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(The UNITED STATES and EQUAL RIGHTS, 1947-65 – continued)

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The UNITED STATES and EQUAL RIGHTS, 1947-65 (3 of 5)

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Human Rights, New Divisions and Riots in 1964

In November, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, championed new civil rights legislation, a bill addressing voting rights and desegregation of public schools. A leading Republican, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, favored equal opportunity, but he also favored limited government. He was opposed to rights by government fiat, and he claimed that civil rights legislation went against the nation's constitution. He voted against Johnson's civil right's legislation, winning favor from Southern segregationists. But numerous Republicans stuck with the Republican party's traditional support for civil rights, and with Republican support on 2 July 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Johnson. It was called the most far reaching civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements, and it outlawed racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.

In May, 1964, Martin Luther King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, during the summer, white and black students went to Mississippi to work with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in voter registration drives, in what was called "Freedom Summer." Three young men who were traveling together – Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney – disappeared, and their disappearance made headlines. Six weeks later their bodies were discovered in a shallow grave. This, too, would not slow down the civil rights movement.

A few blacks made demands for such things as reparations to African-Americans for three hundred years of unpaid labor as slaves. There were calls for police review boards that included African-Americans. In New York City, a group led by Isiah Brunson made these demands and called for strikes by blacks against landlords. Brunson threatened to disrupt the World's Fair by stall-ins on roads, and he threatened to disrupt the city's subway system. This challenged the forces of law and order. New York's police were mobilized, and Brunson's threat proved empty.

Deputy Sherif Cecil Ray Price

In the above photo sits Cecil Ray Price of Mississippi, to be indicted for the 1964 murders of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. This photo was made into a poster that I saw on the refrigerator doors of various outraged students at Berkeley.

The issue over integrating neighborhoods was heating up, and however much public opinion had been instrumental in advancing civil rights, there was in the North and West of the country, as well as the South, a great number of people who feared that "too much, too fast" would lead to disorder. In California the cause of Civil Rights had been popular during the late Fifties and through the first part of the Sixties – inspired by the battles in the South. But, when the fight for integration came closer to home, attitudes among many whites changed. In California in 1964, voters rejected 2 to 1 a proposed law to ban discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. There were whites in California who were saying that they did not want some "noisy Negro family" living next door to them. Some said they were uncomfortable with the idea of their daughter dating a black. And some whites complained that the blacks ought to remain focused on "consolidating their recent gains."

Fears of integration by northern whites were enhanced by the migration of blacks in recent years. Between 1940 and 1960, the black populations of Chicago and Detroit had tripled, and in Los Angeles it had multiplied by five. Whites feared that their neighborhoods might be overwhelmed by blacks. Whites imagined their neighborhoods becoming like the poor, dilapidated and high crime neighborhoods that they imagined black neighborhoods to be. Whites were concerned about the drop in value of the investment they were making in their homes and property. White flight from neighborhoods was opening up whole neighborhoods to blacks. People in affluent Beverly Hills remained unafraid and were not moving. Beverly Hills was to be among the first cities to outlaw segregation in housing.

In the summer of 1964, the issue of integration was exacerbated by rioting. It began in New York's Harlem with the killing of a fifteen year-old black: James Powell. The boy had a criminal past but was trying to advance himself by attending summer school. Outside the school, an apartment superintendent was washing down the sidewalk and was annoyed by the presence of Powell and boys with him, and he turned his hose on them. The boys responded to the insult by attacking the superintendent, chasing him into retreat. According to the police, Powell had a knife drawn and an off-duty police lieutenant who happened upon the scene ordered Powell to drop the knife. Powell did not, and, according to the police, Powell attacked the officer. The lieutenant is reported to have responded as police are trained to do when dealing with someone with a knife: he defended himself with his pistol. And Powell died.

Angry blacks, mainly young people, demonstrated, and the police ordered them to disperse. Unhappy with the police, people threw bottles and bricks at them from rooftops. Television crews, protected by the presence of police, were there to catch the sensational events, and television helped spread the riots – to Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant district, to Rochester, Philadelphia, Chicago and northern New Jersey. Windows were broken. Stores were looted. Black as well as white policemen were assaulted. Various African-American leaders, such as Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkens, denounced the rioting as ineffective and damaging to the move towards equality. But, as with Gandhi's movement in India, many of the aggrieved were more emotional and volatile than were those leaders who advocated non-violence.

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Copyright © 2000-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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