David L. Hostetter
American activists who challenged South African apartheid during the Cold War era extended their opposition to racial discrimination in the United States into world politics. US antiapartheid organizations worked in solidarity with forces struggling against the racist regime in South Africa and played a significant role in the global antiapartheid movement. More than four decades of organizing preceded the legislative showdown of 1986, when a bipartisan coalition in Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto, to enact economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Adoption of sanctions by the United States, along with transnational solidarity with the resistance to apartheid by South Africans, helped prompt the apartheid regime to relinquish power and allow the democratic elections that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power in 1994.
Drawing on the tactics, strategies and moral authority of the civil rights movement, antiapartheid campaigners mobilized public opinion while increasing African American influence in the formulation of US foreign policy. Long-lasting organizations such as the American Committee on Africa and TransAfrica called for boycotts and divestment while lobbying for economic sanctions. Utilizing tactics such as rallies, demonstrations, and nonviolent civil disobedience actions, antiapartheid activists made their voices heard on college campuses, corporate boardrooms, municipal and state governments, as well as the halls of Congress. Cultural expressions of criticism and resistance served to reinforce public sentiment against apartheid. Novels, plays, movies, and music provided a way for Americans to connect to the struggles of those suffering under apartheid.
By extending the moral logic of the movement for African American civil rights, American anti-apartheid activists created a multicultural coalition that brought about institutional and governmental divestment from apartheid, prompted Congress to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, and increased the influence of African Americans regarding issues of race and American foreign policy.
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.
Maxine Leeds Craig
Black beauty culture developed in the context of widespread disparagement of black men and women in images produced by whites, and black women’s exclusion from mainstream cultural institutions, such as beauty contests, which defined beauty standards on a national scale. Though mainstream media rarely represented black women as beautiful, black women’s beauty was valued within black communities. Moreover many black women used cosmetics, hair products and styling, and clothing to meet their communities’ standards for feminine appearance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the black press, which included newspapers, general magazines, and women’s magazines, showcased the beauty of black women. As early as the 1890s, black communities organized beauty contests that celebrated black women’s beauty and served as fora for debating definitions of black beauty. Still, generally, but not always, the black press and black women’s beauty pageants favored women with lighter skin tones, and many cosmetics firms that marketed to black women sold skin lighteners. The favoring of light skin was nonetheless debated and contested within black communities, especially during periods of heightened black political activism. In the 1910s and 1920s and later in the 1960s and 1970s, social movements fostered critiques of black aesthetics and beauty practices deemed Eurocentric. One focus of criticism was the widespread black practice of hair straightening—a critique that has produced an enduring association between hairstyles perceived as natural and racial pride. In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, African migration and the transnational dissemination of information via the internet contributed to a creative proliferation of African American hairstyles. While such styles display hair textures associated with African American hair, and are celebrated as natural hairstyles, they generally require the use of hair products and may incorporate synthetic hair extensions.
Beauty culture provided an important vehicle for African American entrepreneurship at a time when racial discrimination barred black women from other opportunities and most national cosmetics companies ignored black women. Black women’s beauty-culture business activities included beauticians who provided hair care in home settings and the extremely successful nationwide and international brand of hair- and skin-care products developed in the first two decades of the 20th century by Madam C. J. Walker. Hair-care shops provided important places for sharing information and community organizing. By the end of the 20th century, a few black-owned hair-care and cosmetics companies achieved broad markets and substantial profitability, but most declined or disappeared as they faced increased competition from or were purchased by larger white-owned corporations.
Brandon R. Byrd
Black internationalism describes the political culture and intellectual practice forged in response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism. It is a historical and ongoing collective struggle against racial oppression rooted in global consciousness. While the expression of black internationalism has certainly changed across time and place, black liberation through collaboration has been and remains its ultimate goal.
Since the emergence of black internationalism as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and during the Age of Revolutions, black women such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and evangelist Rebecca Protten have been at its forefront. Their writings and activism espoused an Afro-diasporic, global consciousness and promoted the cause of universal emancipation. During the 19th century, black women internationalists included abolitionists, missionaries, and clubwomen. They built on the work of their predecessors while laying the foundations for succeeding black women internationalists in the early 20th century. By World War I, a new generation of black women activists and intellectuals remained crucial parts of the International Council of Women, an organization founded by white suffragists from the United States, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a global organization formally led by Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. But they also formed an independent organization, the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICWDR).
Within and outside of the ICWDR, black women from Africa and the African Diaspora faced and challenged discrimination on the basis of their sex and race. Their activism and intellectual work set a powerful precedent for a subsequent wave of black internationalism shaped by self-avowed black feminists.
