Have you ever sat down and wondered to yourself, what it would be like if schools, restrooms, restaurants, and even public transportation were still segregated today? The majority of people who were born after the 1970’s take for granted how lucky we are as a country and nation to have overcome slavery and the steps against racism we have battled are way through. Slavery was ended when Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and was later ratified in December of 1865. Though this law ordered the end to slavery it did very little if nothing to stop the racism that was given towards blacks or any other minority. Until the late 1950’s not many presidents or Congressman had tried to legislate civil rights laws. The Civil Rights struggle that heated up to its climax in the 1960’s was neither a simple nor wanted task by any means. Many Presidents tried taking on the civil rights movement starting with Harry S. Truman.
Truman was not for racial equality among blacks and often said so, but he wanted fairness and equality before the law (Patterson 378-382).
Once Truman got the ball rolling for the first time since Abraham Lincoln, Truman pushed for a Civil Rights bill and the movement quickly started to escalate and it became one of the main issues of American politics. The next man to take office was John F Kennedy; Kennedy acted as though he had plans to address civil rights issues and is known for saying “Ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country” in his inaugural address( ).
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Kennedy’s plans were never met in his short time as president due to assignation in 1963.
Kennedy dying meant Lyndon Johnson was the next president to take president and her went on to make the next big civil rights legislation when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was established. It took the support of millions and the lives of thousands for our country to realize that people should not be segregated because of their ethnicity or color of their skin. One of the first and largest groups of civil rights movement supporters was young people and in particular college students.
A college student in 1963 saw a very different daily landscape than a current college student sees today. Today kids grow up side by side with minority kids throughout their daily lives; back then they might have been the lucky few and grown up looking at blacks as equals, but more than likely they viewed them as inferiors, or even just plain animals. Then these young racists knew know better and went away to College and found themselves in one of the first places you could find support of the civil rights movement. There are many reasons to why the ball picked up speed so fast at universities. The first reason being the young people of the 60’s had not lived alongside slaves or indentured servants nor did they see the great depression or WW2 as had many of their parents and politicians of the times, so they had a different view on racism.
The young people of the 60’s were viewed by the older generations specially those of the south, as being soft for not having to deal with the hardships they had to such as the great depression and the World Wars ( ).
Instead of going to work before graduating high school like people in the1920’s and 1930’s people were graduating high school and even getting jobs. This caused for a more educated and affluent generation which usually runs along with having certain moral standings such as treating people of a different race equally to people of your own. With a generation bigger than ever before and more people going to college than ever before it caused for a huge explosion of self-freedom. There was many different ways students would show there want of freedom (Patterson 407-408).
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A very common practice in the 1960’s was for blacks and fellow college students to have sit-in’s at all white diners or transportation places. These sit-ins consisted of a group or single African American going in and taking a seat where only whites are allowed to sit and refuse to leave. Hundreds of sit-ins occurred around the nation and many taking place on university campuses run by students themselves. Several of these sit-ins are famed for the effectiveness they afterwards achieved and others for the violence that was caused upon the protestors (Patterson 382-386).The most famous case is the story of Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks was on a public bus in the racist Montgomery, Alabama when the bus driver asked her to give her colored seat to a white man, because the white section was full. Rosa refused to get out of her seat and it resulted in her getting arrested. Rosa was not the first African American to refuse leaving her seat for a white person but she was viewed by the NAACP as the best case to fight in court.( )
In the famous words of Jesse Jackson, “In many ways, history is marked as ‘before’ and ‘after’ Rosa Parks. She sat down in order that we all might stand up, and the walls of segregation began to come down( ).The support of white students to follow fellow African American students to sit-ins was not always there. Local and national news stations started to air live footage of what was happening on the streets to protestors of segregation. The emotion put on a young college student when they see one of their peers that attend college to get an education just like them gets blasted with a fire hose from ten feet away or gets viciously attacked by police dogs.
This picture caused thousands of other students to want to fight for change as well. Along with the new access to live feed news there were people such as Martin Luther King Jr. who were doing all they could to paint the realistic picture of the life of an American black man during segregation. Luther got his point across in multiple ways including his famous memoir, “Why We Can’t Wait”, in this memoir he explains how horrible the everyday life of an African American in America can be and how politicians for years have just looked over the horrific treatment of blacks and that it has been too long and the time is now(King Jr 11-13).
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Besides the sit-ins occurring across the nation African Americans and whites were also organizing marches to protest segregation as well. Along with the marches inspiring speeches such as Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech were given. King’s 17 minute speech that was given in front of over 250,000 Americans on the steps of Lincoln Memorial, is one of the most well-known and moving speeches in American history(Patterson385-386).
A large number of the people in the crowd were college students, due to the appeal Martin Luther King drew from young people. He gained this appeal by talking of equality of races and the chance for any man or woman to become whatever they pleased and not be held back due to race, religion or any other difference a person may have. While students saw the abuse blacks were taking simply for the color of their skin they started to join together on marches and attending civil rights rallies. The more the King, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and many others protested and spread the word of unfair treatment the more support of younger generation people began to support the civil rights movement.
Another reason for the large involvement of college students within the civil rights movement of the 1960’s was due to the dramatically growing amount of student organized groups that were fighting for true democracy and equality to all. One of these organizations was the Students for Democratic Society (SDS).
SDS was founded in 1960 but had roots dating to the early 1900’s; the goal of SDS was to mainly protest and voice the message that equality to all and peaceful means makes a successful country ( ).
SDS was not the only organization that was taking big steps to get the civil rights movement moving, there were hundreds if not thousands of organizations that were meeting about and protesting the civil rights movement. These groups were known for telling young people what they wanted to hear and some even became militant groups. Membership in these organizations grew drastically once Lyndon Johnson started sending more and more troops into Vietnam.
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The Vietnam War itself had little impact on the civil rights movement of the United States, but it did however portray the world image that America was not going to let communistic governments take control of countries and deny their own people of civil rights. Many Americans did not agree with the war and saw it was neither the time nor the place to go and fight a war on foreign soil when the devastating effects of WW2 were still in the back of people’s minds. The largest critic of the war was overwhelming young people, they saw themselves as the ones being sent to die for a reason that was not worthy of American lives.
Though segregation and a war in Asia seem to have little in common on the surface, during the reform of the 1960’s they found each other going hand in hand. Many African Americans of the United States believed that if we were fighting in a foreign country to reserve their people’s civil rights, then they would soon get their civil rights protected as well. They were mistaken and by this and the huge support of the anti-war movement and the animosity growing against the current segregation laws molded into one giant movement. This movement being carried by young people, who saw the possibility of change, carried throughout the nation and became the biggest civil rights movement in American history since abolishing slavery (Patterson 413-422).
Now that we have an idea of what growing up with segregation looks like and how it can split a nation in two, I think I can say that joining the activist movement when it began in the 1960’s was almost a no brainer to many young people of that generation. They had a tremendous amount of pressure from their fellow black peers to be viewed as equals, they had an unwanted war fueling a large part of the country, and they were also a generation that believed in change and ending the horrible acts that were committed under segregation. With all the pressures from outside sources and the generation as a whole going through a freedom crisis, college students came together and became the perfect torch barrier’s for the civil rights movement.
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