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The Black Power revolt

August 31, 2007 | Page 10

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR reviews a recent book that documents an often-overlooked era in the Black freedom struggle.

THE CIVIL rights movement of the 1960s is generally viewed in the U.S. as a heroic period in American history. It has come to be embraced by politicians whose political parties, at the time, denounced the tactics of the movement as everything from impatient to subversive and Communist.

The movement has been widely interpreted today as ending the last vestiges of America's dark past of African slavery and Jim Crow segregation in its aftermath.

Even George W. Bush--whose father George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which overthrew Jim Crow racism--regularly invokes the civil rights movement when discussing Black achievement in U.S. society. Last February, for example, Bush said, "The heroes of the civil rights movement continued the struggle for freedom. And by their courage, they changed laws and opened up the promise for millions of our citizens."

Yet even before the ink had dried on the civil rights legislation ending legal racism across the American South, Blacks in the North--who were not restricted by Jim Crow, yet were still victimized by systematic discrimination--went into revolt against the conditions that defined Black life in the nation's largest cities: racism, poverty, unemployment and police brutality.

What else to read

Peniel Joseph's new book on the Black Power era is Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black America.

For an overview of the struggle against racism in the U.S., from slavery to the present day, get Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism, recently published by Haymarket Books.

Two other books that make important contributions about the Black freedom struggle, particularly as it entered its Black Power era, are Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin and Jack Bloom's Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement.

 

From the mid-1960s through the end of the decade, more than half a million Blacks participated in rebellions that rocked some 300 American cities. More than 60,000 Blacks were arrested, more than 200 were killed, and tens of billions of dollars worth of property was damaged.

This open rebellion against the status quo in America's city streets was amplified by the growth of Black radical organizations that extolled Marxism and, in fiery rhetoric, called for the overthrow of American capitalism.

Though the Black Power revolt overlapped with the civil rights movement, the period has been largely overlooked--or at most is often reduced to the acts of repression carried out by the American state against Black militants. While this repression certainly played a defining role in the trajectory of Black Power, the period was so much more.

In his new book Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour, Peniel Joseph, a historian at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, has done a great service by taking on the daunting task of weaving together the many different expressions and strands of this politically important moment in U.S. history.

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JOSEPH PLACES the seminal figures Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party collectively, at the center of the Black Power era.

The book begins with a detailed look at the politics of Malcolm X, who gained a following as a leader of the Nation of Islam. After his assassination in 1965, he became a crucial influence on the political development of Black Power in the late 1960s.

Historically, the Black Power era has been seen as dawning in 1965--ushered in by the Watts rebellion, which started just five days after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

Joseph argues that, in fact, the roots of Black Power run much deeper. He locates them in the miserable conditions Blacks faced in big cities across the North. Malcolm was famous for chiding civil rights activists for focusing on the South when "their own Northern ghettos, right at home, had enough rats and roaches to kill to keep all of the Freedom Riders busy...The North's liberals have been so long pointing accusing fingers at the South and getting away with it that they have fits when they are exposed as the world's worst hypocrites."

Long before the rebellions of the 1960s, Blacks rioted in Harlem in 1935 and 1943, and in Detroit, a riot in 1943 was rooted in the same injustices that would produce the most destructive rebellion of its time in 1967.

Joseph details the Black political experience in Detroit where Black political activists regularly organized against racism in housing, employment and police brutality long before the civil rights movement gained momentum. The culmination of much of this early organizing was the Walk For Freedom, which brought out more than 125,000 predominantly Black protesters--two months before the better-known March on Washington in August 1963.

Joseph argues that a combination of existing conditions in the North combined with a series of Third World rebellions and revolutions--in which peoples of color rose up against white colonial domination--established the early political roots of the Black Power era:

While Black Power activists admired civil rights insurgency, and even joined civil rights groups in hopes of pushing them further to the left, black militants across the country laid the groundwork for turning local initiatives into an alternative national movement.

The focus on the politics of Black Power predating the "civil rights insurgency" is useful in attempting to convey the scope of American racism--that it extended beyond the Jim Crow South into Northern ghettos, and that Northern Blacks were bound to fight against it.

However, to overstate this point is to dismiss or downplay the extent to which the civil rights movement was a central factor in the radicalization of Black students and workers, who witnessed both the federal government and white liberals bend over backwards to get Blacks to accept the political status quo.

