Monday, November 21, 2011

Black Nationalism: Self Assertion and the End of Biracialism in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe how the African American civil rights movement in the mid-1960s moves beyond the struggle to end segregation and towards the battle for cultural integrity and independence in the mid- and late-1960s.

Broadly accepted by young people as an authentic revolution striving for justice, the Civil Rights Movement until the mid-1960s had been biracial. White students participated in sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the voter registration drive during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer.” But the presence of whites in the movement had always caused tension.

In his "Autobiography," former Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X tells how, after speaking at a New England college, "one little blonde co-ed” whose “clothes . . . carriage and . . . accent” suggested "Deep South breeding and money" searched for him and later located Malcolm at one of his favorite restaurants on Lennox Avenue in Harlem. With pain in her voice, she asked, "Don't you believe there are any good white people?" Malcolm replied, "People's deeds I believe in, Miss, not their words." She then asked the Black Nationalist what she, as a white person, could do to advance African American freedom. “Nothing,” Malcolm replied coldly. The young woman fled the restaurant in tears.

Malcolm later regretted his words and, according to friends like author Alex Haley (who helped the minister write his "Autobiography"), he often spoke of the incident. "I regret that I told her she could do 'nothing,'” he wrote. “I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her, and tell her what I tell white people now when they present themselves as being sincere, and ask me, one way or another, the same thing that she asked."

However, in 1966 some African American civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael, who had coined the phrase “Black Power!” believed that white people within the movement held black people back. To Carmichael, the dependence of more-conservative civil rights groups like the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) on white donors was humiliating. Too many whites assumed leadership positions in the Civil Rights Movement, which held back black independence, Carmichael argued. To black radicals, the white philanthropists who supported the NAACP and other groups were just trying to stave off a real revolution against a capitalist system that was inherently racist. In any case, by 1965 many white activists believed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 meant the black freedom struggle had already met its goals.

As civil rights historian Robert Weisbrot noted, “Like most slogans, ‘Black Power’ could mean all things to all people . . . [to some] it referred to racial pride and racial solidarity, and black leadership of institutions for Afro-American progress . . . ” On the other hand, NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins blasted the slogan in 1966, claiming that, “No matter how endlessly they try to explain it, the term ‘black power’ means anti-white power,” Wilkins claimed. The controversy over the phrase “black power” was as much part of what was called in the 1960s the “Generation Gap,” the gulf of perception between Baby Boomers and their parents, as it was a black-white conflict.


In the mainstream media, African Americans had been mostly invisible until the post-World War II era. In the movies, in the 1950s and 1960s, African American actor Sidney Poitier became the first black movie superstar, but his career revealed the limits of what whites would accept from black performers. The handsome, deep-voiced, Bahamian-born actor worked a series of low-paying jobs and slept in the restroom of a bus terminal when he moved to New York as a teenager. A stage actor, his first big movie break came in the 1950 film No Way Out in which he portrayed a doctor with a white racist as a patient. Poitier played a series of characters who were not angry, imminently reasonable and idealistic and often middle class.

By the end of 1950s, he played the leading man in civil rights-friendly films like "The Defiant Ones" (1958) in which he portrayed a convict chained to a white prisoner (Tony Curtis). The two escape, become unchained, and at one point Poitier rescues Curtis, which results in Poitier’s recapture. This movie became one of Poitier’s biggest hits, and earned him his first Oscar nomination for best actor, but white and black audiences perceived the message differently.

“Good” negro characters in American films had long sacrificed themselves in the interest of white characters, their hopes, fears and aspirations surrendered in service to the usual white hero. “When he saved his honky brother, he was jeered at in ghetto theaters,” film historian Don Bogle wrote in his book "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films." To younger African Americans particularly, the Poitier character struck them as an “Uncle Tom,” a black person who deliberately subordinates himself to whites.

Poitier finally won a best actor Academy Award for his role in the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field." Poitier played a likable former soldier traveling across the Arizona desert who discovers a group of white nuns hoping to build a chapel. As Bogle sarcastically observes, after his groundbreaking Oscar win, Poitier’s characters became even “nicer.” In "A Patch of Blue" (1965) he served as “the seeing-eye dog for a poor blind white girl.” Other black people were often invisible in Poitier’s films. He was important only because he intersected with the white world.

In his riskiest performance, "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" (1967) he depicted a prosperous, well-respected doctor nominated for the Nobel Prize who travels to the suburbs to meet his white fiancée’s parents, played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Poitier doesn’t wear the African-inspired dashikis popular among many young Black Nationalists of the time, but instead is dressed in a perfect, bourgeois suit and tie. Poitier’s character doesn’t shout “Black Power!” His future in-laws express the mild discomfort with their daughter’s romantic choice necessary for melodrama, but they mouth no ugly racism and everyone is at peace in the end. The film was so tame it didn’t inspire much controversy, even in the South.

