Study Guide

Civil Rights Movement: "Black Power" Era

Civil Rights Movement: "Black Power" Era Introduction

A hot summer day... The glittering mirror images of hopeful faces in the Reflecting Pool... The massive crowd... The heavenly voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. that conveyed hope, anger,  and power all at the same time.

And the tears that blended in with the sweat from said hot summer day.

And, uh, our tears, too.

Yeah, if you can listen to this speech with a dry eye, do you even have a soul? 

The impressive March on Washington in the summer of 1963 has been remembered as one of the great successes of the Civil Rights Movement, a glorious high point in which a quarter of a million people—Black and white—gathered at the nation's capital to demonstrate for "freedom now."

MLK may be the most influential African American in terms of fighting segregation, and putting himself on the line for it. That's right, MLK was thrown in the slammer. And rather than fight it, he even wrote another famous civil rights piece, "Letter from Birmingham Jail.

NBD.

But for many African Americans, especially those living in inner-city ghettos, they discovered that nonviolent boycottssit-ins, and provoking mass arrests for publicity did little to alter their daily lives. The great march of 1963 marked only the first stage of a new, more radical phase of the Civil Rights Movement.

Others felt that being on the offense may be the best way to defend their rights.

Just because you were advocating for a peaceful protest didn't mean the police would agree to the terms. Skulls were cracked, fire hoses were aimed, and protestors were murdered. In return, a new wave of civil rights activists didn't necessarily advocate violence, but they certainly weren't going to sit back and watch their brothers and sisters be killed. 

Along with their amped-up self-defense, "Black Power" leaders wanted change other than integration. Malcolm X,  Stokely Carmichael, and other "Black Power" era big names didn't believe that whites and Blacks could, or should, coexist. Maybe Blacks should work toward separation instead of segregation, with the goal of organizing their own institutions.

At the end of the day, all of these leaders had the same general message: "Can you just not be a racist, already?"

But, where there's a will, there's a way. And, uh, there was more than one way to skin this cat. 

Or, let's just use a good Malcolm X quote instead. 

"We've got to fight until we overcome."

What is Civil Rights Movement: "Black Power" Era About and Why Should I Care?

Oh, the Civil Rights Movement was a beautiful thing. 

Isn't it incredible how much had been accomplished by civil rights activists from World War II to the 1963 March on Washington? Isn't it staggering just how much had been sacrificed, how high the stakes had been raised, and how widespread the movement had become?

Let's review some highlights. By the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had achieved several major goals.

  • Under the direction of captivating leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Ella Baker, nonviolent protest demonstrations had forced many Southern officials, white proprietors, and citizens to accept integration.
  • Legal battles in favor of desegregation in schools and in public transportation had been won. And national media coverage of violence—even murder—directed toward Blacks had outraged the American public.
  • A nation that had long turned a blind eye toward the racial injustices crippling the Black community in the South grew to support the self-sacrificing civil rights agitators.
  • The nonviolent protest movement and the support it galvanized helped usher in a wave of revolutionary federal reforms, including two major acts. The Civil Rights Act, signed July 2nd, 1964, outlawed segregation and required equal employment opportunity for people of all races, and the Voting Rights Act, signed on August 6th, 1965, prohibited all forms of discrimination at the polls.

But do you know what happened just five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law? The Watts Riots, a six-day uprising in the largely Black Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Yep, a major riot in a California city that left at least 34 people dead, 1,000 people injured, and more than 4,000 citizens arrested.

Wait, what? Weren't things going peachy? Didn't the March on Washington mean everything was hunky dory? Wasn't the nation—white and Black—coming together, holding hands, and singing kumbaya? Hadn't Johnson's reforms proved that, after over two decades of persistent organized protest, equality had been won?

Well, not exactly. Actually, not at all.

At first glance, the Watts Riots appear to have been one big, violent contradiction, perhaps one of the greatest ironies in American history. At the very height of the Civil Rights Movement, when so much had begun to give way, Black communities rebelled, violently and en masse, against white authority. In 1965, many Americans, particularly whites, were shocked and dismayed by what appeared to be random acts of civil disobedience, destruction, and looting by Blacks in poor neighborhoods.

