Part 17: Post World War II to the Seventies

Part Seventeen: Post World War II to the Seventies

The unity of effort that the allies, commonly called the United Nations, achieved during the war culminated in the establishment of an organization (of that same name) in an attempt to bring "rationality and order" into international relations. Unlike the League of Nations, the UN did not limit itself to purely international concerns. It "announced certain domestic policies and attitudes which were of special interest to American Negroes"; such as its Declaration of Human Rights, which caused Black leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Walter White to rejoice with cautious optimism.

Upon Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, the impetus of the New Deal was transferred to his successor, Harry S. Truman, and his Fair Deal. It was given special urgency by America's new role in world affairs.

Domestically, as war industries cut back production, the Blacks once again were the first to be fired. Fortunately, the economic lessons learned from the Great Depression caused the federal government to intervene with public assistance programs. In any event, after a brief slump in 1946, American industry began to boom as a result of the high demands for consumer products. Black prosperity was assured by the Fair Employment Practices Committee (F.E.P.C.).

Militarily, President Truman, partly due to the outbreak of the Korean War, ended segregation in the armed forces between 1950 and 1955. "Battling against communist forces for the avowed purpose of preserving a democratic form of society among Asians, the United States could no longer afford world-wide criticism of an official policy of discrimination against its own colored population."

"And American sensitivity to world opinion explained much of the progress that Negroes were to make after World War II. As African and Asiatic nations won freedom from their former white imperialist masters, they also won a majority of the votes in the United Nations General Assembly. And as America entered a new cold war against world-wide communism, the support of uncommitted nations and of the world's majority of colored peoples became a key to survival. Communist spokesmen were quick to criticize anti-Negro discrimination in the United States; and such criticism was their most effective weapon against America in the vital propaganda war to win the allegiance of Africans and Asians. A lynching in Georgia, a race riot in some northern city, a protest march—these events were now trumpeted to the world by America's enemies and critics. And when they pointed out such evidences of anti-democratic injustice, most thoughtful Americans could only admit that they were right. Making democracy work in the United States became more than an urgent domestic problem…"

"Having initiated the restraints of military segregation in 1947, leaders turned to the problem of education and voting." In the midst of this prevailing atmosphere, a series of spontaneously evoked events and incidents caused the "civil rights revolution" to be ushered in. Beginning when Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas, in 1951, tired of having his daughter, Linda Carol, bussed to a segregated Black school twenty-one blocks away, while a public school was within walking distance, filed suit against the Topeka Board of Education. ("Other suits were simultaneously filed in Virginia, Delaware, South Carolina and Washington, D.C.")

The lower courts had followed the precedent of Plessy vs. Ferguson, "separate but equal." But when the ruling of the supreme Court decreed that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, it signaled for the Blacks an unprecedented opportunity to begin anew the painstaking process of equal rights by adding a new dimension to the civil rights struggle.

In Montgomery, Alabama, December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to "move to the rear" of a bus. ("It is important to know that a year before Mrs. Parks' arrest, a 15-year old Black girl had been pulled off a bus, handcuffed, after refusing to give her seat to a white man.") The arrest of Mrs. Parks sparked the 382-day-long Montgomery Bus Boycott. The success of which vaulted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the protest movement, into prominence as a civil rights leader. The formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which he headed, was formed shortly thereafter.

On February 1, 1960, four Black Students strode into Greensboro's Woolworth store in North Carolina and sat at the traditionally all-white food counter. They were ignored; they sat and waited; after an hour the counter closed for the day; they went home. Within two weeks the lunch-counter sit-ins spread to fifteen cities in five southern states. "Students staged sit-ins at colleges, wade-ins at beaches, kneel-ins at churches."

Late in February of 1960, SCLC launched the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC of SNICK) with $800 and some student leaders. Shortly after, James Farmer resigned as the program director of the NAACP to become National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

CORE, along with some members of SNICK, initiated the dramatic and famous Freedom Rides to attack the segregated bus terminals throughout the South, while other SNICK workers were to concentrate on voter registration. From the later effort emerged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) a Black and white coalition that contested the state's regular Democratic Party's delegation to the 1964 Convention on the grounds that they excluded qualified citizens from participating in their elections. Though they acquired the support of the delegations from New York, Michigan and seven other cities, the United Automobile Workers, and the Americans for Democratic Action, the support fell through the back rooms of the convention.

