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Betty: Our topic is “Minorities’ Protests in the 1960s, the 20th Century’s Most Tumultuous Decade.”
Frank: It is based on the book The Liberal Hour: [subtitle] Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s. Calvin Mackenzie and historian Robert Weisbrot (NY: Penguin, 2008). We also used other sources.
Betty: Frank, why are the 1960s important?
Frank: The 1960s became important when African American1 protests began to explode on Feb. 1, 1960. Woolworth lunch counter. They were refused service. They remained seated until they were removed.
Betty: Sit ins spread like wildfire to hundreds of segregated southern eating places. Months later, most dropped their segregation policy. Sit ins inspired wade ins at segregated swimming pools, pray ins at white only churches, play ins at white parks.
Frank: Freedom Riders on buses followed. The first, May 1961, from Washington, DC, to New Orleans, broke rules at separate drinking fountains, rest rooms, and other facilities. White racists fiercely attacked these Freedom Riders with beatings, bus burnings, and killings.
Betty: Black protests inspired other protesters who were later joined and backed by anti Vietnam War peacenik flower children. The 1960s, the protest decade, became, in our thinking, the 20th century’s most tumultuous, life changing decade.
Frank: A near revolution was brewing. Protesters’ actions said to Americans, in effect: your denial of our rights, your segregation of minorities, your killing wars abroad, your neglect of the poor have kept us from the American dream.
Betty: They also said, in effect: we will protest peacefully until you pass laws to legalize our civil rights, end America’s unjust wars, create a just society.
Frank: We were struck in researching the 1960s by the serious intent of these young people’s grass roots protests. They risked jail, injury, death to protest for long denied civil rights. And, less consciously,
they sought, deep down, we think, a more perfect union in a more peaceful world.
Betty: That insight led us to spend a year studying the best writings we could find about the 1960s. history? Was it one of those ongoing crisis driven turning points which earlier changed our country, a turning point which recurs during troubled times to correct national ills?
Betty: Young people’s attitudes and values changed in the 1960s. They had a different world view. Many in the 1960s sympathized with the protesters, hoped they would succeed.
Betty: Media coverage of 1960s bloody clashes heightened public concern, led President John F. Kennedy (1917 63) to ask aides to draft and send to Congress in March 1963 a strong, fool proof, civil rights bill.
Frank: Southern diehards had rigged Congressional rules to give Southern committee chairpersons power to amend or to kill bills they opposed.
Betty: Black protesters battled for just such a strong federal civil rights act. Wiser citizens favored it. But southern segregationists and many others wanted it killed. The Civil Rights bill seemed doomed.
Frank: Pres. Kennedy’s assassination, Nov. 22, 1963, changed everything. Building on national grief, successor Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908 73) told Congress and the nation: our monument to Pres. Kennedy must be to pass his civil rights bill. It is the right thing to do. It will put the US on the right side of history.
Betty: Pres. Johnson’s unmatched legislative skills enabled him to strengthen Pres. history against it.
Frank: Pres. Johnson cajoled enough Republican votes for its passage. He signed it into law July 2, 1964. history.
Betty: Getting that act passed, plus his later liberal legislation for Voting Rights, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Model Cities, and other acts we later list, would have placed Pres. Presidents, but for his tragic escalation of the Vietnam War.
Frank: Yet, Pres. Johnson’s Great Society legislation in his 5 presidential years, 1963 68, has greatly benefitted millions of Americans.
Betty: Frank, why have we not lived up to hard won civil rights freedoms?
Frank: No easy answers to that question. We went along with old prejudices against non whites and incoming poorer foreigners, let most of them be kept down, live in ghettos, be underpaid, impoverished.
Betty: We allowed blacks to be unjustly arrested, tried, jailed,
and disproportionately given the death penalty.