African Americans in the 1960s

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African Americans in the United States faced discrimination, segregation, and stereotyping, especially in the Southern and Midwestern United States for decades after the American Civil War. “In the 1960s, Americans who knew only the potential of 'equal protection of the laws' expected the president, the Congress, and the courts to fulfill the promise of the 14th Amendment.[1] The inequality prevalent in the time period before the Civil Rights movement gained strength in the U.S., anthropologist Carol B. Stack produced her ethnography entitled All Our Kin.[2] Stack’s research was collected as she immersed herself in the culture of an impoverished community in the vicinity of Chicago, the identity and whereabouts of which is unknown and thus referred to as “Jackson Harbor”


The Emancipation Proclamation was created when Abraham Lincoln was president, and[3] the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the constitution[4] were supposed to have freed the African-American population in the 1860s, but they were still not equal citizens a century later. Many people disagreed to the freeing of slaves after the Union army had won the civil war. This led to Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 stated, “Be it enacted, that all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.”[5] National law called for equality among races, but states established limitations and stipulations that disallowed the full execution of the act.

The Jim Crow laws, created in 1876, required segregation of the black community from the white majority.[6] These laws dictated where and how African Americans lived. A black citizen was even barred from voting by requirements such as literacy tests and taxes, or laws such as the Grandfather clause. The “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 upheld the common pro-segregation view that blacks and whites should maintain the same freedoms, but a certain distance should be required.

The Civil rights era was defined by Supreme Court cases, rallies, protests, and leaders, but the people who supported the cause are lumped into one identity. “Many historians, constitutional scholars, and civil rights activists argue that the modern civil rights movement began on May 17, 1954, at 12: 52 P.M. with the unanimous decision rendered by the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.[7] This case overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment stated each person be provided with an equal opportunity for education and that segregated schools were indeed not "separate but equal".[8] slaves were not considered humans. The statistics were grim for black Americans in 1960. Their average life-span was seven years less than white Americans'. Their children had only half the chance of completing high school, only a third the chance of completing college, and a third the chance of entering a profession when they grew up. On average, black Americans earned half as much as white Americans and were twice as likely to be unemployed.

Despite a string of court victories during the late 1950s, many black Americans were still second-class citizens. Six years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, only 49 southern school districts had desegregated, and less than 1.2 percent of black schoolchildren in the 11 states of the old Confederacy attended public school with white classmates. Less than a quarter of the South's black population of voting age could vote. In certain Southern counties blacks could not vote, serve on grand juries and trial juries, or frequent all-white beaches, restaurants, and hotels.

In the North, too, black Americans suffered humiliation, insult, embarrassment, and discrimination. Many neighborhoods, businesses, and unions almost totally excluded blacks. Just as black unemployment had increased in the South with the mechanization of cotton production, black unemployment in Northern cities soared as labor-saving technology eliminated many semiskilled and unskilled jobs that historically had provided many blacks with work. Black families experienced severe strain; the proportion of black families headed by women jumped from 8 percent in 1950 to 21 percent in 1960. "If you're white, you're right," a black folk saying declared; "if you're brown stick around; if you're black, stay back."

The Flats[edit]

In the Midwest United States during the mid-1960s, when Stack completed her research, the black community of Jackson Harbor was in shambles. As the author of Tally’s Corner, Elliot Lie bow, wrote: “The job fails the man and the man fails the job.”[9][10] Men in this society maintain the lowest paying jobs that required the least amount of skill. These jobs were often unstable and could not provide economic security for the men who held them, and consequently did not allow for family stability. Economic insecurity caused the number of Jackson Harbor citizens on welfare to be significant. If a man could not be economically independent, he was unlikely to develop strong and lasting romantic relationships. In this society men were presented as “economic exploiters of women”, and they “expect[ed] other men to do the same”.[10] Men in Jackson Harbor were not encouraged to be loyal partners and the vast number of failed relationships set the pace for male infidelity, lack of commitment, and women’s low expectations. The community was trifocals as a whole, centering on the women and their kin.

Marriage only occurred when a man held a stable job, which was rare in Jackson Harbor. A man had to feel his own sense of “self-importance” and independence. If he could not provide for his lover and however many children were also involved, he would not enter into matrimony. The “masculine role” depicted by social norms in America greatly deterred men from marriage in the black community. In the 1950s, men were the “money-makers” and the strong head of the home, and although the women’s rights movement in the 1960s was changing social expectation for gender roles, Midwestern communities such as Jackson Harbor still maintained the stereotypical domestic verses commercial ideals for men and women. Due to the improbability of marital ties, children were often born out of wedlock.

