The Civil Rights and Vietnam Era

The Civil Rights and Vietnam Era included the years 1955-1979. This period erupted nationally and internationally. People of color around the globe sought to throw off the shackles of colonization and imperialism. The spirit of liberty, similar to that expressed during the 1700s during America’s infancy, was revisited through the black, brown, red and yellow people in America and around the world. The federal government encountered foreign policies issues in Cuba and the Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as the Cuban missile crisis. Throughout southeastern Asia, crises in Vietnam led to military intervention by American forces, prompting university students and pacifists to protest. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy pushed some American citizens into riots and upheavals throughout the country. Many cities such as Watts, CA, Washington, DC, Chicago, IL and other places smoldered throughout the decade in response to frustration with racial injustice, class prejudice, underemployment, over-crowding and the military draft. After the assassination of Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president and sought to calm the fears and restore order to the country.  Johnson launched a war on poverty and worked to pass the Civil Rights Bill and Voting Rights Act, ensuring the ability for African Americans to participate as fully entitled U.S. citizens.

Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks. Library of Congress,

African Americans added an intellectually diverse landscape of ideas to the solution for racism and oppression. Many leaders advocated for peaceful non-violent solutions promulgated by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, while others were prompted to proactive means through the rhetoric of Malcolm X and the National Islam. African American youth expressed themselves in two major organizations: the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) and the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Panthers originated in California and sought to police the police and demand justice for the black community through action, self-help/education and non-violent means. In North Carolina, the SNCC sought to employ integrated direct action strategies through placing themselves within the line of fire by riding through southern towns. Both organizations utilized the energy, culture and language of the youth to spread their ideas in aiding the larger liberation struggle worldwide. Black women were involved in all aspects of protest during the 1960s.

The action of Rosa Parks was the origin of the modern civil rights movement. Her calculated decision to not give up her bus seat to a white passenger was the culmination of decades of municipal abuses. Jim Crow and second class citizenship had been the accepted interaction. However, in November 1955, black women and men formally struck a blow at the system. There had been other protests and acts of civil disobedience, however, and the structure, media attention, length and location of the Montgomery bus boycott led to a national movement by blacks, whites, men, women and children, demanding an end to de jure segregation. The activism of black people in Alabama in general and Montgomery in particular span the greater part of the twentieth century. Concurrently, Joanne Robinson was the president of the Women’s Political Council, an organization of black women active in anti-segregation activities and politics. The WPC provided the hands, feet and voice of the Montgomery bus boycott from printing and passing out flyers to overtly engaging the city fathers of Montgomery about segregation.

“Black women since the nineteenth century have initiated civil rights campaigns. They established black women’s organizations that improved the conditions for African Americans. They organized black consumers, supported labor unions and worked in politics and journalism…in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement, they were the backbone of the movement. All over the South, black women were crucial as grassroots leaders, stimulating mass participation in the movement.”7


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