A major development in the black community between 1970 and 1990 was the decline of the civil rights movement and the weakening of the push for the greater integration of blacks into the mainstream of American society. Several factors contributed to this development. Perhaps the most important was the movement’s very success in eliminating de jure discrimination in crucial areas (public accommodations, housing, voting, and employment) and getting many white Americans to see the extent to which racial discrimination violated the nation’s basic creed of equality of opportunity. With this success the interest of many African Americans in civil rights groups began to wane as they started to give greater attention to taking advantage of the opportunities wrought by the success itself.
Another factor was the passing from the scene, mainly through death, of most of the civil rights leadership of the 1950s and 1960s. Among the deaths were those of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the Urban League’s Whitney Young in 1971. A. Philip Randolph and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins retired in 1968 and 1977, respectively. Those who replaced these individuals generally lacked their leadership skills, talents, and/or charisma.
The growth of white conservatism also contributed to a slowing of civil rights progress. The presidential campaigns of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democrat George Wallace in 1968, in exploiting white concerns about urban riots, helped encourage this conservatism (often termed the white backlash). By linking the urban unrest and turmoil of the 1960s to the civil rights movement, many whites came to believe that the latter had gone too far, that American society was corming apart, and that law-abiding people like themselves had been forgotten. Richard Nixon, in winning the presidency in 1972, pandered to these sentiments, referring to those who held them as the Silent Majority. As president, he kept the support of many such whites by focusing on returning power to the state and local levels of government, cutting back on funds for some of the Great Society programs, and preventing government officials from taking action against school districts that had not desegregated. Such policies, along with the ethnic competiveness stimulated by the economic recessions of 1973 and 1979, indeed helped create a racial climate in the nation that displeased most African Americans. They found signs of this climate in the opposition of some whites to affirmative action, quotas, and busing, as well as several reverse discrimination suits (the most notable was Bakke v. University of California in 1978, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a medical school quota admissions policy). Continued white residential flight to the suburbs, aided by red-lining, strengthened de facto housing segregation and reinforced black perceptions that the national mood was less supportive of the general well-being and interests of African Americans. In fact, blacks generally perceived this mood as compatible with policies emanating from the White House (excluding the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), whorn black Americans seemingly viewed as being somewhat sympathetic to their struggle for equality). For example, the laissez-faire policies of Nixon (1969-1974) were basically unkind to the economic interests of low-income Americans, among whom blacks were disproportionately represented; and these policies were in essence continued under the Republican Presidents Ford (1981-1977), Reagan (1981-1989), and Bush (1989-1993).
About the presidency of Reagan, who was enormously popular in the white community, the historian John Hope Franklin has noted that his first budget, as well a subsequent ones, reduced the number of people eligible to participate in federal social programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, student loans, unemployment compensation, child nutrition assistance, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Such slashes in spending on social programs affected adversely countless African Americans, especially children. Franklin has also noted that Reagan’s tax program offered more tax relief to higher-income groups than the low-income group where most blacks could be found. And citing another reason why African Americans found it difficult to reconcile themselves to Reagan, Franklin has offered Reagan’s reluctance to support the establishment of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a national holiday.
Not all Republicans by any means were perceived by blacks as hostile to their interests. The Republican governor of New Jersey, Thomas H. Kean, who held office between 1982 and 1988, serves as a case in point. His stand on economic and social issues, combined with his constant calls for greater racial understanding in the state (under his administration NewJersey in 1985 became the first state to establish a Martin Luther King, Jr., Commemorative Commission), made him very popular in the black community. In running for a second term he received the endorsement of Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, and obtained more black votes than his Democratic Party opponent. In fact, he received a higher percentage of black votes than any statewide Republican candidate in NewJersey history.
Between 1970 and 1990 the unprecedented bi-furcation of the black community into “haves” and “have-nots,” which had begun to emerge in the late 1960s, continued. For example, as the availability of jobs that required little education and training declined, and as the economy shifted from manufacturing to service-related industries, unemployment among blacks, particularly youths and men, increased, and the number of blacks living below the poverty level also increased. The convergence of this development with other mounting social problems such as the high incidence of female-headed households (56.2 percent of all black households in 1990 as opposed to 17.2 percent in 1950), the increase in babies born out of wedlock (66 percent of all black babies in 1989 as opposed to 16.8 percent in 1950), the high proportion of black young males involved with the criminal justice system (25 percent of all of those between the ages twenty and twenty-nine in 1989), and the advent of “crack” cocaine in 1986, expanded the underclass in particular. On the other hand, more blacks moved into the American mainstream. For example, the proportion of families with median incomes of fifty thousand or more expanded from 5 percent of all black families in 1969 to 14 percent by 1990.
