From the Back of the Bus to the Great Society (1947-1968). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

From the Back of the Bus to the Great Society (1947-1968). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

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(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

The African-American struggle for civil rights.

Start of the “space race”.

Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis.

Idealism and social reform in the Kennedy and Johnson years.


 With the ruins of war-ravaged Europe still smoldering, much of the world’s population remained hungry, politically oppressed, or both. But Americans, having triumphed over evil incarnate in the form of Nazi and Japanese totalitarianism and enjoying the blessings of liberty, had much to be proud of. True, the postwar world was a scary place, with nuclear incineration just a push of a button away. Childhood, which Americans prized as a time of carefree innocence, was now marred by air raid drills that regularly punctuated the school day. In an increasingly confusing world, America’s children were also menaced by a much-discussed and debated wave of “juvenile delinquency.” Yet, all in all, 1950s America was a rather complacent place—prosperous, spawning a web of verdant (if rather dull) suburbs interconnected by new highways built under the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.

Postwar suburbia was an expression of the long-held American dream: a house of one’s own, a little plot of land, a clean and decent place to, live. But if suburban lawns were green, the suburbs themselves were white. As usual, African-Americans had been excluded from the dream—or, at least, relegated to the very back of it.

Executive Order 9981. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S Truman (1884-1972) issued Executive Order 9981, which mandated “equality of treatment and opportunity to all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race.” African-Americans had regularly served in the armed forces since the Civil War, but always in separate—segregated—units, though usually Linder white officers. Truman’s order did not use the word integration, but when he was asked point-blank if that is what the order meant, the president replied with his characteristic directness: “Yes.”

Executive Order 9981 did much more than integrate the armed forces. It began a gradual revolution in American society. For many soldiers, sailors, and airmen, the army or navy or air force (itself newly created as a service branch independent from the army in 1947), became their first experience of integration. In even more immediate terms, Executive Order 9981 meant that the mom and pop owners of the tavern just beyond the post gate had to open their businesses to all personnel, white and black. If a local lunch counter refused to serve a black soldier, for example, it could be declared “off-limits” by the post commander—and there would be no one to serve.

The Dream Deferred. Of course, the integration of the armed forces did not completely transform American society, let alone transform it overnight. Racial prejudice was deeply ingrained in American life, and in some places, particularly the South, prejudice was even protected by law. In most Southern states, the “Jim Crow” legislation that had been passed during the bitter years following Reconstruction remained on the books in one form or another. Theoretically, Southern society was segregated such that publicly funded facilities (like schools) provided “separate but equal” service. In practice, services and facilities were certainly separate, but hardly equal. In the South, African-Americans were treated as an underclass. This was true in subtler ways up North as well, where segregation was often de facto rather than de jure.

Following both world wars, African-Americans migrated in large numbers from the rural South to the industrial cities of the North. Industry welcomed their cheap labor, but many whites, fearing they would lose their jobs to the newcomers, met them with hostility. Up North, blacks typically found themselves restricted to menial labor and compelled to live in slum districts that became known as ghettoes. In effect, the entire American nation was both separate and unequal.

Rosa Parks Boards a Bus. On December 1, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama, was a typical Southern city, its social fabric shot through with the threads of major injustice and trivial humiliation carefully (if no longer quite consciously) interwoven to keep blacks “in their place.” Rosa Parks (b. 1913) boarded a city bus to return home from her job. Like any other commuter, she was tired after a hard day’s work. She settled into a seat in the forward section of the bus.

In most parts of the world, this mundane action would have gone entirely unnoticed. But in Montgomery in 1955, it was a crime for a black person to sit in the front of a city bus. Told to yield her place to a white person, Parks refused, was arrested, and jailed.

The arrest sparked a boycott of Montgomery city buses. If the town’s African-Americans could not ride in the front of the bus, they would not ride at all. Although most of Montgomery’s African-American population depended on the buses, they maintained the boycott for more than a year, focusing national attention on Montgomery and, more importantly, on the issues of civil rights for African-Americans.

Emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, emerged during the Montgomery boycott as moral and spiritual leader of the developing civil rights movement. Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of it prominent local minister, King was educated at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University, from which he received a doctorate in 1955. Along with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Edward Nixon, King entered the national spotlight during the boycott. He used his sudden prominence to infuse the national civil rights movement with what he had learned from the example of India’s great leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who taught the principle of satyagraha—”holding to the truth” by nonviolent civil disobedience. Rosa Parks’s protest was a classic example.

