Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

A Revolution of Rights

by Thomas J. Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania

The struggle for freedom accelerated in the mid–twentieth century. During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke eloquently of the "Four Freedoms" of speech and worship and from want and fear. In 1944, he pledged his support for a "Second Bill of Rights" establishing the right to a decent home, a remunerative job, education, and security in infirmity and old age. Yet for millions of Americans, those promises remained unfulfilled. How could America fight for democracy abroad when many of its people were second-class citizens? How could America achieve its ideals of freedom and equality?

For two-thirds of a century following World War II, ordinary Americans launched a "rights revolution," demanding equality, security, and recognition. At the vanguard of this revolution were African Americans. In the South, blacks were denied the right to vote. Buses, bathrooms, and drinking fountains were segregated. Separate and unequal was not distinctive to the South, however. Throughout the country—North, South, and West—blacks and whites attended separate schools, lived in segregated neighborhoods, and faced routine discrimination at restaurants, hotels, theaters, and pools. Everywhere, blacks were concentrated in bottom-of-the-rung jobs. 

The mid–twentieth century witnessed widespread resistance to every aspect of racial inequality. Civil rights activists engaged in sit-ins at segregated restaurants, beginning in northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Peoria, and Cleveland during World War II and the immediate postwar years, then moving southward to Atlanta, Nashville, and Greensboro in the early 1960s. In hundreds of cities and towns between World War II and the mid-1960s—from Hillburn and New Rochelle, New York, to Prince Edward County, Virginia, and Houston, Texas—black parents demanded equal education for their children. They brought lawsuits against racially separate schools, led dozens of school boycotts, and sometimes created their own "freedom schools" to provide alternative education to their children when segregated schools failed.

Some of the most important civil rights battles focused on the right to a decent home. Fair housing activists challenged racial restrictions on the rental or purchase of properties, and they worked through the courts and legislatures to prevent discrimination in real estate. And they tried to exercise their freedom to live where they chose. For that they met with fierce resistance. In Detroit, for example, over two hundred black families moving into white neighborhoods were greeted by mobs, vandalism, and violence. In Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, religious groups like the Quakers joined with local civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to protect the first black family that moved there during weeks of organized, sometimes violent, protests.

Civil rights groups also targeted the workplace, calling for both fair and full employment. The official title of the August 1963 event at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Most of those gathered in Washington believed that freedom from discrimination was necessary for blacks to have access to jobs and, at the same time, that decent, well-paying, secure work was necessary for freedom from want.

Just as African American activists called for the recognition of their rights, so too did their white opponents call for a defense of what they believed were their rights. They argued that the right to free association justified all-white public accommodations, that the right of homeowners to live among neighbors like themselves was threatened by civil rights' groups demands for integration, that children had a right to attend their neighborhood schools (which, because of housing segregation, were usually racially homogeneous), and that the right of employers to hire and fire whom they chose would be undermined by laws that forbade employment discrimination.

The demands of the black freedom struggle were partly met. In 1964, Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation that banned segregation in public accommodations and forbade discrimination in the workplace. And in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the rights of all citizens, regardless of race, to participate fully in the democratic process. Advocates of voting rights argued that racial equality depended on universal access to the ballot; if blacks could not use the leverage of their votes, their hard-won freedoms might be lost.

The number of black elected officials skyrocketed after 1965. Black workers made real gains in the workplace, and Jim Crow drinking fountains, theaters, and restaurants largely disappeared when the federal government began enforcing civil rights legislation. But laws were not a panacea. Segregation in housing and schools remained stubbornly resistant to change. Many whites, challenging "forced integration" as a violation of their freedoms, voted with their feet, leaving when blacks moved into their neighborhoods and integrated schools.

At the same time that African Americans struggled for equality, women's groups demanded rights and recognition. World War II was also a turning point. During the military mobilization, millions of women were recruited to work in formerly all-male defense jobs. The image of "Rosie the Riveter," the strong, independent, female worker, became a popular icon. Even though many women lost their wartime jobs, they participated in the paid labor force in steadily growing numbers from the 1940s onward. Still, women's work paid less than men's. Sexual harassment was commonplace. It was especially difficult for single women to make ends meet or support their families.

After the war, a broad coalition of women's activists pushed for women's rights and equality, especially in the workplace. They called for equal pay for equal work, demanded an end to sex discrimination, and lobbied for affordable day care so that women could work outside the home. In 1963, two months after King marched on Washington, the president's Commission on the Status of Women, headed by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, called for legislation to bring these goals to fruition. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination on the basis of sex.

Civil rights legislation alone did not guarantee women's rights. In 1966, the National Organization for Women organized to fight for the enforcement of antidiscrimination laws. Feminists expanded their demands for freedom to include reproductive rights, especially access to contraception and abortion. In the meantime, advocates of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution—who had been working for decades, against the odds, for equality by sex—found renewed support because of grassroots feminist activism. In 1972, after widespread protests and lobbying, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the ERA with strong bipartisan support. But a grassroots campaign, led by right-wing insurgents, ultimately prevented the ERA's ratification by the required thirty-eight states. They argued that the ERA would undermine timeless, God-given differences between men and women and that women exercising their right to work in male-dominated jobs at equal pay would undermine the family and threaten traditional masculinity.

The postwar period also witnessed a parallel movement for gay and lesbian rights. During the 1940s and 1950s, federal, state, and local governments cracked down on suspected homosexuals (although many gays had served openly during World War II). Psychologists categorized homosexuality as a mental illness. Non-heterosexuals were treated as pariahs, risking their jobs if they revealed their sexual orientation. In the 1950s, gay and lesbian activists created "homophile" organizations to demand full recognition. Like many civil rights activists, they called for integration into mainstream American society. Like feminists, they opposed discrimination. They couched their demands in terms of individual rights: the right to enter into relationships of their choice, to pursue their happiness untrammeled by intrusive laws and bias.

By the 1970s, gay liberation had succeeded in increasing the visibility of sexual minorities and, in the 1980s and 1990s, raising public consciousness about AIDS. But it was not until the early 2000s that decades of activism brought more systematic changes, including a landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down laws forbidding same-sex relations in 2003 and the recognition of same-sex marriage by a handful of states.

Like gays, the disabled were also treated as pariahs, often unable to find gainful employment. They were barred from riding buses or entering public buildings because of physical obstacles. Since the New Deal, laws provided modest assistance to the blind and disabled. The Veterans Administration (created in 1944) provided support for those injured in war. During the postwar years, lawyers and advocates pushed for more generous support and job opportunities for those who were unemployed because of physical or psychological disabilities. But disabled Americans were stigmatized, impoverished, and often jobless. Emboldened by the rights revolution of the 1960s, many disabled activists organized to remove barriers to personal mobility and employment. Finally, in 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that extended many of the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, preventing discrimination in employment, public facilities, and some housing.

Many of the rights won through protest, litigation and legislation remain fragile. But the gains made by racial minorities, women, gays, and the disabled since the mid–twentieth century rank among the most consequential changes in all of American history. The rights revolution transformed the modern United States.

Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his books is Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (Random House, 2008).