Meanwhile, since the thirties, there was another Black phenomenon quietly and efficiently amassing a movement—the Nation of Islam. Under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, self-respect and self-help was taught and encouraged. Dubbed "Black Muslims" by the American press, they established schools for their children, stores, restaurants, police or security forces (the Fruit of Islam), temples (mosques), a newspaper (Muhammad Speaks) and a publishing firm. Their analyzation and understanding of the Black historical past found its way to other Blacks and was very integral in inducing a new wave of Black awareness and Black consciousness that was to influence the entire national Black population (and white too for that matter).

Mr. Muhammad's arch-disciple was a man known as Malcolm X (who later broke from the Nation of Islam). Malcolm X was a very dynamic, articulate, and hard-hitting speaker whose role in the Black struggle wrought controversy. For Malcolm, speaking primarily to northern and Ghetto Blacks, identified the white man as the "Black man's oppressor" and, therefore, his enemy. He exhorted Blacks toward self-determination and pride, and spoke against self-hatred. By expounding on the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X regenerated a philosophy of separatism and Black Nationalism, earlier impregnated by Marcus Garvey, but with much more profundity.

Little by little the masses of Blacks grew tired of the violence they received during the non-violent protests encounters. Some were growing militant and beginning to retaliate; to organize for self-defense. The whites countered with increased violence. James Meredith, on June of 1962, was shotgunned during his "March Against Fear" through Mississippi. He recovered and continued the March along with other Black leaders. On June 13, 1963, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was shot to death in Jackson, Mississippi.

There was uneasiness throughout Black America. Civil rights legislation was proposed to curtail the violence, which was giving America a bad image abroad and which her enemies capitalized on, by guaranteeing certain rights. The southern congressmen avowed to filibuster. Grassroots Blacks began advocating going to Washington and taking over the Capitol until the Civil Rights Bill was passed. "People were talking about sitting-in on Capitol Hill and the floor of Congress…They were ready to bring the country to a halt, but Jack Kennedy called in the top 'civil rights leaders' and before the people knew what was happening, the March was Kennedy-sponsored and proclaimed as being 'in the American tradition', …and all marchers were out of town by sundown."

The event, on August 7, 1963, called "The March on Washington," in which Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, was denounced by Malcolm X as a farce saying, of the power structure, "they joined it, they didn't integrate it, they infiltrated it. …They took it over, …it lost its militancy. …It ceased even to be a March. It became a picnic, a circus. …It was a sellout."

The violence continued. Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded in a Birmingham, Alabama Black church killing four girls from ages 11 to 14.

Many white students were attracted to the student oriented civil rights groups, like SNCC. Though there were some Black members who wanted an all Black organization, they acquiesced when it was pointed out that the presence of whites would give them badly needed press coverage. However, problems arose. "Some whites with special skills…drifted into leadership positions to the dismay of a large number of Negro staff members who felt the organization must be 'Black led', Black oriented, and Black controlled. …" Also, Black workers found themselves spending more time briefing the whites and mediating between the Black folks and the white workers than they were dealing with the problems (e.g. registration of Black voters); the Black folks just did not loosen up around the whites; the whites were not trusted by the Black folks.

Moreover, "fifteen Black people were murdered in the state of Mississippi in 1964 as a result of SNCC activity in the state. Only one was reported by the press—James Chaney (who was killed with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white). The following year the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Alabama evoked little reaction, but the murder of a white minister, the Rev. Mr. James Reeb, brought thousands of whites to Harlem on a march protesting the slaying. Events of this nature caused Blacks to feel the "white folks cared only about white folks." (The reaction of the press and country to the shootings at Jackson State College, a historically Black university, in Jackson, Mississippi as compared to the shootings at Kent State University, a white school, in Kent, Ohio, during the summer of 1970 was but one example of the prevailing white attitude towards "equal" justice.)

"The Negro's cause helped politicize a generation of young whites, which was a reversal from previous reform movements in which whites and the goals of the white community had played the dominant role." After the civil rights organizations (which were growing more and more militant and hostile towards whites) began to expunge the whites from their midst, the white news media did not accurately report the transformation, labeling the groups ungrateful and charging them with "racism in reverse." To which these accusations were countered: "So what did they want us to do? Humble ourselves on our knees? Their attitude had generally been the missionary one; they were depriving themselves to 'help' us." When asked about whites that died, they said, "And we were sorry they died, but we were a little more sorry for the four thousand brothers and sisters who've been murdered, who have been completely ignored by you."

