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Divisions That Emerged In Black Politics In 1960 History Essay

The African-American Civil Rights Movement is arguably one of the most infamous social movements of the twentieth century, and it swept across America with amazing fever and enthusiasm between 1955 and 1965. The mainstream Civil Rights Movement is credited with impressive legislative gains; the most important of which were the outlawing of segregation in education in 1954 with the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education; the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, banning discrimination based on race in employment and public life; and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which overturned all “Jim Crow” laws and gave all blacks, and every other minority, the right to vote. [1] The Civil Rights Movement was also directly responsible for awakening black political consciousness, and the gaining of the support of white liberals who were often unaware and shocked by much of the actions of Southern white supremacists. However once the Civil Rights Movement reached its immediate legislative goals, it became increasingly open to criticism as it failed to actually change society, and segregation and discrimination continued. Haines asserts that with its failure to procure ‘the kinds of sweeping changes many blacks expected… the movement changed’ [2] In 1966 the Black Power Movement rose to prominence presenting an alternative solution for those who had grown tired of the brutalities and discrimination that many blacks still faced daily. Although the Civil Rights Movement primarily focused on securing legal gains for African Americans, their failure to actually change society and stop white supremacists from constantly degrading and humiliating blacks, increased frustrations and encouraged people to turn to more radical action. The slogan “Black Power” was extremely effective in promoting black pride and self-determination. Crucially, Black Power could be used to support any argument; it had no defined limits which made it an incredibly powerful phrase. While the two movements ultimately shared the goal of equality, the methods each of them advocated to gain this equality stood starkly contrasted one another. The two competing ideologies formed a massive division in black politics throughout the 1960s and eventually the moderate Civil Rights Movement was replaced by the more militant Black Power Movement.

Manning Marable comments that the end of Reconstruction in 1877 ‘produced a political and social climate of fear and intimidation for every back person in the South’. [3] In the post-Reconstruction years, many Southern states rewrote their constitutions so as to marginalise blacks in society and prevent them from becoming equal. [4] The significant landmark case of Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 ruled in favour of “separate but equal” effectively legalising segregation. [5] Since that significant ruling, legal or de facto segregation coupled with inequality and discrimination has dominated all aspects of public life for African-Americans. The landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 ruled that the previous Plessy v Ferguson was unconstitutional and so it appeared the end to segregation would be near. However, unsurprisingly although the Civil Rights Movement secured the legal end to segregation, many cities in the Deep South refused to integrate and forcibly allowed segregation to continue. As W.E.B DuBois asserted ‘the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.’ [6] 

It has often been debated among historians whether it is true to say the Civil Rights Movement failed or succeed. In many respects the movement made monumental changes, and in other respects the gains were agonisingly slow and disappointingly limited. However it is important to understand that the movement still made great advances for blacks, and without it much of the legal foundations of the eventual incorporation of blacks as equals in society would not have been laid. The movement’s main aim was to change the unjust laws and politics of America which marginalised blacks, which it certainly did achieve. The movement broke down legal restraints, it opened up opportunities to blacks where none had existed before, it raised expectations and it inspired subsequent movements with the power of mass mobilisation. [7] It also redefined the relationship between the central federal government and local state government as the two regularly clashed over ultimate authority. [8] During its peak, Civil Rights Movement attracted blacks and whites from all over the country who travelled to the Deep South to take part in the dramatic sit-ins, demonstrations, marches and protests. The Civil Rights Movement was extremely successful in gaining the support from white liberals which the later Black Power Movement struggled to do in the same way. Much of the funding for the Civil Rights Movement came from whites so it was essential for the movement to retain these close ties. Davis asserts that the movement had ‘deeply penetrating and widespread social, cultural and intellectual consequences’ which dramatically changed the lives of many African-Americans, and American society as a whole. [9] 

