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After World War II, an overall increase in prosperity and living standards led disadvantaged Americans to fight for civil rights. As defined by Oxford Dictionary, civil rights are “the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality.” During the 1960s, escalating political and social tensions galvanized underprivileged groups such as Chicano-Americans or LGBTQ+ Americans to organize on a massive scale for the first time. This collective grassroots power was used to effect social and legislative changes that raised awareness and paved the way to additional civil freedoms and equality today.
While civil rights activists had always existed in the U.S., there were several escalating incidents that caught large-scale attention and “got the ball rolling” for civil rights movements. One such incident was Rosa Parks’ bus boycott, which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. At a time when African-Americans faced severe segregation and racialized restriction in their everyday lives (Doc D), this incident proved to be the polarizing tipping point that caused many African-Americans to join the civil rights movement. Another such incident was the Stonewall Riot in 1969, wherein a skirmish between police and the LGBTQ+ community escalated into a nationwide movement promoting the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans (Doc B). It was these and similar incidents during the 1960s that jumpstarted the birth of the Civil Rights era.
One change that occurred during the 1960s was the immense civic participation in the fight for civil rights, as many of these movements actually began from the ground up as “grassroots” movements. More than ever before, citizens began to join organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Indian Movement, National Organization for Women, and the National Society for Human Rights, due to the fact that the prevalence of white-collar jobs allowed everyday people to have more time to devote to causes they cared about. One of the most prominent examples of grassroots movements was Environmentalism; Senator Gaylord Nelson’s first Earth Day march drew and astonishing 20 million everyday Americans (Doc G), showing the true power of the people to effect change.
And, truly, effect change they did. Besides demonstrating, civil rights activists of this era focused much of their attention on the legislative and judicial processes to help them secure their rights. Noting the prominent wage gap, feminists successfully lobbied for the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the ERA, which granted them equal opportunity employment, lifting the glass ceiling and limitations on women employment higher than ever (Doc A). Meanwhile, people with disabilities, such as the polio-ridden Ed Roberts, campaigned for equal access to education through the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, whose legal precedent had been set by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court case. Combined with the American Disabilities Act, this right to education finally gave people with disabilities the chance to be successful in employment (Doc C).
Regardless of the political action taken to increase civil rights, the greatest legacy of the 1960s Civil Rights era lies in the heightened public emphasis on and awareness of underrepresented issues. Although Chicano-Americans’ fight for equal treatment is far from over with the new developments in U.S.-Mexico relations under the Trump administration, it was the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta who first brought the plight of Chicanos to light (Doc E). Similarly, while the Native Americans achieved victories in the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, as Doc H shows, their fight is still ongoing.
During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and beyond, citizens came together on a large scale to protest, sue, and raise awareness for the causes they cared about. They left a long-lasting impact on the effectiveness of social action and organization to promote civil liberties and rights, an impact that continues to shape the social activism scene well into the 21st century.
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