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The ink was hardly dry on the Voting Rights Act when the Los Angeles suburb of Watts erupted into violence.

Triggered by the arrest of an African American man, Marquette Frye, by a white California Highway Patrol officer on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, six days of clashes and unrest followed between police and local residents in the predominantly African American neighbourhood of Watts in South-Central Los Angeles after Frye was struck in the face by a baton and distorted rumours spread that the police had also kicked a pregnant woman at the scene. Thirty-four people died in the ensuing Watts riots and more than 1,000 were injured. Hundreds of buildings and whole city blocks were burned to the ground.

The riots had a profound effect on American society and the Civil Rights Movement more specifically. For many white Americans still inclined towards racial prejudice and stereotypes, it reinforced their views of the growing dangers and militancy of Black-led organisations and the general lawlessness and thirst for violence of African Americans more generally.

Others, especially those around President Johnson, looked at the underlying problems of poverty and unemployment which was rife in African American communities. It also proved to herald a seismic shift in focus on the Civil Rights Movement, from the South to the North, and the need for a more militant approach.

Martin Luther King, Jr. flew into Los Angeles a day after the riots ended and immediately became convinced that his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), should turn its attention away from a narrow civil rights agenda in the South and address the problems facing Black people in the nation’s urban areas of the North:

“The economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes teeming in Northern and Western ghettos are the ready seeds which give birth to tragic expressions of violence.”

The Watts riots, King added, were “the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been by passed by the progress of the past decade.”

Before he flew home, King spoke on the phone to President Johnson and suggested immediately initiating a federal anti-poverty programme in Los Angeles. Johnson agreed with the suggestion, telling King: “You did a good job going out there.”

Chicago Freedom

King was true to his word, and in January 1966 the SCLC launched the Chicago Freedom Movement (CFM) to challenge systematic racial segregation and discrimination in Chicago and its suburbs. King believed that “the moral force of SCLC’s nonviolent movement philosophy was needed to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.” To help with the campaign, King and his family moved to one such Chicago slum.

While the origins of the CFM pre-dated the Watts riot, via the work of the Chicago-based Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), the Californian disturbance gave the campaign extra impetus and attention.

Over the next 15 months, through a campaign of rallies, protest marches, boycotts, and other forms of non-violent direct action, the CFM addressed segregated housing, educational deficiencies, income, employment, and health disparities facing African American neighbourhoods. It was the most ambitious civil rights campaign in the northern United States, and is credited with inspiring the Fair Housing Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1968.

The Watts riot was also a signal for change in other civil rights organisations. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to cut ties with the mainstream civil rights movement shortly after the riots, arguing that African Americans needed to build power of their own, rather than seek accommodations with the power structures in already place. The SNCC had migrated from a philosophy of nonviolence to one of greater militancy after the mid-1960s. Driving the SNCC’s shift was Stokely Carmichael, who was already questioning the wider movement’s tactic of non-violence, believing that it would never achieve their real goals:

“King's policy was, if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That's very good. He only made one fallacious assumption. In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

New militancy, new alliances

The SNCC’s growing militancy brought it into a growing alliance of more radical groups, such as Students for a Democratic Society, a student organisation that was a prominent exponent of the New Left. While the two had very different supporter bases, they shared a similar anti-imperialist viewpoint and attitudes to racism in American society. In February 1967, SDS national secretary Greg Calvert wrote:

“We owe SNCC a deep debt of gratitude for having slapped us brutally in the face with the slogan of Black Power, a slogan which said to white radicals: ‘Go home and organize in white America which is your reality and which only you are equipped to change.’”

Carmichael might have been the first person to populise the slogan “Black Power” (leading the crowd in the "Black power" chant during a televised rally in Mississippi in 1966), but he was obviously not the first adopt the ideology. In the late 18th century, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, Black ministers in Pennsylvania, formed the Free African Society of Pennsylvania, while in 1919 Marcus Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association in New York, and in 1930 the Nation of Islam was founded was Wallace Fard Muhammad as a Black nationalist movement.

Malcolm X did more than anyone to put Black nationalism on the national stage, credited as he was with building Nation of Islam from 5,000 supporters in the 1950s to over 25,000 by the time he left the organisation in March 1964. While Malcolm X inspired and politicised a generation of Black activists, the combination of Black pride, economic empowerment and racial separation also scared many whites – helped of course by conservative organisations and right wing media.

The twin emotions of inspiration and fear were best encompassed in a speech Malcolm X gave on racial separation and Black nationalism at the University of California, in which he concluded:

“But the white man is misjudging the times and he is underestimating the American so-called Negro because we’re living in a new day. Our people are now a new people. That old Uncle Tom-type Negro is dead. Our people have no more fear of anyone, no more fear of anything. We are not afraid to go to jail We are not afraid to give our very life itself. And we’re not afraid to take the lives of those who try to take our lives. We believe in a fair exchange. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. A head for a head and life for a life. If this is the price of freedom, we won’t hesitate to pay the price.”

Fifty years after Malcolm X was assassinated, in February 1965, a YouGov poll found big differences between how white and Black Americans remembered him. Overall, 32% of Americans had a positive opinion of Malcolm X, while 34% had a negative opinion. Whites tended to have an unfavourable (41%) rather than favourable (26%) opinion of Malcolm X. Among Black Americans, however, the vast majority (67% to 6%) had a favourable rather than unfavourable opinion.

Black revolutionary nationalism

Another organisation during this time was the Revolutionary Action Movement, a revolutionary Black nationalist group which existed between 1962 and 1969. The RAM was the first group in the United States to merge the teachings of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Malcolm X into a comprehensive theory of revolutionary black nationalism, and in doing so combined socialism, black nationalism and Third World internationalism into a coherent ideology.

