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The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Freedom Struggle

The following is the final paper I wrote for a course on the Civil Rights Movement.

      American political history is, in its most basic form, a history of struggle between those who experience the full benefits of citizenship and those who are left out of the American experiment. This struggle of “haves” and “have-nots” means legal, social, and economic demands are levied against the ruling classes constantly, with the Black Freedom Struggle representing an important phase of the broader conflict of American history. The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most important steps forward in equalizing the legal rights of black citizens in the United States, but it must be understood under the critical lens of progress, understanding that the Civil Rights Movement did not end the Black Freedom Struggle in the United States. With the shift to the right in American politics leading up to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, much of the struggle between American “haves” and “have-nots” was set back, including the struggle of black people. This rightward shift opened up a new space of economic and social demands to be made by black people, which are still being made today.

The successes of the Civil Rights Movement were primarily in the legal sphere, with leaders like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr. making clear the disparity in legal rights between whites and blacks in the U.S. The work of the movement in Mississippi, for example, was primarily focused on achieving equal voting rights for black people. Activists, black and white, traveled to Mississippi in order to register African Americans to vote. This was intended to highlight the vast gap between black and white people in the South in terms of their access to the most basic right Americans have as citizens of a democracy, the right to vote. (Carson et al. 1991, 170-171) The demands of mainstream activists in the SCLC and SNCC tended to be legal in nature, and leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many of the important victories in the struggle for black freedom were victories for equal rights. The division between the legal challenges of the Civil Rights Movement and the social, legal, and economic demands of the radicals was in its infancy in the 1930’s, but it was already visible in the class divisions within the NAACP. (Fairclough 2001, 182-183) Black people less directly affected by the plight of poverty and economic inequality had less interest in demanding fundamental societal changes in these areas, instead they sought legal victories and slow, legislative change.

This interest in legal and civil rights was the special focus of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, with economic questions taking a backseat due to cold war concerns about the radical labor movements which were once to close to the black freedom struggle. (Ransby 2003, 161) Even radical activists like Huey P. Newton focused on the disparities in Constitutional rights between African Americans and whites before later tackling the social and economic conditions of the black community. Influenced by Bobby Seale, Newton and his supporters carried guns to their protests, an act meant to “intimidate the authorities,” and to demonstrate the disconnect in legal rights between citizens of the same country, who supposedly all had the right to carry weapons in self-defense. (Newton 1973, 113) This was a clear departure from what the most radical activists would have been most interested in accomplishing 20 or 30 years earlier.

Since the Civil Rights Movement was so closely tied to legal and civil rights, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 represented the culmination of the movement’s efforts toward legal equality. In this sense, the movement can be said to have been “successful” in terms of the goals it established for itself. The equalization of legal rights and access to certain social accommodations for black people, at least on paper, was achieved by the end of the 1960’s. The broader Black Freedom Struggle was far from finished with the end of the Civil Rights Movement, however, with equality of social and economic opportunity never being fully secured for African Americans. The goals of the radical black freedom movements in the 1930’s and 40’s, and the efforts of the radical labor movement, were never accomplished in America. The material conditions of black people remain substantially inferior to those of whites, despite the legislative accomplishments of the 1960’s.

Division in the Democratic Party and disillusionment with Democratic leadership during the period of stagflation in the 1970’s, along with a general unhappiness with liberal policy among more conservative Americans, led to a hard right shift in American politics. People, especially white people, felt their voices were not being heard in government, and many Southern Democrats were turning toward the Republican party in response to the Democrats’ support of the Civil Rights Movement. The active pursual of the “Southern Strategy” to turn the South toward the Republican party also directed America to the political right. Conservative voters, seeing themselves as a “silent majority,” forced right-wing leaders like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan into power, without regard for how such a rightward turn might affect the least well-off members of American society. Liberal leaders like Jimmy Carter were kept from accomplishing much, with the Carter administration only managing to slow the destruction of the New Deal social safety net, failing to meaningfully reverse the trend. This shift marked the rise of neoliberalism as the leading position in American politics and economic policy, as change which would have profound effects on poor and black people.