But the Watts Riots were surprising, not because they happened, but because they hadn't happened much, much sooner. The violence in Watts revealed frustrations brewing in Black communities, especially in inner-city communities in the North and the West where housing and employment discrimination, white flight, and racial bigotry kept people living in poverty.

So, no, equality hadn't been won. In fact, for many African Americans, equality—especially economic equality—seemed increasingly unattainable.

From this perspective, the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement, a period marked by militancy, calls for "Black power," and, at times, chaos and confusion, can be better understood. It's not always a clear-cut story, and certainly not a tale with good guys and bad guys—at least not in the way the first chapter of the Civil Rights Movement seems to be. But that's why we think this is such an important topic to dig into. (So dig, already.)

Civil Rights Movement: "Black Power" Era Resources

Books

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
This book by African-American author James Baldwin contains two essays including "My Dungeon Shook," a letter to his 14-year-old nephew reflecting on race in American history, and "Down At the Cross," a discussion of the relationship between race and the Christian Church. Published in 1963, the book reads as both a plea and a warning to America regarding the state of race relations at the time.

Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964)
Alex Haley conducted several interviews with Black leader Malcolm X before his death in 1965. From these, he wrote this powerful autobiography, which details the upbringing, transformations, and philosophy of the father of the Black Power movement. Haley has been criticized by Malcolm X's family and members of the Nation of Islam for censoring or, possibly, twisting some facts. These accusations make the text all the more interesting to read.

Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music (1975)
Marcus explores the music of several rock, funk, and blues artists including Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, and Sly and the Family Stone. The chapter on African-American funk star Sly Stone is particularly relevant to the history of this period of the Civil Rights Movement. Marcus ties Stone's music to the rhetoric, style, attitude, and fate of the Black Panther Party, all within the context of these tumultuous years of the late '60s and early '70s. In doing this he attempts to explain who Stone, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver wanted to be, and who these mysterious men ultimately became.

Howell Raines, My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (1977)
Raines presents the personal reflections of both the leaders of the movement and the ordinary people—both Black and white—who showed great courage and risked so much in the name of civil rights. Plus, we've got a learning guide for this book, too.

Music

Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
Perhaps Aretha Franklin's most well-known album, I Never Loved includes the hit single "Respect," which continues to be an anthem for Black and female empowerment. "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and her cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" are soulful classics, too.

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (1967)
Along with the Supremes, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas starred as one of Motown records' most successful girl groups. The group's signature song, "Dancing in the Street" came to represent for many the energy of urban uprisings that broke out in the mid 1960s. "Nowhere to Run" and "Jimmy Mack" are just two of the many additional highlights of this collection.

Sly and the Family Stone, Stand! (1969)
An early album from the funk band, Stand! is full of provocative, lively songs about sex, euphoria, and racial unrest.

Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (1971)
Perhaps the album that best represents the turbulent years of the late 1960s, What's Going On is a collection of some of Gaye's most legendary and most powerful soul songs.

Curtis Mayfield, Superfly (1972)
This soundtrack, released after the film, reflects the dark mood of the late 1960s. On funky tracks like "Freddie's Dead," "Superfly," and "Pusherman," Mayfield croons about the plight of the hustler and hints at his tragic fate.

Sly and the Family Stone, There's a Riot Goin' On (1972)
As one of Sly and the Family Stone's later albums, Riot was not a hugely successful album. Produced during a turbulent, drug-smeared period in the group's relationship, its experimental sound and sparse lyrics turned many listeners off to the group. Still, in songs like "Family Affair," "Time," and "Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa," Sly Stone reveals chaos, pain, confusion, and self-destruction that reflect the crises of the early 1970s.

Images

Jim Crow Restrictions
An editorial cartoon showing an African-American man being pushed into the street by a white businessman. Signs on the establishments behind them show that "Housing," "School," "Public accommodations," and "Job opportunities" are all "Restricted," c. 1963.

