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During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Black Power movement provided the dominant ideological framework through which many young, poor, and middle-class blacks made sense of their lives and articulated a political vision for their futures. The legacy of the movement is still very much with us today in the various strands of black nationalism that originated from it; we witnessed its power in the 1995 Million Man March, and we see its more ambiguous effects in the persistent antagonisms among former participants in the civil rights coalition. Yet despite the importance of the Black Power movement, very few in-depth, balanced treatments of it exist.
Is It Nation Time? gathers new and classic essays on the Black Power movement and its legacy by renowned thinkers who deal rigorously and unsentimentally with such issues as the commodification of blackness, the piety of cultural recovery, and class tensions within the movement. For anyone who wants to understand the roots of the complex political and cultural desires of contemporary black America, this will be an essential collection.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Farah Jasmine Griffin
Phillip Brian Harper
Robin D. G. Kelley
Adolph Reed Jr.
S. Craig Watkins
E. Francis White
The distinctive feature of African American life in the sixties was the rise on the historical stage of a small yet determined petite bourgeoisie promoting liberal reforms, and the revolt of the masses, whose aspirations exceeded those of liberalism but whose containment was secured by political appeasement, cultural control, and state repression. African America encountered the modern American capitalist order (in its expansionist phase)-as urban dwellers, industrial workers, and franchised citizens-on a broad scale for the first time. This essay will highlight the emergence of the black parvenu petite bourgeoisie-the new, relatively privileged, middle class-and its complex relations to the black working poor and underclass. I will try to show how the political strategies, ideological struggles, and cultural anxieties of this predominantly white-collar stratum both propelled the freedom movement in an unprecedented manner and circumscribed its vision, analysis, and praxis within liberal capitalist perimeters.
For interpretive purposes, the sixties is not a chronological category which encompasses a decade, but rather a historical construct or heuristic rubric that renders noteworthy historical processes and events intelligible. The major historical processes that set the context for the first stage of the black freedom movement in the sixties were the modernization of southern agriculture, the judicial repudiation of certain forms of southern racism, and the violent white backlash against perceived black progress. The modernization of southern agriculture made obsolete much of the traditional tenant labor force, thereby forcing large numbers of black rural folk into southern and northern urban centers in search of employment. The judicial repudiation of certain forms of southern racism, prompted by the gallant struggles of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and exemplified in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, was not only a legal blow against tax-supported school segregation; it also added historical momentum and political legitimacy to black struggles against racism. Yet there quickly surfaced an often violent white reaction to this momentum and legitimacy. For example, Rev. George W. Lee was fatally shot in May 1955 for refusing to take his name off the voter registration list. Sixty-three-year-old Lamar Smith was killed in broad daylight in August 1955 for trying to get out the black vote in an upcoming primary election. And most notably, Emmett L. Till, a fourteen-year-old lad from Chicago visiting his relatives, was murdered in late August 1955. These wanton acts of violence against black people in Mississippi, though part of the American southern way of life, reflected the conservative white reaction to perceived black progress. In 1955, this white reaction was met with widespread black resistance.
The greatness of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-the major American prophet of this century and black leader in the sixties-was his ability to mobilize and organize this southern resistance, such that the delicate balance between the emerging "new" black petite bourgeoisie, black working poor, and black underclass was maintained for a few years. The arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama-as a result of one of a series of black acts of civil disobedience against Montgomery's bus line that year-led to the creation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the adoption of a citywide black boycott, and the placement of King at the head of the movement. After nearly a year of the boycott, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Alabama's state and local bus segregation laws unconstitutional. Judicial repudiation of southern racism again gave the black struggle for freedom momentum and legitimacy.
King is the exemplary figure of the first stage of the black freedom movement in the sixties not only because he was its gifted and courageous leader, or simply because of his organizational achievements, but, more important, because he consolidated the most progressive potential available in the black southern community at that time: the cultural potency of prophetic black churches, the skills of engaged black preachers, trade unionists, and professionals, and the spirit of rebellion and resistance of the black working poor and underclass. In this sense, King was an organic intellectual of the first order-a highly educated and informed thinker with organic links to ordinary folk. Despite his petit bourgeois origins, his deep roots in the black church gave him direct access to the life-worlds of the majority of black Southerners. In addition, his education at Morehouse College, Crozier Theological Seminary, and Boston University provided him with opportunities to reflect upon various anticolonial struggles around the world, especially those in India and Ghana, and also entitled him to respect and admiration in the eyes of black people, including the "old," black, middle class (composed primarily of teachers and preachers). Last, his Christian outlook and personal temperament facilitated relations with progressive nonblack people, thereby insuring openness to potential allies.