On television, the treatment of African Americans was often similarly condescending. As Carmichael once wrote, instead of playing maids and butlers as they did in the 1950s, black actors played police officers conforming to the white audiences’ expectations, “trying to make us identify with a black man who fights for law and order – their law, and their order,” as he put it.

A rare exception challenging such limits placed on black performers was the science fiction series "Star Trek," cancelled by NBC after just three seasons in 1969. Although its depiction of women was sexist, "Star Trek" featured a rare multi-racial, multi-ethnic cast. The Starship Enterprise featured an East Asian officer, Mr. Sulu, a nationalistic Russian, Mr. Chekov, and a proudly Scottish engineer stereotypically named ‘Scotty.” The two lead actors, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (playing Captain James Kirk and Mr. Spock), were both Jewish, a rarity in American television at the time. The Mr. Spock character, born of a human mother and a father from the planet ”Vulcan,” could be seen as a metaphor for the increasingly diverse, hybrid nature of American culture in 1960s.

Meanwhile, the ship’s communications officer, Lt. Uhura, played by African American actress Nichele Nichols, proudly bore an African name. Comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg later recalled what a powerful impact seeing a beautiful black actress not playing a cleaning lady had on her as a child. "Well, when I was nine years old 'Star Trek' came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, 'Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!' I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be . . .” Black actors on 'Star Trek' often broke out of the subservient roles typical in movies of the era, portraying doctors and other professionals. In one episode, Shakespearean actor William Marshall (who would play an African vampire called “Blackula” in a 1970s film) portrayed a character hailed as the galaxy’s greatest computer genius.

Racial conflict was a frequent theme on the show. Repeatedly, the character Spock had to deal with the Southern bigotry of “Bones” McCoy, the ship’s physician who hailed from Georgia. Frustrated with Spock’s reliance on cold logic rather than emotion, McCoy frequently lashed out, calling the spaceship’s science officer a half-breed and a “freak.” On one 1969 episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” the crew encounters two aliens from the planet Cheron with black and white skin – one group is black on the left, the other on the right. The two alien races engage in a war that ultimately destroys their planet.

In another 1969 episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Kirk and Uhura engaged in the first interracial kiss on an American dramatic series (the African American entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., briefly kissed singer Nancy Sinatra on a variety program two years earlier.) Gene Roddenberry, the series producer, struggled with NBC censors who were afraid of negative reaction from TV stations in the South. Even though the amorous Kirk was portrayed in the series as relentlessly pursuing women across the galaxy, even subordinate officers and aliens, he and Uhura are depicted as being forced into their kiss by cruel aliens with telekinetic powers. Nichols later noted, “We received one of the largest batches of fan mail ever, all of it very positive . . . almost no one found the kiss offensive."

The audience, even in the South, was apparently ahead of the Hollywood television studio, Desilu, which produced the show. Though it drew small audiences while broadcast by NBC, "Star Trek" became vastly more popular as reruns in syndication, sparking a revived interest in science fiction and creating an audience for the enormously successful "Star Wars" series of movies, which began in 1977, and several space-themed films by director Steven Spielberg, including "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (also released in 1977.)


In spite of increased visibility in the media, African Americans struggled against a larger American culture that associated beauty with white skin and demeaned African American intelligence and talent. Such negative messages about blackness even poisoned black-owned media. In the 1960s, the African American-owned newspaper The Dallas Express carried advertising for hair straighteners and skin bleach which suggested to readers that kinky hair and black skin were unattractive and a social impediment. "Enjoy the Light Side of Life with new, improved 'Skin Success' Bleach Cream," one ad promised. "Now you can enjoy the popularity and admiration that goes with a lighter, fairer complexion."

African American politicians, authors and poets argued that before blacks could free themselves from white oppression, they would have to free themselves from feelings of self-hatred and inferiority. They embraced the term “Black” as a sign of pride in their skin color and called themselves “Afro-Americans” in solidarity with their lost family on the Mother Continent. This quest for internal liberation inspired a “Black is Beautiful” movement. African American activists urged both men and women to don natural “Afro” hairstyles. As the poet Nikki Giovanni proclaimed, referring to the oppressive white minority apartheid regime in South Africa in “Of Liberation”:

If 10% honkies[whites] can run south Africa
10% Black people (which has nothing to do with Negroes)
can run America
These are facts
Deal with them . . .

