Modern history

The Challenges of the 1970s

Though deeply disillusioned by Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, most Americans hoped that, with these disasters behind them, better times lay ahead. Nixon’s resignation did not, however, mark the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity. Under the leadership of the Democratic president Jimmy Carter, the economy worsened as oil-producing nations in the Persian Gulf and Latin America raised the price of petroleum. Carter’s efforts to revive the economy and rally the country behind energy conservation were ineffective, sharpening Republicans’ attack on his policies and presidency. Activists on both the left and the right continued to fight over the role of the federal government in economic affairs as well as over the racial and cultural issues that divided the nation.

Jimmy Carter and the Limits of Affluence

Despite his political shortcomings, Gerald Ford received the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 and ran against James Earl (Jimmy) Carter, a little-known former governor of Georgia, who used his “outsider” status to his advantage. Shaping his campaign with Watergate in mind, Carter stressed character over economic issues and promised voters that he would run the government honestly, truthfully, and morally. As a postsegregationist governor of Georgia, Carter won the support of the family of Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders. Carter needed all the help he could get and eked out a narrow victory.

The greatest challenge Carter faced once in office was a faltering economy. America’s consumer-oriented economy depended on cheap energy, a substantial portion of which came from sources outside the United States. By the 1970s, four-fifths of the world’s oil supply came from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait, all members of OPEC. The organization had been formed in 1960 by these Persian Gulf countries together with Venezuela, and it used its control of petroleum supplies to set world prices. By the time Carter became president, the cost of a barrel of oil had jumped to around $30. American drivers who had paid 30 cents a gallon for gas in 1970 paid more than four times that amount ten years later.

Energy concerns helped reshape American industry. With energy prices rising, American manufacturers sought ways to reduce costs by moving their factories to Mexico, Central and South America, and several Asian nations that offered cheaper labor and lower energy costs. This outmigration of American manufacturing had two significant consequences. First, it weakened the American labor movement, particularly in heavy industry. In the 1970s, union membership dropped from 28 to 23 percent of the

workforce and continued to decline over the next decade. Second, this process of deindustrialization accelerated a significant population shift that had begun during World War II from the old industrial areas of the Northeast and the Midwest (the Rust Belt) to the South and the Southwest (the Sun Belt), where cheaper costs and lower wages were enormously attractive to businesses (Map 27.2). Only 14 percent of southern workers were unionized in a region with a long history of opposition to labor organizing. The North’s loss was the South’s gain, and cities such as Houston, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; Phoenix, Arizona; and San Diego, California, flourished, while the steel and auto towns of Youngstown, Ohio; Flint, Michigan; and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, decayed.

These monumental shifts in the American economy produced widespread pain. Higher gasoline prices affected all businesses that relied on energy, leading to serious inflation. Between 1974 and 1980, housing prices more than doubled, and the average cost of a new car jumped from $3,900 to $5,770. To maintain their standard of living in the face of rising inflation and stagnant wages, many Americans went into debt, using a new innovation, the credit card, to borrow more than $300 billion. The American economy had gone through inflationary spirals before, but they were usually accompanied by high employment, with wages helping to drive up prices. In the 1970s, however, rising prices were accompanied by growing unemployment, a situation that economists called “stagflation.” Joblessness had risen to 9 percent on the eve of Carter’s election and stood at 7 percent when he ran for reelection in 1980. Traditionally, remedies to control inflation increased unemployment, yet most unemployment cures also spurred inflation. With both occurring at the same time, economists were confounded, and many Americans felt they had lost control over their economy. In 1978, 55 percent of survey respondents declared, “Next year will be worse than this year.”

MAP 27.2

The Sun and Rust Belts Dramatic economic and demographic shifts during the 1970s led to industrial development and population growth in the "Sun Belt" in the South and Southwest at the expense of the "Rust Belt" in the Northeast and Midwest. As manufacturers sought cheap, non-unionized labor, they moved factories to the South or overseas while defense industries and agribusiness fueled growth from Texas to California.