After Montgomery, King lectured nationally and became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He conducted major voter registration drives, demonstrations, marches, and campaigns in Albany, Georgia (December 1961-August 1962), Birmingham, Alabama (April-May 1963), and Danville, Virginia (July 1963). In August 1963, King organized a massive March on Washington, where he delivered one of the great speeches in American history, declaring “I Have a Dream.”

In 1964, King was internationally recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize, then went on to conduct desegregation efforts in St. Augustine, Florida. King organized a voter-registration drive in Selma, Alabama, leading a march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, which was met by angry white mobs. King expanded the civil rights movement into the North and began to attack not just legal and social injustice, but economic inequality.

While King was planning a multiracial “poor people’s march” on Washington in 1968, aimed at securing federal funding for a $12-billion “Economic Bill of Rights,” he flew to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers. In that city, on April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., fell to a sniper’s bullet.

Or Does It Explode? The assassination of Dr. King, brilliant apostle of nonviolent social change, sparked urban riots across a number of the nation’s black ghettoes. These riots were not the first of the decade. Despite the nonviolent message of Dr. King, racial unrest had often turned violent. NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963; Birmingham, Alabama, was the site of the bombing of a black church, in which four girls were killed; three civil rights activists—including two whites—were killed in Mississippi while working to register black voters. On August 11, 1965, a six-day riot ripped apart the Watts section of Los Angeles after a police patrolman attempted to arrest a man for drunk driving. Riots broke out the following summer in New York and Chicago, and in 196 7 in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit. Following the King assassination in 1968, more than 100 cities erupted into violence.

Emergence of Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement. The racial violence of the 1960s was extreme evidence of the pent-up frustration and outrage long simmering within black America. Back in 1916, Jamaican-born Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940) came to New York to recruit followers for his Universal Negro Improvement Association and by 1921 claimed a million members. The organization, which had as its aim the establishment of a new black nation in Africa, was called “militant” by whites accustomed to seeing African-Americans behave passively and submissively.

Not until the emergence of Malcolm X in the early 1960s was African-American militancy given compelling and eloquent direction. Malcolm X had been born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. He turned bitter and rebellious after his father, an activist preacher, was murdered in 1931, presumably for advocating the ideas of Marcus Garvey.

Malcolm Little moved to Harlem, where he became a criminal and, convicted of burglary, was imprisoned from 1946 to 1952. While in prison, he became a follower of Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), leader of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, popularly called the Black Muslims. Rejecting his surname as a “slave name,” Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and, upon his release from prison, served as a leading spokesman for the Black Muslim movement.

What Malcolm X said galvanized many in the black community, giving young black men in particular a sense of pride, purpose, and potential, even as his rhetoric intimidated and outraged many whites, who saw Malcolm X as one of several angry young activists. These included such figures as Stokley Carmichael, who called for “total revolution” and “Black Power”; H. Rap Brown, leader of the Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who exhorted angry blacks to “burn this town down” in a 1967 speech in Cambridge, Maryland; and Huey Newton, leader of the militant Black Panther Party, which many whites saw as little more than a national street gang. By the mid 1960s, the civil rights movement was split between the adherents of King’s nonviolence and those who, having lost patience with American society, followed a more aggressive path.

In fact, Malcolm X evolved ideas that were quite different from those not only of King, but of the young militants. Malcolm X split with the Black Muslims and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity in June 1964, advocating a kind of socialist solution to the corruption of American society that had led to racial hatred and the subjugation of blacks. His original message, that the “white man” was (quite literally) the devil incarnate, had become transformed into a religiously inspired quest for racial equality. The quest was tempered by a conviction that black America had to look within, and not to white America, for the means to freedom and progress.

The evolution of Malcolm X was cut short on February 21, 1965, when he was gunned down by three Black Muslims during a speech at Harlem’s Audubon Auditorium. His Autobiography (dictated to Alex Haley, who would later gain fame as the author of Roots, a sweeping novel of black history), published just after his assassination, became an extraor-dinarily influential document in expanding and redefining the civil rights movement.

The journey of black America, like the life of Malcolm X, remained incomplete during the 1960s and remains incomplete to this day. The fact is that African-Americans generally live less affluently, amid more crime, and with less opportunity than white Americans. Yet the range of black leaders of the 1950s and 1960s, from Rosa Parks, to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X, brought hope and social visibility to black America.

