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California Cultures

African Americans: Civil Rights and Social Reform (1950s-1970s)

Questions to Consider

How did the Civil Rights Movement and other late 20th-century social movements affect the lives of African Americans?

How did the demonstration of political protest change during this time?


By the 1950s, African Americans began to mobilize in earnest against discrimination. As the 1957 photograph makes clear, even baseball legend Willie Mays was touched by housing discrimination. They lived in the same culture as white Americans — as illustrated by the photographs of Oakland's McClymonds High School marching band and the group of young woman at an NAACP-sponsored social event — and they wanted to enjoy equal rights.

The Struggle for Civil Rights (1950s-1960s)

Civil rights groups demanded an end to segregation. They fought for equality in education, housing, and employment opportunities, and they made some headway. White-collar and professional sector jobs began to open up for African Americans, as shown by the photograph of commercial artist Berry Weeks working at his draft board in 1960. But not all white Americans welcomed change.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, movements for civil and social rights, equality, and justice swept the United States. As the photograph of a civil rights rally at San Jose State College (now SJSU) shows, the movement wasn't limited to African Americans but also drew from the white community. As the movement gained ground, however, it created a backlash of racism in many parts of the country, including California. The 1963 photograph documenting a cross burning on the lawn of a black family in San Francisco's Ingleside district in 1963 shows clearly that this backlash was not limited to the Deep South.

Most civil rights protests of this time were peaceful, as illustrated by two photographs taken in San Francisco in 1963: picketers protesting unfair hiring practices at Mel's Diner, and a march for civil rights on Market Street. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, pictured here, advocated these nonviolent protests. But others, such as Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, were less patient with the process, foreshadowing the harder-edged protests to come.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. By February 1965, Malcolm X had also been killed. Later that year, anger and desperation fueled by years of discriminatory practices and police brutality exploded into violence in the Los Angeles African American neighborhood of Watts. The violence — triggered by the arrest of a black motorcyclist by white police — was the most destructive urban uprising in US history at that time. The woman shown standing outside her apartment was just one of many people affected. The riots lasted a week, involved more than 10,000 people, and left at least 34 dead.

The violence shocked the nation and left the community in disarray. But over the next few years the citizens of Watts pulled together to rebuild their neighborhood. Parades demonstrated their newfound civic pride. One photograph shows former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (newspapers still called him Cassius Clay) riding in a convertible as Grand Marshall of the Watts Summer Festival in 1967; another shows the Queen of the Watts Christmas Parade in 1968.

Social Reform (1960s-1970s)

The violence in California and elsewhere in the country seemed to culminate with the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968. Memorials were held across the nation, including the one in the San Francisco Bay Area pictured here. A new subject, diversity — called "Negro History" in these early years — began to be taught in schools, as illustrated by the photograph taken at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

At the same time, the ongoing Vietnam War reached into every community. This 1968 photograph shows San Francisco State College students waiting to hear if their draft number will be called in the draft lottery. After King's death the urgency for a different kind of protest emerged. African American anger was building, and movements for liberation and revolution (such as Black Power and Black Nationalism) gained momentum, usurping the role of traditional civil rights politics that focused on integration.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in Oakland by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. By 1968, Newton, the party's Minister of Defense, was on trial for murder. One photograph shows Black Panthers protesting outside the courthouse, giving the black power salute. Another shows Panthers Communications Secretary Kathleen Cleaver, wife of author Eldridge Cleaver, talking to the prosecution. Newton fled to Cuba, but returned in 1977 (shown here) and was acquitted.

Bobby Seale was arrested in 1968 as part of the Chicago Eight protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year, and again for murder two years later. Like Newton, he too was acquitted. The "Intercommunal Day of Solidarity" poster rallied support for a number of so-called political prisoners, including Seale, Newton, and Angela Davis (another Panther arrested for murder and acquitted). Davis, who later became a history of consciousness professor at UC Santa Cruz, is shown speaking to students at UCLA in 1970. Despite the deaths and arrests of leaders, the Black Panther Party was still active in 1969, as the photograph of Southern California Panther leaders at a press conference shows.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 11:

11.10 Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights. (11.10.4, 11.10.5)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

McClymonds High School band in procession, West Oakland, c.1945 Baseball player Willie Mays being interviewed, and view of house he was prevented from buying because of race. November 14, 1957 Group of young women at social event, Oakland, Calif, NAACP. July 1956
New Job Openings for African Americans. Commercial artist Berry Weeks works at his draft board. July 27, 1960 Cross Burned into lawn of African-American Home -- Ingleside District. September 24, 1963 'Big Colored Parade' -- Market Street to City Hall. Parade participants marching with signs 'We shall overcome'. May 26, 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. May 26, 1963 Black Muslim Leader Malcolm X at a press conference in the Towne House. October 10, 1963 Job Discrimination Pickets Against Dobbs -- Mel's Drive-in. October 26, 1963
Picketers marching with signs protesting hiring practices. July 23, 1964 Student and Faculty Civil Rights Rally, San Jose State College, February 28, 1964 Housing Project Protest - Oakland. July 6, 1965
Martin Luther King Memorial Rally. 1968 Catherine Purdy, with one of her children, stands near pile of rotting furniture left outside her court apartment in Watts, October 15, 1965 Cassius Clay waves to crowd at Watts Summer Festival, August 14, 1967
Queen of the Watts Chistmas Parade, Velma Carlisle, December 15, 1968 Ernest Mitchell at anti-violence picket in Hunter's Point. 1969 Draft Lottery. listening to radio broadcast of lottery in Phelan Hall, 1969
Negro History class at Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles (Calif.), August 16, 1968 Revolutionary intercommunal day of solidarity for Bobby Seale, Erika Higgens, Angela Davis and Ruchel Magee. 1971 Huey Newton trial, second day, members of the Black Panther Party, July 16,1968
Kathleen Cleaver and Panthers in Prosecution's office. 1968 Black Panthers press conference. January 21, 1969 Angela Davis, portrait. March 11, 1970
Huey Newton, portrait. August 20, 1977 no photograph no photograph

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)