In May 1861, three enslaved men who were determined not to be separated from their families ran to Fort Monroe, Virginia. Their flight led to the phenomenon of Civil War contraband camps. Contraband camps were refugee camps to which between four hundred thousand and five hundred thousand enslaved men, women, and children in the Union-occupied portions of the Confederacy fled to escape their owners by getting themselves to the Union Army. Army personnel had not envisioned overseeing a massive network of refugee camps. Responding to the interplay between the actions of the former slaves who fled to the camps, Republican legislation and policy, military orders, and real conditions on the ground, the army improvised. In the contraband camps, former slaves endured overcrowding, food and clothing shortages, poor sanitary conditions, and constant danger. They also gained the protection of the Union Army and access to the power of the US government as new, though unsteady, allies in the pursuit of their key interests, including education, employment, and the reconstitution of family, kin, and social life. The camps brought together actors who had previously had little to no contact with each other, exposed everyone involved to massive structural forces that were much larger than the human ability to control them, and led to unexpected outcomes. They produced a refugee crisis on US soil, affected the course and outcome of the Civil War, influenced the progress of wartime emancipation, and altered the relationship between the individual and the national government. Contraband camps were simultaneously humanitarian crises and incubators for a new relationship between African Americans and the US government.
Philippe R. Girard
Haiti (known as Saint-Domingue until it gained its independence from France in 1804) had a noted economic and political impact on the United States during the era of the American Revolution, when it forced U.S. statesmen to confront issues they had generally avoided, most prominently racism and slavery. But the impact of the Haitian Revolution was most tangible in areas like commerce, territorial expansion, and diplomacy. Saint-Domingue served as a staging ground for the French military and navy during the American Revolution and provided troops to the siege of Savannah in 1779. It became the United States’ second-largest commercial partner during the 1780s and 1790s. After Saint-Domingue’s slaves revolted in 1791, many of its inhabitants found refuge in the United States, most notably in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans. Fears (or hopes) that the slave revolt would spread to the United States were prevalent in public opinion. As Saint-Domingue achieved quasi-autonomous status under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, it occupied a central place in the diplomacy of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase was made possible in part by the failure of a French expedition to Saint-Domingue in 1802–1803. Bilateral trade declined after Saint-Domingue acquired its independence from France in 1804 (after which Saint-Domingue became known as Haiti), but Haiti continued to loom large in the African-American imagination, and there were several attempts to use Haiti as a haven for U.S. freedmen. The U.S. diplomatic recognition of Haiti also served as a reference point for antebellum debates on slavery, the slave trade, and the status of free people of color in the United States.
Sean P. Harvey
“Race,” as a concept denoting a fundamental division of humanity and usually encompassing cultural as well as physical traits, was crucial in early America. It provided the foundation for the colonization of Native land, the enslavement of American Indians and Africans, and a common identity among socially unequal and ethnically diverse Europeans. Longstanding ideas and prejudices merged with aims to control land and labor, a dynamic reinforced by ongoing observation and theorization of non-European peoples. Although before colonization, neither American Indians, nor Africans, nor Europeans considered themselves unified “races,” Europeans endowed racial distinctions with legal force and philosophical and scientific legitimacy, while Natives appropriated categories of “red” and “Indian,” and slaves and freed people embraced those of “African” and “colored,” to imagine more expansive identities and mobilize more successful resistance to Euro-American societies. The origin, scope, and significance of “racial” difference were questions of considerable transatlantic debate in the age of Enlightenment and they acquired particular political importance in the newly independent United States.
Since the beginning of European exploration in the 15th century, voyagers called attention to the peoples they encountered, but European, American Indian, and African “races” did not exist before colonization of the so-called New World. Categories of “Christian” and “heathen” were initially most prominent, though observations also encompassed appearance, gender roles, strength, material culture, subsistence, and language. As economic interests deepened and colonies grew more powerful, classifications distinguished Europeans from “Negroes” or “Indians,” but at no point in the history of early America was there a consensus that “race” denoted bodily traits only. Rather, it was a heterogeneous compound of physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics passed on from one generation to another. While Europeans assigned blackness and African descent priority in codifying slavery, skin color was secondary to broad dismissals of the value of “savage” societies, beliefs, and behaviors in providing a legal foundation for dispossession.