Stokely Carmichael:

"As for white America, perhaps it can stop crying out against 'Black supremacy', 'Black nationalism', 'racism in reverse', and begin facing reality. The reality is that this nation, from top to bottom is racist; that racism is not primarily a problem of 'human relations' but of exploitation maintained—either actively or through silence—by the society as a whole. …Can a man condemn himself? Can whites, particularly liberal whites, condemn themselves? Can they stop blaming us, and blame their own system? Are they capable of the shame which might become a revolutionary emotion?"

The experience gained in the civil rights struggle taught that the problem was much more engrained than was previously anticipated.

The politicized young whites, now exiled from SNCC, CORE, etc., found expression of their political awareness through such causes as the Vietnam War, environmental pollution, the boosted interest in women's liberation movement, political reform, etc.

"The 'long hot summer' of 1964 demonstrated that the northern ghetto could and would violently explode. In mid-July, the killing of a Negro teenager by an off-duty policeman in New York City led to rioting and looting in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Similar outbreaks occurred in Jersey City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. …" Again the white press contributed the outbreak to looters, lawless and dissatisfied Blacks. Polls were taken and interpreted by the white media, that only five percent of the Blacks were dissatisfied. Whereas Black folks interpretation was the 95-100% were dissatisfied, 5% was doing something about it. Malcolm X, attributed the cause of the riots to "conditions " in the ghetto.

After Malcolm X's break with Mr. Muhammad, in 1963, Malcolm visited Arab and African countries. He engaged himself in trying to strengthen relationships between Blacks in Africa and America. He sought to dispel the false impressions and images projected by Euro-America of each toward the other. Malcolm approached American Blacks about raising the level of the struggle from "civil rights" to "human rights" whereby help could come through the United Nations from the Africans and Arabs sympathetic to "The Cause."

Early in 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down by Black men, who were suspected by many to be put up to the deed by the CIA (as earlier, the French government refused to allow Malcolm to enter their country because they had gotten word of an assassination attempt. Malcolm reasoned that the Nation of Islam was not that powerful).

That summer, "the Watts area of Los Angeles erupted after the arrest of a Negro charged with reckless driving. Cries of 'burn baby burn' were heard at the height of the violence which had claimed 34 lives and millions of dollars worth of property damage."

The call by Stokely Carmichael for "Black Power" was distorted "out of all proportions to its original meaning of the political and economic solidarity among Black people." Carmichael had been nonviolent at that time. "So, too, was another organization—the emerging Black Panther Party of Oakland, California, (an organization formed after the riots in Watts to advise Black ghetto residents of their legal rights when apprehended by the police.)."

"White newspapers did not report honestly the modest demands of Stokely Carmichael; the police of Oakland precipitated incident after incident to force the Panthers to take violent action. Carmichael no longer shows moderation. The Black Panthers grow even more militant,: and throughout the land Black united fronts are coming into being to gain 'by any means necessary' what men refuse to grant peacefully."

"With depressing regularity, the disorders continued, and from the white community there came cries of 'Law and Order'. In a two-week period of July 1967, Newark and then Detroit ignited into scenes of extraordinary violence. The Presidential Commission charged with investigating the causes for the riots reported that 'Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white—separate and unequal' and called for 'the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society'."

When trouble threatened to break out in Memphis, Tennessee during the city's garbagemen's (mostly Blacks) strike for higher wages, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rushed to the city to prevent violence. On the night of April 4, (1968) as he took the air on the balcony of a motel in the Negro district of Memphis, he was shot to death by a white man."

"There were a few hours of stunned and anguished disbelief across America. President Johnson appealed for calm. There were pleas from Dr. King's followers that the fallen leader's policy of meeting violence with love be maintained as a fitting monument to his memory. But even before Martin Luther King's body was buried in Atlanta, a mounting wave of violence broke out over the nation. From New York to Los Angeles, from Seattle to Tampa, Negroes struck out in grief and outrage. They struck out at the only visible monuments of white supremacy, which were within their reach—the nation's big-city slums.

The death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "may have marked the passing of an era: for many, 'were to consider non-violence as a impotent weapon in a violent society'."

References:

Bennett, Lerone, Jr.— Before the Mayflower
Breitman, George — Malcolm Speaks
Chambers, Bradford — Chronicles of Black Protest
Haley, Alex — Autobiography of Malcolm X
Hicks, John D. — The American Nation
Lester, Julius — Look Out Whitey
Resh, Richard — Black America
Negro Almanac
All quotations are from the above references.