CHICAGO — While the U.S. civil rights movement is often said
to have ended in 1968, the continued fight for equal rights for all Americans
can be seen in today’s protests, said
Valerie Johnson, an associate professor and chair of DePaul University’s Political
Science Department in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
author of the book “Black Power in the Suburbs: The Myth or Reality of African
American Suburban Political Incorporation” and co-editor of “Power in the City:
Clarence Stone and the Politics of Inequity,” researches urban and
Q&A, Johnson discusses the civil rights movement and how African-American
pop culture influenced it, looks at issues still facing the country today, and compares
current protesters to ones from the 1960s.
Q: As someone who has
researched the civil rights movement, how did the 1960s — and in particular 1968 — help shape the country going forward as
pertaining to race relations?
A: The year,
1968, is a pivotal moment in American history. For some, it stands as the end
of the civil rights movement (1955-1968) — a movement that led to the
attainment of basic citizenship rights, emanating from monumental legislation
such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1964 ratification of the 24th Amendment
to the U.S. Constitution, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Civil Rights
Act, which contained a fair housing provision. For others it represents a brief
respite in the quest for socioeconomic and political rights that continues for
traditionally underrepresented groups to this day.
Q: There’s been significant
coverage and praise of the marches, demonstrations and protests that the civil
rights movement is known for, but how did African-American pop culture play a
role in the movement?
A: What I
remember most was the freedom songs of the 1960’s. Artists such as Curtis
Mayfield, Nina Simone, the Motown sound, Aretha Franklin, James Brown were the
soundtrack of the 1960s, and helped to raise consciousness and awareness. Although
some may beg to differ, today’s music doesn’t have that same urgency. When
Curtis Mayfield belted out, “we’re moving on up,” I felt it. It signaled a
period of hope and anticipation — hope that has oft times been dashed, as the
country is once again divided on the race question.
Q: What were the
general hopes of African-Americans at the end of 1968?
A: The close of
the civil rights movement signaled a time of repositioning for African-Americans
and other marginalized groups, and the hope that America would finally live up
to its professed values of democracy and equal opportunity for all. Because of
the aforementioned legislation, members of traditionally underrepresented
groups finally received the rights that white Americans had enjoyed since the nation’s
Q: What issues might
have caused some of that hopefulness to dissipate?
A: What was not
understood or fully anticipated in 1968 was the role that economics would play
in restricting true equality of opportunity. Although African-Americans had the
right to public accommodation and could vote, they remained economically
disadvantaged due to the cumulative effects of past discrimination and racism. This
economic deficit continues to define the lives of African-Americans 50 years
later and has stunted the country’s movement to true racial equality.
Q: In looking at the
civil rights activists and protesters of today, how do they compare and
contrast to the ones who fought for social justice in the 1960s?
A: Although we
place the civil rights movement in the 1955-68 period, the reality is that it
continues to this very day. There are of course more people of color in
leadership positions, but at all socioeconomic levels, racial disparities
remain. As a result, the tactics and strategies of leadership and civil rights
activists have not changed. The leaders, civil rights activists and protesters
are a mirror image of those who existed in previous decades, the only
difference owing to the salience of civil and economic rights. No longer is civil
rights a salient issue in our nation. In fact, some Americans must be convinced
that inequality and racism persists. They overwhelmingly believe that the civil
rights movement rectified the effects of past racist policies and practices. It
did not, and people of color are generally very clear about the subtle and not
so subtle ways that inequality endures.
DePaul’s Center for Black Diaspora’s fall events are
centered around African-American culture in the 1960s and features discussions
on black theatre, music and fashion from the decade. More information available