The Fragmentation and Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement, 1961–1978

Excerpted from: Rediscovering the American Republic, vol. 2: 1877–Present

Return to Previous: Overview of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, 1957–1965

Rivalries and Dissensions among Civil Rights Activists

Civil rights leaders did not all speak with one voice. In the Albany Movement (1961–1962), for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) each had distinct plans. Charles Sherrod of SNCC was particularly frustrated with Martin Luther King and the SCLC. According to Sherrod, King’s presence at rallies helped to draw large crowds, but as soon as King left town, SNCC had trouble maintaining enthusiasm. As jealousy led to rivalry, the young leaders of SNCC sought to go about things their own way. In time, this meant rejecting the interracial cooperation favored by both King and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). By 1966, SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael would be shouting “Black Power!”—a slogan more consistent with the views of Malcolm X than Martin Luther King.

Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad’s Black Nationalism (1963–1965)

Malcolm X was King’s greatest rival for national leadership of the civil rights movement. Malcolm’s home had been burned down when he was four years old and his father was killed two years later. In both cases the cause apparently was racially motivated violence. As a young adult, Malcolm peddled illicit drugs, pimped prostitutes, and ran gambling operations—a path of crime that landed him in jail from 1946 to 1952. Behind bars he learned of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a religious movement led by the Rev. Elijah Muhammad. Converting, Malcolm dropped the surname of his birth parents and assumed the title “X,” indicating that his true heritage had been obscured by the white culture in which he lived.

Mixing aspects of traditional Islam with a racist doctrine of black supremacy, the NOI blamed the white man for all of the problems that blacks suffered in America. Whereas King called upon whites to make good on the promises of equal rights that their ancestors had made in the nation’s founding documents, the NOI rejected the American creed and called for the establishment of a pure black state, hoping eventually to repatriate Africa. Malcolm X therefore rejected the integrationist agenda of King and sought to separate the races—only for black supremacy rather than the white supremacy promoted by certain southern whites. “God wants us to separate ourselves from the wicked white race here in America,” wrote Malcolm in The Black Revolution (1963), “because this American House of Bondage is number one on God’s list for divine destruction today.” Malcolm X also rejected King’s principle of nonviolence. “Be nonviolent only with those who are nonviolent to you,” he wrote in The Afro-American’s Right to Self-Defense (1964). Whereas King campaigned for the Voting Rights Act as a constitutional right, Malcolm offered a bluntly practical warning: “If the black man doesn’t get the ballot, then you are going to be faced with another man who forgets the ballot and starts using the bullet.”

In 1964, Malcolm X made a pilgrimage to Mecca, returning with a changed perspective. He now realized that some white men adhered to the Muslim religion as well as black men. Malcolm relaxed his earlier insistence on black supremacy and began suggesting a more cooperative approach to civil rights. Malcolm also parted ways from his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, after discovering that “the Prophet” was a hypocritical adulterer. Malcolm now appeared a traitor to the NOI, and in 1965 a disgruntled NOI member fatally shot him.

The Emergence of Black Power (1966)

As Malcolm’s black separatist rhetoric reverberated across the nation, the younger generation of civil rights activists began to question how much wisdom King and his fellow SCLC clergymen had. Stokely Carmichael, SNCC’s new leader, picked up the torch that Malcolm had dropped, shouting “Black Power!” to sharecroppers along a Mississippi highway in a 1966 march. The crowds had already been primed by an advance messenger who had tested the new slogan the evening before. With television cameras rolling, people made fists in the air as they raised their voices in unison.

Black power manifested itself in a variety of ways during the late 1960s. Howard University students urged the faculty to establish a black studies program. “Afro” hairstyles became more popular. Rather than seeking an equal place within the white culture, African Americans sought to celebrate their own unique heritage. For the civil rights movement, this meant that integration no longer could be assumed as the main objective. Indeed, it was now questionable whether such a thing as “the” civil rights movement still existed.