However whilst one can undoubtedly argue the Civil Rights Movement was successful, ultimately the movements failures and limitations opened up space for more radical action to develop, which ultimately divided black politics. With the rise of the militant Black Power Movement, much of the previous work of the civil rights activists had achieved was discredited. The unity between whites and blacks and the religious emphasis on “loving thy neighbour” was somewhat destroyed as calls for blacks supremacy. As Altbach correctly predicted in 1966, ‘the non-violence of King’s campaigns is likely to be pushed aside as a more militant policy is adopted.’ [10] The Civil Rights Movement was not an overall failure, but it was simply unwilling to go to the lengths it appeared to take to fundamentally change society and deter racism. The Civil Rights Movement was unable to change the de facto segregation which still remained. Despite legislative backing, the position of blacks in society largely remained the same; many were still segregated in education, in restaurants, on public transport, and in many other areas. [11] Blacks were also still subjected to discrimination in the judicial system as most were not fairly tried by their peers. Although blacks were allowed to vote, many were still prevented from doing so with loopholes such as literacy tests, poll taxes or land ownership restrictions, or they were simply intimidated or violently discouraged from voting. Graham asserts that ‘black power filled the ideological vacuum created by the failure of the non-violent protest to cause real change in America’s power structure.’ [12] He goes on to note that the ‘limited victories’ could not outweigh the temptations of black power’s emphasis on ‘black pride and self-determination of black affairs’. [13] 

There was also a significant weakness within the Civil Rights Movement itself because many of the main civil rights groups began to strongly differ over fundamental issues. The Civil Rights Movement was made up of a coalition of many smaller civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), among many others. While they all started out relatively liberal and united by their mutual desire to protest non-violently, frustrated by a lack of change SNCC and CORE began advocating some of the ideas associated with the Black Power Movement. Altbach asserts that when SNCC and CORE chose to become more militant, in turn they effectively severed their ties with their white liberal supporters and financial backers which made the group extremely unstable and financially vulnerable. [14] 

The “March on Washington” on 28th August 1963, is one of two crucial events which mark the disunity among the Civil Rights Movement. The March was a political rally which attracted around 250,000 people, blacks and whites alike, who came out in support of the Civil Rights Movement, and Kennedy’s civil rights bill. [15] As well as the bill, the marchers also wanted the minimum wage to be increased to $2, protection from discrimination and police brutality, and a public works scheme which would generate new jobs and opportunities for blacks. [16] However the leaders of all the parties vehemently debated about how the March should go ahead. Marable notes that militants from SNCC and CORE ‘insisted that the march should become a massive civil disobedience demonstration’ with the ultimate aim of paralysing the capital. [17] SNCC leaders announced before the march that they planned to cause massive disruption and saw it as an opportunity to protest against white supremacy and the government’s complicity in it. [18] Whereas, Marable notes, the SCLC and the NAACP insisted the event should be a peaceful one, ‘without any arrests, [and] with the full cooperation of the federal authorities.’ [19] The NAACP were fully committed to retaining close ties with their white liberal supporters, and saw the importance of white support to future progression. Although it was agreed that the event would go ahead non-violently, there was also much controversy after the new radical leader of SNCC, John Lewis, had his speech censored for being too inflammatory and critical, which stirred up feelings of resentment towards the more moderate civil rights groups. [20] Although the march eventually remained a peaceful affair, Marable argues that ‘the mood among grassroots blacks had swung towards greater defiance.’ [21] As the Civil Rights Movement continuously became more divided, increasing numbers were attracted to more radical action.