“Race” originally denoted a lineage, such as a noble family or a domesticated breed, and concerns over purity of blood persisted as 18th-century Europeans applied the term—which dodged the controversial issue of whether different human groups constituted “varieties” or “species”—to describe a roughly continental distribution of peoples. Drawing upon the frameworks of scripture, natural and moral philosophy, and natural history, scholars endlessly debated whether different races shared a common ancestry, whether traits were fixed or susceptible to environmentally produced change, and whether languages or the body provided the best means to trace descent. Racial theorization boomed in the U.S. early republic, as some citizens found dispossession and slavery incompatible with natural-rights ideals, while others reconciled any potential contradictions through assurances that “race” was rooted in nature.
In January 1938, Benny Goodman took command of Carnegie Hall on a blustery New York City evening and for two hours his band tore through the history of jazz in a performance that came to define the entire Swing Era. Goodman played Carnegie Hall at the top of his jazz game leading his crack band—including Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet—through new, original arrangements by Fletcher Henderson. Compounding the historic nature of the highly publicized jazz concert, Goodman welcomed onto the stage members of Duke Ellington’s band to join in on what would be the first major jazz performance by an integrated band. With its sprit of inclusion as well as its emphasis on the historical contours of the first decades of jazz, Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert represented the apex of jazz music’s acceptance as the most popular form of American musical expression. In addition, Goodman’s concert coincided with the resurgence of the record industry, hit hard by the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, millions of Americans purchased swing records and tuned into jazz radio programs, including Goodman’s own show, which averaged two million listeners during that period.
And yet, only forty years separated this major popular triumph and the very origins of jazz music. Between 1900 and 1945, American musical culture changed dramatically; new sounds via new technologies came to define the national experience. At the same time, there were massive demographic shifts as black southerners moved to the Midwest and North, and urban culture eclipsed rural life as the norm. America in 1900 was mainly a rural and disconnected nation, defined by regional identities where cultural forms were transmitted through live performances. By the end of World War II, however, a definable national musical culture had emerged, as radio came to link Americans across time and space. Regional cultures blurred as a national culture emerged via radio transmissions, motion picture releases, and phonograph records. The turbulent decade of the 1920s sat at the center of this musical and cultural transformation as American life underwent dramatic changes in the first decades of the 20th century.
In the post-1945 period, jazz moved rapidly from one major avant-garde revolution (the birth of bebop) to another (the emergence of free jazz) while developing a profusion of subgenres (hard bop, progressive, modal, Third Stream, soul jazz) and a new idiomatic persona (cool or hip) that originated as a form of African American resistance but soon became a signature of transgression and authenticity across the modern arts and culture. Jazz’s long-standing affiliation with African American urban life and culture intensified through its central role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. By the 1970s, jazz, now fully eclipsed in popular culture by rock n’ roll, turned to electric instruments and fractured into a multitude of hyphenated styles (jazz-funk, jazz-rock, fusion, Latin jazz). The move away from acoustic performance and traditional codes of blues and swing musicianship generated a neoclassical reaction in the 1980s that coincided with a mission to establish an orthodox jazz canon and honor the music’s history in elite cultural institutions. Post-1980s jazz has been characterized by tension between tradition and innovation, earnest preservation and intrepid exploration, Americanism and internationalism.
Brian D. Behnken
African Americans and Latino/as have had a long history of social interactions that have been strongly affected by the broader sense of race in the United States. Race in the United States has typically been constructed as a binary of black and white. Latino/as do not fit neatly into this binary. Some Latino/as have argued for a white racial identity, which has at times frustrated their relationships with black people. For African Americans and Latino/as, segregation often presented barriers to good working relationships. The two groups were often segregated from each other, making them mutually invisible. This invisibility did not make for good relations.
Latino/as and blacks found new avenues for improving their relationships during the civil rights era, from the 1940s to the 1970s. A number of civil rights protests generated coalitions that brought the two communities together in concerted campaigns. This was especially the case for militant groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Mexican American Brown Berets, and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, as well as in the Poor People’s Campaign. Interactions among African Americans and Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban/Cuban American illustrate the deep and often convoluted sense of race consciousness in American history, especially during the time of the civil rights movement.
The history of Muslims in America dates back to the transatlantic mercantile interactions between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Upon its arrival, Islam became entrenched in American discourses on race and civilization because literate and noble African Muslims, brought to America as slaves, had problematized popular stereotypes of Muslims and black Africans. Furthermore, these enslaved Muslims had to re-evaluate and reconfigure their beliefs and practices to form new communal relations and to make sense of their lives in America.
At the turn of the 20th century, as Muslim immigrants began arriving in the United States from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South Asia, they had to establish themselves in an America in which the white race, Protestantism, and progress were conflated to define a triumphalist American national identity, one that allowed varying levels of inclusion for Muslims based on their ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds.