King institutionalized his sense of the social engagement of black churches, his Christian-informed techniques of nonviolence, and his early liberal vision of America with the founding in February, 1957, in New Orleans of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This courageous group of prophetic black preachers from ten southern states served as the models for young black southern activists. I stress the adjective "southern" not simply because most black people in the United States at this time lived in the South, but also because the core of the first stage of the black freedom movement was a church-led movement in the belly of the violence-prone, underindustrialized, colonylike southern United States. Of course, the North was quite active-especially Harlem's Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Congress and the Nation of Islam's Malcolm X in the streets-but activity in the North was not the major thrust of this first stage.
Like David against Goliath, black activists openly challenged the entrenched, racist, white status quo in the South. Widespread white economic sanctions and physical attacks on black people, fueled by the so-called Southern Manifesto promoted in 1956 by Senator J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina along with over a hundred congressmen, rendered both the Democratic and Republican parties relatively silent regarding the civil rights issues affecting black people. Two diluted civil rights bills (in 1957 and 1960) limped through Congress, and the Supreme Court, owing to congressional pressure, took much of the bite out of its earlier Brown decision. Black resistance intensified.
Inspired by the praxis of King, MIA, and SCLC-as well as the sit-in techniques employed by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the North-four black freshmen students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro staged a sit-in at the local Woolworth's on February 1, 1960. Within a week, their day-to-day sit-in had been joined by black and white students from the Women's College of the University of North Carolina, North Carolina College, and Duke University. Within two weeks, the sit-in movement had spread to fifteen other cities in Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Within two months, there were sit-ins in seventy-eight cities. By the end of 1960, over fifty thousand people throughout the South had participated in sit-in demonstrations, with over 25 percent of the black students in predominantly black colleges participating. In short, young black people (and some progressive white people) had taken seriously King's techniques of nonviolence and the spirit of resistance.
This spontaneous rebellion of young black people against the southern taboo of black and white people eating together in public places exemplified a major component in the first stage of the black freedom movement: the emergence of politicized, black, parvenu, petit bourgeois students. These students, especially young preachers and Christian activists, prefigured the disposition and orientation of the vastly increasing number of black college students in the sixties: they would give first priority to social activism and justify their newly acquired privileges by personal risk and sacrifice. So the young black student movement was not simply a rejection of segregation in restaurants. It was also a revolt against the perceived complacency of the "old" black petite bourgeoisie. It is no accident that at the first general conference on student sit-in activity, which began Good Friday (April 15) 1960, the two keynote speakers-Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-launched devastating critiques of the NAACP and other "old" black middle-class groups. King articulated this viewpoint when he characterized the sit-in movement as "a revolt against those Negroes in the middle class who have indulged themselves in big cars and ranch-style homes rather than in joining a movement for freedom." The organization which emerged later in the year from this gathering -the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)-epitomized this revolt against the political reticence of the "old" black middle class.
The major achievement of SNCC was, in many ways, its very existence. SNCC initiated a new style and outlook among black students in particular and the "new" black petite bourgeoisie in general. Its activist, countercultural orientation even influenced disenchanted white students on elite university campuses. Yet SNCC's central shortcoming was discernible at its inception: if pushed far enough, the revolt against middleclass status and outlook would not only include their models but also themselves, given their privileged student status and probable upward social mobility.
The influence of SNCC's new style was seen when James Farmer departed from the program directorship of the NAACP to become National Director of CORE. Within six weeks, he announced that CORE would conduct "Freedom Rides"-modeled on the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation led by CORE-to challenge segregation in interstate bus depots and terminals. On May 4, 1961, seven black people and six white people left Washington, D.C. Within ten days, one of the buses had been burned to the ground and many riders had been viciously attacked in Birmingham and Montgomery. This Freedom Ride was disbanded in Montgomery on May 17. A second Freedom Ride was initiated by SNCC, led by Diane Nash, composed of white and black people from CORE and SNCC. Violence ensued again, with twenty-seven people arrested and given suspended two-month sentences and fines of two hundred dollars. They refused to pay and were taken to Parchman Prison.
These two Freedom Rides-though responsible for the desegregation of bus and train stations on September 22, 1961, by the Interstate Commerce Commission-served as a portent of the two basic realities that would help bring the initial stage of the black freedom movement to a close: first, the slow but sure rift between SNCC and King, and, second, the ambiguous attitude of Democratic Party liberals to the movement. Both aspects came to the fore at the crucial August 1961 staff meeting at SNCC at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. It was well known that the Kennedy administration had called for a "cooling off" period, motivated primarily by its fear of alienating powerful southern Democratic comrades in Congress. At the meeting, Tim Jenkins, a fellow traveler of the Democratic Party, proposed that SNCC drop its emphasis on direct action and focus on voter education and registration. The majority of the SNCC sta. opposed Jenkins's project, owing to its connections with the Kennedy administration and the open approval of it by King's SCLC. In the eyes of many SNCC members, the "establishment" against which they were struggling began to encompass both the Democratic Party's liberals and the SCLC's black activist liberals. This slow rupture would result in some glaring defeats in the civil rights movement, most notably the Albany (Georgia) movement in December 1961, and also led to the gradual breakaway of SNCC from the techniques of nonviolence.