The outbreak of race riots in 1965 brought even more divisions to black politics. While the Civil Rights Movement experienced ideological clashes, the race riots showed that ordinary blacks were extremely frustrated. Marable comments that the ‘1960s brought an unprecedented improvement’ in American society but this however, ‘did not keep pace with the expectations of freedom’. [22] Non-violent resistance was slow and many lost patience with its lack of a deep or profound impact. Interestingly, Zanden comments another reason blacks became so frustrated in the north was because of the de facto segregation which existed. He asserts that ‘the south…formally and rigorously defined the position of the Negro’ but the North did not. [23] In theory, blacks were already equals and the fact that they were still marginalised added to their disillusion. [24] The riots are often seen as the cumulative venting of anger and hostilities against the institutional racism which still remained. Although the riots had no formal leaders or organisers, many urban blacks were inspired by groups in the Black Power Movement who encouraging blacks to go out and protect themselves by any means necessary. [25] Armed self defence was totally juxtaposed to what the moderates, such as the NAACP and the SCLC, stood for. Sitkoff asserts that as time progressed, many began describing nonviolence as a ‘“dying philosophy”’ that had ‘turned the other cheek too often’. He goes on to state that after the riots, the “right of self defence” changed to the advocacy of “violent retaliation” and as a ‘legitimate tactic’ wherever possible. [26] 

Race riots were not unique to America; at the very beginning of the twentieth century many riots erupted due to the increased tensions between blacks and whites. Sitkofff estimates that between 1964 and 1968 the total number of people seriously injured in the race riots mounted to 8,000, and around 50,000 people were arrested costing the economy billions of dollars. He also asserts that around ‘half a million blacks’ had joined in the riots, equal to the total number of Americans that served in Vietnam War. [27] Sociologist Kenneth Clark attempts to explain why blacks began rebelling so violently. He asserts that ‘human beings who are forced to live under ghetto conditions and whose daily experiences tells them that almost nowhere in society are they respected and granted the ordinary dignity and courtesy accorded to others will, as a matter of course, begin to doubt their own worth.’ [28] Marable comments that it was the rejection of this oppression from society which resulted in ‘the collective venting of long-held hostilities.’ [29] 

Of the hundreds of riots, Watts in California and Newark in New Jersey were perhaps the most profound. In Los Angeles, the suburb of Watts was home to one of the most dangerous riots to ever erupt in America. The riot which occurred in the summer of 1965 lasted six days and caused around $40 million worth of damage to property, left almost 4,000 people in prison and 34 people dead. [30] This urban city like many others saw great discrimination and disparities between whites and blacks and so there was already a strong underlying air of hostility which left heightened feelings of tension. The riot started after a routine arrest of someone for drunken driving attracted many onlookers. [31] Sitkoff asserts that within hours there were thousands of blacks who were openly venting their anger and frustration at the police and whites in general. Looting, destruction of white businesses, and shoot-outs with police all filled the streets. [32] The most extreme and dangerous riots erupted during the summer of 1967 with a total of 150 recorded. [33] One of the bloodiest riots erupted in Newark in New Jersey, in August that year. Sitkoff asserts that ‘no riot was more expected than Newark’s; none was more bloody.’ [34] He goes on to explain how, similarly to Watts, huge disparities between whites and blacks, coupled with extremely high rates of unemployment, poverty, and crime, left the city’s race relations extremely fragile. Despite the fact that the number of blacks in the city outnumbered whites, there was little representation in public administration offices and they were barely represented in the police force. After a black taxi driver was arrested and severely beaten, a huge riot exploded which lasted six days. Once the violent riot subsided, 1,200 people were injured, 1,300 were arrested and 25 were killed. Property damages were an estimated total of $10 million. [35] In a mere three years, a total of around 300 riots were recorded. [36] As soon as one riot ended in one city, another one erupted after in another city. The constant rioting gravely discredited the huge achievements that the Civil Rights Movement had previously made. In many ways, the riots gave white supremacists and police authorities a legitimate excuse to tighten restrictions on blacks and it allowed them to forcibly repress blacks further.