KKK for Goldwater
In San Francisco, California, Ku Klux Klan members support Barry Goldwater's campaign for president outside the Republican National Convention on July 12th, 1964.

After the Rochester Riot
The aftermath of rioting in Rochester, New York in July 1964.

The Murder of Viola Liuzzo
A KKK sniper murdered Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker, while she drove marchers home on March 25th, 1965.

A Scene from the Watts Riots
During riots in Watts, California, a man is dragged into a police car while reporters stand by. An original newspaper caption read, "Policemen force a rioter here into a police car during second night in a row of rioting. The rioters, led by a hard core of 300 hoodlums, were controlled by heavily armed police."

Fires in Watts
Buildings burn on Avalon Boulevard in the Watts section of Los Angeles during rioting in August 1965.

The National Guard in Washington, D.C.
A National Guardsman patrols an intersection in Washington, D.C. during rioting in April 1968.

Brando and the Panthers
Actor Marlon Brando and Black Panthers at the funeral for Bobby Hutton, 17, killed by Oakland police during a shootout, April 1968.

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.
In Washington, D.C., a flyer promotes a holiday to honor the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3rd, 1969.

Movies & TV

4 Little Girls (1997)
Spike Lee presents a moving and spectacularly detailed documentary about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing and the four families most affected by the tragedy.

Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee, hailed in the 1990s as the greatest Black filmmaker of his generation, tapped superstar leading man Denzel Washington to star in the title role of this sprawling and ambitious biopic. Based on Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X, the visually stunning film traces the entire tumultuous arc of the radical Black leader's controversial life.

Mississippi Burning (1988)
Mississippi Burning is a fictional tale based on a real-life FBI investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. The film’s plot focuses on the conflicting backgrounds of the two agents. Actor Willem Dafoe plays young northerner Alan Ward, and Gene Hackman is the elder agent Rupert Anderson, a man who spent much of his life in the segregated South. The two struggle with one another and with their own preconceived notions about race relations in the South, but ultimately work together to uncover the truth.

Eyes on the Prize: Mississippi: Is This America? 1963-1964 (1986)
In this film from the Eyes on the Prize documentary series, Black and white civil rights workers travel to the South to help register Black voters, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party attempt to replace the regular all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.

Eyes on the Prize: The Time Has Come 1964-1966 (1986)
This film from the Eyes on the Prize documentary series traces the rise of Black nationalist leaders Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and the growing popularity of "Black Power!"

Eyes on the Prize: The Keys to the Kingdom 1974-1980 (1986)
Perhaps one of the most surprising films from the Eyes on the Prize documentary series, this episode documents white resistance to a federal court school desegregation order in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid-1970s. In addition, Atlanta's first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, proves that affirmative action can work, but a Supreme Court case challenges that policy.

Websites

Valerie Reitman and Mitchell Landsberg, "Watts Riots, 40 Years Later," Los Angeles Times (2005)
Valerie Reitman and Mitchell Landsberg report in the Los Angeles Times on the Watts Riots, 40 years later. The article includes a photo gallery, front-page headlines from the days of the riots, and interviews with police officers and citizens who participated in, witnessed, and were arrested during the riot.

Interviews with the Black Panther Party
UC Berkeley's Library Social Activism Sound Recording Project on the Black Panther Party includes a detailed timeline and several interviews with prominent members of the Party discussing a variety of topics including shootouts with the Oakland Police Department.

The Tuskegee Experiment
The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program established by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a detailed history of the 40-year clinical study in which 399 poor Black sharecroppers were denied treatment for syphilis.

Video & Audio

The Power of "Respect"
In an NPR special report, Evelyn C. White describes the power that Aretha Franklin's song "Respect" had over her and other women growing up in the '60s.

Reporting on the Watts Riots
This site detailing the Watts Riots includes footage of an original Universal Newsreel with coverage of the events.

Historical Documents

President Johnson's State of the Union Address
This is President Lyndon B. Johnson's first State of the Union Address delivered on January 8th, 1964. Read the full transcript and listen to audio of the address.