How the 1968 uprisings gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1968

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is, rightfully, the cause of great reflection as well as numerous calls to action. So much of what Dr. King fought for in his later years–an end to war, racism and poverty as well as a re-ordering of societal priorities away from capitalism–remains undone. Dr. King’s assassination was the key marker in the transition of a great era of social change, from one where “inclusion” in the broader capitalist system was the general thrust, to one where the general focus of the Black fight for equality became a broadly defined “self-determination,” rooted in a recognition of the entrenched nature of racism, not simply as a function of attitudes, but as a method of social control.

In retrospect, particularly in the mainstream media, the uprisings that followed King’s death are presented as something of a “death spiral” of the “good sixties” marked by the tactically non-violent Southern Freedom Movement into the “bad sixties” of Black power, Black Panthers, revolution and armed struggle.

Beyond being a deep oversimplification, it also is a total misunderstanding of the moment in time in which King’s life was taken. It was a time when the broader stream of the Black Liberation Movement was starting to grapple with the connection between capitalist inequality and structural racism. The intractability of these problems and the lack of political will to address them at the Federal level meant that King’s death marked something very different: the end of liberal efforts to “resolve” racial issues by simply reaffirming the already existing Constitutional rights of Black Americans  and the concomitant issue of the need to trim property rights if this “resolution” were to take place.

Backlash to the progress of civil rights momentum

1966, in the popular lexicon, became known as the year of “white backlash” to the momentum of the civil rights movement. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, de jure segregation in the Jim Crow South was clearly in eclipse . While voting laws could be improved, the course of “equality” was starting to hit up on more complicated realities.

In 1966 the median income of a Black family was just 58 percent of the income of the average white family. While Vietnam War related work had driven employment up, unemployment among Blacks was still double that of whites. The Black “sub-employment rate,” as it was known then, which measured underemployment, was at 33 percent in the “worst” areas of nine of the top 10 major cities. Between 1960-1966 the rate of non-whites in poverty, 34 percent, had remained totally unchanged. A survey of 12 cities with a special census found that eight were actually more segregated than they had been in 1960.

The need for more action was palpable, but determining what to do was tricky.

1966 Civil Rights Act

It is instructive, in this regard, to look at the Civil Rights Act of 1966 (ultimately the Civil Rights Act of 1968). The new feature of this frustration over progress around racial inequities was shown in two key ways. First and foremost it was shown by the entrance of uprisings as a major feature on the national landscape. Harlem and Watts were the most notable but there were dozens or rebellions that happened around the country–in 1967 alone there were 164.

Further, SCLC’s move North and the accompanying Chicago Freedom Movement revealed the intense racism in the North. White opposition to open housing was dominated by racist and extremely violent mobs that viciously attacked Black demonstrators in scenes as harrowing if not more so than the worst pictures from Birmingham.

If that wasn’t enough, in Grenada, Mississippi there was serious violence when schools opened there for the ‘65-’66 school year–in an integrated fashion. These elements combined give a sense of the scale of work left to be done despite the breaking down of de jure Jim Crow.

Racism as “attitude” vs. social control

Therein lay the crux of the challenges. Racism in America was and is not about “attitudes”–but the Southern Freedom Movement had gained ascendancy essentially on that basis. Rather than racism being a deeply structural issue, it was essentially portrayed as an issue of “Southern attitudes” running amok over the Constitutional rights of Blacks.

In reality–as the opposition to the Chicago Freedom Movement, and the police brutality that sparked the Harlem Uprising reflected–racism is not about attitudes, but social control. As has been irrefutably documented, the modern U.S. conception of anti-Black racism was based on the stabilization of coastal plantation economies around the turn of the 18th century.

The strategy was basically divide and conquer. While there would still be a small minority of white men ruling society over everyone else, a new gradation would be introduced. Just being white meant one became entitled to a number of things from gun ownership to land ownership that Blacks were now banned from or highly restricted in the exercise of. This new pact was sealed in blood as it were, with the almost total ban on interracial marriage.

These policies continued moving forward. The best instrument for social control of Black America was a white buffer strata that, while in a worse position compared to other whites, was in a privileged position vis-a-vis the Black population. The racial basis of the privilege was clear whether it was access to public facilities and accommodations or simply experiencing less mistreatment from the authorities.

The rights of Blacks to live anywhere and go to school anywhere, were major threats to this. While in the South de jure educational segregation became a touchstone, in the North and West school segregation was protected by de facto racism. In the North there were no official “Jim Crow” laws but the redlining practices of private real estate interests resulted in the same segregated housing patterns.  

Starting in the 1930s and moving forward, the growing Black urban population was deeply segregated by these policies and forced into “ghettos” with unequal access to just about everything, overlaid by intense police racism.

The problems were easy enough to note and diagnose, but harder to address. Tackling them head on would mean, at least potentially, toppling the system of hierarchical racial privilege that helped undergird the entire stability of the U.S. capitalist system.

Capitalist efforts to resolve an untenable situation

President Lyndon B.Johnson, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Ford Foundation (headed by former Johnson aide McGeorge Bundy), Gov. George Romney of Michigan and others of both parties recognized this situation was untenable. Whatever the challenges, they believed accommodating Black America, by giving it more of a stake in the system, was the safest course. They wanted to integrate the Blacks the same way America amalgamated the Irish so to speak.

