American History as It Happened

MODULE SEVEN: 1966-1990

View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they demonstrate, fists raised outside the New York City courthouse, New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)

The signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the victorious culmination of the civil rights movement, and important progress against racial segregation and discrimination. But 1965 was also the summer of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, which signaled growing frustration in black communities.

This module looks at the years that followed: 1966 to 1990. Even before the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the civil rights movement was changing in tone and focus. Before long, the national spotlight would turn to other matters altogether, and the post-civil-rights-movement era, as we are calling it here, would be marked by some progress but also setbacks on the way to Dr. King’s mountaintop.

Students will review excerpts from The Nation’s coverage of the African-American experience in these years. They will evaluate the events of the era, identify the relationships between those events, and then explain their historical significance in the ongoing process of achieving civil rights. Students and teachers have links to PDFs of every article cited in the document section.

Students work with this content to practice skills for the DBQ portion of the AP American History exam. The DBQ question to be answered is: Using the documents below and your outside knowledge, analyze what was changing in African-American life, for the better and/or worse, in the years following the civil rights movement. 

PERIOD SUMMARY: After the turmoil and hard-won triumphs of the civil rights movement, race relations in the United States after 1965 entered a new phase. The era began roughly, with the founding of the Black Panther Party,  a political organization founded in 1966 to challenge police brutality against the African-American community, and the “long, hot summer” of 1967, which saw 159 “race riots” erupt in cities across the country. In April 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—on the eve of his Poor People’s Campaign and March on Washington D.C.—unofficially ended the civil rights era.

In the 1970s, the national focus shifted away from these concerns. The 1980s were defined by Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his “supply-side” or “trickle-down” economic policies. Meanwhile, notable achievements by individual African-Americans marked a cultural shift in the country. In 1972, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm became the first Black American to run for a major party’s nomination for president of the US and Barbara Jordan and Andrew Young become the first African-American Congressional representatives from the South since 1898. In 1983, the novel “The Color Purple,” written by poet and activist Alice Walker wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1984 and 1988, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson became the first Black man to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. At the same time, however, growing economic and social despair in many Black communities was taking a heavy toll. The US crime rate escalated and drug use skyrocketed (including, in the 1980s, crack cocaine). In reaction to these and other developments, the mass incarceration of millions of African-American men began on an unprecedented scale.



OBJECTIVE: Explore the forces that defined African-American experiences and identity in the period 1966–1990, and have students construct an argument for how those forces contributed to the achievement or denial of racial equality in the United States.



  • NAT-1.0: Explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity
  • POL-2.0: Explain how popular movements, reform efforts, and activist groups have sought to change American society and institutions.
    – Key Concept 8.2 — New movements for civil rights and liberal efforts to expand the role of government generated a range of political and cultural responses.
  • CUL-4.0:Explain how different group identities, including racial, ethnic, class, and regional identities, have emerged and changed over time.

CCSS English Language Arts: Literacy

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6: Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.8: Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

MATERIALS: Document Excerpts

Document One: “Freedom’s Crisis: The Last Steep Ascent” by Martin Luther King, Jr. The Nation, March 14, 1966

Document Two: “A White Looks at Black Power” by Paul Good, The Nation, August 8, 1966

Document Three: “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder” (AKA the Kerner Commission Report), released on February 29, 1968

Document Four: “Television” by John Horn, The Nation, March 18, 1968

Document Five: “Black Panthers: The Cornered Cats” by Michael Harris, The Nation, July 8, 1968

Document Six: “Halfway on the Long Walk” by Carey McWilliams, The Nation, December 16, 1978

Document Seven:Notes on the House of Bondage” by James Baldwin, The Nation, November 1, 1980

Document Eight: “All in Their Family” by Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, July 24, 1989

BEFORE reading, ask:

  • What was the goal of the civil rights movement? Did it meet that goal?
  • What were the circumstances of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death? (When, where, who, why, etc.) What happened to the civil rights movement after his murder?
  • For context, what other major events in US history took place in the time period 1966–1990?

Have the class read the student-page content (including introduction and the eight documents). Encourage students to read and attempt to answer all scaffolding questions (“As You Read: Things to Look For”).

AFTER reading, ask:

  • Were you surprised by any information or opinions expressed in the documents?
  • What effect did individual achievements by African-Americans have on the culture in general? Did individual accomplishments help black people as a whole? Why or why not?
  • In the first selection, Martin Luther King Jr. says, “History will not repeat itself.” Can you find examples in today’s current events that echo, if not exactly repeat, events described in these documents?

AS YOU READ: Things to Look For (Scaffolding questions also provided to students)

  • Recall. Which documents point to a newly-acquired increase in opportunity for black people in American society? Which ones point to hindrances to progress?
  • Demonstrate understanding. How would you characterize the opportunities and hindrances referred to in the previous question, in terms of social, cultural, political, or economic advancement?
  • Analyze content. What are three reasons mentioned in these excerpts for why the civil rights movement came to an end?
  • Create meaning. From the examples given here, as well as your previous knowledge of the era, determine some of the main forces that drove the events of this period, particularly as they relate to cultural change in America and equal opportunity for African-Americans.

Students are given a list of these words; only the teacher site includes the definitions.

Anachronism: historically outdated; from another time period.

Black nationalist: someone who espouses the social, political, and economic empowerment of black people as a nation unto themselves, as opposed to assimilation and integration into white society and culture.

Black Power: a slogan and a movement, especially prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, supporting African-American self-determination, autonomy, and pride. For some adherents, it also stood for providing proactive defense of black people.

Economic oppression: economic exploitation; restrictions on economic opportunities (such as employment discrimination) placed on a certain segment of society, ensuring that the dominant social group can maintain and maximize its wealth and power.

Ghetto: poor urban neighborhoods primarily populated by members of a minority group (During this time period, the word was often used to describe black inner-city slums.)

Incendiary: combustible; inflammatory; a catalyst for an explosion.

Reaganism: the principles and policies advocated by President Ronald Reagan (in office 1981-1989). Reagan’s economic policies—dubbed “Reaganomics”—included widespread tax cuts, decreased social spending, increased military spending, and deregulation of domestic markets.

Recession: in economics, a general slowdown, or decline, in economic activity for a period of time.

Watts: a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles where riots took place in 1965.

Welfare: a federal government program providing money and other support for poor people.