Historical background

Webquest Historical Background (provided by Kentucky Educational Television ket.org)
In 1945, World War II ended and the soldiers started coming home. African Americans had made significant sacrifices, both on the homefront and in the form of casualties abroad, while fighting for democracy. But they were still second-class citizens in their own country. Though the northern urban areas of America provided some havens where blacks could gain economic advances, education, and a political voice, most of America still oppressed its black citizens. Gradually, groups of African Americans began to organize to fight for legal, social, and economic equality.

They met determined resistance, as opponents of integration cited the “separate but equal” standard established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling to maintain the political status quo and justify segregation. But in 1954, the court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate schools for black and white students were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. Though its implementation would require years of struggle, the ruling officially ended segregation in schools and signaled a new era in race relations, encouraging efforts to integrate other facets of American life.

Over the next several years, events in Kentucky and throughout the United States reflected the climate of unrest and change as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Americans witnessed the struggles and oppression of a black culture stretching toward freedom—in the streets of Kentucky and in the pages of Life magazine. Organizations such as the NAACP, SNCC, the SCLC, and CORE provided a structural framework through which black leaders could effectively organize. States throughout the U.S. experienced marches, riots, demonstrations, burnings, murders, and sit-ins as various factions organized their efforts toward social justice—or the silencing of it.

In November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He had proposed a national civil rights act earlier that same year, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, took up the cause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed after the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Congress. Passage of the national legislation lent further momentum to the civil rights cause. A variety of state and federal laws from the 1960s forward provided a measure of muscle to encourage public-domain integration of businesses and government entities.

As the legal barriers to equal treatment fell, the tactics of the civil rights movement began to change. Groups like the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement took a more militant approach, gaining strength after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., champion of nonviolent resistance, in April 1968. The issues addressed also began to change.

More than a decade after the Brown ruling, white and black children continued to be segregated in school settings throughout the country. The schools reflected the racial makeups of their neighborhoods, and housing patterns were still largely segregated. In the 1970s, courts began to order busing across district lines to force racial integration, sparking sometimes violent backlash in several communities—including Louisville. The ’70s also saw the emergence of the concept of affirmative action: policies and procedures aimed at helping members of minorities overcome historical disadvantages through hiring quotas and other forms of preferential treatment. Called “reverse racism” by opponents, the notion remains a controversial political issue today.

During the period between 1945 and 1965, the eyes of the world were focused on America as the richest nation in the so-called free world struggled to define itself and to live up to its own stated ideals. Though much has changed since, the issues and events of the civil rights era are still very much with us—as this webquest will demonstrate.

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