African American economic inequality was exacerbated in the 1970’s and 80’s when American politics turned rightward, leading up to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. This shift meant the application of neoliberal austerity measures against poor people in America, with black people being some of the hardest hit. Major cuts to public spending, especially in the area of social welfare programs and social safety net programs, meant that poor people were expected to pull themselves out of their conditions without assistance. The image of the “welfare queen,” usually depicted as an urban black woman abusing the welfare system, was proliferated in order to turn public opinion against social spending. Most recipients of public benefits were, and still are, white, but Presidents Nixon and Reagan both attempted to paint black people as the chief users and abusers of the welfare state. Despite the total falsity of this narrative, racial feelings among whites were used to destroy the systems of social security which had been built up since the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration in the 40’s. The new negative feelings toward black people among whites, along with the reduced support of the state for poor people, meant that the social and economic status of black people slid back substantially during this period.

Mass incarceration also became an issue under Nixon, whose instigation of the drug war specifically targeted black people and his political opponents, often one and the same group. Nixon pushed a message of “law and order,” meaning increased policing of urban black communities. This meant potentially racist and violent police were instructed to monitor and control the behavior of black people, leading to a disproportionate rate of arrests and abuse of black people by police. Reagan, with the help of his wife Nancy, pushed the “War on Drugs” to become a national political phenomenon in the 1980’s, to the extreme detriment of the, now heavily policed, black communities. The mass incarceration of black people, especially black men and fathers, combined with the defunding of social programs designed to help the poor and working classes, severely damaged the structure of the black family. (Class lecture, 12/7) Whereas in the first half of the 20th century, despite great inequality between blacks and whites, the black family unit was stable, the late 20th century saw it destabilized. This, and its broader effects on the economic status of black communities, was probably one of the greatest losses of the rightward turn of the 70’s and 80’s, leaving a permanent mark on the relationship between black people and the rest of American society.

Specific social programs, like affirmative action and public housing, were targeted by the Reagan administration, likely from a racial angle. Defunding of public housing as African Americans began to use such programs was extremely detrimental to the wellbeing of African American families. The already destabilized black family was thrown into further chaos by way of lack of decent housing. (Class lecture, 12/7) By framing the urban black mother as the “welfare queen,” neoliberal politicians and policymakers managed to push black people out of the systems of social support on which white people had been able to rely for almost 50 years. Additionally, black people were kept from taking advantage of programs like affirmative action, which made up for so many lost opportunities for black people, on the grounds that white people and politicians saw them as “unfair.” By depicting black people as atomistic individuals, in this specific case only, the idea that they could pull themselves out of poverty without help was popularized. The possibility of this was actually marginal, but it was solidified in the public imagination along with the implication that poor black people were “too lazy” to do it.

Right-wing social views, specifically on drugs and issues of race, did great damage to the place of African Americans in the U.S., and racism was enforced systemically, despite no legal provision for it anywhere on paper. Though this was partially related to the new War on Drugs and the right shift of politics, it was also a failure of the Civil Rights Movement in a certain sense. The lack of explicit economic demands, and the failure to prepare for continued systemic racism in a post-Jim Crow era, are distinct failures of the Civil Rights Movement. The arrival of “New Jim Crow,” in the form of mass incarceration, police abuses, and political marginalization, was the natural reaction of the racist white establishment to the arrival of new rights for black people; the reaction of the “haves” against the successful assertion of demands by the “have nots.”

If the hard-right turn of American politics in the 1970’s represented any kind of political gain for the Black Freedom Struggle, it was the realization that alternative means of resistance were needed for the next phase of the struggle, and that solidarity among black people, outside the state, was an essential component of liberation. The rise of the Black Power movement in the 70’s is related to the changes undergone in the way black people related to the government, and the way they thought about their place in American society. Even in the late 60’s the struggle turned, under leaders like Huey P. Newton, into a demand for social and economic power previously never accorded to black people. In a post-1964 world, Newton realized that the consciousness of African Americans needed to be raised and directed toward the assertion of power, not just the demand for rights. (Newton 1973, 176-180) Even with rights achieved on paper, without Black Power, those rights were largely worthless. Systemic forces could, and would, remove them again and send black people back to their previously second-class state. This shift to Black Power is partially a recognition that the struggle for black freedom, like the broader American struggle between the powerful and the marginalized, wouldn’t end in 1964, 1965, or 68. It was an ongoing social struggle which, in Newton’s view, tended toward revolutionary ends.

