Waiting till the Midnight Hour: Re-conceptualizing the Heroic Period of the Civil Rights Movement | Analysis

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Peniel E. Joseph, ‘Waiting till the Midnight Hour: Re-conceptualizing the Heroic Period of the

Civil Rights Movement, 19541965’, Souls 2:2 (2000): 617.

 

The article, ‘Waiting till the Midnight Hour: Re-conceptualizing the Heroic Period of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1965’ by Peniel E. Joseph, provides a nuanced Civil Rights narrative by examining different political manifestations of black radicalism in America during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Joseph offers an insightful new view of the Black Power era by arguing that the concept of Black Power took form during the Civil Rights period.

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In his article, Joseph identifies different forces that functioned as outlets for black radicalism during the ‘heroic years’ (7) of the Civil Rights era. Among these forces is the radical voice of the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Monroe (North Carolina), Robert F. Williams. Joseph asserts that Williams adopted a political philosophy of radical internationalism (8) and the political maxim of self-defence (9). It is important to note that Williams’ political philosophy is based on the politics of black internationalism, which seeks to describe the black struggle for liberation in global context by creating an international community for people of African descent (9). According to Joseph, this political thought can be traced back to the ‘anti-imperialist’ (9) W. E. B. Du Bois; an argument which demonstrates that the tendency of black radicalism has deep roots in US history.

Joseph highlights that Williams does not represent an anomaly in that era, by introducing other individuals such as the writers LeRoi Jones and Julian Mayfield, who followed Williams’ radical pursuit by adopting a political philosophy of leftist internationalism (10). These black radical voices of the late 1950s and early 1960s complicate the mainstream perception of the ‘heroic period of the Civil Rights Movement’ (6), which regards Civil Rights activists as a homogenous and non-violent group whose only concern was the removal of petty apartheid. Furthermore, by referencing Robert Williams, Joseph indicates that the political maxim of self-defence was a product of the South. He thus implicitly complicates the mainstream understanding of Black Power as a ‘post-1965’[1] Northern phenomenon.

Incidentally, Robert F. Williams, LeRoi Jones, and Julian Mayfield were all members of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPFC). According to Joseph, FPFC put the political theory of black internationalism into practice by establishing a platform for conversation between Cuba and the black left (10). Joseph also presents the student-led Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) as an organization that was influenced by Robert Williams’ politics of radical internationalism (14). By alluding to the similarities that characterize RAM and the Black Panthers (14), Joseph insinuates that universities were an important place for black political discourse throughout the Black Power era. Additionally, the RAM members’ ideological manifoldness but simultaneously uniform emphasis on the political philosophy of black internationalism (14) offers a stark contrast to the traditionally perpetuated depiction of black university students during the Civil Rights period; a picture that renders the students as being uniformly concerned with the domestic problem of segregation.

Joseph identifies The Crusader, Freedomways, and The Liberator as the magazines that embodied the presence of black radical thought during the late 1950s and early 1960s (9–11). These magazines offered the opportunity for intellectual discourse among politically and ideologically opposed black radicals (11). Joseph, therefore, suggests that black radicalism had a strong intellectual dimension. He makes it apparent that through the rigorous intellectual discourse and the organizational efforts, black radicals of the late 1950s and early 1960s provided a ‘theoretical and political framework’ (14) for the Black Power activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thus, Joseph effectively demonstrates that the concept of Black Power had its origin in the black radical tendency of the ‘heroic period of the civil rights era’ (6). Through the continuous emphasis on the politics of black internationalism, Joseph implies that this philosophy represents the unifying ideological pillar of black radicalism: thus, Black Power.

On another note, Joseph also complicates the event that, in the public imagination of the past and today, has come to epitomize the monolithic nature of the Civil Rights Movement: the March on Washington. Joseph mentions the criticism that the majority of black radicals made regarding the march’s classist and sexist exclusion (14) and its endorsement of ‘liberal-integrationism’ (13). Moreover, Joseph alludes to the fact that two strands of Civil Rights activists existed during the time of the march: the homogenous ‘reformers’, and the ideologically diverse radicals or ‘militants’ (13). However, only the former group received national and international media attention. The article, therefore, implies that the media has had a tremendous influence in shaping the public’s flawed understanding of the Black Power Movement as chronologically separate from the Civil Rights Movement. Joseph, again, gives much-needed nuance to an event that is still portrayed in a naively uniform manner.