Sputnik and the New Frontier. Despite growing racial disharmony, the United States was a fairly self-satisfied place in the 1950s. Then, on October 4, 1957, the world learned that the Soviet Union had successfully launched a 184-pound satellite into earth orbit. Called Sputnik I, its radio transmitter emitted nothing more than electronic beeps, but it sent shock waves through the American nation. Suddenly, the U.S.S.R., our adversary in the postwar world, the embodiment of godless communism, had demonstrated to the world its technological superiority. The launching of Sputnik began a “space race,” in which the United States came in (lead second during the early laps. The Soviets put a man, “cosmonaut” Yuri Gagarin, into orbit four years after Sputnik and one month before American “astronaut” Alan B. Shepard was launched on a 15-minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961.

Sputnik shook Americans out of their complacency. The 1960 presidential race, between Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon, and a dashing, youthful senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, almost ended in a tie. But the nation rejected the security of Eisenhower’s man and voted into office a candidate who embodied a new energy, vigor, and challenge.

JFK. At 43, John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected president in American history (Theodore Roosevelt was slightly younger when he assumed office after the assassination of William McKinley). Kennedy’s administration established the Peace Corps (an organization of volunteers assigned to work in developing nations), created the Alliance for Progress (which strengthened relations with Latin America), and set a national goal of landing an American on the moon before the end of the 1960s. Despite these accomplishments, Kennedy is best remembered for the magic (there is no better word) he and his beautiful wife, Jacqueline, brought to the White House and the national leadership.

“The Torch Has Been Passed…” Intelligent (his books included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage), handsome, idealistic, athletic, irreverently witty, and a war hero, Kennedy declared in his inaugural address that the “torch has been passed to a new generation”—of which he was clearly the embodiment. Mired in a depressing Cold War, plagued by social problems, continually anxious over impending nuclear war, worried that the Soviets and the Chinese were winning the hearts and minds of the world, Americans eagerly embraced the attractive optimism of JFK.

Bay of Pigs and Brink of Armageddon. Although he was adored by many, Kennedy never succeeded in winning the support of Congress. He and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-68), sought to further civil rights but were repeatedly thwarted by Congress. Kennedy tried to create programs to fund broad educational initiatives, only to see them diluted by Congress. He also introduced a program to provide medical care for the elderly, which was delayed by Congress.

Early in Kennedy’s administration, the nation suffered the tragic humiliation of a bungled attempt to invade Cuba, which was under the communist rule of Fidel Castro (b. 1926). In March 1960, President Eisenhower had approved a CIA plan to train anti-Castro Cuban exiles for an invasion to overthrow the Cuban leader. Kennedy allowed the preparations to proceed, and some 1,500 exiles landed on April 17, 1961, at Bay of Pigs on the island’s southwestern coast.

The result was unmitigated disaster. Not only had the attack’s secrecy been breached, but Kennedy, fearing Soviet reprisal, decided not to authorize promised U.S. air support. Worse, the CIA had badly misread the political climate of revolutionary Cuba. The general uprising the CIA believed would be set off by the landing simply did not happen. By April 19, the invasion was crushed and 1,200 survivors were captured. (They were released in December 1962, in exchange for $53 million worth of U.S. medicines and provisions.)

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev saw the failure of the Bay of Pigs as a sign of the new administration’s weakness. Khrushchev quickly rushed in to exploit this flaw by covertly sending nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba plus the technical and military personnel to install and operate them. An American U-2 spy plane photographed the missile bases under construction, and on October 22, 1.962, President Kennedy addressed the nation on television, announcing a naval blockade of the island. Kennedy demanded that the Soviets withdraw the missiles, and by October 24, the blockade was in place.

The idea of hostile nuclear warheads parked a mere 90 miles from the United States was terrifying, but so was the prospect of a naval battle off the coast of Cuba, which might ignite a thermonuclear war. For the next four days, Americans braced themselves for “the big one.” Offices and factories staged air raid drills, as did the nation’s schools, where children practiced “duck and cover”: ducking under their desks and covering their heads.

Few had much hope that such maneuvers would help one survive a full-scale thermonuclear assault.

On October 28, Premier Khrushchev backed down, offering to remove the missiles under U.N. supervision. For his part, President Kennedy pledged never again to attempt to invade Cuba, and he also removed U.S. ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) from Turkish bases near the Soviet border. On October 29, the blockade was lifted, and JFK had scored a signal victory in Cold War “brinkmanship.”