There was perhaps no place where African Americans enjoyed greater success in entering the nation’s mainstream than in the holding of public office. Barbara Jordan and Andrew Young, for example, in 1972 became the first blacks to be elected to Congress from the South since the turn of the century. By 1990 twenty-seven blacks were members of Congress, and blacks served as mayors of thirty Arnerican cities, including the largest (David Dinkins in New York City) and the second largest (Tom Bradley in Los Angeles). In .1990 an African American was elected governor of a state for the first time (L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia). And, although unsuccessful, the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, under his Rainbow Coalition, were very significant as they represented the first major attempt by a black to gain the presidency.
During the last two decades African Americans also made great strides in occupying appointed positions of considerable power and prestige. Aside from the presence of an African American in every presidential cabinet since 1970 and the late 1991 appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court (Thurgood Marshall had retired earlier in 1991), perhaps the most notable example was the appointment in 1989 of General Colin Powell as the chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s highest position.
Another key development in African American life between 1970 and 1990 was the continued geographical mobility of black Americans. Many were suburbia-bound, giving rise by 1990 to a few suburban communities in which blacks constituted a majority. In New Jersey, such a community is Willingboro; in 1990 it had 20,350 blacks out of a total population of 38,000.
The continued flight of whites from the nation’s urban communities between 1970 and 1990 increased the number of cities with black majorities. New Jersey was a part of this trend. Thus, according to the 1990 U.S. Census, the following NewJersey cities (with the number of black residents indicated) had black majority populations: Newark (160,885); East Orange (66,157); Camden (49,362); Irvington (42,760); Plainfield (30,573); Orange (21,045);Atlantic City (19,491); and Asbury Park (9,977). Trenton, with 43,689 African Americans in 1990, fell 489 shy of having a black majority. The 1990 U.S. Census also documented that for the first time in this century the percentage of blacks living in the South increased (56 percent versus 52 percent in 1980). Aiding this increase was the return of considerable numbers of northern black retirees including some from NewJersey, to the South, many to their place of origin. The warmer climate in the South, its lower costs of living (appealing especially to those on fixed incomes), the elimination of Jim Crowism, and concerns about physical safety in urban areas are among the factors that have influenced their movement.
The recent period of black American history has been characterized by a growing white indifference to the black struggle for social justice and an unprecedented bifurcation of the black community into an expanding middle class, benefiting from the victories of the modern civil rights movement, and an expanding underclass that is plagued with the social ills identified with contemporary urban life.
Materials and Preparation
Students should read either chapters 31-34 in The African American Experience: A History (“New Directions in the Civil Rights Movement, 1964-1972,” “Marching Off to Vietnam,” “Agenda for Change, 1972-Present,” and “Crossing New Frontiers, 1972- Present”) or chapters 37-42 and chapter 44 in African American History (“Styles of Dissent,” “Struggles in Asia,” “The Black Church Today,” “Racism or Economics?,” “The Emergence of Black Women Writers,” “Blacks in Public Office,” and “African Legacies in America”).
Students should read the essay “Reparations for Black Americans”.
Students and the teacher should read pages 68-77 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History.
The teacher should read chapters 22-24 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“African Americans in the Cold War Era,” “The Black Revolution,” and “New Forms of Activism”).
Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.
- Identify and assess the most critical problems facing the African American community today and evaluate the role of racism as the cause of these problems.
- Lead the students in listing the black community’s major problems (for example, unemployment, substance abuse, school dropouts, teenage parenthood) and assessing the significance of these problems. Also point out that there is disagreement over the extent to which racism is believed to be responsible for these social ills. For example, there are those who contend that such problems are a function of class, rather than race, that the values held by disadvantaged blacks prevent their upward social mobility. Others, in contrast, believe that an overarching racist climate has given rise to the conditions found in the nation’s inner cities, where black social problems are most acute. Citing, for example, the debilitating effects of widespread drug use, they note both the relative case with which drugs flow into black urban communities and the absence of black control of drugs entering the country. Students should be reminded that differences of opinions about the role of racism are usually rooted in the notion of “past racism” versus “present racism” and the amount of emphasis one is willing to accord racism.
- Evaluation: Have students write a 500-word essay that examines whether racism explains the present-day condition of black Americans. Students should explain, given the existence of racism, why some African Americans are successful and others are not and whether those who are successful are, because of racism, not as successful as they should be.
- Explain the decline of the civil rights movement between 1970 and 1990, identifying the contributing factors.
- Have students discuss whether the civil rights movement, in light of its victories of the 1950s and 1960s, has outlived its usefulness. Are the traditional programs and activities of civil rights organizations relevant to the kinds of contemporary problems that beset the black community? If not, what kinds of programs and activities should these organizations put in place?
