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By the mid-1960s, much progress had been made in the area of civil rights. However, leaders of the movement began to understand that merely winning political rights for African Americans would not completely solve their economic problems. African American leaders would continue to try to end economic inequality.

Urban Problems

 Why did riots break out in dozens of U.S. cities in the late 1960s?

Despite the passage of civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s, racism was still common in American society. Changing the law could not change people’s attitudes, nor did it end urban poverty.

In 1965 approximately 70 percent of African Americans lived in large cities. Even if African Americans had been allowed to move into white neighborhoods, many were stuck in low-paying jobs with little chance of advancement. In 1960 only 15 percent of African Americans held professional, managerial, or clerical jobs, compared to 44 percent of whites. The average income of African American families was only 55 percent of that of the average income for white families. Almost half of African Americans lived in poverty, with an unemployment rate typically twice that of whites.

Poor neighborhoods in the nation’s major cities were overcrowded and dirty, leading to higher rates of illness and infant mortality. Juvenile delinquency rates rose, as did the rate of young people dropping out of school. Complicating matters even more was a rise in the number of single-parent households.

The Watts Riot

Just five days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a riot erupted in Watts, an African American neighborhood in Los Angeles. Allegations of police brutality served as the catalyst for this uprising. It lasted for six days and required more than 14,000 members of the National Guard and 1,500 law officers to restore order. Riots broke out in dozens of other American cities between 1964 and 1968. In Detroit, burning, looting, and conflicts with police and the National Guard resulted in 43 deaths and more than 1,000 wounded in 1967. Property loss was estimated at almost $200 million.

The Kerner Commission

In the same year, President Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois—to study the causes of the urban riots and to make recommendations. The Kerner Commission, as it became known, blamed racism for most inner-city problems. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” it concluded. The commission recommended the creation of inner-city jobs and the construction of new public housing, but with the spending for the Vietnam War, Johnson never endorsed the recommendations of the commission.

The Shift to Economic Rights

In the mid-1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to focus on the economic problems that African Americans faced. To call attention to deplorable housing conditions, Dr. King and his wife Coretta moved into a slum apartment in an African American neighborhood in Chicago. He and the SCLC hoped to improve the economic status of African Americans in poor neighborhoods.

The Chicago Movement, however, made little headway. When Dr. King led a march through the all-white suburb of Marquette Park to demonstrate the need for open housing, he was met by angry white mobs more hostile than those in Birmingham and Selma. Mayor Richard J. Daley met with Dr. King and discussed a new program to clean up the slums. Associations of realtors and bankers also agreed to promote open housing. In theory, mortgages and rental property would be available to everyone, regardless of race. In practice, little changed.

Black Power

 

Why did many young African Americans join the black power movement?

Dr. King’s lack of progress in Chicago seemed to show that nonviolent protests could do little to solve economic problems. After 1965, many African Americans, especially urban young people, began to turn away from King. Some leaders called for more aggressive forms of protest. Some organizations, including CORE and SNCC, believed that African Americans alone should lead their struggle. Many young African Americans called for black power, a term that had many meanings. A few, including Robert F. Williams and H. Rap Brown, interpreted black power to mean that physical self-defense was acceptable.

To most, including Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC in 1966, the term meant that African Americans should control the social, political, and economic direction of their struggle:

"This is the significance of black power as a slogan. For once, black people are going to use the words they want to use—not just the words whites want to hear. . . . The need for psychological equality is the reason why SNCC today believes that blacks must organize in the black community. Only black people can . . . create in the community an aroused and continuing black consciousness."

—from “What We Want,” the New York Review of Books, September 1966

Black power stressed pride in the African American cultural group. It emphasized racial distinctiveness rather than adapting to the dominant culture. African Americans showed pride in their racial heritage by adopting new “Afro” hairstyles and African-style clothing. Many also took African names. Dr. King and some other leaders criticized black power as a philosophy of hopelessness and despair.

Malcolm X

By the early 1960s, a young man named Malcolm X had become a symbol of the black power movement. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, he experienced a difficult childhood and adolescence. In 1946 he was sent to prison for burglary. Prison transformed Malcolm. He educated himself and played an active role in the prison debate society.

Eventually, he joined the Nation of Islam, commonly known as the Black Muslims. Despite the name, the Nation of Islam is very different from mainstream Islam. The Nation of Islam preached black nationalism. After joining the Nation of Islam, Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X. The X symbolized the family name of his enslaved African ancestors. He declared that his true name had been stolen from him by slavery, and he would no longer use the name white society had given him. Malcolm X’s criticisms of white society and the mainstream civil rights movement gained national attention for the Nation of Islam.

By 1964, Malcolm X had broken with the Black Muslims. Discouraged by scandals involving the Nation of Islam’s leader, he went to the Muslim holy city of Makkah (Mecca) in Saudi Arabia. After seeing Muslims from many races worshipping together, he no longer promoted separatism. After Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam, he continued to criticize the organization. Because of this, organization members shot and killed him in February 1965.

Malcolm X’s speeches and ideas influenced a new generation of militant African American leaders who preached black power, black nationalism, and economic self-sufficiency. In 1966 in Oakland, California, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Black Panthers. Black Panther leaders called for an end to racial oppression and for control of major institutions in the African American community, such as schools, law enforcement, housing, and hospitals.

Dr. King Is Assassinated

 

How did Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death affect the civil rights movement?

In March 1968, Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike of African American sanitation workers. At the time, the SCLC had been planning a national “Poor People’s Campaign” to promote economic advancement for impoverished Americans. The purpose of this campaign was to lobby the federal government to commit billions of dollars to end poverty and unemployment in the United States. People of all races and nationalities were to converge on Washington, D.C., where they would camp out until both Congress and President Johnson agreed to pass the requested legislation to fund the proposal.

On April 4, 1968, as he stood on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Dr. King was assassinated by a sniper. In a speech the previous night, he had told a gathering at a local church, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Dr. King’s death touched off both national mourning and riots in more than 100 cities, including Washington, D.C. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who had served as a trusted assistant to Dr. King for many years, led the Poor People’s Campaign in King’s absence. However, the demonstration did not achieve any of the major objectives that either King or the SCLC had hoped it would.

In the wake of Dr. King’s death, Congress did pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This law, sometimes known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin when selling, renting, or financing housing. In many communities across the nation, racism had led to an informal segregation. People would simply refuse to sell their homes or rent property to people based on their race. Sometime banks would not approve loans because of racist attitudes or assumptions that affected the thinking of the loan officers. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 put an end to these practices.

The law also benefited immigrants and religious minorities. Historically, in many places in the United States, Jewish Americans had encountered rules preventing them from buying or renting property in certain neighborhoods. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 expanded their economic opportunities as well.

The assassination of Dr. King in 1968 marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. After his death, the movement began to fragment. With formal laws in place banning segregation and discrimination, and guaranteeing voting rights, the movement lost some of its unity of purpose and the vision he had given it. The shift to economic rights was already underway at the time of his death, and it was clear that the struggle to end poverty and provide more economic opportunity would be very difficult and would have to involve very different approaches than the movement had used in the past.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I've Been to the Mountaintop delivered April 3, 1968, Mason Temple. Reprinted by arrangement with The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY. Copyright 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; copyright renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King.

Reviewing Vocabulary

TEKS: 9A, 26A

 

Using Your Notes

TEKS: 9A

 

Answering the Guiding Questions

TEKS: 9A

TEKS: 9A, 9B, 9D, 26A

TEKS: 9A, 9C

 

Writing Activity

TEKS: 9A, 9B, 9C, 9D