather unsympathetic to civil rights efforts and who did not see civil rights as an immediate concern. With an administration unwilling to work toward further progress, the sustainability of a national civil rights movement was doomed.

To review, the factors which led to the Civil Rights Era's loss of momentum include the following: dissent over the movement's agenda; the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the ensuing Easter riots; FBI meddling; internal dissent in black liberation organizations; and the inability of the movement to be more inclusive.

Finally, I must mention that the intent of affirmative action policies was to expand opportunity, as a corrective—albeit, a rather weak one—for centuries of oppression. Affirmative action, statistically, was more beneficial to white women than to any other group. Though highly publicized Supreme Court cases have tended to focus on race-based admissions policies, giving the impression that affirmative action was mainly constructed for the benefit of black people, this is a misconception.

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The Civil Rights movement unraveled to some degree in the late 1960s and early 1970s for several reasons. First, the death of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, resulted in the loss of a powerful, unifying figurehead for the movement. In the aftermath of his death, race riots broke out across the nation. These riots had the effect of creating negative publicity for the movement and destroying several black communities. Unfortunately, many white politicians blamed black leaders for not doing more to quell the riots. Though it may not have been in the power of black leaders to stop the riots, black leaders were nonetheless tarnished by these remarks.

In addition, the direction and goals of the movement became less unified in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) advocated non-violence, several groups, such as the Black Panthers, did not necessarily endorse non-violence. While the SCLC advocated integration, the Black Panthers advocated black nationalism. The movement became more diverse in its aims and methods, and the voice of the movement was less unified.

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The main reason why the Civil Rights Movement fell apart at this point was that it had accomplished the “easy” goals and was now moving on to goals that were never going to be achieved through a social movement.

This is not to say that anything came easy for the movement.  Of course, it had to fight long and hard for what it won.  But the truth is that the goals it had in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were much easier to accomplish.  These were goals (end of segregation and discrimination, the right to vote) that were perfectly in line with American values.  They were also goals that could be easily granted by the government.  Finally, these were goals that could be granted without most of white America being directly impacted.

After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, these kinds of goals had all been achieved.  Now, the movement turned to things like economic prosperity.  For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to help with a strike by garbage workers when he was assassinated.  By this time, the movement was asking for things like economic equality.  This was not so much in line with American values.  The movement seemed to be asking for equality of results, not equality of opportunities.  In addition, the government cannot simply grant everyone economic equality by enacting a single law.  Finally, if African Americans were to be given preference for jobs or for admission to colleges, white people would be directly impacted.

Thus, in the late ‘60s, the movement turned to pursuing goals that were much less likely to be achieved.  As they failed to have success, the movement fell apart.

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