- Evaluation: Have students imagine they are the director of a major civil rights organization. Have them prepare a 500-word position paper that identifies what the director believes to be the most crucial problems of the African American community and the organization’s proposal for remedying these problems.
- Explain the factors that between 1970 and 1990 created an unprecedented bifurcation of black community into “haves” and “have nots” and discuss the implications of this bifurcation for the community.
- Tell the students that it has been argued by some that the absence of a physical presence of middle-class African Americans in the nation’s inner-cities has, in denying inner-city residents the opportunity to see alternative role models, contributed to the social malaise found in the inner-cities. Ask students to discuss whether middle-class blacks should return to the inner-cities and help revitalize life there. If not, in what way should they help, if at all, in alleviating the problems of the inner-cities?
- Evaluation: Have the students write a short play in which the main characters are middle- class, suburban blacks who discuss what role, if any, they should play in helping their kith and kin in the inner-cities. Point out that any number of positions can be adopted, ranging from returning to live in the inner-city, to serving as a Big Brother or Big Sister to an inner-city youth, to financial contributions to inner-city organizations, to expressing no identification with the problems of inner-city residents.
- Describe the major approaches that exist among blacks in terms of seeking redress for their past mistreatment.
- Point out to the students that black Americans have sought redress in a variety of forms (such as reparations and affirmative action). Divide the class into two groups and have them debate the pros and cons of affirmative action. Point out that both blacks and whites can be found on both sides of this issue. For example, some blacks are opposed to affirmative action because they contend it cheapens the accomplishments of its beneficiaries, while some whites argue that it amounts to reverse discrimination.
- Or have students read the essay “Reparations for Black Americans” and have them debate the pros and cons of this form of relief. Students should be reminded that both whites and blacks can be found on both sides of this issue as well.
- Evaluation: Have the students write a short play in which the main characters are a white student and black student who are seeking admission to the same medical school. Have them debate whether the medical school should give some form of preferential treatment to the black student. The students should be reminded that schools often give preferential treatment to applicants based on a variety of factors, such as whether a parent is a graduate of the school. Or have students write a 500-word essay in response to “Reparations for Black Americans.” The essay should put forth the position that a black or white American could adopt in stating support for or opposition to reparations.
- Identify and assess the significance of the positions in the NewJersey state government held by several African Americans between 1970 and 1994.
- Tell students that throughout black American history those African Americans who made a noteworthy accomplishment in a particular field have generally been noted. In light of this, give the students the names of six blacks (listed below) who held important positions in the state government between 1970 and 1994. Then have the students discuss which of these positions — justice of the Supreme Court; Commissioner of Community Affairs; member of the General Assembly; Secretary of State; member of the State Senate; and Speaker of the General Assembly — they find to be the most important and why. To help students in this activity, divide the class into groups and make each group responsible for researching the basic duties of one of the positions identified and reporting on this position to the class.
- James H. Coleman, Jr., in 1994 became the first African American to serve on the New Jersey Supreme Court.
- Leonard S. Coleman, Jr., in 1982 became the first African American to become a member of the Governor’s Cabinet. Initially appointed the Commissioner of Energy, he subsequently served as the Commissioner of Community Affairs.
- Mildred Barry Garvin, in 1978 became the second black woman elected to the NewJersey General Assembly.
- Lonna R. Hooks, in 1994 became the first black woman to serve as a member of the Governor’s Cabinet and the first African American to serve as NewJersey Secretary of State.
- Wynona M. Lipman, in 1971 became the first African American woman elected to the New Jersey State Senate.
- S. Howard Woodson, Jr., in 1974 became the first black American to become Speaker of the General Assembly.
- Evaluation: Have students write a 500-word essay that indicates which one of the six positions in the state government — Justice of the Supreme Court; Commissioner of Community Affairs; member of the General Assembly; Speaker of the General Assembly — they would like to occupy and why.
- Show students “Affirmative Action vs. Reverse Discrimination,” episode 12 (58 minutes) of the thirteen-part series The Constitution: That Delicate Balance. This segment examines the accusation that modern American society, in using affirmative action to redress discriminative practices of the past, actually fosters reverse discrimination. It can be obtained from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Media Resource Center, 28 West State Street, Sixth Floor, Trenton, New Jersey 08608 (609-695-4838).