The riots caused a massive division in black politics. The most obvious division is that the participants of the race riots diverged from the previously popular non-violent tactics in favour of armed retaliation signifying a new discourse and a new movement. The Civil Rights Movement dramatically awoke black consciousness to justice and the potential mass mobilisation could have. The movement promised an alternative future of equality and justice which was radically different than the realty of the time. The expectation that freedom would accompany legislation left many severely disappointed. It was these failures which fuelled the social unrest and promoted many blacks to search for stronger methods of defiance. The riots also divided black politics when people tried to explain their cause. While some realised that they occurred because of the social and economic conditions that urban blacks faced or because they had no other choice, others believed that it was a direct rejection of an integrated society. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders concluded that a combination of racism, segregation, inequality, discrimination, unemployment and poverty proved to be an ‘explosive mixture’. [37] The Commission advised that the government should create new jobs, invest in new public housing, and intervene in the de facto segregation and the discriminatory practices in employment and the judicial system. [38] 

Although the race riots signified an important division in popular support, the “March Against Fear” was perhaps the most important turning point. This is the second event where the left and right wing groups of the movement publically clash and ultimately irrevocably damaged relations between the groups. In June 1966 a black student named James Meredith attempted to march from Memphis to Jackson to encourage blacks to register to vote and to protest against the restrictions imposed on black mobility. [39] Not long into the solo march, Meredith was shot and badly wounded and so the leaders of the three main civil rights groups, King, McKissick, and Carmichael immediately agreed to continue the march on his behalf. [40] Joseph asserts that the leaders immediately clashed over ‘armed self-defence, [and] interracial cooperation’, which set off debates specifically between King and Carmichael. [41] King was a great champion of peaceful protest and nonviolence whereas Carmichael openly advocated armed militancy. [42] There was also a significant debate whether the Deacons for Defence, a paramilitary group, should be allowed to act as protection for civil rights activists. [43] Carmichael proclaimed in a speech during the march that “the only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over” and shouted “Black Power” which the audience cheered back. [44] Joseph asserts that the ‘Black Power Movement emerged as a result of the activities of black activists calling for a radical restructuring of institutions in American society.’ [45] Within a short period of time, support especially in the north, for the non-violent Civil Rights Movement faded away and was replaced by the more popular Black Power Movement, which appeared to directly address problems in a way that the Civil Rights Movement was never able to do. Marable notes that, ‘“Black Power” sparked a national debate’ and brought an end to the ‘last vestiges of unity between the left and right wings of the desegregation movement’. [46] 

Similarly to the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement was made up a coalition of smaller groups who at times worked together, and at times worked independently of the broad movement of Black Power. Their call for blacks to arm themselves became increasingly popular and the movement boasted significant popularity and power. The message the Black Power Movement promoted was that of self-determinism; that you control your own destiny. Davis asserts that as philosophy, Black Power ‘embodied concepts of black economic autonomy, cultural empowerment, self-help, self-defence, and racial separatism’ reflecting similar view to the white segregationists. [47] The radicals also advocated black pride, encouraged blacks to reconnect with their heritages and roots, awakened interest in black studies programs and influenced a boost in African culture. [48] The Black Panther Party (BPP) founded in 1966, is perhaps the most well known Black Power party. The BPP became notorious for their advocacy and use of violence to deter white racists. Wendt asserts that the BPP saw ‘self defence’ as a ‘realistic alternative to nonviolence.’ [49] The BPP’s main aim was to gain control of black communities and black institutions. Wendt asserts that the BPP often used revolutionary violence ‘as a symbol to defy racist authorities’. [50] Other Black Power groups included the Deacons for Defence and Justice. Although they were heavily armed, unlike the BPP, the Deacons only wanted to deter racist attacks. [51] Although the Civil Rights Movement continued after this time, the Black Power Movement replaced the moderates at the forefront of most peoples’ consciousness because it was far more successful at actually combating and deterring violence from whites. The Black Power Movement in some ways it aided the mainstream Civil Rights Movement by presenting a threatening alternative to whites which made them realise that America could not continue as it once had.

