1960 - 1970
A Time of Great Change
The foundation built during the 1950s drove the major developments of the 1960s. The Cold War drew the United States further and further into the war in Vietnam while major social changes continued on the homefront. Civil Rights organizations grew and mobilized to bring about changes in public opinion and new laws to support equality. In the background of all these social advances, however, was an overt and violent resistance to social equity and justice.
Social - Civil Rights
By the end of the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement had developed a broad foundation of community activism and organization. Efforts to reform the legal system had made some gains, but much like the advances made during Reconstruction, they were often not enforced. The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision ruled that segregation was inherently unequal and unconstitutional - but movie theatres, buses, bathrooms, restaurants and other public spaces were still segregated across the South (and often in the North as well).
During the 1950s a new approach had been adopted by Civil Rights groups across the country - nonviolent, non cooperative, civil disobedience. The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 used the nonviolent tactics promoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders. The success of the boycott helped to spread the idea of nonviolent protests. Peaceful marches were met with racist anger and violence - often ignored, allowed, or even perpetrated by the local police. Even in the face of such angry, violent resistance, most people in the Civil Rights Movement remained committed to nonviolence.
On February 1, 1960 one of the most widespread protests was begun in Greensboro, North Carolina. Four black college students took seats at the lunch counter in the F.W. Woolworth store, defying the "whites only" rules in place at the time. The four students refused to leave until they were served lunch, which the Woolworth employees refused to do. The students remained in their seats until the store was closed, but they returned the next day to repeat their efforts - this time with more students to support them. The students sat passively while white members of the community shouted racist insults at them and threatened violence.
This new tactic, called a "sit-in" spread rapidly to other cities and protests throughout the country. By the end of March, 1960, sit-ins were being held in more than 50 cities in 13 different states. The movement spread to other lunch counters, restaurants, and stores thanks to television news programs. Over 85% of American families owned at least one television by 1960, the images of peaceful, well dressed college students being shouted at and threatened by mobs of angry white men and women were seen in households across the nation. The realities of Jim Crow were brought vividly to the forefront.
Peaceful marches and nonviolent protests such as the sit-ins continued throughout the 1960s. Freedom Rides in 1961 organized integrated bus trips into southern states where buses were still segregated. Members of the Ku Klux Klan often violently attacked the freedom riders when they arrived in southern cities.
In May of 1963 Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) organized a protest march in Birmingham, Alabama. Thousands of men, women, and even children joined the demonstration. Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, authorized the use of fire hoses and police dogs to disperse the protesters. Again, television played a large role in publicizing the event. Millions of families across the nation watched the brutal attacks on the protesters. Support for Civil Rights continued to grow each time such violent scenes were witnessed on television.
Not all protests were met with violence. The 1963 March on Washington in which Dr. King delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech was a peaceful event that inspired many people. By June of 1963 President Kennedy called for a new Civil Rights Bill to be passed by Congress. The bill was eventually passed in 1964 and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
Although the 14th and 15th Amendments already ensured the rights of citizenship and voting to all people born in the United States (or naturalized), Jim Crow laws had steadily made these laws unenforced. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 again guaranteed that all U.S. citizens, regardless of their skin color, were guaranteed equal protection under the law. The Civil Rights Movement continued throughout the 1960s to demonstrate where the laws were being enforced and where such equality was still not a reality.
Steinbeck touched on the issue of race and the Civil Rights Movement in the final section of Travels with Charley. He wrote of witnessing a protest against school integration, a scene very reminiscent of the integration of schools in Little Rock Arkansas five years earlier. "Behind... [the children] were the law's majesty and the law's power to enforce...while against them...was a group of stout middle-aged women who...gathered every day to scream invectives at the children." It was scenes such as these that were broadcast around the nation and helped to bring the Civil Rights Movement into national attention.
