How did the US Civil Rights movement of the 60s succeed?

This one will be slightly long, so please bear with me. Mods, please move to a different forum if appropriate, but I thought Great Debates would work best given the specific aspect of the question I’d like to focus on. As far as my background, should anyone deem that relevant, I’m 45, upper middle class, and Hispanic. My parents were working class. I learned what my be called the “standard” story in high school and as a college freshman in American history. Here goes.

The story as I learned goes something like this. By the 1960s, a lot of Black people had reached the point where they decided they would no longer put up with the racist society around them, and furthermore that it was time to do something about it. This included people like Rosa Parks on up to the leaders of the movement like MLK, as well as people of other races like Cesar Chavez. They did the bulk of the heavy lifting, but being that white people were the majority, in order to accomplish large scale change they needed help from some powerful white people. This included guys like LBJ and Earl Warren, with their work on the Civil Rights Act, Brown vs. Board of Education, and so on. Due to those things becoming the law of the land, progress was forced in a top down manner.

That’s all well and good, but it should be obvious that the type of changes involved in fighting racism are likely to have only very limited success if top down changes are the only factor. I wasn’t around back then, but it seems like there was also huge numbers of ordinary people who stopped being or at the very least became less racist. A bottom up type change. Obviously this change wasn’t anywhere close to being completely successful, but I think it’s obvious that racial minorities had things better by the 1980s than in the 1950s, and that they continued to get better as time went on, at least until the mid 2010s.

All that being said, the question is what led to all those bottom up changes, of regular everyday white people becoming less racist? How were those successes achieved, not in the federal and state laws, or decisions made by the courts, but in the hearts and minds of regular people?

Part of the reason for the debate is the bolded part above. My general impression is that whatever force was at work from the post WW2 era on, started running out of steam in the mid-2010s. If any of you all have thoughts on why, or even if that is the case, please include those. What was going on from circa 1945-2015 that led to a bottom up improvement in race relations, and whatever it was, why has it seemed to stop working?

One thing we don’t often talk about is how embarrassing the Civil Rights movement was to the United States during the Cold War. How could the United States talk about the evil Soviets when their own black citizens were treated so poorly? This was a pressure point activist would use at times to get those at the top to pay attention.

In the 60s the commercial/industrial complex realized that minorities constituted markets to be equally exploited along with white folks. Discrimination was a barrier to economic expansion so it was dismantled.

The result is what you see today in the ads on TV.

The civil rights movement succeeded because it was fundamentally correct. Most Americans believed in ideals like equality and the rule of law. They just overlooked the reality that these principles were not being applied to all Americans. So the civil rights movement was a process of reminding people they believed in the principle of equal rights, showing them that that principle was not being applied in regard to black Americans, and then leading them through the changes to apply the principle more widely to black Americans.

Hmmmm…what happened after 2015 that made racism more overt??

I think an undercurrent of latent racism had persisted in certain circles, but since the overall status quo changed to give people of color more opportunity and it became less and less appropriate to express racist views in ‘polite society’, racists kept their views bottled up in public.

Then trump came along, with his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, which was a thinly diguised dog whistle for “make America like it was in the 50s and earlier, when people of color knew their place”. Then latent racists felt more free to become overt racists.

Elements of the labour movement were also crucial to this, providing funding, training, and better jobs. Labour has always been a lot more than “hard hats for Nixon.” So too was the Communist Party, which provided training, ideas, and organizers to labour and the civil rights movement. Heck, even Betty Friedan had ties to the Communist Party, which was probably more important as a sort of initial club for progressives who moved on than as an actual party.

Not really. I would say that the ratio of racist white ppl to white allies are generally the same as they always were. Where they chose to live and concentrate may have been the most change. The Civil Rights movement was about forcing change through rule of law, precisely BECAUSE it was clear by the 1950s that waiting for it to happen from a “bottom up” change was never going to happen.

I am like you and thought the racism problem in America was in the past. But I was wrong. Very wrong, evidently. I think the advent of the internet and specifically social media has allowed whatever latent racism was brooding just under “polite society” to be exposed. It became okay to say stuff online under the cloak of anonymity, and connect with like-minded people, and to have opinions reinforced in the media bubbles we have today.

Yes, I think racism became an overflowing toilet around 2015 when politicians and media and entertainers began openly saying things that previously has either been suppressed or hidden. Now it is all out in the open, and anyone trying to quiet these ideas and words gets shouted down as “woke” and the First Amendment is trotted out.

“Miserable being will find other miserable being, then all is happy” (Gorky)

I checked out GAB this morning and it’s true!

