American History
Black Power

*After the success of the sit-ins, African-Americans, particularly college students, prepared to protest segregation in interstate travel (because the federal government can regulate interstate commerce).

 

*In the summer of 1961, CORE set up a Freedom Ride through the South, in which young blacks rode two busses together through the South, stopping to defy Jim Crow Laws (using white restrooms and water fountains, for example).  In Alabama, the busses were attacked—one was even firebombed. In Mississippi many of the riders were arrested. When photographs of the bombed-out bus and stories about the mass arrests appeared in newspapers, President Kennedy desegregated interstate travel, although Mississippi was allowed to imprison the freedom riders for disturbing the peace.  In subsequent summers, SNCC organised more freedom rides, many of which had white college students participating as well.

 

*In 1962, James Meredith, an African-American Air Force veteran won the right to enrol in the University of Mississippi, and was given protection by Federal marshals.  Governor Ross Barnett and many white protesters tried to prevent him from attending, and riots began that killed 2 people and injured 160.  After Kennedy addressed the nation saying that Americans could disagree with the law but not disobey it, Meredith began attending classes, graduated the next year, and went to law school.  He was shot in 1963, but survived, although Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker who had helped Meredith get into Ole Miss, was shot and killed earlier that year.

 

*In 1963, Martin Luther King, junior began sponsoring more protest marches, particularly targeting Birmingham, Alabama.  Children even joined the marches.  Birmingham’s chief of police, Bull Conner, responded by blasting the peaceful marchers with fire hoses and turned police dogs loose on them.  After this appeared on television, President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney-General Robert F. Kenney, asked Congress for a major civil rights bill.

 

*To put pressure on Congress, King and the SCLC, SNCC, and NAACP organised a march on Washington in August, 1963.  200,000 people took part (twice the number hoped for), but they were peaceful.  On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King gave his famous speech describing his dream that white and black children could live in brotherhood.  Read the selection from his speech on page 597.

 

*In November, President Kennedy was assassinated, but President Johnson and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned all public segregation and workplace segregation based on race, sex, or national origin.  It also allowed the Justice Department to enforce this legislation.  Many Senators tried to block the Act, most famously Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in a filibuster to delay the vote.

 

*As Congress was debating the Bill, SNCC organised Freedom Summer, a voter registration campaign by black and white volunteers in the state of Mississippi.  White riots threatened (but did not stop) these efforts, although three Civil Rights workers were murdered.  After Johnson ordered an investigation, their bodies were found buried inside an earthen dam.

 

*In 1965, King organised another march, this time in Selma, Alabama.  On 7 March (Bloody Sunday), the police used clubs, whips, and tear gas to break up the march.  Once again, televised coverage outraged the rest of the nation, and helped Johnson pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, banning literacy tests and letting the federal government oversee voting procedures to prevent racial discrimination.  The XXIV Amendment on 1964 had already banned the poll tax.

 

*As white violence against Civil Rights became more widespread in the South, racial violence spread to other parts of the country, as blacks outside the South rioted against police and business discrimination.  The first was in Watts (a neighbourhood in Los Angeles), but there were others in Newark, New Jersey and in Detroit, Michigan—in Detroit, 43 people were killed and over $50 million worth of property was stolen or destroyed.  Rioters chanted ‘burn, baby, burn!’

*Younger black leaders mocked King, saying he was too conciliatory.  Malcolm X was a black nationalist in the Nation of Islam.  Although Born Malcolm Little, he changed his last name to X to reject his ‘slave name.’  Nation of Islam is an extremist Black Nationalist group with teachings based on Islam, but regarded as different by most other Moslems.  Among other things, non-blacks are literally held to be non-human demons—Malcom X called white people ‘blue-eyed white devils.’ 

*The Nation of Islam and Islam both teach that there is only one God, both teach that there will literally be a resurrection of the dead, and that resurrected souls (or bodies) will be sent to paradise or hell, and both teach that Muslims must fast during daylight hours during the entire month of Ramadan. However they differ in several respects.  Nation of Islam teaches that God became physically incarnate in the form of a black preacher in 1930s Chicago named Elijah Muhammad/Poole. Islam teaches that it is heretical to believe that God would manifest Himself as a human.  Islam teaches that all races are created equal in the eyes of God. Nation of Islam teaches that Caucasians were created by an ancient evil scientist called Yakub. Only black people are considered human by the Nation of Islam. Non-blacks are literally held to be non-human demons.  Yakub (Jacob) is considered a Prophet of Allah in Islam.  Nation of Islam rejects the Muslim belief that Muhammad was the last prophet. Instead it teaches that Elijah Muhammad (the founder of Nation of Islam) was a prophet of Allah.  Islam holds that Muhammad was the very last of all prophets, and that no more prophets would ever arise.

*Eventually Malcolm X, who would again rename himself (this time El Haj Malik El-Shabazz), moved away from extreme Black Nationalism.  Shortly afterwards, in 1965, he was shot by men from the Nation of Islam.

*Even SNCC moved away from its non-violent roots, taking up the Black Power slogan.  Stokely Carmichael had been a member of SNCC since 1960, had worked on the Freedom Rides since 1961, and in 1966 became chairman of SNCC.  He promised that Black Power would ‘smash everything western civilization has created,’ although he also said that ‘black power’ just meant using economic protests to help or harm businesses based on their racial policies.  He promoted the notion that ‘black is beautiful,’ glorifying unique clothing and hairstyles (like the Afro), and eventually becoming ‘honorary prime minister’ of the Black Panthers. 

*The Black Panthers were formed in 1966 to protect blacks from white violence.  They created a military-style organization, carried weapons, and even marched into the California statehouse with shotguns to protest restrictions on blacks’ right to bear arms.  They often fought with police, and frightened many whites.

*Just as blacks were winning legal victories, they were alienating many of their former allies through the actions of a few violent radicals, especially after 1968 when King was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a strike by sanitation workers.  Riots broke out in protest against King’s murder—a sad memorial for a man who preached non-violence. 

 

*Despite the racial turmoil of the 1960s, many African-Americans were quietly succeeding.  Cleveland, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana elected black mayors and by 1972 almost half of Southern classrooms were integrated.  African-American poverty rates fell and the high school graduation rate rose.  In 1967, Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall, a NAACP lawyer, to be the first African-American on the Supreme Court.  There he defended the concept of affirmative action, saying that African-Americans had suffered so much for so long that they both deserved and needed preferential treatment to get ahead in jobs and schools.

 

*Johnson supported Civil Rights, and did a lot to end de jure, and even some de facto segregation, and might have done more to advance the cause, but, like Kennedy before him and Nixon after him, he was distracted by Vietnam.

 

 

 



This page last updated 14 November, 2009.