Turning the Tables on Civil Rights: The 1970s and 1980s

Griot: Dawson Barrett

Photo and Copy Editor: Fran Kaplan


The Civil Rights Movement and Other Movements of the 50s and 60s

In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists in cities all over the United States fought against racial discrimination.  They participated in sit-ins, marches, and protests.  They risked their lives.  Sometimes, they were even killed.  In response to this pressure, the US government passed many civil rights laws.

The Civil Rights Movement also influenced other activists.  Many of them protested for freedom and equality, as well.  They included the Women’s Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, and the Environmental Movement.

During this period, many new laws were passed in favor of women’s rights and the environment. However, not all Americans agreed with these movements.

The Counter-Movement Turns the Tables in the 70s and 80s

During the 1970s, opponents of these movements started a movement of their own.  To overturn the gains of the 1960s, they spent millions of dollars on advertising and political campaigns.  This movement, sometimes called “the New Right,” pushed for a different kind of freedom.  Instead of equality for blacks and women, they sought freedom for American businesses.

They had four main goals:

  1. To have complete freedom to make money through businesses.  This included the freedom to exploit their workers and pollute the environment.
  2. To get rid of public property, such as public parks and schools.
  3. To cut taxes for the richest Americans.
  4. To cut funding for public services, like education, housing, and food stamps.

The philosophy that combines these goals is called “neo-liberalism.” These policies moved the government away from helping the poor and protecting the environment.  Instead, the government worked to help the richest Americans get even richer.

A Turning Point: The Election of President Ronald Reagan 

In 1980, these groups united to support Ronald Reagan for President.  Reagan promised to undo the gains of the 1960s.  He even began his campaign with a speech against civil rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  This small town was famous because three civil rights activists in their twenties – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – were murdered there in 1964. (A fictionalized account of these murders and the subsequent FBI investigation is portrayed in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning.)

Reagan was true to his word.  While he was President, the government became less concerned about racial discrimination. Reagan made William Rehnquist the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.  Rehnquist was a firm opponent of civil rights legislation.

President Reagan also worked against women’s rights.  He closed many government agencies, like the Office on Domestic Violence.  He also spoke out against changing the US Constitution to outlaw sexual discrimination.

Reagan also put some of the country’s worst polluters in charge of environmental programs. Anne Gorsuch, formerly a lawyer who represented mining and agricultural companies, became head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  James Watt, who had started a group devoted to fighting environmental protections, was made Secretary of the Interior.  As expected, they did very little to protect the Earth.

During the 1980s, over 1 million Americans became homeless.  At the same time, Reagan made massive cuts to federal housing assistance.  Reagan also cut taxes for the richest Americans by more than half.  The poor became poorer.  The rich became richer.

President Reagan also approved $1 trillion in military spending.  It was the largest peace-time military spending in history.


New Activists Speak Out Through the Arts

By the end of the Ronald Reagan’s presidency, many of the victories of 1960s activists had been overturned.

However, many new movements also started during this period.  They included hip hop and punk rock music.  Artists in these movements often spoke out against racial inequality, poverty, and police brutality.  Unlike the activists of the 1960s, though, these movements did not focus their efforts on changing US laws.


Faludi, Susan. Backlash:  The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York:  Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1991.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.

Saloma III, John S. Ominous Politics:  The New Conservative Labyrinth. New York:  Hill and Wang, 1984.


Dawson Barrett is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  He recently taught a history course on American activism and countercultures in the post-1960s period.