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Voting Rights Act of 1965, August 1965
Less than a week after the Selma–to–Montgomery marchers were beaten and bloodied by Alabama state troopers in March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for federal legislation to ensure protection of the voting rights of African Americans. The result was the Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed in August 1965. The Voting Rights Act sought to overcome the legal barriers that still existed at the state and local level preventing blacks from exercising the right to vote given them by the 15th Amendment. Specifically, it banned literacy tests as a requirement for voting, mandated federal oversight of voter registration in areas where tests had previously been used, and gave the U.S. attorney general the duty of challenging the use of poll taxes for state and local elections. Along with the Civil Rights Act of the previous year, the Voting Rights Act was one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, and it greatly reduced the disparity between black and white voters in the U.S. In Mississippi alone, the percentage of eligible black voters registered to vote increased from 5 percent in 1960 to nearly 60 percent in 1968. In the mid–1960s, 70 African Americans were serving as elected officials in the South, while by the turn of the century there were some 5,000. In the same time period, the number of blacks serving in Congress increased from 6 to about 40.
Rise of Black Power
After the heady rush of the civil rights movement's first years, anger and frustration was increasing among many African Americans, who saw clearly that true equality—social, economic and political—still eluded them. In the late 1960s and early '70s, this frustration fueled the rise of the Black Power movement. According to then–SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael, who first popularized the term "black power" in 1966, the traditional civil rights movement and its emphasis on nonviolence, did not go far enough, and the federal legislation it had achieved failed to address the economic and social disadvantages facing blacks in America. Black Power was a form of both self–definition and self–defense for African Americans; it called on them to stop looking to the institutions of white America—which were believed to be inherently racist—and act for themselves, by themselves, to seize the gains they desired, including better jobs, housing and education. Also in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, college students in Oakland, California, founded the Black Panther Party. While its original mission was to protect blacks from white brutality by sending patrol groups into black neighborhoods, the Panthers soon developed into a Marxist group that promoted Black Power by urging African Americans to arm themselves and demand full employment, decent housing and control over their own communities. Clashes ensued between the Panthers and police in California, New York and Chicago, and in 1967 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after killing a police officer. His trial brought national attention to the organization, which at its peak in the late 1960s boasted some 2,000 members.
Loving v. Virginia
Soon after getting married in the District of Columbia in 1958, high–school sweethearts Mildred and Richard Loving returned to their hometown in Virginia, unaware that the state was one of 16 in the U.S. at the time with laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Mildred, a half–black, half–Native American woman, and Richard, a white man, were in bed on July 11, 1958, when police burst into their home. Charged with unlawful cohabitation, the Lovings pleaded guilty to violating Virginia's Racial Integrity Act; a one–year prison sentence was suspended when they agreed to leave the state for 25 years. Back in D.C., a frustrated Mildred Loving wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for help: "We know we can't live [in Virginia], but we would like to go back once and awhile [sic] to visit our families & friends." In 1964, a landmark year for civil rights legislation, the ACLU took on the Lovings' case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In April 1967, the Court ruled unanimously that long–standing state laws against miscegenation—the last segregation laws on the books—were in violation of the Constitution. Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had also written the court's opinion in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, delivered the majority opinion, affirming that "We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race." Some southern states, however, were extremely slow to change their constitutions to reflect the Court's ruling in Loving v. Virginia: Alabama became the last state to do so in 2000.
Fair Housing Act, April 1968
The Fair Housing Act of 1968, meant as a follow–up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked the last great legislative achievement of the civil rights era. Originally intended to extend federal protection to civil rights workers, it was later expanded to address racial discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of housing units. After the bill passed the Senate by an exceedingly narrow margin in early April, it was thought that the increasingly conservative House of Representatives, wary of the growing strength and militancy of the Black Power movement, would weaken it considerably. On the day of the Senate vote, however, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Pressure to pass the bill increased amid the wave of national remorse that followed, and after a strictly limited debate the House passed the Fair Housing Act on April 10. President Johnson signed it into law the following day. Over the next years, however, there was little decrease in housing segregation, and violence arose from black efforts to seek housing in white neighborhoods. From 1950 to 1980, the total black population in America's urban centers increased from 6.1 million to 15.3 million; during this same time period, white Americans steadily moved out of the cities into the suburbs, taking with them many of the employment opportunities blacks needed. In this way, the ghetto—an inner city community plagued by high unemployment, crime and other social ills—became an ever more prevalent fact of urban black life.
MLK assassinated, April 4, 1968
On April 4, 1968, the world was stunned and saddened by the news that the civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers' strike. King's death opened a huge rift between white and black Americans, as many blacks saw the killing as a rejection of their vigorous pursuit of equality through the nonviolent resistance he had championed. In more than 100 cities, several days of riots, burning and looting followed his death. The accused killer, a white man named James Earl Ray, was captured and tried immediately; he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 99 years in prison; no testimony was heard. Ray later recanted his confession, and despite several inquiries into the matter by the U.S. government, many continued to believe that the speedy trial had been a cover–up for a larger conspiracy. King's assassination, along with the killing of Malcolm X three years earlier, radicalized many moderate African American activists, fueling the growth of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party. The success of conservative politicians that year—including Richard Nixon's election as president and the third–party candidacy of the ardent segregationist George Wallace, who won 13 percent of the vote—further discouraged African Americans, many of whom felt that the tide was turning against the civil rights movement.
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