The enormous bloodshed and destruction experienced during World War I ushered in a crisis of confidence in the ideals of the European Enlightenment, as well as in white, Protestant nationalism. It opened up avenues for alternative expressions of progress, which allowed Muslims, along with other nonwhite, non-Christian communities, to engage in political and social organization. Among these organizations were a number of black religious movements that used Islamic beliefs, rites, and symbols to define a black Muslim national identity.
World War II further shifted America, away from the religious competition that had earlier defined the nation’s identity and toward a “civil religion” of American democratic values and political institutions. Although this inclusive rhetoric was received differently along racial and ethnic lines, there was an overall appeal for greater visibility for Muslims in America. After World War II, increased commercial and diplomatic relations between the United States and Muslim-majority countries put American Muslims in a position, not only to relate Islam and America in their own lives but also to mediate between the varying interests of Muslim-majority countries and the United States.
Following the civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s and the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, Muslim activists, many of whom had been politicized by anticolonial movements abroad, established new Islamic institutions. Eventually, a window was opened between the US government and American Muslim activists, who found a common enemy in communism following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Since the late 1960s, the number of Muslims in the United States has grown significantly. Today, Muslims are estimated to constitute a little more than 1 percent of the US population. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the United States as the sole superpower in the world, the United States has come into military conflict with Muslim-majority countries and has been the target of attacks by militant Muslim organizations. This has led to the cultivation of the binaries of “Islam and the West” and of “good” Islam and “bad” Islam, which have contributed to the racialization of American Muslims. It has also interpolated them into a reality external to their history and lived experiences as Muslims and Americans.
The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy.
At work, unions dithered in their efforts to root out employment discrimination. Their initial enthusiasm for Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed employment discrimination, waned the more the new law violated foundational union practices by infringing on the principle of seniority, emphasizing the rights of the individual over the group, and inserting the courts into the workplace. The two souls of postwar liberalism— labor solidarity represented by unions and racial justice represented by the civil rights movement—were in conflict at work.
Although the unions and civil rights activists were adversaries over employment discrimination, they united in trying to register southern blacks to vote. Black enfranchisement would end the South’s exceptionalism and the veto it exercised over liberal legislation in Congress. But the two souls of liberalism that were at odds over the meaning of fairness at work would also diverge at the ballot box. As white workers began to defect from the Democratic Party, the political coalition of black and white workers that union leaders had hoped to build was undermined from below. The divergence between the two souls of liberalism in the 1960s—economic justice represented by unions and racial justice represented by civil rights—helps explain the resurgence of conservatism that followed.
“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries.
Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century.
With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.
Rock and roll, a popular music craze of the mid-1950s, turned a loud, fast, and sexy set of sounds rooted in urban, black, working class, and southern America into the pop preference as well of suburban, white, young, and northern America. By the late 1960s, those fans and British counterparts made their own version, more politicized and experimental and just called rock—the summoning sound of the counterculture. Rock’s aura soon faded: it became as much entertainment staple as dissident form, with subcategories disparate as singer-songwriter, heavy metal, alternative, and “classic rock.” Where rock and roll was integrated and heterogeneous, rock was largely white and homogeneous, policing its borders. Notoriously, rock fans detonated disco records in 1979. By the 1990s, rock and roll style was hip-hop, with its youth appeal and rebelliousness; post‒baby boomer bands gave rock some last vanguard status; and suburbanites found classic rock in New Country. This century’s notions of rock and roll have blended thoroughly, from genre “mash-ups” to superstar performers almost categories unto themselves and new sounds such as EDM beats. Still, crossover moments evoke rock and roll; assertions of authenticity evoke rock. Because rock and roll, and rock, epitomize cultural ideals and group identities, their definitions have been constantly debated. Initial argument focused on challenging genteel, professional notions of musicianship and behavior. Later discourse took up cultural incorporation and social empowerment, with issues of gender and commercialism as prominent as race and artistry. Rock and roll promised one kind of revolution to the post-1945 United States; rock another. The resulting hope and confusion has never been fully sorted, with mixed consequences for American music and cultural history.
