Digital History

America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s

The State of Black America in 1960 Previous Next
Digital History ID 3323



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."

During the 1960s, however, a growing hunger for full equality arose among black Americans. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave voice to the new mood: "We're through with tokenism and gradualism and see-how-far-you've-comeism. We're through with we've-done-more-for-your-people-than-anyone-elseism. We can't wait any longer. Now is the time."

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