Although African Americans had protested for centuries and fought for equal rights, by 1950, those right were still largely denied to them. Your textbook does a good job discussing and outlining those challenges the community still faced. However, things began to change in 1950 as the NAACP began to work within the court system to challenge the more blatant laws restricting their freedoms. The organization worked within the system to create change, as many groups who organized during the Progressive Era did. The 1950s though brought about new technology, and that technology would soon change the look of the new civil rights movement and their success. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, that power manifest itself in the homes of people who lived outside of the oppressive south. While the north still saw its fair share of discrimination and racism, the raw footage of southern attitudes struck nerves in areas not touched in the same way. It also sparked activism in other oppressed groups who now sought to use the new medium in their own struggles.
Native Americans: AIM
Groups of Native Americans in Minneapolis formed the American Indian Movement. Native Americans had the highest unemployment rate, up to 80% in some areas due to discrimination. They also faced discrimination in welfare programs, school funding, and a variety of other aspects of life and government programs. The unwillingness of the federal government to abide by treaties signed years ago was well known and now after being forced to assimilate in the late 1800s and then with the reinstatement of the reservation under FDR during the Great Depression, many found themselves facing similar challenges that African Americans faced in the south. The group organized in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. They focused in Minneapolis and worked to actively address some of the most pressing issues they faced. They formed the Minneapolis AIM Patrol in which members would walk the streets to ensure that their citizens were not subject to police harassment. They created a legal center to serve as a clearinghouse of information for Native Americans. Some of their more well know actions included the Trail of Broken Treaties, a march on Washington DC that ended in a brief occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office and the presentation of a resolution paper to President Nixon. Other actions included the 1973 Occupation of Wounded Knee. In an effort to remind Americans what actually happened at Wounded Knee, Native American tribes occupied the site of the massacre until the group was forced out by the FBI. That incident lead to shootout in which one FBI agent was killed. One Native American was arrested and went to prison. One of the only lawsuits Amnesty International has ever brought against the US, involves the man who went to prison in this incident. Like many other groups, Native Americans saw the struggles of African Americans on television in the 1950s and 1960s and took similar action, such as the march and occupation, to bring about an awareness among Americans who lived outside their struggle.
Caesar Chavez and the UFW
In California, members of the United Farm Workers also faced issues of discrimination and some lived in poverty. In a very coordinated effort, Mexican-American and Filipino-American workers adopted the tactics and ideas pioneered by the civil rights movement. Unionization had a long history here in California. California farmworkers struck the Delano vineyards in early 1965, moved by the poverty and powerlessness due to the hierarchical and discriminatory social structure dominated by the powerful elites. The farmworkers were not covered by federal labor laws, and growers controlled the local police, which meant they could get many strikebreakers south of the border. The UFW held on for 5 years, presenting their strike not as a simple union-management thing, but rather as La Causa, an awakening of the Mexican-American community to its ethnic heritage and full American citizenship. They held rallies, marches and picket lines with huge red banners imprinted with a black Aztec eagle symbolizing Mexican pride and power. They also held a 300 mile march to the state capital. Chavez won a huge national following, which was essential to the success of a national boycott launched by the UFW against grape growers. It was highly organized. Truck drivers spoke of having to go through picket lines from the fields to the grocery stores. The UFW became an important political force in the southwest. They also held voter registration drives. In 1968 Chicano students in California held a “blowout”, a school boycott to protest the poor education and started another movement for increased power for the Mexican-American community and an end to discrimination.
Puerto Rican Americans
In Chicago and NYC, a similar movement emerged in the Puerto Rican community. There the catalyst was the Young Lords, and organization that drew members from urban street gangs as well as college campuses. They protested police violence, created a free breakfast program for children and took over an East Harlem hospital in an effort to force officials to act to end lead poisoning among inner city children. The key to the group’s success according to Pablo Guzman, a New York leader, was its ability to draw on the cultural traditions and community ties of El Barrio (the neighborhood). In march of 1969 the Young Lords joined the MA activist at a conference of La Raza, held in Denver. More than 1500 signed a declaration reaffirming the heritage of the Latin American cultures and the Spanish language, calling for more control of Latino neighborhoods, and promising support for the working class and anti-imperialist struggles. The unity ended when the conference voted to forbid African American participation and the Puerto Rican American leaders left in protest. There were also larger issues in that the UFW was working to change issues in an agricultural setting in the west and the Young Lords were working in the inner cities of the north and east.