Challenges in the Urban North (1966–1967)

Decades before the Civil War, the French analyst Alexis de Tocqueville had observed that “Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where it has never been known” (Democracy in America, 1835). A century after the Civil War, Tocqueville’s observation remained accurate. Civil rights activists discovered that the techniques that had been successful in the South would not work in Chicago or Detroit. Although slavery had never been permitted in either of these northern cities, Jim Crow was deeply entrenched.

In January 1966, the SCLC developed the Chicago Plan, a nonviolent direct-action movement for greater Chicago. Jobs and housing were top priorities, for in 1960 blacks represented 23% of Chicago’s population but 43% of the unemployed, an economic disparity that was compounded by real estate discrimination. Unlike in the South, where discrimination was visible and often violent, Chicago was characterized by what movement leaders came to call “institutional racism”—an impersonal form of discrimination that could not be exposed so easily. City officials offered tokens of appeasement, leaving the movement’s participants uncertain of how to proceed. Against the wishes of veteran civil rights leaders, a young black minister named Jesse Jackson boldly led a march into Cicero, a white neighborhood where few blacks would dare step foot. The marchers were met by angry whites hurling bottles and bricks. Unlike the marchers led by King, these marchers had not been trained in nonviolence and so some of the blacks returned blow for blow. The Chicago Plan failed to measure up to the earlier standard of peaceful success set by the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The following year, a police raid on an unlicensed bar sparked a race riot in Detroit that persisted for days. Shootings and lootings ravished several city blocks under the shroud of darkness after city lights had been shot out. As in previous instances, local and federal authorities negotiated a response. Once again, federal troops arrived to restore order. Ironically, some of those soldiers had just returned home from Vietnam only to find their own nation in just as much turmoil as southeast Asia.

The Paradoxes of Vietnam (1966–1968)

Although only one in nine Americans were black in 1967, they accounted for one out of every five combat troops stationed in Vietnam and nearly one out of every four casualties. In fact, 45% of the U.S. Airborne Infantry troops—those facing front-line combat—were African Americans. The disproportionate rate of service in dangerous military positions resulted from several factors. First, blacks generally were less-educated, so they were less likely to be recruited for specialized training and more likely to be assigned to combat. Second, blacks had fewer legal mechanisms than whites for avoiding the draft. Third, blacks who were drafted from the ghetto were more likely than middle-class whites to take dangerous assignments in search of higher pay. Whatever the causes of black military service, the effect was to intensify the agitation for civil rights at home. After all, why should a black man from Mississippi risk his life to liberate Southeast Asia only to return and find no freedom for himself in America?

In 1964, a black boxer named Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight boxing championship. With his name still fresh on Americans’ minds, he joined the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad renamed him Muhammad Ali. In April 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, claiming a conscientious objection as a pacifist. A judge sentenced him to five years in prison. Meanwhile, that same April, Martin Luther King denounced America’s involvement in Vietnam when visiting Riverside Church in New York City. In a rousing speech, King called the Vietnam War a “demoniacal destructive suction tube” that takes public money away from education and rehabilitation programs that would serve America’s poor people, especially blacks.

“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government,” charged King in a statement that put a rift between himself and white politicians who previously had assisted the civil rights movement. But even King’s increasingly radical stance still seemed calm compared to the growing array of civil rights activists and war protesters who rallied in the streets of New York City and Washington, DC.

From Black Power to the Black Panther Party (1966–1972)

In 1964, Stokely Carmichael organized a black voter registration drive in Lowndes County, Alabama, which adopted the black panther as its logo. Two years later, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded an organization borrowing the same image, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Based in Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party “policed the police” in order to prevent and report police brutality against blacks. The Panthers, which soon numbered some 2,000, also adopted humanitarian causes, such as providing lunches for black children.

After a shootout with the police, Newton was convicted and jailed for killing a white police officer. For a time, the “Free Huey” campaign gave strength to the Panther movement, but by the end of the decade internal squabbles over leadership led to the group’s demise. Some Pathers faulted the federal government for infiltrating the organization in order to plant seeds of rivalry among its members. As Panther veteran Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote, while serving a sentence on death row, “the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, one said to be investigating hate crimes, had itself been committing crimes motivated by hatred against Black Americans for decades” (We Want Freedom, 2004).

