Black Power Movement 1960-1980
The struggle of African Americans for equality reached its peak in the mid-1960s. After progressive victories in the 1950s, African Americans became even more committed to nonviolent direct action. Groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), made up of African-American clergy, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), composed of younger activists, sought reform through peaceful confrontation. SNCC, which bore the emblem of a black hand and a white hand clasped in solidarity, was closely linked to the SCLC through its dependency on that organization for funds.
The modern civil rights movement had its beginnings in the early 1950s in the desegregation cases leading to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the subsequent founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, and other mostly Baptist ministers. Other SCLC leaders included John Lewis, James Forman, Robert Moses, Marion Barry, and Stokely Carmichael.
Student protest as one aspect of this growing social movement was marked on February 1, 1960, when, "four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College staged an historic sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, after which, the spread of sit-ins and other civil rights activities aroused the conscience of the nation and encouraged many students to express their support for civil rights through nonviolent direct action.
Their sit-in captured media attention and led to similar demonstrations throughout the South. The next year, civil rights workers organized “freedom rides,” in which African Americans and whites boarded buses heading south toward segregated terminals, where confrontations might capture media attention and lead to change.
They also organized rallies, the largest of which was the “March on Washington” in 1963. More than 200,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital to demonstrate their commitment to equality for all. The high point of a day of songs and speeches came with the address of Martin Luther King Jr., who had emerged as the preeminent spokesman for civil rights. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” King proclaimed. Each time he used the refrain “I have a dream,” the crowd roared.
In a letter written to his nephew in 1963 [“My Dungeon Shook”], commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin paints a powerful portrait of America as seen through the eyes of those who had not been able to fully declare their liberty as Americans: "This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born, and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could do it and whom you could marry.
” ... this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved and unassailable and monumental dignity.”
The level of progress initially achieved did not match the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. President Kennedy was initially reluctant to press white Southerners for support on civil rights because he needed their votes on other issues, such as the war in Vietnam. Events, driven by African Americans themselves, forced his hand. When James Meredith was denied admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962 because of his race, Kennedy sent federal troops to uphold the law. After protests aimed at the desegregation of Birmingham, Alabama, prompted a violent response by the police, LBJ sent Congress a new civil rights bill mandating the integration of public places. Not even the March on Washington, however, could extricate the measure from a congressional committee, where it was still bottled up when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
If folks know anything about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, it will probably be Martin Luther King, Jr.'s role in leading the Movement along the path of nonviolent resistance against racial segregation. In 1961, King failed to oust Dr. Joseph H. Jackson, as president of the National Baptist Convention. Jackson was known as "the black pope" because of his leadership of the largest religious organization of blacks in the United States. King broke away from the organization and founded a rival group, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Jackson thought King's civil disobedience and nonviolent but confrontational methods undermined the very rule of law that black Americans desperately needed. Appealing to the historic contribution of blacks to the development and prosperity of America, Jackson counseled that less controversial and provocative means should be adopted in the struggle for civil rights.
Birmingham was Alabama's largest city, but its 40 percent black population suffered stark inequities in education, employment, and income. In 1961, when Freedom Riders were mobbed in the city bus terminal, Birmingham drew unwelcome national attention. Moreover, recent years saw so many bombings in its black neighborhoods that went unsolved that the city earned the nickname "Bombingham." King went ahead with his protest march on Good Friday 1963, and was promptly arrested, along with his close friend and fellow Baptist preacher Ralph Abernathy and fifty-two other protestors. King served his jail sentence in solitary confinement.
On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 demonstrators [190,000 blacks and 60,000 whites] descended upon the nation’s capital to participate in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Not only was it the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history, but it also occasioned a rare display of unity among the various civil rights organizations. The idea for the 1963 March on Washington was envisioned by A. Philip Randolph, a long-time civil rights activist dedicated to improving the economic condition of black Americans.
Success of the March on Washington would depend on the involvement of the so-called “Big Six”—Randolph and the heads of the five major civil rights organizations: Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); James Farmer of the Conference of Racial Equality (CORE); and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women participated in the planning, but she operated in the background of this male dominated, leadership group.
Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of his dream for America: "I have a dream that my four little chi1dren will one day live in a nation weere they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.... "a day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, we are free at last."
Martin Luther King, Jr. offered what he considered "the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest" as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected what he called "the hatred and despair of the black nationalist," believing that the fate of black Americans was "tied up with America's destiny." Despite the enslavement and segregation of blacks throughout American history, King had faith that "the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God" could reform white America through the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was more successful than Kennedy. Displaying negotiating skills he had so frequently employed during his years as Senate majority leader, Johnson persuaded the Senate to limit delaying tactics preventing a final vote on the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in all public accommodations.
The next year’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized the federal government to register voters where local officials had prevented African Americans from doing so. By 1968 a million African Americans were registered in the deep South. Nationwide, the number of African-American elected officials increased substantially. In 1968, the Congress passed legislation banning discrimination in housing.
The flight of relatively young, affluent, middle-class families to new suburbs created inner cities with disproportionate numbers of elderly and minority Americans. The stage was set for summers of racial violence, urban decay, and declining tax revenues for city schools, hospitals, and social services. In cities such as Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, African-Americans represented a majority of the population by the early 1960s.
Once unleashed, the civil rights revolution produced leaders impatient with both the pace of change and the goal of channeling African Americans into mainstream white society. Malcolm X, an eloquent activist, was the most prominent figure arguing for African- American separation from the white race. As the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X argued that America was too racist in its institutions and people to offer hope to blacks. The solution proposed by the Nation of Islam was a separate nation for blacks to develop themselves apart from what they considered to be a corrupt white nation destined for divine destruction. The "so-called Negro," as Elijah Muhammad called black Americans, needed to stay as far away as possible from the white institutions of power.
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X (1925-65) was the son of a West Indian mother and black Baptist preacher. His father was a local organizer for Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, which promoted black separatism and pan-Africanism. After moving to Lansing, Michigan, Malcolm suffered the death of his father (under suspicious circumstances) and several years later saw his mother committed to a mental institution.
After meeting Elijah Muhammad, he began recruiting converts for the local NOI temple and officially adopted "X" for his surname, which represented his lost African family name. He quickly rose through the ranks of NOI temple ministers. Malcolm married Betty X (née Sanders) in January 1958, who bore him four daughters while he was alive and twins after his death. In 1959, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam gained national prominence with the airing of "The Hate That Hate Produced," a documentary by Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax, and subsequent articles in U.S. News & World Report and Time magazine. By 1960, Malcolm X had started or helped start over a hundred temples with thousands of converts.
Convinced that jealous rivals were undermining his reputation with the ailing Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in March 1964 and announced the formation of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. After a pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964, where he became a Sunni Muslim (and referred to the NOI as a "pseudo-religious philosophy"), he returned to America as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity. No longer asserting that whites were "devils," but still skeptical of American institutions to secure the civil rights of black Americans, Malcolm argued that the civil rights movement needed to be taken to a more receptive international forum such as the United Nations and World Court. Denounced by his protégé Louis X (Farrakhan) in Muhammad Speaks as "worthy of death," and suspecting he was poisoned during a tour of Africa, Malcolm X saw his death as imminent. On February 14, 1965, his home was firebombed, and on February 21 Malcolm X was shot to death as he began a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Stokely Carmichael, a student leader, became similarly disillusioned by the notions of nonviolence and interracial cooperation. He popularized the slogan “black power,” to be achieved by “any means necessary,” in the words of Malcolm X. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced "Snick") was one of the earliest groups to popularize the call for "Black Power."
When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at a conference for college students in 1960, members debated whether the group should adopt nonviolence as a way of life or as a tactical strategy for its mission. Courtland Cox remembers the debates at this meeting: “One of the things that the nonviolent people’s philosophy – those people, they felt that, you know, you could appeal to men’s hearts. You know, my view, and which I’ve said to them, was that you might as well appeal to their livers, because they’re both organs of the body. There was nothing to that. You did not – you engaged in nonviolence because the other side had overwhelming force. There was not a sense that the other side would do the right thing if you told them, because at the end of the day, the other side knew what it was doing to you better than you did.”