Except that it did happen. Take the experience of my parents and I in school. In my parents day (1950s) they weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in school. If they did, they would have likely been sent to the office of the racist white principal by a racist white teacher who found out about it from one of the racist white students. By the 1980s when I was in school, that wasn’t the case. And it wasn’t because the racist white principal / teacher / student were afraid that Reagan would send in the national guard to force them to stop being racist, the way Eisenhower had a generation earlier. It’s because by the 80s the white principal / teacher / student were less likely to be racist than their counterparts from the 50s.

That’s the part I’m wondering about. How did we manage to get those people to become less racist?

That’s another aspect. Was it really latent racism coming to the surface, or is it that greater numbers of people are racist today than 10 or 20 years ago? My impression is that it’s the latter, but I could very well be wrong, which is also part of why I started this thread.

In the first phase of the Civil Rights movement, white peoples’ eyes were open to mistreatment of law-abiding African-Americans who but for the color of their skin were (in their perception) just like them, and who they should not be afraid to be around.

In more recent years, the focus has turned to mistreatment of African-American criminals and accusations of systemic racism against American policing. Criminals are something that law-abiding folks are afraid of and there is pushback against activism that seems likely to make them less safe.

I don’t think we did. It’s just that the social consequences are different.

An “out of sight, out of mind” self-inflicted blindness. As long as the ugly forms of supremacism were happening somewhere else, to someone else, and not bothering them, Mr.&Mrs. Mainstream could not be too upset. But when a more robust, activist movement began making it so Mr.&Mrs. mainstream could not ignore it, more of those with some ability to change things began saying either “this is not right” or at the very least “this is not a good look and it won’t end well if it goes on”.

We didn’t and they aren’t. The federal government recognized two facts: Racial division was a time bomb with the potential to destroy the US; minorities were an underutilized resource. Civil rights legislation pulled the rug out from under racists. Businesses had to accommodate the new rules and God had to give new instructions to the churches. Folkways and mores followed suit.

But, the internet has given the ‘miserable beings’ a way to coalesce and form one voice. It’s a new deal.

I hypothesize that there were/are three broad groups:

  • Whites who strongly believe in racial equality
  • Whites who don’t really think about it much, one way or the other, and just go along with whatever is normative behavior and speech among the people around them
  • Whites who are truly racist

I have no idea if the proportions of the three groups have changed much over time, but I’d suspect that having their eyes opened during the civil rights movement in the 1960s made enough of the second group either think about the issue (at least a tiny bit), or just saw that enough of their peers were now anti-racist that they went along with it.

If there’s any validity to my hypothesis, then group #3 (the committed racists) were always there, they just got quiet for a few decades, and now that they feel empowered to be more open about their beliefs again, they’re dragging some of group #2 along for the ride.

Well, I suspect a big part of it was just integration, which was usually a “top down” thing. Prior to the 60s, lots of white people just never interacted with minorities very much. They didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools or churches, or see them on TV.

TV shows like “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” and “Chico and The Man” might look a lot dated now, but they were the first time a lot of white people got a look at the lives of minority people, even if it was in a sanitized, TV-friendly format.

And it’s a lot harder to believe the worst racist stereotypes when you can see that the kid in school or who lives next door isn’t like that.

While we look back on the Civil Rights movement as one big thing that led to a big change, it was actually a lot of little things that made the next batch of little things a little easier.

The armed forces desegregating in 1947 made people just a little more willing to accept Brown v. Board of Education, which made it a little easier to sympathize with Rosa Parks in 1955, which made it a little easier for Congress to pass a tiny, limited Civil Rights law in 1957, which made it easier for both Democrats and Republicans to get pro-Civil Rights candidates on the ballot, and then have them work together on the legislation of the 1960s, etc.

Symbolism played a powerful part, as well. When you have an image of a small Black woman, or a Black teenage girl trying to live their lives up next to images of police dogs, fire hoses and burning crosses, public opinion will (eventually) be affected…

That makes sense. Maybe with a contribution of worsening economic prospects for some of the people in the second group making it more likely that they fall under the influence of those in the third.

Lots of black civil rights workers were being mistreated, incluidng murdered. Some people cared, many didn’t Then they movement made a conscious effort to put some white people in harms way, and
not just any white people. Upper class white kids.

The disappearance of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner captured national attention. By the end of the first week, all major news networks were covering their disappearances. President Lyndon Johnson met with the parents of Goodman and Schwerner in the Oval Office. Walter Cronkite’s broadcast of the CBS Evening News on June 25, 1964, called the disappearances “the focus of the whole country’s concern”.

Obviously, it wasn’t just one thing. The fight lasted decades (arguably since 1865) and many efforts brought about slow but eventual gains. (Brown v. Education took twenty years of strategic lawsuits, starting with integrating law schools, then higher ed, then public high schools) But the Freedom Riders made a difference too.

President Johnson and civil rights activists used the outrage over the activists’ deaths to gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson signed on July 2. This and the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Johnson signed on August 6 of that year.