Along with an unstable economic aspect to life in Jackson Harbor, education was not up to par. Adults could not attain highly skilled occupations that would pay better salaries. Racism also barred these people from finding a way out of poverty and the fated way of life that Jackson Harbor sustained. It was possible to escape the destined lifestyle provided by Harbor society in some cases, as is shown by Stack’s first contact, a fellow student at the university, but most of the people of the community accepted life as it was.

Stack states that “The black urban poor, assuming a cooperative life style, are simultaneously locked into an intimate, ongoing bond with white culture and white values.”[11] The culture, technology, employment, organizations, and education of the time displayed “the value system of the traditional middle-class white sector of American society.”[11] The people of Jackson Harbor were influenced by the ideals of the average white citizens, but they did not have opportunity to match the affluent social expectations.


Family and friend support networks in Jackson Harbor were intricate and essential to the community’s way of life. Obligations to kin helped and hindered the individual, especially when involving romance. Objections or demands made by kin could be detrimental to a relationship. Women in particular faced familial protest to a romantic relationship. If a woman were to marry or move out of her family’s home to raise her own family, her kin lost the economic and physical benefits she provided. Once married, a woman would devote her time and energy to her husband and any children they might have; her family would suddenly be short one helper. As such, a woman’s family would seldom support her relationship with a man, let alone encourage the couple to marry. Kin would repeatedly warn a woman not to marry or state that the man was unsuitable. Gossiping about the man's unfaithfulness was a regular practice to discourage females from extended sexual relations.

While Stack was observing Jackson Harbor, one woman named Ruby gave an account that displayed how kinship worked against other relationships. Her family repeatedly worked to break apart her affairs with men, advising her against marriage to men she loved. They told her: “'He ain’t no good, he’s been creeping on you. I told you once not to marry him. You’ll end up right back on ADC.'”[12] She confided in Stack: “If I ever get married, I’m leaving town!”[12]

Kinship ties for men, unlike women who stuck to blood relatives, often included other men in their position. Single, average males would bond and assist each other. These ties were equally important in the black community for providing security and solace. When a man lost his job, he would seek entertainment and joy among his peers. This practice of turning to others in similar situations worked against the preservation of romantic associations. When a man sought the company of his friends over the comfort of his significant other, the woman would become suspicious, jealous, or both parties would lose interest.


In Jackson Harbor, poverty and racism prevailed over romantic relationships. Women had low expectations of men. “Many women tend to debase men and especially young boys, regarding them as inherently 'bad,' more susceptible to sin, drinking, going around with women.”[13] Men generally acted according to the community’s anticipated stereotypes, while women standardized these behaviors. Men and women acknowledged predicted one another’s conduct based on community precedence.

Julia Ambrose, a mother of two, and resident of Jackson Harbor, shared her story with Stack. She once loved a man, Elliot, and they resided happily together for some time. When he lost his job, he resorted to the anticipated behavior of an unemployed male and began spending most of his time away from his home and family. They were forced to return to welfare, while Julia and Elliot grew apart. When Elliot began cheating on her, Julia decided to seek revenge. She reportedly told Stack, “The point is a woman has to have her own pride. She can’t let a man rule her.”[14] Women in this society often felt wounded by their cheating partners and refused to appear foolish, so they, too, would resort to infidelity. A cycle of love, loss, disinterest, and disloyalty prevailed in the community of Jackson Harbor.

The power of gossip played a substantial role in the love lives of the people of Harbor. Once a rumor of infidelity began a woman would become suspicious of her spouse or boyfriend. The spoken word caused speculation and distrust in many situations, and was often based on fact. Sexual relationships were limited by this network of social contact. Once the seed of worry was planted, retaliation was frequent.

Women did possess several privileges over the men in Jackson Harbor. One such privilege was the accessibility of welfare. Many people in the community had to seek governmental aid, as economic standards were low, but women could more easily obtain the necessary financial help. Welfare actually worked against the common African-American male. The role of provider was lost when an individual had to seek hand outs. Many women came to associate security with welfare and family networks. Women in the Jackson Harbor community were not powerless. In many ways they were equally trapped as men. The low economic standards of this society, the racism expressed by outsiders, and the aspect of being fated to the same life as your family before you held these people in a cycle. Men tried to hold onto jobs, jumped around among lovers, and were beaten down by factors beyond their control. Women relied on their kin, had lovers but rarely married, and had children they could not provide for without aid.

Within the community, it would appear that women possessed equality to men, but American society, with its racist and sexist tendencies, controlled the lives of the African-American population. Women had agency, the power to make decisions, but their choices were limited by civilization as a whole. In the 1960s women were fighting to break the mold of the domestic home-makers. Activists and feminists wanted the female population to have opportunities once denied to them; working outside the home, the ability to choose not to be mothers, and true equality to men were their driving forces. The women of Jackson Harbor were far from reaching these goals because their society was struggling just to survive.

