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A modernday revolution American turmoil in the 1960s
Hubert Humphrey once stated, “When we say, ‘One nation under God, with liberty and justice for all,’ we are talking about all people. We either ought to believe it or quit saying it” (Hakim 111). During the 1960’s, a great number of people did, in fact, begin to believe it. These years were a time of great change for America. The country was literally redefined as people from all walks of life fought to uphold their standards on what they believed a true democracy is made of; equal rights for all races, freedom of speech, and the right to stay out of wars in which they felt they didn’t belong. The music of the era did a lot of defining and upholding as well; in fact, it was a driving force, or at the very least a strongly supporting force, in many of the movements that took place. However, it is to be expected that in attempting to change a nation one will inevitably face opposition. The Vietnamese weren’t the only ones involved in a civil war those years; in America, one could easily find brother turning against brother, or more commonly, parent against child, as each side fought to defend their views. The 1960’s were a major turning point in the history of the U.S, and when it was all over, the American way of life would never be the same.
Almost seventy years before the sixties even began, segregation was legalized. As long as both races had “equal” facilities, it was entirely legal to divide them (Hakim 64-65). In 1955, however, an elderly black woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was arrested. Parks later proved to be the true catalyst of the anti-segregation movement. When news of the arrest reached the black population, action was taken immediately. A massive bus boycott was organized, during which time no one of color could be found on a bus in the Montgomery area. Finally, in 1956, a law was passed proclaiming that any form of segregation was illegal and immoral (Hakim 69-71). Unfortunately, not everyone was eager to embrace this change. Many whites felt that if they were forced to share, they would rather go without. Across the country, public recreational facilities were locked up rather than integrated. In Birmingham, Alabama in 1962, for example, sixty-eight parks, thirty-eight playgrounds, six pools, and four gold courses were closed to the public (Hakim 97).
Congress had finally granted equal rights, but the black population of America had a long way to go before their rights were truly equal. Many groups such as the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), and CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) were formed to organize rallies and marches to support their cause (Benson 15, 18-19). A few individuals such as James Farmer and Marin Luther King, Jr., however, stand out among all others as the true leaders of the movement. Farmer was the nation’s first black man to earn a Ph.D., and he was also the founder of CORE. He realized that the black population would be seen as ignorant and inferior until they had equal education and job training. He demanded that the federal government provide programs to make education and training available, stating, “When a society has crippled some of it’s people, it has an obligation to provide the requisite crutches” (Benson 34-35).
Martin Luther King Jr., born in 1929, became famous for his methods of anti-violent protest, modeled after the methods of the late Mahatma Ghandi. He said Ghandi taught him that, “…there is more power in socially organized masses on the march than… in guns in the hands of a few desperate men.” In 1964, King became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Hakim 76, 121). On April 4, 1968, however, King’s short life was brought to an untimely end when he was assassinated by white supremacist James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of thirty-nine. To this day, some people believe that the FBI was involved in the killing, due to the fact that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover strongly and openly disliked King . These beliefs have never been confirmed (Benson 33).
King’s tactics of peaceful demonstration were the most popular of the time. Sit-ins were very common, originating in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina when, despite being covered in ketchup and brutally beaten by violent spectators, four black students refused to leave a lunch counter at Woolworth’s until they were served (Benson 16),. Protestors simply wrapped their ankles around the stool legs and grasped the edges of their seats, defiantly resisting all attempts to remove them (Hakim 100).
More efficient than the sit-ins, however, were the marches that took place during the time. A march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1964 resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a march on Washington in 1963 consisting of two- hundred and fifty thousand participants, sixty-thousand of whom were white (Benson 47), proved how significant the movement really was. The march on Washington was also the day of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, in which he proclaimed,
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…that one day down in Alabama…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…and when this happens and when we allow freedom to ring… from every village…from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing… ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last’” (Hakim 103-104).
Despite the usually peaceful, non-violent attitudes of protestors, they were often met with violence from people who were strongly opposed to their cause. In Birmingham, a bomb exploded during a Sunday school class and four young girls were killed. Bull Conner, ironically the public commissioner of safety of the same city, ordered the arrests of hundreds of non-violent student demonstrators. He also ordered high-pressured fire hoses and police dogs to be turned on the marchers, causing many injuries (Hakim 99-100). Reporters covering such events often found themselves among the victims of such violence. They were commonly beaten, and their cameras smashed. White supremacists in the south felt that the media only encouraged the movement for equal rights, and this thought proved to be correct. “Without the…media… the movement might not have succeeded, for the rest of the nation… would not have seen in action the violent racism practiced by southern whites” (Benson 20).
While the anti-segregation movement carried on in the American South, war raged in Vietnam. The roots of the war dated back to the early 1950’s, when the Viet Minh were in control of North Vietnam and the French were in control of the South. They shared a common goal of wanting to unite the country, but neither wanted to relinquish control. In 1954, France abandoned the cause, leaving Ngo Dinh Diem in charge of the southern half of the country. Diem, however, did not have the resources to fight against the Viet Minh, so rather than admitting defeat, he appealed to the United States for help. President Kennedy agreed to send a small number of troops in for assistance, and the general public initially agreed with the choice. However, Diem was assassinated in 1963, and when no strong government was formed afterwards, the U.S. was forced to “shoulder… more and more of the burden of the war” (Benson 134-136). By 1967, the Vietnam war was costing America seventy million dollars a day (Hakim 119), and by the wars end, two-three million Vietnamese and fifty-eight thousand Americans were dead (Gitlin 3).
Prior to 1966, all students were exempt from the draft. After 1966, however, students with below average grades were completely eligible to be sent to war (Benson 142). As can be expected, this caused much dissent among the youth of America, playing a large role in the birth of the Peace Movement.
For the most part, demonstrators followed the law with their protests. An initial form of protest was the teach-in, where speakers from around the country would debate. A national teach-in was held on May 15, 1965 in Washington D.C., educating many people on the issues of Vietnam. Pamphlets were another common form of protest, due to a general mistrust of the newspapers. It has been said that the number of pamphlets during the 1960s probably equaled the number of pamphlets during the Revolutionary war era (Benson 142-144). Many illegal and dishonest methods of protest took place as well. To avoid being drafted, or as a response to being drafted, a great number of people fled to Canada or Europe, burned their draft cards, or claimed religious beliefs that prevented them from fighting (Benson 180). Despite the numerous student protests, American youth were not the only ones who believed their country did not belong in Vietnam. On March 16, 1965, an eighty-two-year-old Quaker woman named Alice Herz immolated herself to protest the war (Archer 119). Finally, in 1973, President Nixon ordered for
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