On the one hand, the Panthers stood for traditional American values, such as the Second Amendment right to bear arms. On the other hand, the Panthers rejected the constitutional pathway that King trod and followed instead the communist writings of Mao Zedong and anti-colonial revolutionaries in the Third World. In the end, the Panthers failed to steer America’s political leaders toward their cause.

The Legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)

In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis organized a strike to protest low wages and racial discrimination. Even though many black sanitation workers also held second jobs, their wages were so low that they still qualified for welfare. The strikers adopted a simple slogan—“I am a Man”—which they printed in bold letters on signs across their chests. Supporting their effort at an April 3 rally, Martin Luther King cried out, “We are tired of our men being emasculated so that our wives and daughters have to go out and work in the white lady’s kitchen, leaving us unable to be with our children and give them the time and attention that they need.” The next day, King was assassinated as he exited his room of a Memphis hotel.

Perhaps King had seen it coming. The evening before, he had told the crowd, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, preaching for King’s funeral in Atlanta, likened the civil rights leader to Christ, saying, “There has been a crucifixion in our nation, but here in this spring season . . . we know that the Resurrection will shortly appear.” Others were less nostalgic, having labeled King as a communist and an adulterer. No one, however, could deny that the civil rights movement had drawn much of its stability—a commitment to nonviolent protest—from King’s leadership.

Affirmative Action and the End of the Civil Rights Movement (1965–1978)

The civil rights movement had begun as a quest for procedural equality, pleading that government policy should apply to blacks the same as it does to whites. In the late 1960s, the goal shifted toward substantive equality—not merely an equality of opportunity, but also an equality of attainment. Speaking at Howard University in June 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said that the Civil Rights Act only marked the beginning of reform. Blacks had gained many freedoms in recent years, but to attain success would require something more. As Johnson explained:

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

In September, Johnson issued an executive order directing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to take “affirmative action” in ensuring that blacks receive the same level of employment and compensation as whites. The phrase “affirmative action” had also appeared in a 1961 executive order issued by President Kennedy. Although no such policy appeared in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Johnson directed his administration to enforce the act as if it did, and the courts generally supported this interpretation during the 1970s.

Not until 1978 did the U.S. Supreme Court begin to put the breaks on affirmative action. The case involved an American of Norwegian ancestry who twice was rejected for admission to the medical school of the University of California at Berkeley. Allan Bakke sued the university for admitting minority students—blacks and Hispanics—who had scored lower than he on standardized tests. The university policy allowed minorities to be considered twice: once with the general pool of applicants that included Bakke, competing for 84 slots, and again with a special minority pool that competed for 16 other slots, regardless of how they ranked compared to the 84th placement in the general pool. Bakke, because he was not considered a minority, was denied the chance to compete for the second pool of 16 slots. His attorney argued that this was a violation of Bakke’s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection with respect to Sec. 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provides that no person shall be excluded for reason of race or color from participating in any program receiving federal financial assistance.

In a 5–4 majority opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that university’s quota system was unconstitutional and therefore Bakke should be granted admission. However, one of the five justices voting in the majority on that point also swung his vote to join with the other four justices for another aspect of the ruling, producing a secondary 5–4 majority opinion that allowed race to be a factor in admissions policies, so long as the quota system operates more flexibly than it had in Bakke’s situation.

By this time, the civil rights movement no longer existed as such. A new generation of politicians began debating affirmative action, with liberals arguing that the policy “leveled the playing field” for minorities, while conservatives objected that such a policy amounted to “reverse discrimination” against whites. Gender equality also became increasingly wrapped up in questions of social justice. SNCC and the Panthers disintegrated in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a result of internal contests between men and women for leadership of the movement. Meanwhile, a broader feminist movement was forming nationwide.

 

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