Article

Troubles in the Land

The 1960s in America was a time of tremendous racial tension.

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Affluence did not mean that all was well in American society. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, brought the nation together in mourning, but it did not narrow the differences that set Americans at odds with one another.

Racial problems were the most troublesome. President Truman had desegregated the military in 1947, but racial barriers elsewhere remained fixed. The Supreme Court's ruling that segregation imposed by law in the public schools was unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954) raised hopes among blacks that a new day was at hand, but the decision met with organized resistance by whites in Southern states.

When change was slow in coming, blacks mounted protests. A bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 thrust Martin Luther King, Jr., to the forefront of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its movement based on principles of nonviolence. Before long he and the SCLC were challenged by Malcolm X of the more militant Nation of Islam and Stokely Carmichael's SNCC. Nonetheless, no one matched King's eloquence, demonstrated most fully in his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in August 1963. The rank and file in the civil rights movement also played important parts, including, for example, the students who held a sit-in at a Woolworth counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960 and the Freedom Riders assaulted in Montgomery and elsewhere in 1961. These events, viewed by millions on their television sets, dramatized the need for civil rights legislation.

American Indians and Hispanic Americans also engaged in protests, but except for the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez, they gained less attention. Chavez organized nationwide boycotts of farm products in partially successful efforts to compel California growers to reach agreements with his union.

Several other movements trace their origins to books published in the early 1960s. Michael Harrington inspired antipoverty sentiments and actions with The Other America (1962). Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) mobilized women in their quest for equality and led to the formation of the National Organization for Women. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (1963), helped launch the environmental movement, which displayed broad support on Earth Day, Apr. 30, 1970. Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed (1963) led to measures that compelled the automobile industry to build safer vehicles and established a consumer protection movement.

top