Yet in 1963, the first stage of the black freedom movement would culminate in its most successful endeavors: Birmingham and the March on Washington. The televised confrontation between the civil rights marchers and the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, as well as the dramatic arrest of King, gave the movement much sympathy and support throughout the country. And the use of hundreds of black children in the struggle reinforced this effective histrionic strategy. Despite the bombing of the black Gaston Hotel, of King's brother's home, and black spontaneous rebellions in Birmingham, the massive nonviolent direct action-including over three thousand people imprisoned-proved successful. The city of Birmingham, often referred to as the "American Johannesburg," accepted the black demands for desegregation and black employment opportunities. Furthermore, President Kennedy responded to the Birmingham campaign with a televised address to the nation in which he pledged his support for a comprehensive civil rights bill. However, the assassination of Medgar Evers, state executive secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, only hours after Kennedy's speech cast an ominous shadow over the Birmingham victory.
The famous March on Washington in August 1963-the occasion for King's powerful and poignant "I have a dream" speech-was not the zenith of the civil rights movement. The movement had peaked in Birmingham. Rather the March on Washington was the historic gathering of that coalition of liberal forces-white trade unionists, Christians, Jews, and civil rights activists-whose potency was declining, whose fragile cohesion was falling apart. The central dilemma of the first stage of the black freedom movement emerged: the existence and sustenance of the civil rights movement neither needed nor required white aid or allies, yet its success required white liberal support in the Democratic Party, Congress, and the White House.
The March on Washington exemplified this debilitating limitation of the civil rights movement. With white liberal support, the movement would achieve limited success but slowly lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the now more politicized black petit bourgeois students, working poor, and underclass. Without white liberal support, the movement could raise more fundamental issues of concern to the black working poor and underclass, yet thereby render the movement marginal to mainstream American politics and hence risk severe repression. It comes as no surprise that the March on Washington witnessed both the most powerful rhetoric and the most salient reality of the civil rights movement: King's great speech and the Kennedy administration's supervision of the March.
In summary, the first stage of the black freedom movement in the sixties -the civil rights struggle-began as a black response to white violent attacks and took the form of a critique of everyday life in the American South. This critique primarily consisted of attacking everyday cultural folkways that insulted black dignity. It was generated, in part, from the multifarious effects of the economic transformation of dispossessed southern rural peasants into downtrodden industrial workers, maids, and unemployed city dwellers within the racist American South. In this regard, the civil rights movement prefigured the fundamental concerns of the American New Left: linking private troubles to public issues, accenting the relation of cultural hegemony to political control and economic exploitation.
The major achievements of the civil rights movement were noteworthy: the transformation of everyday life (especially the elimination of terror as a primary mode of social control) of central regions in the American South; the federal commitment to the civil and voting rights of African Americans; and the sense of confidence among black people that effective mobilization and organization were not only possible but imperative if the struggle for freedom was to continue. The pressing challenges were immense: transforming the power relations in the American South and North, obtaining federal support for employment and economic rights of the underprivileged, sustaining black organizational potency in the face of increasing class differentiation within the black community, and taking seriously the long-overlooked specific needs and interests of black women. The first stage came to a close principally because the civil rights struggle achieved its liberal aims, namely, absorption into mainstream American politics, reputable interest-group status in the (soon to falter) liberal coalition of the Democratic Party.
Excerpted from Is It Nation Time? Copyright © 2002 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Introduction: Black Power Revisited
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
1. The Paradox of the African American Rebellion
2. Black Particularity Reconsidered
Adolph L. Reed Jr.
3. Stormy Weather: Reconstructing Black (Inter)Nationalism in the Cold War Era
Robin D. G. Kelley
4. Reflecting Black: Zimbabwe and U.S. Black Nationalism
5. Conflict and Chorus: Reconsidering Toni Cade's The Black Woman: An Anthology
Farah Jasmine Griffin
6. Africa on My Mind: Gender, Counter Discourse, and African American Nationalism
E. Frances White
7. Standing in for the State: Black Nationalism and "Writing" the Black Subject
8. Nationalism and Social Division in Black Arts Poetry of the 1960s
Phillip Brian Harper
9. "Black Is Back, and It's Bound to Sell!": Nationalist Desire and the Production of Black Popular Culture
S. Craig Watkins
10. After The Fire Next Time: James Baldwin's Postconsensus Double Bind
11. Theses on Black Nationalism
List of Contributors