President Carter had no better solutions than did his predecessor. To reduce dependency on foreign oil, in 1977 Carter devised a plan for energy self-sufficiency, which he called the “moral equivalent of war.” Critics poked fun at the proposal by reducing the presidents words to the acronym MEOW, suggesting that it had all the bite of a pussycat. A more substantial accomplishment came on August 4, 1977, when Carter signed into law the creation of the Department of Energy, with responsibilities covering research, development, and conservation of energy.

The Persistence of Liberalism

Despite the elections of Richard Nixon and the economic hard times that many encountered in the 1970s, political activism did not die out with the end of the militant 1960s. Many of the changes sought by liberals and radicals during the 1960s had entered the political and cultural mainstreams. Nor did the influence of the counterculture disappear. During the 1970s, long hairstyles and colorful clothes also entered the mainstream, and rock continued to dominate popular music. American youth and many of their elders experimented with recreational drugs, and the remaining sexual taboos of the 1960s fell. Many parents became resigned to seeing their daughters and sons living with boyfriends or girlfriends before getting married. And many of those same parents sought to expand their own sexual horizons by engaging in extramarital affairs or divorcing their spouses. The divorce rate increased 116 percent in the decade after 1965; in 1979 the rate peaked at 23 divorces per 1,000 married couples.

Rock music, long linked to sexual experimentation, continued to dominate the era. The popularity of disco music, glamorized by John Travolta in the blockbuster motion picture Saturday Night Fever (1977), emphasized dance beats over social messages, much like early rock ’n’ roll. However, listeners could still get deeper meaning and engaging melodies from the works of singer-songwriters, who crafted and recorded their own songs. The decade inspired artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, and Billy Joel, whose performing energy and songs of loss, loneliness, urban decay, and adventure carried folk-rock music in new directions.

The antiwar movement and counterculture influenced popular culture in other ways. The film M*A*S*H (1970), though dealing with the Korean War, was a thinly veiled satire of the horrors of the Vietnam War, and in the late 1970s filmmakers began producing movies specifically about Vietnam and the toll the war took on ordinary Americans who served there. The television sitcom All in the Family gave American viewers the character of Archie Bunker, an opinionated blue-collar worker, in a comedy that dramatized the contemporary political and cultural war pitting conservatives against liberals. The show recounted the battle of the generations as Archie taunted his hippielooking son-in-law with politically incorrect remarks about religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, feminists, and liberals.

The battles fought in the fictional Bunker household played out in real life. In the 1970s, the women’s movement gained strength, but it also attracted powerful opponents.

The 1973 Supreme Court victory for abortion rights in Roe v. Wade (see chapter 26) mobilized women on all sides of the issue. Pro-choice advocates pointed out that previous laws criminalizing abortion exposed pregnant women who sought the procedure to unsanitary and dangerous methods of ending pregnancies. However, Roe v. Wade produced an equally strong reaction from abortion opponents. Pro-life advocates believed that a fetus was a human being and must be granted full protection from what they considered to be murder. In 1976 Congress responded to abortion opponents by passing legislation prohibiting the use of federal funds for impoverished women seeking to terminate their pregnancies.

Feminists engaged in other debates in this decade, often clashing with more conservative women. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and its allies succeeded in getting thirty-five states out of a necessary thirty-eight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which prevented the abridgment of “equality of rights under law . . . by the United States or any State on the basis of sex.” In response, other women activists formed their own movement to block ratification. Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist, founded the Stop ERA organization. She argued that the ERA would create a “unisex society” and deprive “women of the rights they already have, such as the right of a wife to be supported by her husband,” attend a single-sex college, use women’s-only bathrooms, and avoid military combat. Despite the inroads made by feminists, traditional notions of femininity appealed to many women and to maledominated legislatures. The remaining states refused to ratify the ERA, thus killing the amendment in 1982, when the ratification period expired.