An Autumn Day In Dallas. Late in November 1963, President Kennedy visited Texas to bolster his popularity as he geared up for the reelection campaign. The presidential aircraft—Air Force One—touched down at Dallas’s Love Field on the morning of the 22nd, and the president was given a gratifyingly warm greeting. A man who enjoyed contact with voters, who did not hesitate to “press the flesh,” Kennedy declined to ride beneath the bulletproof bubble top normally affixed to the armored presidential limousine. As the motorcade passed by a warehouse building called the Texas School Book Depository, three shots rang out, the second of which ripped into the president’s head, fatally wounding him. Texas governor John Connally, riding in the front seat of the car, was also grievously wounded, but recovered.

The accused assassin, captured later in the day (though not before murdering Dallas police officer J.D. Tippett), was Lee Harvey Oswald, a misfit who had lived for a period in the Soviet Union, having renounced his U.S. citizenship. As he was being transferred from the city to the county jail, Oswald was assassinated himself on November 24 by Dallas nightclub owner and small-time mobster Jack Ruby.

LBJ. Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-73), the popular Texas senator tapped by Kennedy as vice president to improve his standing in the South and West, took the oath of office inside Air Force One. Jacqueline Kennedy, her elegant pink dress stained with her husband’s blood, looked on. One of Johnson’s first acts was to appoint a commission, headed by Supreme Court Chief justice Earl Warren, to investigate the assassination. Despite the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald had acted alone, rumors and theories of elaborate conspiracies—some involving the CIA, FBI, Mafia, and Cuba’s Castro—developed and persist to this day.

War on Poverty. Americans had much to admire as well as much to criticize about the “thousand days” of the Kennedy administration, but the youthful president’s sudden, terrible martyrdom cast an aura of enchantment and heroism over Kennedy and his programs. President Johnson was able to refashion the JFK social programs that had floundered in Congress and, in the name of the slain president, oversee their passage into law. When Johnson ran for president in his own right in 1964, he called upon America to build a “Great Society,” one that “rests on abundance and liberty for all.”

The phrase Great Society became, like FDR’s New Deal, the label for an ambitious, idealistic package of legislation, including Medicare, which helped finance medical care for Americans over 65; elementary, secondary, and higher education acts to enhance education and provide financial aid to college students; and legislation relating to what Johnson called a War on Poverty.

Civil Rights Act of 1964. Of all the creations of the Great Society, none has had more lasting and profound impact than the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act banned segregation and discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants, theaters, and hotels, and it barred employers from discriminatory hiring practices based on race.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was followed the next year by a Voting Rights Act, which destroyed the last vestiges of local legislation intended to prevent or discourage African-Americans from voting. In 1968, at the end of the Johnson years, another civil rights act rendered discrimination by landlords and realtors illegal.

President Johnson’s Great Society was built in part on the memory of JFK and was also a result of the black political and social activism of the 1950s and 1960s. By the end of the Johnson years, equality in America was certainly not fully de facto—a fact of life-but it was at least de jure—a condition of law.

The Least You Need to Know

The modern civil rights movement began with the integration of the armed forces in 1947 and developed through a nonviolent program of civil disobedience led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.

 Although John F. Kennedy attempted to create an ambitious program of civil rights and social legislation, it was the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson that secured passage of legislation creating the “Great Society.”

Main Event. The year before Rosa Parks’s bus ride, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively declared segregation illegal when, on May 17, 1954, it handed down a decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The decision was the culmination of a long series of lawsuits first brought against segregated school districts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1930s. Repeatedly, the Supreme Court ruled consistently with its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that found “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks constitutional as long as all tangible aspects of the accommodations were, indeed, equal. But in 1954, Thurgood Marshall (1908-93; in 1967, he would become the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court) and other NAACP lawyers demonstrated that segregated school systems were inherently unequal because of intangible social factors. The high court agreed. Desegregation of the nation’s schools became the law of the land. In some places, the process of integration proceeded without incident; in others, it was accompanied by violent resistance that required the intervention of federal marshals and even federal troops.

Voice from the Past. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke these words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963:

 “ . . I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream That one day-down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

“… This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope… “

Voice from the Past.

The great African-American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) asked in a poem called “Harlem,”

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?…Or does it explode?”


Word for the Day. Brinkmanship was a word coined during the Cold War. It signified winning an advantage in international politics by demonstrating a willingness to push a dangerous situation to the brink of nuclear war.


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