The 1960s brought about great cultural change in America. The Beatles, Woodstock, The Summer of Love, the Cuban Missile Crisis, man taking his first steps on the moon, and many other events would transform our world at a pace faster than in any decade before it.
In the background of the 1960s buzz, the Civil Rights Movement was also taking off. The nation would see underlying issues rise to the surface and demand attention. American citizens who had been untreated unfairly by society began to insist on equality and decency.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from the decade that rocked America to its core and changed civil rights through struggle and adversity for generations to come.
The Peace Corps was established
President John F. Kennedy discovered the proposal for a “Four Point Youth Corps” made by Representative Henry Reuss of Wisconsin. He saw that it had popular appeal and transformed it into a policy of his own.
Source: Peace Corps
The Peace Corps was designed to enable Americans to travel to developing nations around the world and to help participate in their development. On March 1, 1961, an executive order was issued to formally establish the Peace Corps. 750 young men and women enrolled that year to help with projects in 13 different countries. The Peace Corps became a permanent organization through legislative efforts in September of 1961.
The first LGBT person to beat army discharge
While “don’t ask, don’t tell” has only recently disappeared from the way that the American armed forces are managed – it might amaze you to learn that it was all the way back in 1960 when a homosexual person beat the military’s policy of issuing a dishonorable discharge to gay service people.
Fannie Mae Clackum was accused of being a lesbian and when she refused to accept a dishonorable discharge, she was court-martialed. It took a period of nearly 10 years of constant court battles for her to overturn the discharge and to win back pay. However, the case was won on a technicality of the Air Force failing to follow due process of law and it did not set a precedent for other service people.
The first gay documentary was shown on TV
There’s been a slow and steady fight for rights and recognition for the LGBT community in the United States. Back in 1961 the first program about homosexuals aired in America.
The Rejected was a made-for-TV documentary which took a deep look into homosexual lifestyles and the treatment of homosexuals not just in America but in the wider world. Despite some controversy about the broadcast, The Rejected was critically acclaimed and its gentle, straightforward, non-judgmental approach won it much praise from the audience too. The program was re-aired regularly during the early 1960s.
Freedom rides and repercussions
In 1960, The United States Supreme Court ruled that passengers involved in interstate travel could not legally be segregated. “Freedom rides” were designed to support this ruling. Activists chose to travel the interstate into the Deep South where the ruling was, to a great extent, being ignored.
Freedom riders took great risks to their own well-being. In Anniston, Alabama a bus was firebombed and the passengers had to run for their lives. In Birmingham, Alabama members of the KKK beat freedom riders severely on a bus – one rider needed more than 50 stitches from such a beating. In 1961 in Mississippi, freedom riders were arrested for “breaching the peace” for using “white only facilities.”
Voter registration campaigns for black people
Buoyed by the tenacity of freedom riders, in 1962 civil rights organizations began to organize voter drives for black people in the Southern States. Black people who registered to vote faced beatings, arrests, shootings, and murder. Many black voters were fired by their employers for having the temerity to register.
Source: Teaching for Change
In some areas, strict education tests were made a mandatory part of the voter registration process and were specifically designed to prevent black voters from registering to vote. The tests were so hard that the majority of college educated people of any race couldn’t have passed them. Despite the efforts to prevent these campaigns, they continued to grow across the Southern States.
James Meredith allowed to attend college
The University of Mississippi ran a segregated campus. In 1956, Clyde-Kennard, a black war veteran, had been prevented from enrolling in the Mississippi Southern College and was eventually arrested and convicted of trumped up charges and served 3 years of a 7-year sentence.
It wasn’t until 1962 that James Meredith won a lawsuit that allowed him to attend The University of Mississippi. When he arrived to take his place, the Governor of Mississippi – Ross Barnett – blocked his way and refused him entry. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had the governor and the Lieutenant Governor arrested and fined $10,000 for each day they prevented Meredith from enrolling.
Meredith’s first day of school doesn’t go well, though
James Meredith may have been legally allowed to enter the University of Mississippi, but he risked his life to do so. It became clear that he could not enter campus by himself so for his first day, he was provided with an escort by the U.S. Marshals.
Source: Too Craft
A riot broke out that evening at the university campus triggered by Meredith’s arrival. Two people died. Nearly 30 U.S. Marshals were shot. More than 160 people were injured. James Meredith only began to attend classes when President John F. Kennedy sent the U.S. Army in to keep the peace on the campus.
The Birmingham campaign began in Alabama
African-Americans faced continued hostilities in their battle for equality and several small campaigns had been intimidated into closing before they built up steam. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. the Birmingham Campaign began in 1963 to focus on non-violent, direct action.
Source: Daily Beast
Birmingham was a heavily segregated city and black citizens were legally and economically disadvantaged. The movement began with a concerted boycott of local businesses to try and pressure business owners into creating equal employment in the city and to put an end to segregation. This didn’t work. The protesters then began to use sit-ins and marches to try and provoke authorities into arresting large numbers of protesters.
The Birmingham Riot of 1963
For every step forward in the Civil Rights Movement, there was a step back. Disturbed by the progress of the Birmingham Movement, racists (almost certainly members of the KKK) led arson attacks on homes, places of worship, and even hotels used by the movement’s leaders.
