The struggle of black Americans for equality reached its peak in the mid-1960s. After progressive victories in the 1950s, blacks became even more committed to nonviolent direct action. Groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), made up of black clergy, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), composed of younger activists, sought reform through peaceful confrontation.
In 1960 black college students sat down at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in North Carolina and refused to leave. Their sit-in captured media attention and led to similar demonstrations throughout the South. The next year, civil rights workers organized "freedom rides," in which blacks and whites boarded buses heading South toward segregated terminals, where confrontations might capture media attention and lead to change.
They also organized rallies, the largest of which was the "March on Washington" in 1963. More than 200,000 people gathered in the nation's capital to demonstrate their commitment to equality for all. The high point of a day of songs and speeches came with the address of Martin Luther King Jr., who had emerged as the preeminent spokesman for civil rights. "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood," King proclaimed. Each time he used the refrain "I have a dream," the crowd roared.
But the rhetoric of the civil rights movement at first failed to bring progress. President Kennedy was initially reluctant to press white Southerners for support on civil rights because he needed their votes on other issues. But events forced his hand. When James Meredith was denied admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962 on account of his race, Kennedy sent federal troops to uphold the law. After protests aimed at the desegregation of Birmingham, Alabama, prompted a violent response by the police, he sent Congress a new civil rights bill mandating the integration of public places. Not even the "March on Washington," however, could extricate the measure from a congressional committee, where it was still bottled up when Kennedy was assassinated.
President Johnson was more successful. A Southerner from Texas, he became committed to civil rights as he sought national office. In 1963, he told Congress: "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill." Using all his authority, he persuaded the Senate to limit debate and secured the passage of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in all public accommodations. The next year, he pressed further for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It authorized the federal government to appoint examiners to register voters where local officials made black registration impossible. The year after passage, 400,000 blacks registered in the deep South; by 1968 the number reached 1 million and nationwide the number of black elected officials increased substantially. Finally, in 1968, the Congress passed legislation banning discrimination in housing.
For all of the legislative activity, some blacks became impatient with the pace of progress. Malcolm X, an eloquent activist, argued for black separation from the white race. Stokely Carmichael, a student leader, became similarly disillusioned by the notions of nonviolence and interracial cooperation. He preached the need for black power, to be achieved by whatever means necessary.
Violence accompanied militant calls for reform. Riots broke out in several big cities in 1966 and 1967. In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King fell before an assassin's bullet. Several months later, Senator Robert Kennedy, a spokesman for the disadvantaged, an opponent of the Vietnam War and the brother of the slain president, met the same fate. To many these two assassinations marked the end of an era of innocence and idealism in both civil rights and the anti-war movements. The growing militancy on the left, coupled with an inevitable conservative backlash, opened a rift in the nation's psyche which took years to heal.
The federal commitment to civil rights diminished when Richard Nixon became president. Nixon was determined to consolidate his political base around conservative whites who felt that the movement for black equality had gone too far. The "Southern strategy" led the administration to reduce the appropriation for fair housing enforcement and in 1970, to prevent, unsuccessfully, the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that busing children was a permissible means of desegregating schools, Nixon denounced the ruling on television and sought a congressional moratorium or restriction. Though he failed to achieve his end, he made his position clear. Opponents of busing gained a victory in 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley, in which the Supreme Court invalidated efforts to transfer inner-city black students to suburban schools that were predominately white.
The backlash against preferential treatment for minorities became even more public in a Supreme Court case in 1978. Allan Bakke, a white man, claimed that a quota reserving places for minority applicants was responsible for the rejection of his application to medical school in California. The court ordered his admission, arguing that quotas could no longer be imposed, but then upheld the consideration of race as one of the relevant factors in selection procedures.
Nevertheless, the controversy over busing and affirmative action sometimes obscured the steady march of many African Americans into the ranks of the middle class and suburbia throughout these tumultuous years.