Chuck McDew was also at this meeting and recalls, “My position was when Gandhi tried nonviolence in South Africa he was beaten, jailed, and run out of the country. As I said, in the United States nonviolence won’t work. Because when Gandhi used, in India, the tactic of having people lay down on railroad tracks to protest, I said, ‘and it worked.’ I said, ‘But if a group of black people lay down on railroad tracks here, in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, any of these Southern states, a train would run you over and back up to make certain you’re dead. You cannot make a moral appeal in the midst of an amoral society.’ And I said that it was not immoral. We lived in a society that was amoral, and as such, nonviolence was not going to work. And so, I said I couldn’t and the people with me could not join Dr. King. And, uh, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.’”
Through the energies of its leaders, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, SNCC became the leading exponent of militant Negro action. SNCC became involved via the back door in the campaign against the war in Vietnam. Its leadership now made a point of trying to turn Negro-Americans against the US Government, particularly with respect to the draft and service in Vietnam. Carmichael traveled extensively throughout the Third World, in addition to North Vietnam and Cuba, railing against US "imperialism" and domestic repression. SNCC was be well represented, at any activity which offers it a chance to expound on its concepts of guerrilla warfare and racial violence.
On Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, state troopers and deputies viciously attacked protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma. Later that year, in August, riots erupted in Watts, a predominantly African American community in Los Angeles, and other cities around the country.
Violence accompanied militant calls for reform. Riots broke out in several big cities in 1966 and 1967. These incidents in part caused President Lyndon Johnson to appoint a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, with Otto Kerner, former governor of Illinois, as chair, in July 1967. The commission's findings on the 1967 riots held that they were not part of an organized conspiracy, but rather resulted from the accumulation of social ills, among them, high unemployment, inadequate housing, racial discrimination, and police repression.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, prompting an outbreak of racial violence in 125 cities across the country. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, viewed by students and others as a hope for the end to violence domestically and in Vietnam should he win the presidency, broke the news to an audience of African Americans in Indianapolis that had gathered for his scheduled campaign speech. Citing the loss in his own family, Kennedy acknowledged the bitterness that his listeners would feel over the death of King, but implored them to continue to work together to change the country for the better.
Eight weeks later, RFK himself was assassinated on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles, on the evening that he celebrated his victory in the California primary. To many these two assassinations marked the end of an era of innocence and idealism. The growing militancy on the left, coupled with an inevitable conservative backlash, opened a rift in the nation’s psyche that took years to heal.
By then, however, a civil rights movement supported by court decisions, congressional enactments, and federal administrative regulations was irreversibly woven into the fabric of American life. The major issues were about implementation of equality and access, not about the legality of segregation or disenfranchisement.
By 1970 the major differences between the cultural nationalists and the revolutionary nationalists stemmed from different ideological emphases, disagreement on the desirability of alliances and coalitions with white groups, and diverse views on the appropriatenebs of the use of revolutionary violence at the present time. They pose fundamental questions which have been debated through the years. Spokesmen for both of these camps make their points convincingly, and are confident that their approaches will ultimately lead to the liberation of black people in the United States.
Unlike earlier black nationalist movements and leaders, especially the American Colonization Society and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, contemporary black nationalist groups and individuals reject emigration and concentrate on black liberation within the United States. Most of the spokesmen appear to be convinced that this goal can be achieved without the establishment of a separate nation-state within what is now the United States, but several demand partition. All of them agree, however, that some form of black autonomy (separation) is an essential first step in the movement for black liberation. It might lead to greater political awareness among blacks, and thereby promote greater solidarity.
The arguments of the 1970s and thereafter were over matters such as busing children out of their neighborhoods to achieve racial balance in metropolitan schools or about the use of “affirmative action.” These policies and programs were viewed by some as active measures to ensure equal opportunity, as in education and employment, and by others as reverse discrimination.
The courts worked their way through these problems with decisions that were often inconsistent. In the meantime, the steady march of African Americans into the ranks of the middle class and once largely white suburbs quietly reflected a profound demographic change.
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