To that end, President Johnson introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1966 which would have protected civil rights workers and democratized juries among other things. Most notably it would outright ban housing discrimination and give the newly created Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice the ability to enforce those rights.

The bill was ultimately stripped of the “fair housing” provision, but still could not pass, unable to overcome a filibuster by Southern Senators, aided by Senate Minority leader Everett Dirksen from Illinois.

The progress of the civil rights movement was changing the tenor of the country. Many white Americans were unwilling to give up their limited privilege and many industries like real estate that profited from segregated markets opposed these changes. Uprisings in Black America hardened many white hearts. Gradual progress, mainly confined to the South, was fine, but a real reckoning with racism, that challenged the relatively–and sometimes extremely–privileged position of many, not so much.

Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina noted gleefully that the moral superiority of many of his Northern colleagues seemed to disappear now that their “ox was being gored.”

Civil Rights Act seen as insufficient

On top of that many younger Black leaders attacked the Civil Rights Act of 1966 as insufficient. Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) leader of SNCC denounced it as a “fraudulent bunch of words.” SNCC, which had for years raised issues of the inadequacy of the demands to the Southern Freedom Movement to fully address racial inequalities was speaking to the mood of the country.

“Black Power,” the phrase Ture had coined, was beginning to seize the time. Black Americans from a range of political beliefs recognized that benevolent whites in Congress could not, and if they could, probably would not, deliver equality of any sort. They came to the conclusion that Blacks, rather than asking for better treatment, had to try to seize the levers of power, be they political, economic, cultural, or some combination of the three to enforce their equal treatment as human beings on the recalcitrant part of the population.

Republican Congressman Charles Mathias Jr. was a key figure in promoting the Civil Rights Act in 1966 through 1968. In a 1999 article, he noted about this period:

“During the summer of 1967, there had been civil disturbances in more than 100 of our Nation’s cities. These traumatic events galvanized the Nation’s attention and commanded nightly news coverage for all the country to see. Congress was under increasing pressure to do something about the growing rage of Black Americans over the inequities in so many parts of American life that left them out or segregated them.”

Mathias went on to relate that this pace of events led to compromises being made to try to pass a Civil Rights Act that included fair housing provisions. Ultimately they included the provisions banning it, but gutted the enforcement section. As Mathias summarizes, Everett Dirksen, the previous opponent, was motivated to try to find some compromise for three main reasons:

“The growing racial unrest in U.S. cities and disparities in incomes between Whites and Blacks; the injustice of housing discrimination likely to confront returning Black Vietnam War veterans; and the glacial pace with which States and localities were adopting their own open occupancy laws.”

The bill still faced opposition, then, on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. The effect on Congress of this event and the uprisings afterward was intense according to Mathias:

“The crisis in race relations in our country forced Congress to come to grips with these tensions…The Rules Committee, jolted by the repeated civil disturbances virtually outside its door, finally ended its hearings on April 8. The next day, it reported to the full House a rule for debate that agreed to the Senate amendments, including the compromise fair housing title, and prohibited any additional amendments. The following day, April 10, the House debated for one hour the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and passed it 250–71. The very next day, President Johnson signed the bill into law.” (Mathias and Morris, 1999)

Civil Rights Act of 1968 too little, too late

The Act was ultimately, too little, too late. It was clear as day that the enforcement of many of these provisions, especially housing, was going to happen rarely if ever, and that plenty was built in to allow racist inequalities to persist in many crucial areas of society.

This is why the lamentations around the uprisings following Dr. King’s death entirely miss the point. Many expressed then and now that this period represented the “death of non-violence.” More exactly put, it represented the death of “inclusion” as a strategy for Black America. The killing of King, whose moral stance had helped shame a nation into taking action it had refused to take for hundreds of years and the inability of the government to deliver anything beyond giving Black people their Constitutional rights on paper signified that new strategies were needed.

Such strategies came from both the right and the left, but what is crucial is that the turn towards “Black power” as opposed to “integration” was not actually primarily about separatism (although that was a theme) but about the necessity of using some lever of power to enforce human rights rather than just express them.

The uprisings in response to King’s death were a sign; they were actually the last string of major uprisings for some time. If nothing else they represented not just a cry of anguish, but the fact that to achieve “power” required offensive action. Rather than looking at them as “wrong” or “destructive,” it’s important to see them as part and parcel of a transformation of the Black Liberation Movement from one demanding equality to one fighting for it, on a nationwide scale and in arenas far beyond access to public facilities.

1966 to 1968 was something of a transitional period, Dr. King along with others were grappling with what it would take for deep-going social change that of necessity would challenge the capitalist foundations of the United States. Uprisings like sit-ins, illuminated the problems. The murder of King suggested that opposition to truly addressing racism was so intractable that its root the system would have to be attacked more directly and more structurally. What that meant was a topic for intense debate, but after King’s death it seemed clear that the liberal integrationism of the Kennedy and early Johnson eras was certainly dead.

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