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1950s-1960s: Civil rights era, Vietnam War

History: Race in the U.S.A., a timeline created by the American Anthropological Association, looks at milestones in thinking and actions about race in government, science and society.
Image: Caucasian National Guardsmen give an African-American student and his bicycle a lift to school
1957: National Guardsmen give an African-American student and his bicycle a lift to school while enforcing desegregation at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. A cameraman and a crowd watch from the sidewalk. Paul Slade / Getty Images
/ Source: American Anthropological Association

While the federal government began to address centuries of racial discrimination through the courts in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson, Congress began to address the reality of institutional racism throughout the U.S. Motivated by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and the media attention it garnered—from the Montgomery bus boycott, to the Birmingham bombings, to the March on Washington—Congress enacted two significant measures that, initially, were designed to overturn race-based discrimination against blacks, but have provided the basis for civil rights for all U.S. citizens. The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination in public facilities and employment, and the second was the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted a year later, barring practices aimed at disenfranchising black voters.

In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, known as the Hart-Celler Act, was amended to effectively repeal quotas based on national origins. Previously, up to two percent of a foreign country’s population was permitted to immigrate into the U.S. Instead of relying on classification by nationality and ethnicity, the new amendments created a system which took into account the reunification of families and skills which were needed in the U.S. The revised Act also changed from percentages to hard numbers, making the maximum number of immigrants from the eastern hemisphere 170,000, with no more than 20,000 from any country allowed in during each year. Since then, the most immigration to the United States has shifted, coming from Latin America and Asia rather than Europe.

The 1950 census included the following racial categories: American Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Negro, Other, White.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which stated, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The decision reversed the precedent set by the Supreme Court's previous decision in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), which had validated the segregation of public schools. Brown did not, however, result in the immediate desegregation of America's public schools, nor did it mandate desegregation of public accommodations, such as restaurants or bathrooms that were private property. That would not be accomplished until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following year, the Court completed its ruling in the second Brown decision. The Court ordered states' compliance with the Brown decision "with all deliberate speed." Even so, compliance with the provisions of the two cases was not expedient, and most public schools were not desegregated until the late 1960s and early 70s. Recent studies have found that public schools, especially those in urban areas, are still segregated.

In 1954, Operation Wetback, a project of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service deported hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Southwest, in particular Mexican nationals. Mexican citizens residing in the U.S. were called wetbacks, a derogatory term for Mexican or Central American immigrants that referred to their entry into the U.S. by crossing the Rio Grande River, which separates the two countries. The operation began in California and Arizona and coordinated more than 1,000 border patrol agents along with state and local police in one of the most aggressive crackdowns. The project included police sweeps of Mexican-American neighborhoods and random stops and ID checks of people in a region populated by many Native Americans and native Latinos. Agricultural areas were targeted by approximately 750 agents, who went in with a goal of 1,000 arrests a day. Over 50,000 immigrants were apprehended in the two states and nearly 488,000 people fled the U.S. to escape arrest. In the following months, 80,000 were taken into custody in Texas, and almost 700,000 illegal immigrants had left Texas voluntarily. Those who had been detained were taken deep into Mexico by buses and trains before being set free in an effort to discourage reentry. Two ships, ironically named the Emancipation and the Mercurio, carried tens of thousands more from Port Isabel, Texas, more than 500 miles south to Vera Cruz, Mexico. In the space of less than a year, Operation Wetback deported nearly one million Mexican nationals. The operation was eventually ended when harsh law enforcement methods led to accusation of police-state tactics.

When the Little Rock school board voted to integrate their school system in 1957, the decision was not expected to meet much resistance. The situation turned into a crisis, however, when the Little Rock Nine, the nine African American students who integrated Central High, attempted to enroll in September of that year. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called upon the National Guard to prevent them. The students again tried and failed to attend later that month. The following day President Dwight Eisenhower deployed troops from the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to protect the students, who were admitted, but endured a year of physical and verbal abuse. Little Rock then took their final option to avoid integration, and closed its public schools the next year, 1958.

The 1960 census racial categories included American Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Japanese, Negro, part Hawaiian, White, Eskimo and Aleut.

In 1961, the first U.S. troops were deployed to Vietnam; by early 1965, the U.S. forces were conducting air raids on North Vietnam and on Communist-controlled areas in the South. American forces in South Vietnam had climbed to 190,000 by 1966. In the meantime, the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were supplying arms and technical assistance to North Vietnam. Some political stability in South Vietnam was achieved after the election in 1967 of Nguyen Van Thieu as president, but in spite of massive U.S. military aid, heavy bombing, and nearly 550,000 American troops on the ground by 1969, the United States and South Vietnam were unable to defeat the North Vietnam. In some measure, the conflict in Vietnam provided the impetus for changes in the Immigration and Naturalization Act enacted in 1965.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress.

In 1967, in the Loving v. Virginia case, the Supreme Court made laws banning interracial marriage illegal.