Organisations associated with Black Nationalism existed for many years before the popular rise of “Black Power”. Marable asserts that ‘since the 1850s a significant number of African-Americans have supported Black Nationalism.’ [52] The Nation of Islam (NOI) was the most radical Black Nationalist group, and they were extremely successful in recruiting large numbers of people with the help of the inspirational and gifted speaker Malcolm X. [53] Marable asserts that as the NOI expanded, ‘white liberals and Negro integrationists alike became fearful’. [54] The NOI was largely associated with the rejection of racial integration and was far more militant than rest of the Black Power Movement. In many ways because of its militancy it deterred support from the moderates and was not able to enter the mainstream the same way some of the other Black Power groups such as the Black Panthers were because it could not secure support from whites. The inclusion of the Nation under the mainstream title of the Black Power Movement can also limit our understanding of how extremely the most and least radical groups differed. The Deacons for example saw a dramatic increase in violence from whites after they were seen to be heavily armed. [55] Although they were heavily armed and openly carried their weapons, the Deacons used them as a symbol to deter attacks and only advocated used them in self-defence. [56] 

It is important to note that the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement had much in common. They both shared the goal of ultimate equality as reality not just theory and they both wanted to radically change the economical, social and political position of blacks. Where there were distinct differences however, were the methods and lengths each were will to go to in order to obtain this equality. While the Civil Rights Movement deliberately avoided violent protest or anything which would jeopardise the support of white liberals and the government, or would delegitimize the movement. The Black power movement was far more willing to use extreme measures in order to secure civil rights. Wendt asserts that ‘armed resistance indirectly contributed to the radicalisation of the Civil Rights Movement’ as CORE and SNCC began echoing the aims associated with the Black Power Movement [57] . Black Power’s main aims were the encouragement of black pride, self-determination and black control of black society. Sitkoff states that while ultimately the Black Power Movement ‘remained more an angry slogan than a clear program’; it did ‘generate valuable changes’. Davis also agrees that the Black Power Movement left an important legacy. He states that Black Power ‘encouraged African Americans to embrace the uniqueness of their collective history and culture’. [58] Van Deburg expands this and asserts that ‘Black Power became a revolution of culture which utilized all available forms of folk, literacy, and dramatic expression to forward its message of self-actualization’. [59] Where the Civil Rights Movement failed, the Black Power Movement succeeded. The Black Power Movement was extremely successful in gaining support from a wide cross section of black society but it predominantly aimed its program at lower levels of society. [60] Sitkoff states that the movement brought the needs of the lower classes to the attention of the masses, and it called for the dramatic restructuring of American institutions. [61] 

Thus, in many respects, the biggest and most important division in black politics during the 1960s was the split between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. The cause of the division in the politics between the two movements was largely due to the Civil Rights Movement’s ineffectiveness at actually changing everyday life. While it succeeded in securing blacks’ civil rights, and it raised black political consciousness to new heights, the failure to improve conditions for blacks, lead to the search for a more drastic alternative solution. There were also significant divisions within both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement between main groups usually differing over ideology. CORE and SNCC rebelled against the unsuccessful “non-violence” which dominated the Civil Rights Movement. Although the Black Power Movement did not experience the same sort of public divisions that the Civil Rights Movement had, the conflicting ideologies among the different militant groups created many problems of association. However, the failure of the Civil Rights Movement provided a key opening for divisions and a competing ideology to develop. The venting of hostilities came to a head during the race riots which signified a rejection of the social situation in the urban ghettos and championed self defence as a legitimate tactic. The consequence of the change in political discourse was the move away from moderate, nonviolent form of resistance to a widespread advocacy of armed self defence. Ultimately the division became the demise of the Civil Rights Movement as popularity and support waned and more militant radical groups dominated the mainstream for many years after. Although historically the Black Power Movement is not praised with the same heroic sentiment the Civil Rights Movement is, it certainly aided the plight of African-Americans. Much of the later success of the movement came because the Civil Rights Movement originally was able to secure the foundation of legal change. Although the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement are seen as two distinctive movement, it is better to view the Civil Rights Era, as Lang argues, as if each were ‘phases within a broader Black Freedom Movement’ which covers all off the struggles associated with the plight of blacks. [62] While the immediate consequences of the division in black politics saw the demise of the first phase of the Civil Rights Movement, it simply moved on to the next necessary stage which gained its own significant achievements.

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