One of the largest movements was the women’s movement. Essentially, this can be broken down into different groups, but with maybe 3 different goals. Most are familiar with this first group. The National Organization of Women and other similar groups that advocate for greater political and economic participation for women. Over the years NOW has been the leading voice but there are others also. These groups supported the Equal Rights Amendment that sought greater equality for women. Groups such as these also address issues such as gender discrimination in the workplace, including in terms of pay and the concept of the glass ceiling. Key people were Betty Friedan, her book, Feminine Mystique offered an incisive critique of the post war status of women. She and 27 other professional women established NOW. Birth control was another issue and only legalized and available in 1960. Larger discussions over women’s health rights came with the legalization of abortion in 1973 with the Roe v Wade decision. These groups used strategies such as petitions, picketing, and legal action to push employers to increase wages and open upper level jobs to women. Another group, perhaps in response to NOW, formed under Phillis Schlafly. This very conservative group advocated for women, but in conservative and traditional terms. She and others fought against the Equal Rights Amendment. She openly argued that a woman’s place was in the home. In the 1980s she was on a lot of talk shows and typically was only taken seriously when she argued that if women were considered fully equal, they would be subject to the military draft and combat duty. At that point, she typically got at least a little support from the audience. The last group isn’t necessarily a group. In the 1970s and 1980s, writers and psychologists openly discussed making real change in gender dynamics in our society, but most argued that the change would have to take place in the home first. On magazine published a “fish test” in which they asked women, if they cooked two pieces of fish and one came out beautifully and the other came out in pieces, which would they give to their husband. Almost every wife claimed they would give the better looking option to their husband. The argument then went that if we continue to teach our next generation, our kids, that men and women are equal, it must start in the home. They essentially said it was great to advocate for a woman to be president, but if you go home and act as a servant to your husband, the next generation will take what they see versus what you say as to how things should be.
The elderly became active as well. They employed direct-action tactics drawn from the labor and civil rights movement to secure better treatment for elderly Americans, although they had more sit ins than marches. They modeled themselves after the Black Panthers. The key leader and founder was Maggie Kuhn. On her 65th birthday, the Presbyterian Church forced her to retire. She banded together with other retirees and formed the Gray Panthers Movement. Seeing all issues of injustice as inevitably linked, they refused to relegate themselves to elder rights, but focused also on peace, presidential elections, poverty, and civil liberties. Their first big issue was opposition to the Vietnam War. After an elderly woman was killed and robbed of $309 after cashing a check, Kuhn enlisted the help of Ralph Nader who set up a meeting with the president of the First Pennsylvanian Bank. The bank agreed to establish special check-drawn savings accounts for people over 65 free of charge and make loans more accessible to older people. The group still operates today under obviously different leadership.
The feminist challenge to traditional sex roles also encouraged the growth of the lesbian movement. Many lesbians who had long hidden or denied their sexual orientation found that the women’s movement provided them with a broader community in which to openly profess their orientation. Men and women alike faced intense discrimination and police harassment in certain areas of the country. Following a riot between NYC police and gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, homosexual men and women began calling for Gay Power. In the months following the June 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, NY police continued to raid bars where lesbians and gay men gathered. In the early morning hours of March 9, 1970, police raided the Snake Pit, a Greenwich Village bar, arresting all 167 employees and patrons. After the suspects were taken to a local station house, Alfredo Vinales, an illegal alien afraid of being deported if his homosexuality were discovered tried to escape. Leaping from a 2nd floor window, he was impaled on an iron picket fence. After Stonewall II, Vinales’s act of desperation graphically articulated the oppression of gays. The horror of the Snake Pit incident helped mobilize hundreds of gay Americans to join the new movement. In June 1970, the first march commemorating the anniversary of Stonewall was organized, an event now observed every June by hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian populations around the world. Throwing off years of secrecy during which homosexuality had been treated by the dominant society as a sickness and a crime, gays and lesbians moved aggressively into the open, holding marches, pushing legislation to end decades of bias and discrimination. In June of 1973, 32 people died in Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. Arsonists set fire to the openly LGBTQ meeting place where those in the community would go after church. No one was ever charged in the fire and politicians and the media even mocked the fire and the deaths. Nearby churches refused to even bury the dead. Survivors of that deadly fire noted the vastly different response to the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting that eclipsed the Upstairs Lounge in death toll and when interviewed said it at least marked a change in the way people view the community. Other issues facing the LGBTQ community include continuing attacks on the right to marry, adopt children, and for those that are transsexual, the right to use a public bathroom.
Activism and Technology: Discussion Question
Since the 1950s, the advocacy of Americans in public has changed dramatically. While similar tactics are used such as peaceful protests, marches, and boycotts, the way in which Americans view these actions had dramatically changed. The role of television and seeing the issues first hand, can have a huge impact. Reading about an issue can create a mental image, but seeing it in living color can have an even greater impact. Today, we not only have television, but virtually everyone carries around a camera that can catch any injustice anywhere. Do you think the role of social media will increase over time? What impact do you think it has now on current protests and issues? Does it help or hinder groups advocating? Can you see the ways in which a movement by one group can spark a movement by another group? Was there anything in the discussion document that you were not aware of until now? How important do you think it is that Americans know and understand the history of activism in this country?
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