Study Guide

Civil Rights Movement: "Black Power" Era Analysis

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  • Race

    "Detroit Red"

    Malcolm Little was an unlikely leader. 

    The murder of his father and the psychological breakdown of his mother sparked rebelliousness at an early age. For much of his young life he drifted between Boston and New York City, cultivating his image as "Detroit Red," a dapper pimp and a dangerous hustler. 

    By the age of 21, he'd committed petty theft, armed robbery, and spent time as a drug pusher, gambler, and a narcotics addict. 

    He'd also managed to avoid military service in the early 1940s by appearing before the draft board in his most audacious zoot suit and declaring his desire to take up arms and "kill some crackers." By 1946, unemployed and self-destructive, Little landed in prison for a series of home burglaries.blank">Source)

    For Malcolm X, the March on Washington was not the height of the civil rights struggle but, rather, a low point. The event revealed to him all the problems inherent in the nonviolence campaign and the challenges ahead.

    Black Power Without the Nation of Islam

    In March of 1964, Malcolm X disaffiliated from the Nation of Islam. Although still devoted to the Islamic faith, he had grown intellectually and politically distant from the organization.

    He also had become disillusioned by the mistreatment of the Nation's women, and the corruption surrounding the group's leader, Elijah Muhammad. He denounced the Nation of Islam as illegitimate and even racist.

    As a result of this split, Malcolm X lost some of the power he had within the Black community. 

    Still, he continued to give speeches at protest rallies in major urban centers throughout the country. He preached about "human rights" and emphasized brotherhood over Black separatism, although he maintained the belief that white racism was enemy number one. 

    He remained committed to Black nationalism, that is, the insistence that Blacks identify with their African heritage, that they appreciate their African features, and take pride in their ancestral culture. And he no longer advocated violence, but continued to call for self-defense whenever and wherever necessary.

    A New Generation "X"

    On February 21st, 1965, at a protest rally in Harlem, three men from the Nation of Islam shot and killed Malcolm X. 

    His life ended, but the legacy of his message was reborn in the rhetoric of the new generation of Black nationalists like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Fred Hampton. 

    These rising leaders of the second wave of the Civil Rights Movement would utilize—and, at times, distort—the messages of this eloquent, truth-seeking leader.

  • Gender

    Women and the Civil Rights Movement

    Since the Civil War, Black women had endured the pain of segregation, the terror of white violence, the weight of discrimination in employment and education, and the demoralization of verbal abuse.

    They had also felt the urge to liberate themselves from economic, political, and social oppression just as deeply as Black men, and perhaps, at times, more deeply. 

    But during the Civil Rights Movement, most organizations relegated women to positions behind the scenes, shadowing the men on the front lines. Despite the fact that women spearheaded the Birmingham Bus Boycott, galvanized the "freedom rides" and sit-in demonstrations, and served as important political representatives, men controlled the organizations, often disregarding the weight of these contributions. 

    For instance, in 1963, at the height of the movement, tens of thousands of women, including activists and organizers such as Jo Ann Robinson, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, joined the March on Washington, yet the all-male march committee neglected to invite any woman to make a speech before the crowd.

    Some women involved in the movement chose to remain behind the scenes and were able to find fulfillment supporting male leaders. 

    Others, like young Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur, Ericka Huggins, and Kathleen Cleaver, refused to accept lesser positions. For them, service roles—typing meeting minutes, washing dishes, preparing food, and providing male activists with moral support or even sexual gratification—were demeaning. 

    They sought, instead, an equal partnership alongside their male peers in the movement. They believed in their own ideas and intended to lead their people.

    Revolutionary First, Sister Second

    The Black Panther Party for Self Defense captured the imagination of these young women seeking prominence in the civil rights struggle, as the underlying promise of equality in the Party's platform attracted female recruits. 

    According to co-founder Bobby Seale, class structure was the root of all types of oppression, including male chauvinism. Male and female Panthers, then, were to treat each other as "comrades" and share equally in all group activities and responsibilities. For women itching to become warriors on the front lines, this was the ultimate invitation.

    Once in the Party, female members, or "Sisters," found that they had to earn respect. 

    Male Panthers expected women to assert toughness, defying any evidence of weakness or vulnerability. They were to prove that they could stand against the enemy, gun cocked and loaded, prepared to shoot. "The way we see it," Bobby Seale explains, "the pigs in the system don't care that she's a Sister; they brutalize her just the same."

