Urban Unrest and Militant Protest
The landmark Civil Rights Law of 1964 had barely gone into effect when a serious race riot erupted in Harlem. Racial disturbances occurred that summer in several other northern ghettos. A year later, the black ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles, California, exploded in violence. For the next two summers, dozens of other riots broke out across the country. Many were sparked by fights between blacks and white police officers.
A special presidential commission looked into the reasons behind the riots. They found that despite all of the court decisions, sit-ins, marches, and boycotts, the average black American was still living with the crippling effects of segregation, discrimination and, above all, racism.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, a new wave of riots spread across the country. A report by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, identified more than 150 riots between 1965 and 1968. In 1967 alone, 83 people were killed (most of them black), 1,800 were injured, and property valued at more than $100 million was destroyed.
For the most part, the 1970s and 1980s cast a shadow over the dreams of black Americans for racial justice and equality. With the exception of the years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency from 1976 to 1980, it was a time when blacks first felt neglected, then threatened. There was little attempt to enforce existing civil rights laws. Very few blacks were named to top positions in the federal government. Schools and businesses felt less pressure to recruit minorities to make up for the unfair practices of the past, especially after white men began to complain about “reverse discrimination.”
Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency in 1976 held out the promise of a new way of thinking. Although he did name several blacks to high-level positions, President Carter did come under fire for not doing enough to help the vast majority of black Americans. During his administration the effects of a shaky economy—marked by high inflation and gas shortages—hit blacks especially hard. The Iran hostage crisis of 1979 added to the nation’s depressed mood and paved the way for a return to Republican control of the White House in 1980.
Black Pride—The 1980s
When President Ronald Reagan took office, blacks once again found themselves shut out of the highest levels of government. Although he insisted that his moves to strengthen the economy helped all Americans, blacks as well as whites, President Reagan opposed or ignored many issues of interest to black Americans. Also, he appointed conservative judges to various federal courts who struck down many programs that had been designed to make up for past discrimination against minorities.
Discouraged by these setbacks, some blacks decided that the only way to make progress on issues of importance to black Americans was to reject traditional politics. A few looked into alternative movements, including the Nation of Islam and Afrocentrism, which stressed the value of black culture and the black experience (especially its African roots). The chief characteristic of the black experience in the 1970s and the early 1980s was the development of black consciousness and black pride. These values found renewed vigor as increasing numbers of blacks came to believe that the key to dealing with problems of race in the United States was in the way they felt about themselves as individuals and as a group.
By the late 1980s, there were black mayors in many of our country’s larger cities and some of its smaller ones, too. Black representation in state legislatures, school boards, and state courts was also increasing, especially in the South. One of the symbolic victories that contributed to this new sense of self-determination and self-recognition among black Americans was the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday in 1983.
When George H.W. Bush took office as president in January 1989, some blacks thought he would reverse the trends of the Reagan years and revive the “Second Reconstruction.” The early signs were really hopeful. President Bush named General Colin Powell head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and made Dr. Louis Sullivan secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. He repeatedly expressed his admiration for the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr., and observed the national holiday honoring the slain civil rights activists. President Bush also welcomed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to the White House in 1990.
By mid-1990, however, many blacks began to question President Bush’s sincerity on issues of importance to black Americans. They thought he had been too eager to support the white minority government in South Africa. Blacks were outraged when Bush vetoed the 1991 Civil Rights Bill because he felt that it contained unconstitutional employment quotas. In addition, many blacks did not support U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War or the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court.
Years of anger and frustration came to a head in April 1992 after four white Los Angeles policemen were found “not guilty” in the 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney King. Immediately following the verdict, Los Angeles experienced the worst riots in American history. Disturbances broke out in several other cities, too. Not since the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s had there been so much protest.
In November 1992, a large number of white voters joined with an overwhelming majority of black voters to demand a change. Republican George H.W. Bush was turned out of office after only one term and Democrat Bill Clinton was elected. At this time, the ongoing economic recession, not the Los Angeles riot, was the topic on everyone’s mind. As a result of the elections, the Congressional Black Caucus grew from twenty-five members to thirty-nine.
Although President Clinton chose several blacks and other minorities for positions in his cabinet, many black Americans adopted a “wait and see” attitude toward this new administration. Some blacks questioned the sincerity of Clinton’s commitment to a “Black Agenda.” They pointed out that he had campaigned heavily among middle-class whites, and avoided Jesse Jackson and other more outspoken black leaders. During the campaign, Clinton had never presented any concrete plans for dealing with problems unique to the black community.
Many blacks also felt that Clinton had stumbled badly on a number of issues of importance to black Americans. Many blacks were upset with Clinton about his decision to return Haitian refugees to their country, a policy he had condemned during his campaign. Others were disappointed by the defeat of his job creation bill, which they blamed on an ineffective White House strategy. Perhaps the biggest blow came when President Clinton withdrew Lani Guinier’s nomination to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Black Americans are increasingly recognizing what they have contributed to the national culture and the global community and the extent of what they still have to offer.
1. During the 1970s and 1980s,
a. the progress made in the civil rights movement was more evident than ever.
b. civil rights progress seemed to slow significantly.
c. waves of riots spread through the country.
d. racism returned with renewed strength.
2. Why was the early part of Jimmy Carter’s presidency considered a time of a new way of thinking?
a. Carter was a Democrat.
b. He promised to fix racial inequality once and for all.
c. The economy was marked by high inflation and gas shortages.
d. President Carter named several African Americans to high-level positions.
4. Why did some African Americans begin to reject traditional politics and to join alternative movements such as the Nation of Islam and Afrocentrism during the 1980s?
a. They felt that efforts toward racial equality were still not working and they needed to try different paths.
b. They realized that a mass return to Africa and acceptance of a new religion was the only answer.
c. They knew that violence had become the only answer.
d. They had been deceived by Dr. Martin Luther King’s message of peace.
5. What is a part of the meaning of “Black Pride”?
a. Black Americans should be proud of their race and heritage.
b. Blacks Americans must separate themselves once and for all from white Americans.
c. Black Americans must resolve to make a mass return to Africa.
d. Black Americans must consider white Americans their brothers in humanity.
6. Why did President H.W. Bush’s sincerity on civil rights issues come into question during the 1990s?
a. He appointed African Americans to high-level positions in the government.
b. He neglected the black voters during his campaign for the presidency.
c. He vetoed the 1991 Civil Rights Bill on a question of constitutionality.
d. He did not support America’s involvement in the Persian Gulf War.
7. Why was there so much violence even after the various civil rights acts had been passed?
a. All whites refused to accept the changes.
b. Blacks and whites could obviously not get along.
c. Human beings are inherently violent.
d. Blacks were still coping with segregation, discrimination, and racism.
8. During the last three decades of the twentieth century, efforts to reach racial equality in America were
a. finally successful.
b. struggling but still in progress.
c. at a total stand-still.
9. Consider the future of the United States of America. How can the people of this nation apply lessons learned from the courageous struggles of African Americans to ensure that the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” becomes a reality for each and every person?