Steinbeck's views on race are hinted at in many of his books. His empathy for Crooks in Of Mice and Men is clear, but he does not spell those feelings out overtly. In Travels with Charley, however, Steinbeck addresses racism and his feelings about it head on. Without dismissing or being apologetic for racism, Steinbeck - as usual - manages to examine the issue from more than one perspective. The "cheerleaders" in New Orleans who screamed at the young black children were the product of "...three hundred years of fear and anger and terror..." As usual, Steinbeck could see the problems created by the system as well as those by individuals.
Even with new legislation passed and a surge in public support for Civil Rights, the movement did not end, nor did the violence. Lynchings still took place and churches were bombed; men and women were beaten and sometimes killed for simply registering to vote. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April of 1968, he was only 39 years old.
Some Civil Rights groups believed that nonviolence was not the correct approach to gaining equal rights. Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other leaders called for African Americans to protect themselves and their neighborhoods from white violence - particularly from violence perpetrated by the police. But in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City.
The successful tactics and organization of the Civil Rights Movement were adopted by other groups as well. Women were a prominent part of the Civil Rights Movement in its beginning, but found that their drive for equality was often set aside as a priority to be addressed later. As a result, women began to form their own organizations, such as the National Organization of Women, to fight for equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included protections against gender discrimination in the workplace - the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created to help enforce the law. Although the EEOC received thousands of complaints of gender discrimination, very little was done to address those complaints.
The sit-in tactics and nonviolent demonstrations were adopted by other groups and movements as well. Demonstrators protesting the war in Vietnam organized "teach-ins" on college campuses, and nonviolent marches called for an end to the war. Unfortunately, not all protesters were peaceful, many destroyed property and caused riots. The National Guard was used in many instances to help control and to stop anti war protests, perhaps the most famous taking place on the Kent State campus on May 4, 1970. Members of the Ohio State National Guard were deployed to control an anti war protest which the day before had become destructive. It is still unclear today why the first shot was fired, but dozens of bullets were fired and four students were killed as a result.
The war in Vietnam had become less and less popular as the 1960s progressed. Each year more American soldiers were sent to fight - the majority of whom were drafted into the army. Not only did the draft make the war unpopular, the longer the war continued the less likely it seemed that the United States could "win" the war. In addition, just as with the Civil Rights Movement, television played a role in shaping public opinion
The Vietnam War has often been called the first television war. Reporters embedded with the troops was no new phenomenon, Steinbeck had been a war correspondent during World War II. Cameras captured both still photographs and video footage during the war as well. During the Vietnam Era, however, the images of war were brought into homes more rapidly and with less censorship by television news. Each year the public was being informed by the White House and its spokespeople that the war was going well, that the enemy was being defeated, and yet the war continued.
In December of 1967 President Johnson delivered a speech describing the progress being made in the war. "The enemy has not been beaten, but he knows he has met his master in the field." One month later the communist troops of North Vietnam launched a massive surprise attack known as the Tet Offensive (named after Tet, the Vietnamese New Year). Although, ultimately, the Tet Offensive was turned back and the North Vietnamese forces took heavy casualties while gaining very little on the battlefield, the initial successes of the attack were caught live on film and broadcast on the evening news in the United States. Americans watched as the U.S. Embassy was taken and communist forces controlled cities around Vietnam. Regardless of the outcome, the Tet Offensive showed the public that the war had not been going well and that it may in fact be far from over. Public support for the war plummeted even further.
Steinbeck spent time during 1966 and 1967 in Vietnam writing for Newsday. Much like his correspondences during World War II, Steinbeck was supportive of America and American actions in Vietnam. This has made him a difficult writer for many people to study. On the one hand is his belief in social justice and abhorrence of violence; on the other is his seemingly hawkish support of the Vietnam War.
The war in Vietnam distracted President Johnson's administration from the issues he most wanted to tackle, issues which Steinbeck found dear to his heart as well. President Johnson most wanted to address domestic issues, particularly poverty. By 1966 the Johnson administration had expanded social safety net programs begun under the New Deal - particularly welfare and social security. Unfortunately, the war in Vietnam pushed public support and attention away from such programs. Rather than run for a second full term as president in 1968, Johnson withdrew himself from the race.