Civil Rights Movement: 1954–1974

Women's, Chicano, and Native American Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s

Women's Rights

The women's rights movement was led by the National Organization for Women, which advocated for the end of gender-based discrimination.

The first phase of the women's rights movement was launched in Seneca, New York, in 1848. Decades of struggle followed, but eventually women earned the right to vote. The second phase of the movement was launched in the mid-20th century when Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique captured the public's attention. Friedan was a college-educated political leftist who worked outside the home but also filled the role of housewife and raised three children during the 1950s. Friedan began researching the lives of suburban women in post-World War II American society. Her findings indicated that domestic bliss as depicted by advertisers and women's magazines was an illusion. Though the number of women in the workforce was growing, many housewives still felt trapped in a cycle of cooking, babies, and cleaning. On the other hand, women who worked outside the home were frustrated by the responsibilities of having "two full-time jobs instead of just one—underpaid clerical worker and unpaid housekeeper."

Among those women who had entered the workforce, many were well educated. Yet, most women had difficulty finding work beyond clerical positions. Among the barriers was the fact that most job postings were segregated by gender. In 1966 Friedan and other activists formed the National Organization for Women (NOW). According to its original mission statement, NOW existed to "take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society … exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men." The organization's first focus was on ending gender discrimination in the workplace. Over the years it expanded its efforts to legalizing abortion and obtaining federal and state subsidies for child care.

By 1967 NOW chapters were forming all over the country. Women and men in support of the women's rights movement were demonstrating at facilities that denied service or admittance to women. They were boycotting brands that refused to promote women to top corporate positions. And they were petitioning for admittance of women to historically male-only colleges and universities, including Yale and Princeton.

Equality in education was furthered by the 1972 passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments. This set of laws prohibited sex discrimination in any federally assisted educational program or activity. In addition to ensuring equal opportunities in education, Title IX also opened the doors for female athletes to compete at the high school and college level.

As the women's rights movement picked up momentum, the traditional values of American society were caught up in a war of ideologies. In the 1970s supporters of the women's rights movement championed the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, which outlawed gender-based discrimination and enabled Congress to make laws to enforce the ban. First introduced to Congress in 1923, it wasn't approved by the Senate until 1972. The states had seven years to ratify, or formally approve, the amendment, in addition to a three-year Congressional extension. Opponents of the ERA cited an array of reasons for their disapproval. Most involved concerns that the amendment would weaken or eliminate protection for women and children socially and under the law, as well as undermine traditional family structures and gender roles. Opponents also feared the amendment would make women liable to be drafted into military service. The ERA never passed, but expired three states short of passage in 1982.
Lawyer and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly successfully campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment, fearing it would eliminate hard-won protective legislation for working women in areas of health and labor.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-00757

Chicano Civil Rights Movement

The Chicano civil rights movement focused on farmworkers' rights, recovery of ancestral lands, and equality in education.

Once a derogatory term, "Chicano" was reclaimed in the 1960s by the Mexican Americans it was used to describe. This population faced just as much discrimination as African Americans during the first half of the 20th century, and it adopted many of the same nonviolent protest strategies. Like their black counterparts, they protested segregation, pushed for better public education for their children, and petitioned for political and economic opportunities. In addition to social equality, they also aimed to raise awareness of the current plight of Chicanos and their history in America.

The first major event of the Chicano civil rights movement was launched in 1965 by the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers of America) to protest years of low wages and poor working conditions. The NFWA joined Filipino farmworkers in a strike against corporate grape farmers in California. At the time, many Chicanos earned their living as itinerant farmworkers or sharecroppers. A sharecropper rents a small parcel of farmland that they pay for with a share of their crops. Itinerant farmworkers move from farm to farm, following the seasonal crops. Farmworkers were plagued by poor wages, job instability, inferior housing, and few educational opportunities for their children. They were constantly exposed to harsh weather and dangerous pesticides, yet they had no protection under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Nor did they have the right to organize into unions or earn a minimum wage like industrial workers.

Cesar Chavez, who founded the NFWA in 1962, sought to change that. When the 1965 strike against California grape farmers was ineffective, Chavez organized a national consumer boycott of grapes in 1968. Under that pressure, more than two dozen grape growers conceded in 1970. Wages increased and working conditions improved. Though Chicanos had always been part of American society, this was the first time they received nationwide attention.
The Chicano civil rights movement gained momentum during the two-year-long, nationwide boycott of grapes organized by Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-40906
As the farmworkers were protesting their working conditions, other Chicano activists were pushing for education reform. In the mid-20th century, only 25 percent of Chicanos graduated from high school. Without education, they were forced to take the same low-paying, labor-intensive jobs as their parents. Chicano student organizations staged walkouts and demanded changes to the public education system, including the teaching of Mexican American history and the hiring of Chicano teachers and counselors.

The third focus of the Chicano civil rights movement was the recovery of Mexican land ceded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the United States at the end of the Mexican War (1846–48). Chicano activists challenged the legality of the treaty. They claimed those lands rightfully belonged to the Mexican people and comprised part of Aztlan, the Chicanos' ancestral, though mythical, Aztec homeland. However, in this their efforts were unsuccessful.

American Indian Civil Rights Movement

The American Indian Movement drew attention to the terrible living conditions on Indian reservations and highlighted the inhumane treatment of native peoples by the U.S. government.

The American Indian civil rights movement began in 1968 with the establishment of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. AIM's original purpose was to help American Indians who had been pushed off reservations and into urban ghettos. It soon broadened its mission to securing economic independence, protecting legal rights, preserving and reviving traditional American Indian cultures, and gaining control over current and former tribal lands.

One of AIM's first actions was occupation of Alcatraz Island, former site of a notorious prison off the coast of San Francisco, California. Ninety American Indians landed on Alcatraz's shore on November 20, 1969, to reclaim it for native peoples. In addition to the island itself, they wanted funding to build, maintain, and operate a university and a cultural center. They remained there for 19 months before federal marshals removed them.
From 1969 to 1971, American Indians occupied Alcatraz island in San Francisco Bay. After they left, their graffiti continued to assert their claim to the island.
Credit: GGNRA, Park Archives, GOGA 6474-190/National Park Service
In 1970 members of AIM joined with the United Native Americans (UNA) to occupy Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had promised the Great Sioux Nation they could keep those sacred lands forever. Yet they were reclaimed by the U.S. government when gold was discovered in the hills less than a decade later. Again, protestors were unable to take back the land that had once rightfully been theirs.

More occupations and protests followed, including the Trail of Broken Treaties, a cross-country caravan of 800 American Indians striving to draw attention to the problems facing native peoples. These problems included inordinately high unemployment and high school dropout rates, rampant alcoholism, and a suicide rate 100 times greater than that of white Americans. The Trail of Broken Treaties ended in Washington, DC, where protesters occupied the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for six days.

The most well-known event of the American Indian civil rights movement was the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. This was the site of the 1890 massacre of 300 Miniconjou Sioux by the United States Seventh Cavalry. More recently, it was where a group of white people killed a Sioux Indian in 1972. Led by members of AIM, the 71-day occupation was designed to draw attention to the poor living conditions on American Indian reservations and the ongoing mistreatment of native peoples by federal and local agencies. This was not a peaceful protest. Gunfire was exchanged between federal agents and the American Indians multiple times. Eleven hostages were taken, and law enforcement officials cut off all supply lines from outside the reservation. The occupation ended on May 8, 1973, when American Indian leaders surrendered. Approximately 1,200 people were arrested.