Men in the black community could not gain access to better pay and highly skilled occupations, therefore the women stood little chance to receive admittance. Before the females of Jackson Harbor could receive equality to males, the men needed to be equal to the average Caucasian man. The civil rights movement had to push social boundaries to the point of acceptance in big cities, and then equality would be attainable for the black men in the Midwest.[15] Women’s rights would follow in those footsteps.

Women of Jackson Harbor were by no means helpless. They could choose their own lovers, seek retribution on unfaithful partners, and they would not be blamed or shunned by society. Women retained their pride. Marriage was not a given, and as such the community did not judge a single mother; she was treated as any other women would be. Gender roles were present in this community; women were domestic workers in the informal sector, while men worked in the formal sector.

Children in Jackson Harbor[edit]

Although All Our Kin focuses heavily on the adult population of Jackson Harbor, childcare practices reveal distinct social aspects of the community. Women, mothers especially, faced problems stemming from poverty and an unstable economy among their neighbors and kin. As a result, women were forced to rely on family connections to support themselves and their children. Mothers often lived with family members or sent their children to live with relatives. Stack described this solution as the “shared parental responsibility among kin.”[16] Most children resided with at least three family members in the course of their maturation.

Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and even siblings played important roles in the lives of children. According to Stack, “the cycle of residence changes, the size of the dwelling, employment, and many other factors determine where children sleep.”[17] Economic stability, once again, controlled the way in which the people of Jackson Harbor lived. A child generally had several “mother” figures, some of which were more associated with their upbringing than their biological mother. Many situations saw children separated from their biological parents for financial, convenience, and personal reasons. If a parent was entering a new relationship or ending a marriage, children could be removed from the situation by being sent to live with their kin. As family members, they were responsible for helping to the best of their ability. Family supported their loved ones because they had few other ways in which they could seek security. In the case of Loretta Smart, she lived with her father until she was five years old. When he became to elderly to care for Loretta properly he asked her uncle and his wife to take her in.[18]

In certain situations, children choose to live with one parent rather than the other. Bernard Smith chose to live with his father when he turned sixteen “because “he lived near the center of town.” Bernard is twenty-five now, and even though he visits his mother nearly twice a week, he is still living with his father.”[19] The child’s choice does not always reflect poor parenting on one parent’s behalf, but living with one parent may provide benefits or security over the other. When a young woman becomes pregnant, her closest of kin will either guide her through motherhood or take over full care for the infant. This process was called “giv[ing] the child.”[20] Lily Proctor was fourteen when she ran away to Chicago and became pregnant. She stated, “I was in no way ready for a baby. The baby’s grandmother [father’s mother] wanted the baby, so I gave my baby to her and she adopted her as her own.”[20]

Occasionally persons un-related to the child were given custody. A couple who expressed a desire for a child or friends of the family may be given responsibility. Children were treated as a form of “currency” in Jackson Harbor; they were “‘borrowed’ or ‘loaned.’” Kin shared an understanding and relied on each other, creating a familial allegiance. Stack reported that, “In 1970 four-fifths of the children in The Flats were being raised by their mothers. One-fifth of the children were living with kinsmen rather than with their mothers.”[21]

Civil rights movement[edit]

The civil rights movement ranged from people who wanted their basic rights to be identified and respected to radicalized groups. The Black Panther party emerged in October 1966 in Oakland, California. This organization “practiced militant self-defense of minority communities against the U.S. government, and fought to establish revolutionary socialism through mass organizing and community based programs.”[22] They still operate today and maintain the stance that the “black community” will not be free until they “are able to determine our Divine Destiny.”[23] The Black Panthers were the radical spectrum of the civil rights movement, while other organizations and leaders did not express the same anti-white feelings. These more moderate groups and people wanted liberation and respect, but used more peaceful means of expression.[24] In many areas of the United States, women were working to advance their position in society. Lulu Belle Madison White was a “Civil rights activist, educator” and “orator.”[25] She “was the first woman of the South and South-west to become a full-salaried executive secretary of a local chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).”[25] White devoted her life to ending the reign of the Jim Crow laws and fought segregation in America.

Organizations like the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) were started to protect the African-American public and to battle for equality. The civil rights movement worked for the advancement of the black race, but did not guarantee the equality of women. During the March on Washington in 1963, at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speech beginning with “I have a dream,” female civil rights leaders were denied the chance to speak. They were told that “sex-specific glory- seeking… was anathema to the movement and the many women involved in its several organizations.”[26] Even within their own movement, women were not viewed as colleagues, but as liabilities.