Stokely Carmichael was an example of this process. A student of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Carmichael left school in 1961 to join the "Freedom Riders" in their attempt to challenge Jim Crow laws in the South. By 1964, Carmichael had become an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and led its attempts to organize Black voters in Mississippi.

By 1966, after several stints of unlawful imprisonment, attempts on his life and those around him, the murders of Black sharecroppers in Mississippi, and the complete unresponsiveness of the U.S. government, Carmichael had had enough.

On a march through Mississippi in the summer of 1966--with racist police threatening marchers with violence--Carmichael let loose his famous declaration:

This is the 27th time I have been arrested. I ain't going to jail no more. We been saying freedom for six years, and we ain't got nothin'. What we're gonna start saying now is 'Black power.'

Black Power instantly captured the mood of millions of Blacks fed up with the glacial pace of change. The phrase became controversial because it intimated an impatience with the politics of "nonviolence" advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. and looked to pick up the mantle of "by any means necessary" advocated by Malcolm X.

Joseph's chapters on the Black Panther Party, formed first in Oakland, Calif., detail the way in which the Panthers attempted to embody Malcolm's call for unapologetic militancy and radical political solutions to America's race problem--including revolution.

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JOSEPH SKILLFULLY lays out this intersecting history, depicting characters from both the North and South to underline his theme that the fight against racism was not regional, but involved Blacks across the U.S. The book brings to life little-known actors in the Black freedom struggle and provides a real sense of the breadth of the movement.

However, once Joseph reaches the point where Black Power is formally introduced, his sweeping style presents some problems.

The main problem is that by trying to capture everything that happens, Joseph misses some of the important high points of the period. For example, Martin Luther King's "open housing" campaign in Chicago is mentioned only parenthetically--even though this represented a major turning point away from the civil rights legislative strategy, and was representative of why many turned to Black Power: a major northern city in which Blacks were trapped by racism and segregation in housing, employment and education, even though no law formally restricted their access.

Also, the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in the summer of 1968--a Marxist organization of Black autoworkers that spread through industry across Detroit--was arguably the most important political development of the Black Power era. But in Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour, it gets no more than a few paragraphs.

Joseph has clearly focused on the Black Power movement as experienced by Black students, intellectuals and activists, while not looking as closely as Black Power as an expression of the anger of Black workers.

Perhaps because of this, Joseph doesn't really respond to the incoherency of Black Power in its ascendancy--Black Power for whom; how was that "power" to be achieved; and to what end was "power" to be established? These became important questions as self-described revolutionaries, Black nationalists and Black Marxists, as well as Black businessmen, Black conservatives, and even Richard Nixon looked favorably on what they all referred to as Black Power.

Moreover, as movement activists shifted their focus to electoral politics within the Democratic Party by the mid-1970s, even more questions were raised. Joseph seems to embrace this turn to electoral politics, commenting on the largest political convention of the Black Power era in Gary, Ind.:

Embracing protest and politics, Gary illustrated the new political understanding that revolution, far from being the hundred-yard dash that many predicted during the late 1960s, was in fact a marathon that required a community of long-distance runners.

While this was always undeniable, in his epilogue, Joseph ducks the historical fallout from the turn to the Democratic Party. He fails to review any of the records of Black mayors and Black elected officials from the mid-1970s to the present. Instead, he offers cover for them, with this formulation:

In the post-Black Power era African Americans took control over metropolitan centers at the very moment that cities were, due to federal neglect, shrinking tax bases and loss of industries, made most vulnerable to crime, poverty and failing public schools...We can guess how Black Power activists might have helped ease the heartbreaking transition from the hopeful Great Society rhetoric of the 1960s to the conservatism that characterized the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

But we do know that many who were active in the movement of the 1960s went on to become political players in big city politics, and far from attenuating the degree to which racism defined the lives of Black workers, many of the activists-turned-politicians sought to manage budget crises on the backs of Black workers--using their movement credentials to get away with it.

These issues are still critical. Many of the same conditions that inspired the Black Power "mood" exist today--racism, unemployment, segregation, discrimination and inequality. Moreover, after 35 years of Black political leaders operating within the fold of the Democratic Party, the majority of Blacks have little to show for it--raising the inevitable question about the viability of that strategy, then as well as today.

Despite these issues, however, Peniel Joseph's book is a great introduction into this very important and sometimes marginalized period of the 1960s.

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