Everything comes in steps
Negative step one: get the white out of your hair
Negative step two: get the white out of your mind
Negative step three: get the white out of your parties
Negative step four: get the white out of your meetings

In the 1960s, black Americans sought to reconnect with their African heritage. Poets like Giovanni, Leroi Jones, (who divorced his white wife, began wearing African-style dress, and adopted the African name Imamu Amiri Baraka), Gwendolyn Brooks, and Gil-Scott Heron, wrote of the beauty of black skin, the nobility of black culture, and the need for African Americans to liberate themselves from Euro-American expectations.

Inspired by such artists and Malcolm X, so-called Black Nationalists rejected what they saw as the hopelessly idealistic dream of a just, multi-cultural America. They concluded that African American freedom would come when black people lived under black leaders, were served by black institutions, and supported black businesses. Some Black Nationalists went as far as the Nation of Islam, advocating the creation of a separate black homeland within the United States. Integration, described by Carmichael as “a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy,” would not end black poverty, create black jobs or result in black political liberation. Whites who sympathized with civil rights were told to leave the African American freedom struggle to blacks and to fight racism where it existed – within the white community.

One Detroit minister, Albert Cleage, founder of the Church of the Black Madonna, argued in his 1968 book "The Black Messiah" that Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism had all been created by black people. Jesus himself was black, Cleage taught. “Black people cannot build dignity on their knees worshipping a white Christ,” Cleage said. Most Black activists in the late 1960s, however, primarily concerned themselves with the here and now. In 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, two Southern-born African American students who had attended Merritt College in the Oakland area in Alameda County in Northern California, formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense on October 15, 1966 to counter police abuse and killings of black youths in ghetto neighborhoods.

Oakland’s African American population, a quarter of the total, dealt with a crudely racist police department that, in the words of historian Rick Perlstein, “lay in wait outside the bars that served as the ghetto’s de facto banks. A factory worker would emerge, find himself arrested for drunkenness, and be robbed of his week’s wages on the way to the precinct house.”

Seale and Newton saw the Black Panthers as a self-defense force and they were moved to arm themselves after an April 1, 1967 incident in which a black child named Denzill Dowell was shot to death by police in the nearby town of Richmond. Police claimed Dowell, who suffered from a painful hip injury, had fled from arrest. Seale, Newton and the other Panthers armed themselves and began to shadow police officers operating in their neighborhood. “Armed patrols of young male Black Panthers accosted police in the act of mistreating local Negroes and recorded evidence of abuses, often narrowly avoiding shootouts with incensed officers,” Weisbrot observed.

“What set the Black Panthers apart from black nationalist groups was their conviction that the problem was one of class as well as race, their belief that the enemy was the white ruling class, not ‘whitey,’ wrote historian of feminism Alice Echols. “ . . . In fact, the Panthers encouraged white radicals to assume the role of support troops for the black movement.” They strongly believed, however, in self-defense. California law banned carrying loaded weapons only inside a car, and the Panthers made a point of parading in wealthy white neighborhoods to “let them find out what it was like to have hostile forces stalking your streets with guns.” The Panthers also provided books and free breakfast programs for children, programs that received a lot less attention from the media.

As Echols notes, the Panthers were “more incendiary in their rhetoric than in their actions.” Yet the Panthers, bearing firearms, and exhorting their followers to “Off a Pig!” (kill a cop) provoked a white overreaction. Don Mulford, a conservative California Republican in the state assembly, introduced a gun control measure prohibiting citizens from carrying loaded weapons in public places. The Panthers arrived at the California state capitol on May 2, 1967 carrying loaded shotguns and rifles in protest before police forced them out of the building. The California Legislature passed the law and Gov. Ronald Reagan, later hailed by conservatives as a defender of gun owner rights, signed the measure into law.

Law enforcement declared war on the Panthers. Chicago police in coordination with the FBI, on December 4, 1969, assaulted the home of Panther leader Fred Hampton. Officers fatally shot Hampton, 21, and his body guard Mark Clark, 22, multiple times even though both apparently were unarmed at the time of the raid. A filmmaker who rushed to the scene later said that the police leaving the building were smiling, celebrating and hugging each other. Ballistics tests showed that no guns were fired from within Hampton’s house, but 76 bullets were fired from outside. It was later revealed that an FBI spy within the Panthers had slipped Hampton a drink laced with sedatives that would make it harder for him to defend himself. The violence of the raid was so excessive that the Cook County district attorney, his assistant and eight Chicago police were indicted by a federal grand jury, but all were gradually acquitted. Overall, 26 Black Panthers died violently, mostly at the hands of police, between April 1968 and December 1969.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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