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Civil Rights and Social Reform, 1950s-1970s

From the 1950s through the 1970s, movements for civil and social rights, equality, and justice swept the United States.
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By the 1950s, African Americans began to mobilize in earnest against discrimination. As the 1957 photograph makes clear, even baseball legend Willie Mays was touched by housing discrimination. They lived in the same culture as white Americans — as illustrated by the photographs of Oakland's McClymonds High School marching band and the group of young woman at an NAACP-sponsored social event — and they wanted to enjoy equal rights.

The Struggle for Civil Rights (1950s-1960s)

Civil rights groups demanded an end to segregation. They fought for equality in education, housing, and employment opportunities, and they made some headway. White-collar and professional sector jobs began to open up for African Americans, as shown by the photograph of commercial artist Berry Weeks working at his draft board in 1960. But not all white Americans welcomed change.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, movements for civil and social rights, equality, and justice swept the United States. As the photograph of a civil rights rally at San Jose State College (now SJSU) shows, the movement wasn't limited to African Americans but also drew from the white community. As the movement gained ground, however, it created a backlash of racism in many parts of the country, including California. The 1963 photograph documenting a cross burning on the lawn of a black family in San Francisco's Ingleside district in 1963 shows clearly that this backlash was not limited to the Deep South.

Most civil rights protests of this time were peaceful, as illustrated by two photographs taken in San Francisco in 1963: picketers protesting unfair hiring practices at Mel's Diner, and a march for civil rights on Market Street. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, pictured here, advocated these nonviolent protests. But others, such as Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, were less patient with the process, foreshadowing the harder-edged protests to come.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. By February 1965, Malcolm X had also been killed. Later that year, anger and desperation fueled by years of discriminatory practices and police brutality exploded into violence in the Los Angeles African American neighborhood of Watts. The violence — triggered by the arrest of a black motorcyclist by white police — was the most destructive urban uprising in US history at that time. The woman shown standing outside her apartment was just one of many people affected. The riots lasted a week, involved more than 10,000 people, and left at least 34 dead.

The violence shocked the nation and left the community in disarray. But over the next few years the citizens of Watts pulled together to rebuild their neighborhood. Parades demonstrated their newfound civic pride. One photograph shows former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (newspapers still called him Cassius Clay) riding in a convertible as Grand Marshall of the Watts Summer Festival in 1967; another shows the Queen of the Watts Christmas Parade in 1968.

Social Reform (1960s-1970s)

The violence in California and elsewhere in the country seemed to culminate with the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968. Memorials were held across the nation, including the one in the San Francisco Bay Area pictured here. A new subject, diversity — called "Negro History" in these early years — began to be taught in schools, as illustrated by the photograph taken at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

At the same time, the ongoing Vietnam War reached into every community. This 1968 photograph shows San Francisco State College students waiting to hear if their draft number will be called in the draft lottery. After King's death the urgency for a different kind of protest emerged. African American anger was building, and movements for liberation and revolution (such as Black Power and Black Nationalism) gained momentum, usurping the role of traditional civil rights politics that focused on integration.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in Oakland by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. By 1968, Newton, the party's Minister of Defense, was on trial for murder. One photograph shows Black Panthers protesting outside the courthouse, giving the black power salute. Another shows Panthers Communications Secretary Kathleen Cleaver, wife of author Eldridge Cleaver, talking to the prosecution. Newton fled to Cuba, but returned in 1977 (shown here) and was acquitted.

Bobby Seale was arrested in 1968 as part of the Chicago Eight protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year, and again for murder two years later. Like Newton, he too was acquitted. The "Intercommunal Day of Solidarity" poster rallied support for a number of so-called political prisoners, including Seale, Newton, and Angela Davis (another Panther arrested for murder and acquitted). Davis, who later became a history of consciousness professor at UC Santa Cruz, is shown speaking to students at UCLA in 1970. Despite the deaths and arrests of leaders, the Black Panther Party was still active in 1969, as the photograph of Southern California Panther leaders at a press conference shows.

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Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.


"African Americans: Civil Rights and Social Reform, 1950s-1970s" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

African Americans: Civil Rights and Social Reform, 1950s-1970s curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.