Equality and Civil Rights: a Chronology of Black History di Giulia Tomasi Cont, Davide Pignata

Post-war and Civil Rights


Looking ahead

- At the end od this section, you will be able to:

- be aware of black people's condition in the '50s

- know what "segregation" is

- deepen your knowledge of the two most important black personalities of the post-war years, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X

- What kind of changes occured in American life after the Second World War

- What was the situation likefor minorities in the '70s

Blacks made some gains in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Job opportunities for blacks increased in the fast-growing automobile, electronics and chemical industries. The number of black teachers, college professors, lawyers, medical doctors and business owners also increased. As they had during the war, however, blacks faced discrimination in hiring, promotion and wages practices.
Blacks were also discriminated against in housing and education. Because whites often would not sell houses or rent apartments to blacks, blacks were forced to live in segregated communities. Often these were in the oldest, most rundown sections of cities and towns. Large black ghettoes grew in Boston’s Roxbury section, Harlem in New York City and Watts in Los Angeles. A ghetto [I1] [ES1] is a section of a city in which only one ethnic group lives. Because of where the people lived, the schools in these areas were usually all black. Blacks often felt that their schools received less money and attention that schools with white students.
To improve their situation, blacks began to organize in order to vote as a bloc – a group supporting the same political issues. They hoped that the use of their political strength would gain them the support of white politicians. Blacks also found white allies in the civil rights struggle. Political leaders, such as Hubert Humphrey, and labour leaders, such as Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers, believed that whites should work to end discrimination. President Truman set up government committees to investigate discrimination in labour practices and higher education.
The Supreme Court approved separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites in 1896. In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas [E1] [F1], the Supreme Court reversed this decision. Linda Brown travelled a mile to and from her black school each day, yet there was a white school a few blocks from her home. The Court declared that separate was not equal. It ordered the desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed”.
But desegregation did not come easily. Many schools had de jure segregation – segregation by law. Outside the South, especially in cities of the North and West, there was de facto segregation – separation that resulted not from law but from circumstances. For example, because blacks were forced to live in the same neighbourhoods, they created all-black enrolments in schools. De facto segregation would remain unchanged until court-ordered busing in the 1970s.
In areas where there was de jure segregation, public schools were immediately affected by the Brown decision. Many school districts obeyed the Court ruling, but others refused. In Little Rock, Arkansas, a federal court ordered a high school to admit nine black students in September 1957. The Governor of Arkansas ordered the National Guard to surround the school to keep the students out. The federal court ordered the Governor to remove the guards and he did so. After the black students were admitted, rioting broke out. President Eisenhower sent army troops to restore order.
Besides education, blacks worked to end segregation in other areas. Rosa Parks [E1] [I1] [F1] [ES1] was arrested in December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give her seat in a bus to a white passenger. The seats in the back of the buses were for blacks, but there was no empty seat for Parks. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. [E1] [I1] [F1] [ES1], organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system after Parks’ arrest. Because most of the bus riders were black, the boycott was successful.
After 80 days, the system was almost bankrupt, and the owners agreed to integrate the buses. In 1957, Dr. King and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to encourage blacks to end discrimination through non-violence. This is a plan of action that uses peaceful means, such as boycotts, to achieve a goal.


Many changes occurred in the lives of Americans during the 1950s. The U.S. led the world in the productions of good and services. New labour-saving devices such as automatic washers, dryers and dishwashers made housework easier. In the 1950s, more women were working outside the home than at any time except for the war years.
During the 1950s the population rose by 28 million. Two factors contributed to this. First was the baby boom. Second, people were living longer because of better health care. The greatest population growth occurred in the West. The Southeast and Southwest also saw increases, especially with the migration of large numbers of retired people. The movement of people away from farms that had begun before World War II continued through the 1950s.
Helping the movement of people was the automobile. Car ownership doubled between 1940 and 1960. Americans did not hesitate to pack up and move – across the country, if necessary – to find better jobs or a good life after retirement.
The automobile also contributed to the growth of suburbs. After World War II, there was a severe housing shortage. Developers bought large area of land called tracts and put up inexpensive homes. Veterans literally stood in line to buy these houses with G.I. loans. Because of the distance from the city, families began buying two cars – one for the husband to drive to work and one another for the wife’s use.
As millions of Americans moved to the suburbs, the cities suffered. The people who were left behind were often low-income families who could not afford better housing. As a result, the taxes that cities collected and used for such services as police and fire protection decreased. With the decrease in revenues, cities had to find other sources of income. City wage and sales taxes, higher transportation costs, and increases in property taxes were passed.
For blacks it was different. Even those who could afford better housing were kept out of suburbs and limited to certain areas in most urban areas. Blacks usually gained housing opportunities through federally-funded housing projects. Such projects were usually segregated and helped develop racial imbalance in urban areas.