Change in the status of women[edit]

Today in the United States, women have reached greater equality to men.[citation needed] The civil rights movement and the women’s rights movements provided the catalyst for women and men of all races to express their strife with the promise of natural rights, and the subsequent withholding of those said rights. Segregation and the “separate but equal” policy lost credibility in American society. The Jim Crow laws were no longer obeyed but the public and racial acceptance has become the social norm.

Women today maintain careers in the highest positions in their fields. Women are still nurturing and domestically inclined, but they are not fated to this gender ideology. Occupations are often stereotyped to be a “man’s” job or a “woman’s” job, but there a person can break the mold. Free education is available to all U.S. citizens through high school and higher education is increasingly gaining momentum and accessible for the masses. The average African-American woman in the 1960s in towns such as Jackson Harbor did not have many options. She still maintained her agency through the choices she did have, but in a sense she would be set on one pathway for life. Today an ethnically diverse campus or business is ideal. With policies such as affirmative action a woman of a different race has increased chances of being accepted at a university. Opportunities are at an all-time high for African-American women. Some women, of all racial backgrounds, continue to be the homem. They help women preserve their independence and strength.

From the example of women in Jackson Harbor we can see the difficulties our predecessors faced. Women have fought endlessly for equality and fair treatment. Women are not the weaker sex today, and have triumphed over adversity. Government, business, teaching, managerial, and other powerful positions are held by women. Equality of pay and fair employment are struggles faced by females in present society, but women have made great strides in previous decades.

The women of Jackson Harbor had minimal education, were generally unemployed, did not have stable romantic relationships, faced poverty, and relied on welfare to provide for their kin. Domestic tasks were aligned with the female population of this Midwestern black community. Men were not pressured to respect women and likewise women did not expect to be highly valued. Infidelity, separation, illegitimate childbirth, and early motherhood occurred often. The women of Jackson Harbor were economically, racially and sexually inferior in the eyes of American public. Today there are still women faced with these dilemmas and society continues to look down upon them, but there are groups and organizations to support these women.

Stack's references to the families in Jackson Harbor is a clear example of the barriers women have broken. True equality is still being sought by women in the U.S., as well as around the world. Looking back at women in America’s past allows people to see what can cause change in places where women continue to be denied basic freedoms. History is a teaching method. Women can help one another find freedom. All of humanity can work toward a better tomorrow, while respectably remembering those who came before them. The women of Jackson Harbor are both teachers and examples for today’s women.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Teaching With Documents: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (started by mr.benchea @ dowdell middle". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Stack, Carol B (1974). N. E. Whitten, ed. All Our Kin. John F. Szwed. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers Inc. ISBN 0-06-131982-1. 
  3. ^ Jim Crow (1863). "Emancipation Proclamation". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  4. ^ Jim Crow. "14th Amendment". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Jim Crow (1875). "Civil Rights Act". 
  6. ^ "Jim Crow Laws". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  7. ^ Taylor Quintard, ed. (2003). African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 312. 
  8. ^ Jim Crow (1954). "Brown v. Board of Education". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  9. ^ Elliot Lie-bow, Tally's Corner: A Study of Negro Street corner Men (1967), Roman & Little field, 2003, p. 39.
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ a b Stack 1974, p. 125
  12. ^ a b Stack 1974, p. 115
  13. ^ Stack 1974, p. 111
  14. ^ Stack 1974, p. 110
  15. ^
  16. ^ Stack 1974, p. 62
  17. ^ Stack 1974, p. 63
  18. ^ Stack 1974, p. 64
  19. ^ Stack 1974, p. 65
  20. ^ a b Stack 1974, p. 66
  21. ^ Stack 1974, p. 68
  22. ^ "Guerrilla War in the U.S.A.". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  23. ^ "?". 
  24. ^ Hall, Simon (2005). Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. pp. 1–12. 
  25. ^ a b Quintard 2003, p. 293
  26. ^ Davis W. Houck, ed. (2009). Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965. David E. Dixon. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. p. 1x. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Stack, Carol B. (1974). N. E. Whitten, ed. All Our Kin (hardcover). John F. Szwed. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers Inc. ISBN 0-06-131982-1. 
  • Quintard, Taylor, ed. (2003). African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000 (hardcover). Shirley Ann Wilson Moore. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3524-7. 
  • Davis W. Houck, ed. (2009). Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965 (hardcover). David E. Dixon. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-60473-107-1. 
  • Hall, Simon (2005). Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (hardcover). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-8122-3839-7.