Despite the failure to obtain ratification of the ERA, feminists achieved significant victories. In 1972 Congress passed the Educational Amendments Act. Title IX of this law prohibited colleges and universities that received federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex, leading to substantial advances in women’s athletics. Many more women sought relief against job discrimination through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, resulting in major victories against such firms as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. NOW membership continued to grow, and the number of battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers multiplied in towns and cities across the country. Women saw their ranks increase on college campuses, in both undergraduate and professional schools. Women also began entering politics in large enough numbers, especially at the local and state levels, to justify the formation of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. At the national level, women such as Shirley Chisholm and Geraldine Ferraro of New York, Barbara Jordan of Texas, and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado won seats in Congress. Women’s political associations— such as Emily’s List, founded in 1984, and the Fund for a Feminist Majority, founded in 1987—saw their memberships and donations soar, especially after Anita Hill testified against the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

At the same time, women of color sought to broaden the definition of feminism to include struggles against race and class oppression as well as sex discrimination. In 1974 a group of black feminists, led by author Barbara Smith, organized the Combahee River Collective and proclaimed: “We . . . often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.” Chicana and other Latina feminists drew strength from African American women in extending women’s liberation beyond the confines of the white middle class. In 1987 feminist poet and writer Gloria Anzaldua wrote: “Though I’ll defend my race and culture when they are attacked by non-mexicanos . . . I abhor some of my culture’s ways, how it cripples its women . . . our strengths used against us, lowly [women] bearing humility with dignity.”

Another outgrowth of 1960s liberal activism that flourished in the 1970s was the effort to clean up and preserve the environment. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 had renewed awareness of what Progressive Era reformers called conservation (see chapter 19). Carson expanded the concept of conservation to include ecology, which addressed the relationships of human beings and other organisms to their environments. By exploring these connections, she offered a revealing look at the devastating effects of powerful pesticides, especially DDT, on birds and fish, as well as on the human food chain and water supply.

This new environmental movement not only focused on open spaces and national parks but also sought to publicize urban environmental problems. By 1970, 53 percent of Americans considered air and water pollution to be one of the top issues facing the country, up from only 17 percent five years earlier. Responding to this shift in public opinion, in 1971 President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed the Clean Air Act, which regulated auto emissions. Two years later, Congress banned the sale of DDT.

Not everyone embraced environmentalism. As the EPA toughened emission standards, automobile manufacturers complained that the regulations forced them to raise prices and hurt an industry that was already feeling the threat of foreign competition, especially from Japan. Workers were also affected, as declining sales forced companies to lay off employees. Similarly, passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 pitted timber companies in the Northwest against environmentalists. The new law prevented the federal government from funding any projects that threatened the habitat of animals at risk of extinction.

Several disasters heightened public demands for stronger government oversight of the environment. In 1978 women living near Love Canal outside of Niagara Falls, New York, complained about unusually high rates of illnesses and birth defects in their community. Investigations revealed that their housing development had been constructed on top of a toxic waste dump. This discovery spawned grassroots efforts to clean up this area as well as other contaminated communities. In 1980 Congress responded by passing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (known as Superfund) to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances. Further inquiries showed that the presence of such poisonous waste dumps disproportionately affected minorities and the poor. Critics called the placement of these waste locations near African American and other minority communities “environmental racism” and launched a movement for environmental justice.

The most dangerous threat came in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A broken valve at the plant leaked coolant and threatened the meltdown of the reactor’s nuclear core. As officials quickly evacuated residents from the surrounding area, employees at the plant narrowly averted catastrophe by fixing the problem before an explosion occurred. Grassroots activists, such as the Clamshell Alliance in New Hampshire, protested and raised public awareness against the construction of additional power facilities. They also convinced existing utility companies to slow down their plans for expanding the output of nuclear power.

