The Civil Rights Movement:1968—2008

Nancy McLean in National Humanities Center:

Shirleychisholmv2Looking back, it’s clear now that the real work of winning equal treatment began after the legislative victories once thought to signal the movement’s denouement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not simply open public accommodations, such as lunch counters and bus stations. It made possible the first large-scale progress in breaking down job segregation, a primary goal of civil rights activists from at least the 1940s onward. Using the Act’s Title VII, which outlawed employment discrimination, hundreds of thousands of workers ended their exclusion from higher-paying jobs and stopped discrimination in benefits, promotions, and day-to-day treatment. While some fought discrimination using the Civil Rights Act, other black workers organized to improve conditions in their existing jobs, as the Memphis sanitation strike inspired a vast wave of union organizing. Led by black municipal and hospital workers, the public sector became the best organized part of the U.S. labor market over the next two decades. There, African American men and women, especially, achieved their greatest income and promotion gains. In the area of school segregation, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and subsequent court victories enabled other activists to make the first significant headway in breaking down since the Supreme Court had issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision over a decade before. Still others, using the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opened electoral politics to African American voters and candidates as never before. In the South, the impact was stunning, as newly enfranchised black voters partnered with liberal and moderate whites to elect more African Americans than the region had seen since Reconstruction. In the cities of the North and West, black communities gained representation as never before. Nationally, forty-three black candidates won election as mayor in 1973, a number that quintupled over the next fifteen years.

As African Americans gained new access to white-dominated institutions, the freedom struggle moved inside from the streets. On college campuses, black students fought for and won the creation of Afro-American Studies programs and financial aid policies that would allow children of lower-income families to get college educations. In the military, one of the largest employers of African Americans, affirmative action and other policies produced one of the most racially equitable workplaces in the nation—indeed, the only one in which whites routinely have black supervisors. In just about every occupation, from auto work to librarianship, black caucuses arose to create a “safe space” where members would no longer be lonely “tokens”; they could raise consciousness about white privilege and organize for fair treatment and other institutional changes. The Congressional Black Caucus was only the best-publicized and most influential of these. Created in 1969 by Shirley Chisholm (D-NY, 1924-2005) and others, it joined together a new critical mass of African American representatives as it enabled them to speak with a common voice on issues of concern to their constituents.

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)