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Rosa Parks boarding a bus The third series of America charts the Post-War era.

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 3: 1 June - 10 July

Rights and Riots

The Back of the Bus

In a historic decision in May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities, divided along racial lines, were unconstitutional. Enforcement of desegregation was left to the Southern political elite and so progress was slow. Black Americans took matters into their own hands.

One of the most visible marks of black inferiority in the South was the requirement that African Americans give up their seats when buses became crowded. In December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to budge and was arrested. Black leaders decided to make Parks a test case, and arranged a successful boycott of Montgomery's buses. A young black minister, Martin Luther King, Jr, emerged as their spokesman, and quickly became a national figure. King's philosophy of non-violent protest would prove immensely influential.

Montgomery was eventually forced to end transport segregation, but broader change was piecemeal. In 1957 Eisenhower had to send the army to Little Rock, Arkansas to ensure black students were allowed into a school where the authorities were resisting desegregation.

Montgomery and Little Rock were signs that the fabric of segregation was finally beginning to tear. Pressures from the Supreme Court, newly attentive to racial issues, and from local black citizens, standing up for their rights, were having an effect, but it was all painfully slow.

'And We Shall Overcome'

A new generation of protestors soon grew impatient with the compromises of older blacks like King and were ready to take the initiative. In 1960-1 activists staged sit-ins to protest at segregated restaurants. In 1961 the 'Freedom Riders' suffered violence and imprisonment when they challenged segregation on interstate buses and trains, but their campaign was ultimately successful.

Emboldened by this, in 1963 black leaders targeted Birmingham, Alabama, using marches and sit-ins to force change in the South's most segregated city. Embarrassed by TV pictures of police brutality, Birmingham's leaders conceded to King's demands. He kept up the pressure with a march on Washington in August 1963, attended by around 250,000 people, and where King delivered his famous 'I have a Dream' speech.

Aware of the changing public mood, President Kennedy proposed a new Civil Rights Act to Congress. After his assassination in November 1963, his successor Lyndon Johnson drove the legislation through but he, like Kennedy, felt constrained by Southerners in Congress. Yet again, it was left to calculated and courageous black protest to force the issue.

In poor and racist states like Mississippi and Alabama, registering to vote was made as difficult as possible for black people. Student activists made voter registration their top priority. Several were brutally killed, and King and dozens of others were jailed. In August 1965, after months of pressure, Johnson forced through a Voting Rights Act to use the power of the Federal Government to eliminate all state and local barriers to colour-blind democracy. Black registration rose rapidly and blacks could now elect their own representatives to the state assemblies and Congress.

The direct-action methods of the Civil Rights Movement became a model for other protestors. The 1965 Act signalled that states rights were overridden by individual rights, enforced by the Federal Government. This too set a precedent for the future.

Black Power

In August 1965, serious rioting broke out in Watts, a black neighbourhood of Los Angeles. It reflected frustrations at the continuing discrimination suffered in jobs and housing which had been unaffected by the new laws guaranteeing civil and voting rights. Similar riots occurred in American cities each summer during the mid-1960s. The methods that Martin Luther King had developed for the South simply did not work in northern cities and he was losing control of the fracturing civil rights movement. Student radicals were becoming impatient with King's strategy of non-violence and integration. In June 1966 activist Stokely Carmichael popularised the term 'Black Power', which to many sounded like a call to revolution.

The Black Panther party was formed in October 1966, combining traditional civil rights slogans with Marxist and anti-imperialist rhetoric, and the language of black separatism. The Panthers increasingly turned to violence and by the end of the decade had been destroyed by the police and FBI.

Black Power and the Black Panthers were fringe movements but they marked a deeper change in attitudes. The word 'black' replaced 'negro' or 'colored' among African Americans. The new black self-consciousness was dramatically displayed by two African American athletes giving the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and by the successes of the boxing champion Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali).

Women's Liberation

Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique reflected the frustration of many educated women who felt themselves imprisoned in suburban domesticity. It helped galvanise women's rights movement which echoed many of the demands and methods of the black protest but which, as with civil rights, soon fractured into groups divided by class and by race.

The campaign for pay equity and workplace rights was one strand of the women's movement. Another, more radical strand campaigned for women's liberation from the patriarchal, 'male chauvinist' assumptions of American society.

Probably the biggest issue for women in this era was about gaining control of their bodies. In 1960, the oral contraceptive pill was first marketed for birth control. By 1967 Time estimated that one-seventh of the nearly 40 million American women capable of motherhood were using it.

Although some saw it as a sign of a new permissive society, most pill-users were probably married women seeking to control their family's size or engaged couples wanting premarital sex. Sociological surveys cast doubt on the idea that sexual habits fundamentally changed in the Sixties. What had changed was the willingness to talk about

'The War on Poverty'

The U.S. had always had an underclass of poor. To 1960s suburban Americans however, it seemed a remote, urban phenomenon. For some of America's leaders, poverty was an affront to the country's wealth and values and had to be solved.

Kennedy was concerned about social welfare issues but he was primarily a foreign policy president, and lack of support in Congress made it difficult to initiate domestic reform. He was assassinated in 1963 and was replaced by the Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson won a landslide in the 1964 presidential election, and the Democrats gained significant majorities in both houses. This, combined with Johnson's legendary skills as a manipulator, enabled him to fight his war on poverty with new legislation.

Johnson's Education Act of 1965 was the first time large amounts of Federal money had been allocated to schools. Next was health care reform, with Medicare providing health insurance for the over-65s and Medicaid offering federal and state help to all with low incomes and inadequate health insurance. These were the biggest innovations in social welfare since the 1930s.

These reforms were aimed particularly at America's blacks, as was Johnson's third great initiative - the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in August 1965. Together these new laws enshrined the 1960s Rights Revolution - the expanded commitment of the Federal Government to promote individual rights, particularly for marginal social groups.

Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.



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