The backlash against these attacks was the Birmingham Riots where the black community rose up and rioted. The riots were beyond the scope of the local police department to control and the U.S. government sent in troops to restore order. The events in Birmingham are thought to have contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was designed to help relieve injustice facing black people in America.
The March on Washington D.C.
On August 28, 1963, civil rights leaders and a quarter of a million people marched in Washington D.C. for “Jobs and Freedom.” The march is most famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. The speech was an impassioned plea to end racism in the United States.
The march itself had six objectives; fair civil rights laws, a federal works program, fair employment, decent housing, the right to vote and integrated education. The leaders of the march were invited to meet President Kennedy and in the aftermath of this meeting – The President proposed new civil rights legislation. He would be assassinated before it came to pass.
Malcolm X joined the Civil Rights Movement
Malcolm X, a representative of the Nation of Islam, had called for a black separatist state but in 1964, he met with Martin Luther King Jr. and joined the civil rights movement. This was not without controversy. In direct contrast to King’s non-violent approach, Malcolm X still believed and promoted violent retaliation for violent actions by racist Americans.
In April of 1964, Malcolm X promised Americans that continued violence would mean extreme violent repercussions and spoke of “ballots or bullets.” It is commonly accepted that Malcolm X was a hugely influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The first gay rights demonstration
The first gay rights demonstration in America took place in 1964. Randy Wicker, Jefferson Poland and a small group of people from the “Sexual Freedom League” (the majority of which were straight) had had enough of the endless discrimination against gay people in the armed forces.
They went to the Army recruiting center in New York which was at 39 Whitehall Street. The protest attracted very little attention and was ignored by mainstream media and even by much of the gay community. The recruiting center, however, was immortalized in Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” for its notoriety during the Vietnam War draft period.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
President Kennedy had proposed a sweeping range of reforms and while it was commonly believed he didn’t have the votes to push these reforms through, he was assassinated before a vote could take place. His successor President Johnson, however, did present a bill to congress to enshrine civil rights in America.
It passed, though not without incredible amounts of resistance – including 54 days of filibustering – from certain members of Congress. On the 2nd of July, 1964, Johnson was finally able to sign the bill into law and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally made it illegal to discriminate based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment practices and public housing allocation.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wins the Nobel Peace Prize
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t wanted to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement and had to be persuaded to do so by his friends. However, once he became involved he swiftly rose to a position of leadership with his unwavering commitment to both civil rights and a program of non-violent means to achieve those rights.
Source: Daily Beast
On the 10th of December 1964, Dr. King at the age of just 35 became the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is awarded to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
The Civil Rights Movement was on a roll and in August of 1965, President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which sought to remove unfair barriers to voter registration and ensured that voter registration would be subject to federal scrutiny.
The effect of this legislation was incredible. In a few months, more than a quarter of a million African-Americans had registered to vote. Within four years, voter registration in The South had doubled. Previously segregated states had the highest levels of black voter turnout in the country. This freedom to vote also ensured the swift removal of many of America’s most racist politicians from office.
Women’s Rights and Feminism take a step forward
While much of the civil rights activity of the 1960s was focused on race and sexuality, women’s rights didn’t go unnoticed. In 1966, Betty Friedan formed the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.). The organization was originally designed to advance women’s rights in a slow, measured fashion but by the end of the decade – the new members had other ideas.
They protested the Miss America Pageant of 1968 and then began to define and dispose of “objects of female torture.” Bras may have been the most famous of these objects but they also included kitchen utensils and copies of the Ladies Home Journal.
CBS airs “The Homosexuals”
If The Rejected had made a positive step forward for gay rights in America, The Homosexuals, aired in 1968, helped them take two steps back. The hour-long documentary is often considered to be one of the biggest setbacks for homosexuals of the 1960s.
Source: Brain Pickings
It was a completely unbalanced piece of negative reporting which had been generated in response to a CBS survey which showed that current attitudes had homosexuality as a bigger threat to the nation than adultery, prostitution, and abortion. The men involved in the making of the documentary felt betrayed as they had been assured that the piece would be balanced and portray gay life in a positive light.
The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
In March 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to a rights rally in Memphis, Tennessee. The rally was held in support of two workers who had been killed while working as sanitation workers in the city. Dr. King delivered a sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” which laid out a vision for the future of American society.
That evening he was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by James Earl Ray. Ray was already a fugitive from the law and before he could be arrested for the shooting, he fled to the United Kingdom. He was deported from the U.K. and sentenced to 99 years in prison for the assassination.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968
In 1968, the final important piece of Civil Rights legislation of the decade was signed into law by President Johnson. It was designed to remedy ongoing patterns of civil disturbance.
Source: Common Dreams
Despite attempts by many members of congress to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1968, it became law on April 10th. For the first time, the law made Iit illegal to discriminate based on race, religion or national origin the sale, rental, or financing of housing. Importantly, it also made it a federal offense to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone…by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin.”
The Stonewall Riots
The last major Civil Rights riots of the 1960s took place in June 28, 1969 after a police raid at the Stonewall Inn of Greenwich Village, New York. The bar was a gay bar and popular with the gay men, women and transgender people and also had a reputation for attracting prostitutes and the homeless.
Source: The Back Label
Police raids were common at the time for gay bars but in this case, the police lost control and a riot ensued. Another riot took place the following evening and yet another followed a few days later. The Stonewall Riots gave birth to an organized gay civil rights movement in America and several groups formed in their aftermath in New York City.