During the Kennedy years, the campaign for black civil rights continued. In 1962, the Governor of Mississippi tried to keep James Meredith from enrolling in the all-white university of Mississippi. President Kennedy called in federal troops to restore order after riots broke out on campus. Meredith was then allowed to attend classes, and the troops were withdrawn.
In August 1963, more than 200,000 people protesting discrimination against blacks took part in a march on Washington D.C. Martin Luther King made a stirring speech asking that people be judged by their character and not by the colour of their skin.
"I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
In the early 1960s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) encouraged civil disobedience. This is a form of protest against government in which people use non-violent means to resist authority. CORE organized sit-ins and freedom marches to protest segregated restaurants, bus and train waiting rooms and theatres.
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed in 1960 to organize peaceful demonstrations to end segregation. The group dropped non-violence from its program and changed its name to Student National Coordinating Committee. The Black Panthers [E1] [I1] [F1] [ES1], formed in 1966, favoured violent revolution, if necessary, to achieve desegregation. They wanted separation of the races and community control of separate facilities. One of the major spokesmen, Malcom X [E1] [I1] [F1] [ES1], later broke with the group and called for integration.


The decade of the 1970s was a time of much action on the part of the disabled, the old, women and minorities in their attempts to gain their rights. Although the means were most often peaceful, more people were involved in the struggles. The old protested society’s narrow view of their abilities and needs. The disabled worked to make society aware of how well they can function. They were able to have laws passed to have ramps and other aids added to public buildings.
For black Americans the 1970s saw a return to non-violence as a means of gaining their rights. Black Muslims began to accept white members in 1975. Black Panthers set up free food programs, health clinics and schools in poor areas. Black studies, which many colleges introduced in the 1960s, continued to expand in the 1970s. Black men and women were hired for jobs previously denied them in such areas as entertainment and big business. The number of blacks in Congress increased and more cities had black officials.
Despite gains, some blacks felt that the civil rights movement was being forgotten. With the worsening economy of the 1970s, many political leaders began calling for relief for the middle-class majority of Americans. Although middle-class blacks benefited, poorer blacks did not and resented the cutbacks in government programs.


According to the idea of reverse discrimination, policies meant to help women or minorities may, in truth, discriminate against all men and/or white men.
Concerning women, for example, in 1977 the Supreme Court ruled a section of the Social Security Act unconstitutional because it discriminated against men. The section allowed women to collect the Social Security benefits of their deceased husbands. Men, however, were not permitted to collect the benefits of their deceased wives. The Court ruled that men could collect benefits if the spouse had provided at least half the income.
The following year the Court seemed to strike down certain policies meant to give minorities a chance for higher education. Alan Bakke, a white male, had twice been denied the admission to the University of California’s medical school. In a suit brought before the Supreme Court, Bakke charged that his civil rights had been denied. Sixteen percent of the places in the medical school had been set aside for minorities. Agreeing with Bakke, The Court declared unconstitutional college admissions plans based on racial or ethnic quotas. At the same time, the Court ruled that race could be one factor used for college admissions.

Looking ahead

- What is a "ghetto"?

- Who was Rosa Parks?

- What was the Supreme Court decision concerning the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas?

- Who were Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X?

- What does "Reverse Discrimination" mean?



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