  • Society

    "There's a Riot Goin' On"

    Between the years 1964 and 1972, more than 750 riots blazed in cities throughout the country, leaving hundreds dead, thousands injured, and many homes and businesses destroyed

    These often violent, spontaneous acts of civil disobedience were sparked by a number of problems facing people living in the nation's poorest neighborhoods, particularly in the urban North.

    So Much Has Changed, Yet So Much Remains the Same

    Despite the efforts of civil rights activists in the South to register voters, integrate schools, and do away with Jim Crow restrictions, discrimination in employment, housing, and schooling remained a significant obstacle for African Americans living in urban ghettos in the North and the West. 

    For them, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights struggle had done little to improve their quality of life. And as many observed on a day to day basis, white racial attitudes hadn't changed much at all. 

    As Blacks migrated to city centers, whites fled to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars and services with them. 

    "White flight," a term coined in the 1960s, left behind a growing concentration of poor non-white residents and with few local businesses, jobs, and little local funding, urban neighborhoods deteriorated.

    Fuel for the Fire

    Police confrontations also fueled the despair spreading throughout the inner-city. Residents of impoverished neighborhoods often had little or no interaction with local authorities, except law enforcement officers. 

    These largely white officers personified the oppression and hostility many African Americans endured within their communities. 

    Consequently, police brutality sparked many of the most explosive riots of the late '60s. In Harlem in July 1964, the catalyst for a violent clash was the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old African-American boy by a white police officer. 

    In Rochester, in the same month, the arrest of a 19-year-old Black man at a block party ignited to a two-day riot.

    In August 1965, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a traffic stop and three arrests triggered a six-day uprising.

    And in Detroit in July 1967, a police raid of an illegal drinking establishment led people to burn and loot the city.

    "I've Got Vengeance in My Heart Tonight"

    The news of escalating white-on-Black violence only exacerbated the frustrations felt by many Black Americans. 

    On the morning of September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and injuring several other children attending Sunday school. 

    The incident led many Black Americans, even those espousing Dr. King's nonviolent message, to contemplate violent retaliation, destruction, even murder.

    "What I saw at Sixteenth Street," Abraham Wood, the son of an SCLC minister remembers, "was the forerunner of what happened. Later it was 'Burn, baby, burn,' and Carmichael. That came later and I saw it coming. I saw it coming."

  • Ideology

    Radical Solutions

    Huey Pierce Newton was the child of Black migrants who had left the Jim Crow South in the early 1950s in search of a better life in California. 

    He grew up in Oakland, in a hardworking, disciplined, religious household, in which education and dignity were stressed. While attending Oakland City College in the early 1960s, Newton, like so many Black Americans, had become disillusioned by the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, frustrated by its limitations and failures, and determined to find new solutions to the problems of day-to-day racism. 

    Instead of studying the Christian philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., he chose to read the works of more radical, nationalist leaders such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and Malcolm X.

    While in college, Newton struck up a friendship with another student, Bobby Seale. 

    Seale attended Oakland's Merritt College where he studied engineering and politics. Like Newton, he had become especially interested in Black liberation struggles in Africa, and espoused the Black Power philosophy of Malcolm X. 

    After hearing the militant Black leader speak, he decided he would become a soldier in the struggle against inequality.blank">Huey Newton, new members, many young, energetic, and angry, sought to emulate the image of the Panther—wield a gun and raise a fist—before understanding the deeper, long-term goals of the Party. 

    New recruits failed to become involved in community programs, showed little interest in registering voters or distributing the Party newspaper, and failed to attend required classes on economics and political strategies. 

    Leaders lost control, and without the kind of solid structure that maintained organizations like the NAACP and SNCC, the Black Panther Party become wholly vulnerable to infighting, corruption, and efforts by the FBI to destroy the organization. By the mid-1970s, the Party had collapsed.

    Despite its many troubles, the group left behind a legacy of direct action and Black pride, which would influence a new generation of urban youths.

  • Politics

    President Lyndon B. Johnson

    In his first address before Congress, less than one week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, newly appointed President Lyndon B. Johnson stated, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long."blank">Vietnam and by bloody upheaval at home. 

    Toward the end of his administration, Johnson resolved that he could no longer pursue both a war against the Vietcong and a war against poverty and injustice in America.

    In March 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not seek reelection. He would leave office with a war still unresolved and his country still in crisis, and for this reason, his legacy as a man committed to "freedom from want" would be scarred.

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