Joseph’s article is part of an explosion of literature on Black Power that emerged during the last two decades. This literature on Black Power seeks to challenge the first wave of Civil Rights historiography, which depicts Black Power as an inconsequential, politically ineffective, and polemical phenomenon that is chronologically distinct from the Civil Rights period.[2] Joseph draws on the literature in which scholars seek to ‘re-periodize’ the Black Power Movement (8).More specifically, it could be argued that Joseph builds directly on Timothy Tyson’s seminal biography of Robert F. Williams, Radio Free Dixie (1999). Tyson’s study was the first to challenge the conventional chronology (1966–1975) of Black Power by asserting that Robert F. Williams was its antecedent.[3] However, it would be wrong to say that Joseph merely repeats other historians’ findings, as his article is broader in scope than most of its scholarly predecessors. During the time of the article’s publication, historians focused primarily on domestic aspects of Black Power;[4] their studies offer a ‘micro-perspective’ on Black Power. In contrast, Joseph’s article is historically broader, as it introduces a range of different political manifestations of Black Power. Joseph’s first book, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2006), can be seen as an extended version of his article. Besides bearing a similar title, the book also takes the same approach; it adopts a ‘macro-perspective’ view of the Black Power Movement. In his review Look out, Historians! Black Power’s Gon’ Get You (2007), Jama Lazerow praises the book for exactly this virtue, saying that it ‘seeks broad historical ground in space, subject matter, and most especially historiography’.[5]

At this juncture, it is important to look at the references that Peniel Joseph uses in his article. Joseph draws on a plethora of secondary sources and uses only a limited number of primary sources to support his arguments (16–17). Nonetheless, the range of sources is astonishing, and shows that much research went into the writing of this journal article.

In terms of criticism, it can be said that Joseph provokes confusion in his reader by assuming that the reader knows the nature of the events as well as he does, and by leaving theoretical terms such as ‘black radicalism’ (6) unexplained. But this claim can be refuted by alluding to the books and texts referenced in the article’s notes section, which clarify both events and theoretical terms.

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However, it should not go unnoticed that Joseph’s criticism regarding the March on Washington’s exclusion of female figures (13-14) is contradictory, in the light of the absence of female black radicals in his article. This blind spot suggests that further research should examine the links between black women and black radicalism during the Civil Rights period.

Nevertheless, this should in no way undermine the ambitious nature of Joseph’s piece. Within a few pages, Joseph compiles a broad examination of Black Power’s different manifestations during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is thus safe to say that Peniel E. Joseph compellingly re-periodizes and ‘re-conceptualizes’ (7) the Black Power Movement by making its ideology of black radicalism part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bibliography

 

  • Garrow, David J., Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Conference (1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Random House, 1989).
  • Lazerow, Jama, ‘Look Out, Historians! Black Power’s Gon’ Get You’, Reviews in American History 35 (March 1, 2007), 126–32 <https://www-jstor-org.manchester.idm.oclc.org/stable/30031676> [accessed 15 October 2019].
  • Tyson, Timothy B., Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
  • Woodward, Komozi, A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[1] I adapted this term from an article that Peniel E. Joseph wrote in 2009: Peniel E. Joseph, ‘The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field’, The Journal of American History 96 (December 2009), 751–776

<https://www.jstor.org/stable/25622477> [accessed 16 October 2019] (759).

[2] For scholarship that represents Black Power as a post-1965 phenomenon, see David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Random House, 1989), pp. 475–525.

[3] Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), p. 291.

[4]  For a good example of a ‘micro-perspective’ view of Black Power, see Komozi Woodard, A Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[5] Jama Lazerow, ‘Look Out, Historians! Black Power’s Gon’ Get You’, Reviews in American History 35 (March 2007), 126–132 <https://www-jstor-org.manchester.idm.oclc.org/stable/30031676> [accessed 15 October 2019] (127).

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