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
Slave narratives emerged in the 18th century to testify to the inhumanity of the practice of slavery. Often autobiographical accounts, but sometimes written by others or dictated to an amanuensis who took dictation, these accounts were celebrated in the United States as a powerful new genre, and they became associated primarily with slavery in the United States. Published both before and after the abolition of slavery, the narratives were never devoted solely to the abolition of slavery. Rather, they were attempts to represent the experiences, and argue for the authority, of those who experienced first-hand the ideological contradictions and the racial oppression fundamental to the maintenance of the system of slavery. These were stories deeply relevant long after the legal end of slavery—but the slave narratives were for many years either overlooked or decidedly dismissed as reliable historical sources, and they were not recognized as valuable literary documents for even longer. Eventually, historians and literary scholars alike began to embrace this genre of writing and recognized as well that it was a genre defined less by form than by purpose. Although often associated with book-length autobiographies by such prominent figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or Booker T. Washington, the genre of slave narratives has come to include virtually any testimony of the enslaved, related in whatever form. What has come to matter, in the end, is precisely the authority of the enslaved that early writers struggled to establish.
The patterns of urban slavery in North American and pre-Civil War US cities reveal the ways in which individual men and women, as well as businesses, institutions, and governmental bodies employed slave labor and readily adapted the system of slavery to their economic needs and desires. Colonial cities east and west of the Mississippi River founded initially as military forts, trading posts, and maritime ports, relied on African and Native American slave labor from their beginnings. The importance of slave labor increased in Anglo-American East Coast urban settings in the 18th century as the number of enslaved Africans increased in these colonies, particularly in response to the growth of the tobacco, wheat, and rice industries in the southern colonies. The focus on African slavery led most Anglo-American colonies to outlaw the enslavement of Native Americans, and urban slavery on the East Coast became associated almost solely with people of African descent. In addition, these cities became central nodes in the circum-Atlantic transportation and sale of enslaved people, slave-produced goods, and provisions for slave colonies whose economies centered on plantation goods. West of the Mississippi, urban enslavement of Native Americans, Mexicans, and even a few Europeans continued through the 19th century.
As the thirteen British colonies transitioned to the United States during and after the Revolutionary War, three different directions emerged regarding the status of slavery, which would affect the status of slavery and people of African descent in cities. The gradual emancipation of enslaved people in states north of Delaware led to the creation of the so-called free states, with large numbers of free blacks moving into cities to take full advantage of freedom and the possibility of creating family and community. Although antebellum northern cities were located within areas where legalized slavery ended, these cities retained economic and political ties to southern slavery. At the same time, the radical antislavery movement developed in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Thus, Northern cities were the site of political conflicts between pro- and antislavery forces. In the Chesapeake, as the tobacco economy declined, slave owners manumitted enslaved blacks for whom they did not have enough work, creating large groups of free blacks in cities. But these states began to participate heavily in the domestic slave trade, with important businesses located in cities. And in the Deep South, the recommitment to slavery following the Louisiana Purchase and the emergence of the cotton economy led to the creation of a string of wealthy port cities critical to the transportation of slaves and goods. These cities were situated in local economic geographies that connected rural plantations to urban settings and in national and international economies of exchange of raw and finished goods that fueled industries throughout the Atlantic world. The vast majority of enslaved people employed in the antebellum South worked on rural farms, but slave labor was a key part of the labor force in southern cities. Only after the Civil War did slavery and cities become separate in the minds of Americans, as postwar whites north and south created a mythical South in which romanticized antebellum cotton plantations became the primary symbol of American slavery, regardless of the long history of slavery that preceded their existence.
During the 1890s, the word segregation became the preferred term for the practice of coercing different groups of people, especially those designated by race, to live in separate and unequal urban residential neighborhoods. In the southern states of the United States, segregationists imported the word—originally used in the British colonies of Asia—to describe Jim Crow laws, and, in 1910, whites in Baltimore passed a “segregation ordinance” mandating separate black and white urban neighborhoods. Copy-cat legislation sprang up in cities across the South and the Midwest. But in 1917, a multiracial team of lawyers from the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) mounted a successful legal challenge to these ordinances in the U.S. Supreme Court—even as urban segregation laws were adopted in other places in the world, most notably in South Africa. The collapse of the movement for legislated racial segregation in the United States occurred just as African Americans began migrating in large numbers into cities in all regions of the United States, resulting in waves of anti-black mob violence. Segregationists were forced to rely on nonstatutory or formally nonracial techniques. In Chicago, an alliance of urban reformers and real estate professionals invented alternatives to explicitly racist segregation laws. The practices they promoted nationwide created one of the most successful forms of urban racial segregation in world history, rivaling and finally outliving South African apartheid. Understanding how this system came into being and how it persists today requires understanding both how the Chicago segregationists were connected to counterparts elsewhere in the world and how they adapted practices of city-splitting to suit the peculiarities of racial politics in the United States.