Key Figures of U.S. Protest Movements (1954-1973)

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

The twenty years from 1954-1973 was a time of protest in the United States. Civil rights protests may be the first thing that comes to mind, but there were other protests that occurred as well. In this lesson, we'll discuss some of the people behind those protests.

Major Protest Movements (1954-1973)

Before we specifically introduce some of the major players in the protests that took place in the United States from 1954-1973, let's briefly review some of the hottest issues of the day. From 1954-1973, the three most significant topics of protest were civil rights, the Vietnam War, and women's rights. With that quick summary, let's meet some of the key players on each side of those protests.

Key Civil Rights Figures

Many of the names from the Civil Rights Movement are commonly taught in elementary school. Most middle school students know the story of Rosa Parks and her seat on the bus. Her actions certainly brought more light to an issue that was already hot in American society - segregation and the rights of African-Americans. To better understand the civil rights conflict, the three figures we'll briefly introduce here are Martin Luther King Jr., Governor George Wallace, and President Lyndon Johnson.

Every movement has a public face - someone in that movement that is seen by both supporters and opponents as the leader. During the Civil Rights Movement, that was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A preacher and incredible orator, Dr. King inspired African Americans in the South, and throughout the country, to give up what little money they made and to strike, slowing much of the Southern economy. His inspirational speeches and sermons became hallmarks of the movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

If Dr. King was the superhero of the Civil Rights Movement, Governor George Wallace of Alabama was his nemesis. Governor Wallace was a very outspoken supporter of segregation. Even after Brown v. Board of Education, the case that resulted in desegregation of schools, the University of Alabama found ways to not accept black students, until three black applicants were accepted with the help of a federal district judge. To defy the judge, Governor Wallace stood in front of the doors of the school to block entrance to the three students. This display made George Wallace the face of the opposition when it came to civil rights.

The U.S. President at the time was Lyndon Johnson. President Johnson was supportive of the civil rights legislation that President Kennedy supported before his assassination. Johnson continued to push for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, which they did in 1964. However, while President Johnson was friendly to the cause and met with Dr. King, he understood the sensitive nature of the topic and importance of the southern democratic vote, which was why Johnson, at times, tried to distance himself from Dr. King, at least in the public eye.

Key Vietnam War Protesters

Shortly after the beginning of the Vietnam War in 1964, grassroots activist groups began to protest the war. Many of these groups were not part of the mainstream public, but tended to be much more liberal citizens and included many youths from college campuses, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). During the early years of the war, the public's perceived notion that Vietnam 'started' the war by attacking two U.S. ships helped keep public support fairly stable.

However, as the war continued and the cost rose - in terms of American lives and money - the public grew tired. Boxer Muhammad Ali came out as an objector of the war and refused to be drafted, meaning he would have had to serve prison time. But, by that time the public support for the war was waning.

The anti-war protests didn't have a clear leader like the Civil Rights Movement, but were represented by famous people criticizing the war (like Muhammad Ali) as well as college student protesters. Those involved in the Kent State anti-war protest, where students were killed, stand out in history as key figures.

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