- Show students the film Ethnic Notions, a historically accurate, skillfully crafted treatment of racial stereotypes and images that have plagued black people since the slavery era (56 minutes). The servile, happy, and childlike Sambo of the antebellum minstrel shows, for example, offered proof that black people were content with slavery. By the end of Reconstruction, a new stereotype came into dominance. Gruesome caricatures such as the “Brute” (vividly depicted in Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen, later adapted into the film Birth of a Nation) and the “Pickaninny” portrayed black people as savages in need of “domestication.” They helped justify segregation, disfranchisement, even lynchings. The film can be obtained from the NewJersey Council for the Humanities Media Resource Center, 28 West State Street, Sixth Floor, Trenton, New Jersey 08608 (609-695-4838).
- Show students the film Black in White America, which examines the experiences of contemporary black Americans, especially as differentiated along class lines (60 minutes). It can be obtained from Resolution Inc., 19 Gregory Drive, South Burlington, Vermont 05403 (800-862-8900).
- Show students “Black on White,” episode 5 (60 minutes) of The Story of English. It looks at the evolution of Black English. Black American speech is thus seen as having roots in Africa and as including the recent phenomenon of rap music. It can be obtained from Films Inc., 5547 N. Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60640-1199 (312-878-2600).
Tom Bradley. Elected in 1973 the first black mayor of Los Angeles.
David Dinkins. Elected in 1990 the first black mayor of New York City.
Patricia Roberts Harris. Appointed secretary of housing and urban development in 1977, she was the first African American woman to become a cabinet member.
Jesse Jackson. Leading civil rights activist who was an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., founder of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), and a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988.
Colin Powell. Appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, the highest military position ever held by an African American.
Clarence Thomas. Appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, he was the second African American to serve on the nation’s highest tribunal.
L. Douglas Wilder. In 1990 elected governor of Virginia, first black to be elected governor of a state.
Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading
- Billingsley, Andrew, 1992. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African American Families.
- An examination of the black family, this book looks at its historical and present-day dimensions and offers an optimistic forecast because of the perceived strength, endurance, resilience, and adaptive qualities of the black family.
- Blair, Thomas L. 1977. Retreat to the Ghetto.
- A study of the urban economic and social realities confronting African Americans in the 1970s in the wake of civil rights reforms and flight of the urban middle class.
- Davis, George and Glegg Watson. 1982. Black Life in Corporate America.
- Racial realities for black executives in the business world from the 1950s to the 1980s, as told to the authors, who also provide an overview.
- Dreyfuss Joel and Charles Lawrence. 1979. The Bakke Case.
- A study of the pivotal California court case that introduced “reverse discrimination” into the vocabulary of race relations and the legal battlefield.
- Gans, Herbert J. 1967. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community.
- A sociological study of the early years of Levittown, New Jersey, a Burlington County suburban community that, beginning in 1958, was built by the developer, William Levitt. In chapter 14 Gans discusses the community’s racial desegregation, including the developer’s initial policy in 1958 of excluding African Americans and his decision, in the early 1960s in the face of litigation, to allow blacks to purchase homes in the community. In 1963 the community voted to change its name to Willingboro, its original name; today Willingboro has a black majority population.
- Glasgow, Douglas G. 1980. The Black Underclass.
- An examination of the growing problem in the 1970s of black alienation in the cities.
- Hacker, Andrew. 1992. Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.
- Using the most recent relevant statistical data, the author provides a candid and forthright analysis of contemporary race relations in America.
- Pinkney, Alphonso. 1980. The Myth of Black Progress.
- A sociologist discusses the absence of economic gains, spread of social ills, and overall racial impotence that followed the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s.
- Sowell, Thomas. 1983. The Economics and Politics of Race.
- ___. 1984. Civil Rights: Rhetoric of Reality.
- These studies, written by a “black conservative,” examine the absence of black society’s infrastructural development, the community’s dependence on the government, and the negative consequences of both.
- Wilson, William J. 1976. The Declining Significance of Race.
- ___. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged.
- Both studies, written by a black sociologist, examine the growing blight of the inner-cities and an increasingly alienated black underclass whose problems the author believes derive less from white racism and more from macroeconomic changes and intraracial community malaise.
- Wright, Bruce. 1987. Black Robes, White Justice.
- An outspoken black judge’s condemnation of white racism in the criminal justice system.
- Brown, Warren. 1992. Colin Powell: Military Leader.
- Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
- Jakoubek, Robert. 1991. Jesse Jackson: Civil Rights Leader/Politician.
- Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
- McKissack, Patricia. 1989. Jesse Jackson: A Biography.
- A treatment of the civil rights leader and politician whose early work involved an association with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Naylor, Gloria. 1985. Linden Hills.
- In this novel, a pair of African American poets work their way through the middle-class community of Linden Hills and experience its residents’ hypocrisy, pain, and passions.
Charles Krauthammer–“Reparations for Black Americans.” Time, Vol. 136, Issue 28, 12/31/90, page 18.
Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Wednesday, April 23, 2003