The Civil Rights era of the 1960’s and 1970’s in the United States was a fight against racism, segregation and discrimination of minorities, but specifically African-Americans. The movement included fighting against both official and also unofficial laws of discrimination. While there were laws of segregation on the books, many of the worst forms of discrimination were happening in less legal ways. When we read about the civil rights movement, we hear about sit-ins, Martin Luther King, Jr., marches, protests, etc. We also often hear about how white men fought against or how they felt about the movement.
What we never hear about however is how this movement affected white suburban women. We don’t hear about how the white women of that era were affected by the civil rights movement and the changes going on in America. I intend to gain knowledge on the perspective of the white women of this time period. What the civil rights movement meant to them, how it affected them, and how it made them feel. I want to know what they saw, what they did and what they thought about regarding the civil rights movement and its effects on life as they knew it. Their involvement in this important period in American history is completely disregarded even though their mere proximity to it should necessitate some sort of reaction or effect. Considering all of the research, writing and attention given to the movement, to ignore the effect it had this group of women, is to ignore their existence altogether.
In an attempt to begin to gain perspective on the roles played by white women and the effects of the civil rights movement on white women, I have conducted this oral history project. I have asked multiple women of their experiences before, during and following the American civil rights movement. I started out by coming up with a list of questions to ask each women. They were questions that I assumed each women would have some sort of answer to given that this was such a great movement of their time. I knew that the interviews would be less directed by my questions and more directed by the interview itself however. Once I began interviewing, I also found that it would be necessary that I interview multiple women in order to get a well-rounded and complete perspective. I would need to speak to women of different ages and from different places in order to do this.
As I quickly found out, the experiences and effects of the civil rights movement varied greatly depending on many different factors. Age was one of the greatest influencing factors that I found to affect the experiences of these women. I knew that age would be significant merely based on the fact that the movement may not have affected women who were quite young in any way that they would have known or recognized. Most of the women that I spoke to noted that while they knew the movement was going on, it didn’t really affect them in their daily lives. A teenager during the sixties, one woman said “I guess I didn’t pay attention much.” Others had similar responses like another woman who said in “the ‘60’s [she] was in high school and could have cared less about just about anything. The ‘70’s was babies and trying to get by.” Based off of these interviews alone, it would seem that the movement failed to impact the lives of white suburban women.
Others of the same generation however had some experiences that they remember. They remember general memories of the time or things they heard about. One woman said, “I remember the Dream speech being on the news. I remember seeing all the people walking in a march although I didn’t know what they were walking for, and I remember people fighting about which kids should go to which school.” This experience describes the memories of what she viewed and not direct experiences or emotions felt. This experience did not have a great impact on the interviewee’s life because these are merely memories of things that happened and at the time she didn’t really understand exactly what was happening, just what she saw.
Another woman could point out examples of how the movement made her feel. She said, “I remember seeing pictures on TV…of blacks and whites fighting. I remember [my parents] talking about President Kennedy’s forward thinking [about] civil rights. I remember hearing them talk about the…riots…and racial tension. I remember thinking fighting is bad, not the black people.” This woman, seven years old at the time, describes how witnessing what little she did of the movement can describe how they made her feel from her own perspective. These feelings that she had built up an impression, separate from that of her parents. Her memories of those moments and the feelings she has attached to them, show the impact of the movement had on her life.
Another example of this can be seen in the interview of a woman who started out by saying that the movement didn’t affect her and that she didn’t have any feelings about it at all. Throughout our interview however, her feelings began to come out. She said that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination made her very nervous and she “remember[ed] thinking that the city was going to go up in arms over black/white stuff. [She] hated that feeling. Why [couldn’t] everyone just get along?” Similarly, another woman, a housewife with four children at home, began our interview by saying that she wasn’t exposed to it at all and didn’t see anything about it. After some talking, however, she remembered sitting and watching the MLK speech on TV with her husband and that he was very upset about it because “he didn’t believe in it”.She remembered thinking that he must be right because he knew more about this than she did. I think that this shows how age affected the experiences of the movement and the impact it had. Her place as the housewife/mother left her in a position to believe as her husband did merely because that was what was expected of her and all that she knew to do.
The other great influencing factor that I noted throughout my interviews was geographic location. While most of these women were from the suburban Chicago area, I also interviewed a few women from the Los Angeles suburbs as well. At the time, I was merely gaining more perspectives, however I came upon a very interesting turn in my research. The views and experiences of the women from California were often very different from those of the Chicago women. Every one of the Chicago women mentioned that one of the reasons why their experiences and feelings about the movement were limited was because it didn’t affect them until much later. They were in segregated schools, they lived in all-white neighborhoods, and they didn’t see black people on a regular basis. One of the Chicago women noted that the first black person she had ever seen was in the mid 1960’s. She said “he worked at [her] father’s store. He was very nice to [them] but I just knew he was different and it scared [her]”. She just wasn’t exposed to black people, let alone the civil rights movement, showing why the impact of the movement on her life wasn’t great.
One of the California women, however, remembered her black friend in school who was sent out of class during history lessons because they were learning about slavery, southern history and the Civil War. She said she was “shocked and angry, for her. [She] thought it was horrible. I guess [I] thought ‘don’t teach it then’”. Another Californian woman remembered that there weren’t “any racial problems in school…or [after school] activities…I did think it was weird that my friends lived in a ‘black neighborhood’ and we lived in a ‘white neighborhood’. I didn’t really realize we had any differences other than our neighborhood”. Here again the situation is different for the women based on their location. In the Chicago suburbs, most of the women were not exposed to black people enough to fully realize the issues or the impact of the movement. The California women however both noted that integration, at least at the school level, wasn’t an issue. They were fully exposed to black children and this made them realize and hold onto the feelings the issues of segregation caused in them.
One of the most interesting interviews I did was on another California woman. She was not only impacted by the issues and events of the civil rights era, she was a part of it. Remembering the Watts Riots of 1965, she said, “I worked at…a printing press in a warehouse in Watts. On a Friday morning, this nice old black man came …[and said] to get the little blonde girl out of the building…the riots began that night and burned for five days”. This led to her interest in the civil rights but also into women’s lib movements as well. She volunteered for the Black Panther party, attended meetings, and was witness to the participation of substantial black and white women, though these women are rarely mentioned as being involved. She said, “I do remember that when I asked to actually be a member, I was told no because I was white” She points out that civil rights wasn’t the only thing going on at the time and mentioned “the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Black Power, Brown Power”. They were all fighting for something. “As a woman, I was odd. I think that era possibly made me far too erroneously self-sufficient and maybe deluded. I wish I would not have gone through life trying to prove that I could do anything a man could do. I would feel better now if I had pretended to be helpless at least once in a while”. I found this statement to be interesting, specifically given where it led from. Her curiosity about equality stemmed from a very young age and was based on the civil rights movement. Her position, in being directly involved in these events of the movement, led her to her views today.
Regarding the correlation between gender and the civil rights movement, she said that the women of the 1960’s “really initiated a new ‘feeling of freedom’…It was an unusual empowerment…I think women of all colors and blacks had a lot of the same battles for equality and that’s how we thought about ourselves”. Here she has made the connection between the fight for equality of both African-Americans and women during the time period. Whether their causes were working together or not, they were linked in this way. She pointed out that “women were ONLY to secretaries or hairdressers. Women only went to college to find a husband. Black men were only janitors. There was some sort of common ground”. I think this is most interesting mainly because of the differences that it again presents based on geographic location.