An attempt to deal with the increasing demands of blacks for equal rights came in 1964 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson asked for and received the most comprehensive civil-rights act to date; the act specifically prohibited discrimination in voting, education, and the use of public facilities. For the first time since the Supreme Court ruled on segregation in public schools in 1954, the federal government had a means of enforcing desegregation; Title VI of the act barred the use of federal funds for segregated programs and schools. In 1964 only two southern states (Tennessee and Texas) had more than 2% of their black students enrolled in integrated schools. Because of Title VI, about 6% of the black students in the South were in integrated schools by the next year.
Early in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, but it did not prevent the rising tide of militance among blacks; Watts, a black slum in Los Angeles, erupted in violence, leaving 34 dead. The next year was marked by riots in practically all major U.S. cities as blacks began shifting to an independent course expressed in the concept of black power; the term originated with Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization that dropped whites from membership the following year.
Meanwhile, integration of southern school districts was progressing; by 1967, 22% of the black students in the 17 southern and border states were in integrated schools. However, the continuing separation of blacks and whites in most areas was emphasized in 1968 when the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) issued a report that said, "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that summer set off riots in 125 U.S. cities. The issue of segregated housing was faced in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which contained a clause barring discrimination against blacks in the sale or rental of most housing.
Although integration proponents received a setback in 1970 when President Nixon announced that the desegregation of schools would be left to the courts and that his administration would de-emphasize strong desegregation procedures, real successes had already been achieved. Black college students were enrolling in previously white colleges at a greater rate; in 1964, 51% of black students had been in predominantly black colleges, but by 1971 only 34% were. At the secondary and primary levels the South had begun to move ahead of the North, despite a system of tax-exempt, segregated private schools that had been developing in the South since the 1960s. By the fall of 1972, 44% of the black students in the South were in predominantly white schools, while only 30% were in predominantly white schools in the North.
The early 1970s were characterized by the controversial issue of busing as a tool to promote integration. The Supreme Court continued, in the early 1970s, to back busing plans. By 1974, however, a more conservative court had moderated its position, allowing in Miliken v. Bradley (1974) the predominantly white Detroit suburbs to be excluded from a desegregation plan. By the mid-1970s, however, only about 12% of black students in the United States remained in completely segregated schools; the number of students still in such schools remains very low. Nonetheless, in the late 1990s about one third of all black students were in schools that were 90% nonwhite. Moreover, studies showed that from the mid-1980s through the 1990s American classrooms in grades K to 12 had become increasingly segregated, a trend linked to court decisions limiting and reversing desegregation as well as to a decline in federal support for desegregation and to enduring de facto segregation in housing. Nonetheless, in 2007 a significantly more conservative Supreme Court ruled that the degree to which school districts could use race in order to avoid resegregation was limited.
Affirmative action, which seeks to overcome the effects of segregation and other forms of past discrimination by allocating jobs and resources to African Americans and other affected groups, began in the 1960s. The use of racial quotas as part of affirmative action, however, led to charges of reverse discrimination in the late 1970s. In the 1980s the federal government's role in affirmative action was considerably diluted, and in 1989 the Supreme Court gave greater standing to claims of reverse discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 reaffirmed a government commitment to affirmative action, but Supreme Court decisions have placed limits on the use of race in awarding government contracts and in achieving educational diversity. In the late 1990s, California and other states banned the use of race- and sex-based preferences.
The various civil-rights acts and the diminishment of prejudice produced changes in the political arena; African Americans became increasingly elected to public office. In 1966, Edward Brooke became the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, and, in 1967, Carl Stokes became the first African American to be elected mayor of a major American city (Cleveland). Many major cities, among them New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, have since elected black mayors. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the first black to contend seriously for that office. Douglas Wilder became first African American to be elected governor of a state in 1989. Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff and serve as secretary of state, was the popular choice of many Republicans for the 1996 presidential nomination, although he declined to run. A little more than a decade later, Illinois senator Barack Obama became (2008) the first black major party candidate for the nation's highest office. The son of a white American mother and a Kenyan father, he was nominated by the Democratic party and won the election.
Although a number of blacks have achieved real prominence in business, education, government, and other fields, and many more have achieved solid, though less stunning successes as a result of integration, race remains one of the most intractable problems in the United States, in large part because personal biases and racial stereotyping (by and of all races) cannot be altered by legislation or lawsuits. This lingering prejudice fosters interracial tension and other social problems that are often ignored by the larger society unless a public outcry or worse results, as in New Jersey in the late 1990s when public controversy erupted over the use of racial profiling by the state police. Even in the last decade of the 20th cent. and the first years of the 21st, race riots have occurred; the most violent was in Los Angeles following the acquittal (1992) of the police officers accused of brutality in the Rodney King case.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.