Huey P. Newton’s Black Panther Party, as part of this shift in consciousness, developed programs of mutual aid and social support, systems designed to keep impoverished black people fed, clothed, and educated, and to instigate consciousness and solidarity among the members of their communities. These programs were in direct response to the cutting of funding to New Deal and Great Society programs on which poor African Americans had previously relied. Because the gap in social safety net spending was so detrimental to black people, mutual aid efforts, outside the state, were the most effective way of holding the black community together in the face of neoliberalism. Efforts like the “Breakfast for Children Program” sought to bring support to the people and to spread the ideals of black power and pride in being a part of a black community. These programs were intended to make people “practice that theory [socialism] and inspect that theory,” according to Fred Hampton. (Carson et al. 1991, 505) In addition to serving the people, the Black Panthers were spreading consciousness to the people.

Huey P. Newton said in Revolutionary Suicide, “I do not think that life will change for the better without an assault on the Establishment, which goes on exploiting the wretched of the earth.” (Newton 1973, 3) Without a direct “assault” on the established forces of power, a militant demand for power to be given to the marginalized, real social change is impossible. This is the central failure of the Civil Rights Movement, in its legal victories it forgot that the empowerment of black people was the real goal. The movement was successful on the terms of the establishment, that is on the terms of the legal authority of a racist state, but it failed to bring about radical, fundamental social change. Equality before the law, and the true equality found in radical social change Newton describes in Revolutionary Suicide, are by no means the same thing.

The economic and social demands of the radical struggles in the 1930’s and 40’s remain to be achieved. (Ransby 2003, 155) A program of economic liberation which would repair the harm done by centuries of marginalization of black people must be the goal of the Black Freedom Struggle in the coming century. In light of increasing inequality of wealth and income for all Americans, especially African Americans, policy must be directed toward repairing the fabric of our society, and building a better, more inclusive, new one. The privileges of the ruling class must be abolished, and the benefits accorded to some individuals, and not others, must be equalized. Though the civil rights movement managed to achieve legal equality, the systems of oppression which still inhibit the success of black Americans must be broken up, and the gains made from these systems by white people must be reversed.

The future of the Black Freedom Struggle must be focused on addressing the lack of social and economic means for black people, and the lack of power for the black individual. Huey P. Newton references Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will to Power in his explanation of the purpose of a revolutionary, to work toward the expression of his purpose and power. Nietzsche’s ideas about the individual, in relation to large groups which seek to control him, are influential in Newton’s effort to shift consciousness among black people. “The rising level of consciousness,” says Newton, “led us [black people] to redefine ourselves. People once ashamed to be called Black now gladly accept the label, and our biological characteristics are a source of pride.” (Newton 1973, 172-173) Power and pride in oneself is both a Nietzschean value, and a revolutionary value. This is why the future struggle for black freedom must be about demanding power, and asserting pride in the individual black person, along with pride for the collective population of African Americans.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is making substantially more radical demands on the establishment and ruling class to repair the damage done by the marginalization of black people, represents a vehicle for the future of the Black Freedom Struggle. Police violence, and the systemic racism inherent in the drug war, must be tackled head on. By joining hands against the corruption and harm the system does to the black community, Black Lives Matter activists are making it clear that they are opposed to the systems, built on hate, which have kept black people from achieving their full potential as american citizens. This seems to be the direction in which the struggle must move in order to carry on the broader struggle between the privileged and underprivileged classes in American society.

Carson, Clayborne. The Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches,and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990. New York;Penguin, 1991. Print.

Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming. New York; Penguin, 2001. Print.
Newton, Huey P. Revolutionary Suicide. New York; Penguin, 1973. Print.

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Miami; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Press, 2003. Print.

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Rain Poem

The poetry of rainy evenings and lo mein boxes.

An iron sheet of heaven’s malice beats
The face of this, my forgotten city.
Night children, aimless, seek absolution
From sins they did not know they had performed—
Neon confessionals and liquor store
Priests hear stoned apologies for nothing.
That unholy shower washes away
These souls which find salvation in a bottle.

-Michael Sweeney


Filed under poetry