Professor Lee Chambers
April 26th, 2018
Masculinity and the Civil Rights Movement
When studying a society that prizes certain identities—race, gender, sexuality—it's easy to understand why black men across America turned to gendered rhetoric to raise themselves in the social hierarchy. When the sanitation workers of Memphis took to the streets in 1968 to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions, they chanted, “I am a man!” in an attempt to reaffirm to others that they, too, deserved equal treatment. For years, the definition of “manhood” has been reliant on many things—the ability to work and provide for a family, to be perceived with strength and wit, to be powerful. It's no wonder, then, that the Civil Rights Movement saw black men pushing their masculinity even harder than men of other races; it was the most privileged identity they held.
My senior year of high school, I took a social issues class. Throughout the class, I noticed trends in which groups of people responded poorly to certain topics of the class—white women had trouble talking about race, because they felt persecuted on the basis of being women. Black men, however, had trouble in the section about sexism. Their whole lives, they explained, had been dependent on their abilities to prove themselves to be good enough, and since they were constantly oppressed on the basis of their race, their masculinity was often one of the only identities they could use to leverage themselves positively in society's eyes. As such, it became difficult for certain black men to admit the privileges they held. This example, I think, wholly represents the issues that arose during the Civil Rights Movement involving hyper-masculinity, when black men and groups such as the Black Panthers saw masculinity as a tool to improve their social status, and also as a marketing technique to get more people involved.
At the beginning of the book, Steve Estes talks about the origins of the Civil Rights Movement. He says, “the dissonance between the idealistic rhetoric of World War II and the racist reality of the 1940s America created the new militance among black veterans that spurred the early Civil Rights Movement” (p. 37). He discusses the “paradoxes and prejudices” of the system that expected black men to be soldiers fighting for democracy in Europe despite not being allowed to vote back at home. This meant that when black men returned to the post-war world, they felt that they had proven themselves as manly enough and were equipped to fight for their equality. The initial denial of their rights post-war, Estes argues, is what sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
Later, Estes discusses how ideas of masculinity evolved throughout the course of the Movement. He says that it evolved so that the movement focused less on the civil rights of all people, and more on what is termed as the “masculinist uplift… which served to obscure the questions of racial and economic equality that lay at the heart of the original struggle, complicating and sometimes conflating these issues with the related question of what it meant to be a man” (p.8). In other words, the black man's attempt to reach racial equality often ended up oppressing women, especially black women, with its toxic masculinity and notions of what it meant to have power. Furthermore, these tactics often became violent and aggressive—themes we notice to be especially prevalent when examining the Black Panther Party.
Estes discusses that in its earlier years, the Black Panther Party was praised for their willingness to tackle common racialized issues, like police brutality, head on. They weren't afraid of using weapons and confronting officers, which eventually evolved to being seen as using “manly force.” This normalization of equating manhood with violence vilified the black man, while simultaneously making the Movement less accessible for less-masculine or anti-violence protestors. Estes writes, “the Panthers found that the masculinist rhetoric of their early years created an atmosphere in which violence became a means for proving manhood, not for furthering the revolution they had envisioned” (p. 177). These attempts to prove masculinity caused the Panthers to lose a significant portion of their original mission, including calls for community-based food, clothing, and medical programs and efforts to "combat sexism and homophobia within their own organization and the larger movement” (p. 177). The hypermasculinity of movements like these detracted from the greater purpose of the Civil Rights Movement—to promote equality within society—and instead emphasized domination and physical supremacy, masculine ideals we still see in today's society.
When the sanitation workers took to the streets in 1968, they represented just one part of a much bigger movement towards racial justice and equality. The Civil Rights Movement, one of the first and most important struggles towards a more just society, was laced with gendered rhetoric and toxic masculinity that still impact our society heavily today. Groups such as the Black Panther Party exhibited these hypermasculine ideals as both a recruiting tactic and a declaration of their strength, as it remains in modern society. Though such rhetoric was necessary for the progression of the movement, it's important to continue trying to understand how much ideals and values are reflected in gender and racial inequality, even now. Steve Estes' I am a Man! is an examination of how gender contributed to the Civil Rights Movement and stands as a welcome addition to the historiography of civil rights and gender equality.
Steve Estes. I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Widell, Robert. “Widell on Estes, 'I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement'.” H-South, Feb. 2006.
...(download the rest of the essay above)