Racial Struggles Continue

The civil rights struggle did not end with the last great interracial march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 or the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The civil rights coalition of organizations that banded together in the 1960s had disintegrated, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People remained active, as did local organizations in communities nationwide. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, through the election of black officials, provided a significant path for the continuation of the civil rights movement. A black candidate in South Carolina summed up electoral politics as the new form of activism. “There’s an inherent value in office holding,” he declared. “A race of people excluded from public office will always be second class.” By 1992 there were more than 7,500 black elected officials in the United States. Many of them had participated in the civil rights movement and subsequently worked to gain for their constituents the economic benefits that integration and affirmative action had not yet achieved. Black mayors were elected in Atlanta and New Orleans as well as in smaller municipal and county governments in the South where African Americans could scarcely vote a decade earlier. These mayors appointed black officials, improved public health, and filled government jobs and contracts through affirmative action programs. At the same time, the number of Latino American and Asian American elected officials increased, and as with African Americans, most held office at the state and local levels.

The issue of school busing highlighted the persistence of racial discrimination. In the fifteen years following the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 (see chapter 25), few schools had been integrated. Starting in 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that genuine racial integration of the public schools must no longer be delayed. In 1971 the Court went even further in Swann v. CharlotteMecklenburg Board of Education by requiring school districts to bus pupils to achieve integration. Cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; and Tampa, Florida, embraced the ruling and carefully planned for it to succeed.

Shirley Chisholm, 1968 On November 6, 1968, Shirley Chisholm won election to the House of Representatives from a predominantly black district in Brooklyn, New York, becoming the first African American woman in Congress. This photo shows Chisholm (center) surrounded by campaign workers flashing the victory sign. AP Photo

However, the decision was more controversial in other municipalities around the nation. The civil rights movement had primarily addressed injustices in the South, but it also exposed racism as a national problem. There were no Jim Crow laws in the North, but in many northern communities racially discriminatory housing policies created segregated neighborhoods and, thus, segregated schools. When white parents in the Detroit suburbs objected to busing their children to inner-city, predominantly black schools, the Supreme Court in 1974 departed from the Swann case and prohibited busing across distinct school district boundaries. This ruling created a serious problem for integration efforts because many whites were fleeing the cities and moving to the suburbs where few blacks lived.

As the conflict over school integration intensified, violence broke out in communities throughout the country. In Boston, Massachusetts, busing opponents tapped into the racial and class resentments of the largely white working-class population of South Boston, which was paired with the black community of Roxbury for busing, leaving mainly middle- and upper-class white communities unaffected. In the fall of 1974, battles broke out inside and outside the schools. Antibusing protesters gathered in front of the Federal Building in downtown Boston, threw eggs and tomatoes, and cursed Senator Edward Kennedy, a busing supporter who sent his children to private school. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish,” one protester shouted. “Let your daughter get bussed [to Roxbury] so she can get raped.” Despite the violence, schools stayed open, and for the next three decades Boston remained under court order to continue busing.

Along with busing, affirmative action generated fierce controversy, as the case of Allan Bakke showed. From 1970 to 1977, with the acceleration of affirmative action programs, the number of African Americans attending college doubled, constituting nearly 10 percent of the student body, a few percentage points lower than the proportion of blacks in the national population. Though blacks still earned lower incomes than the average white family, black family income as a percent of white family income had grown from 55.1 percent in 1965 to 61.5 percent ten years later. African Americans, however, still had a long way to go to catch up with whites. The situation was even worse for those who did not reach middle-class status: About 30 percent of African Americans slid deeper into poverty during the decade.

Despite the persistence of economic inequality, many whites believed that affirmative action placed them at a disadvantage with blacks in the educational and economic marketplaces. In particular, many white men condemned policies that they thought recruited blacks at their expense. “Talk about rights; we’ve got no rights,” a white Detroit policeman stated in voicing his disapproval over an affirmative action decision in favor of blacks. Polls showed that although most whites favored equal treatment of blacks, they disapproved of affirmative action as a form of “reverse discrimination.”

The furor over affirmative action did not end with the Bakke case, and over the next three decades affirmative action opponents succeeded in narrowing the use of racial considerations in employment and education. However, they did so without Bakke, who chose to live a very private life with his family and refused to take up the larger cause against affirmative action with which his name became identified.


• What issues and trends shaped the presidency of Jimmy Carter?

• How and why did the social and cultural developments of the 1960s continue to create conflict and controversy in the 1970s?

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