African Americans, it argued, had to gain control of land and political power through national liberation and establish revolutionary socialism in liberated lands. It emphasised creating a Black nation on land in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina which it believed rightfully belonged to Black people. RAM leader Max Stanford said:

“We are revolutionary Black nationalist[s], not based on ideas of national superiority, but striving for justice and liberation of all the oppressed peoples of the world. There can be no liberty as long as Black people are oppressed and the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America are oppressed by Yankee imperialism and neo-colonialism. After four hundred years of oppression, we realize that slavery, racism and imperialism are all interrelated and that liberty and justice for all cannot exist peacefully with imperialism.”

In October 1966 the Black Panther Party (BPP) was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, two veterans of Black power organisations and both heavily influenced by RAM. The party was initially formed to defend local Black communities from police violence, but quickly developed to address wider political and economic concerns, such as the Free Breakfast Club for Children and health clinics. Central to their ethos, however, was the importance to carry guns, which, they believed, offered protection and power, as Newton was to explain.

“Malcolm implacable to the ultimate degree, held out to the Black masses ... liberation from the chains of the oppressor and the treacherous embrace of the endorsed [Black] spokesmen. Only with the gun were the Black masses denied this victory. But they learned from Malcolm that with the gun, they can recapture their dreams and bring them into reality.”

African American frustration at poverty and police discrimination boiled over into riots in numerous American cities in the 30 months after the Watts riot. There were disturbances in Cleveland, Omaha, Newark, Plainfield, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington DC and Baltimore – to list just a few. Twenty-six people were killed in four days of rioting in Newark, while 43 people died and a further 1,200 were injured in Detroit.

 

President Johnson responded by appointing a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) to investigate the violence. It concluded that white racism, discrimination and poverty were causative factors. The report concluded by warning that

“our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white – separate and unequal.”

President Johnson

Johnson was genuine in his concern for the plight of African Americans in urban cities and in 1964 used his first State of the Union speech to declare a ‘War on Poverty’, with the emphasis on solving societal problems and not personal behaviour or chooses.

“The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”

The speech was quickly followed by a series of initiatives to support those seeking to escape poverty, including the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which provided funds for vocational training. A Job Corps was created to train youths in conservation camps and urban centres, while VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps, and Head Start, an early-education program for children of poor families, were also brought into being.

Johnson’s lofty ambitions were never realised. He faced fierce opposition from Southern Democrats, who saw this as another way to transfer money and power to non-whites, and from fiscal conservatives, horrified by increased federal spending, plus increasing opposition from within his own supporter base to the Vietnam War.

America’s involvement in Vietnam drove a wedge between the federal government and the Civil Rights Movement. Most civil rights leaders took a strong and prominent anti-war line, which in turn led to growing mistrust towards the movement from the Johnson administration. 

In July 1965 the Attorney General rang FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to voice his concerns about King’s anti-war position and to ask the FBI for an appraisal of any links between King, the anti-war movement and the Communist Party.

A clearly delighted Hoover responded:

“I stated there was no doubt in my mind from information we have had in the past few months that King, Levison and Jones in New York have been having these huddles together meeting at the Kennedy Airport motor inn. I stated, of course, Stanley Levison is a member of the Communist Party and Clarence Jones also.

“The Attorney General asked if we had any information independent of that that the Communist Party is trying to tie Vietnam and civil rights together. I stated I thought there was something along that line from informants in the Party that there is a definite tie-in on that and we have had at various demonstrations over the last months, actual communists marching in the demonstrations…”

The momentum for civil rights that existed in the mid-1960s was in retreat and increasingly replaced by an aggressive Republican Party, exploiting Southern white resentment at changing society. The emergence of Black nationalist groups, the presence of civil rights leaders on anti-war demos and the urban riots, was used by the Right to further whip up fear towards African Americans.

Pushback

The idea that Black people would use their newly-acquired rights and powers to build violent revolutionary organisations and threaten the very fabric of American society was pushed heavily in the media and by segregationist politicians into white communities. The nuances and huge political differences between King, Malcolm X (and later the Panthers) were deliberately ignored, in preference to the narrative that all these people were acting together on an anti-white pro-Communist agenda.

These segregationists and conservatives had a huge ally in Hoover, who quickly expanded his anti-Communist operation to cover the Civil Rights Movement and Black-led organisations. In late 1967 the FBI developed COINTELPRO (the Counter Intelligence Program) to monitor and disrupt Black nationalist groups and others, and within two years the Panthers featured in 233 of the 295 authorised "Black nationalist" COINTELPRO actions. These groups were heavily infiltrated, members convicted and leaders even killed.

Of course the gulf between how the FBI viewed the threat posed by the Panthers, and indeed the Civil Rights Movement more generally, and reality was vast. At its peak, the Black Panthers had at most 2,000 members and arguably its most successful and largest political action was the establishment of a Breakfast Club, which at its height saw 36 programmes feeding 50,000 hungry children. But even this proved unacceptable to Hoover, who wrote in one internal memo:

“The BCP (Breakfast for Children Program) promotes at least tacit support for the Black Panther Party among naive individuals and, what is more distressing, it provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths. Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

Three key events in 1968 illustrated how the political tide was turning. On 4 April Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis the evening before he was due to lead a march by striking sanitation workers. Then, two months later, on 5 June, civil rights champion Bobby Kennedy was shot dead at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary, which guaranteed him being Democratic Presidential nominee.

Then, four months later, the Republican Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States, on a platform that sought to exploit racial fears and galvanise the racist vote. The page was closing fast on the Civil Rights era and the right-wing backlash was about to begin.