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Essay: The early Civil Rights movement

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  • Published: September 15, 2019*
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  • The early Civil Rights movement
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The early Civil Rights movement saw great success in ending Jim Crow policies that allowed for segregation in public places and made it difficult for blacks to vote. These changes were brought about mostly through nonviolent protest lead by groups like Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and by prominent figures in the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Through peaceful tactics, such as marches and sit-ins, early Civil Rights activists accomplished several major achievements in gaining equal rights for blacks. As the 1960s continued, however, national focus began to shift from civil rights to other issues, particularly the war in Vietnam. Their early victories in the political field had accumulated to few changes in the daily lives of many of the African American people, especially those living in northern urban areas. Blacks continued to face extreme poverty, discrimination, and de facto segregation. These growing frustrations manifested themselves in explosions of urban riots in several major cities in the years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Alternative positions offered by growing voices in the black community became increasingly compelling. These new visionary civil rights activists promoted significant focus on personal identity and cultural heritage. Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, and the Black Panthers, proponents of alternative civil rights tactics, stressed Black Nationalism and argued that self-defense should replace nonviolent resistance. Emphasis on Black pride and racial identity, offered by civil rights leaders of the late 1960s, represented a major shift in the Civil Rights Movement.

While many early civil rights leaders sought to integrate blacks into mainstream American life, Malcolm X advocated black independence and a reclaiming of black pride. As opposed to the peaceful protests of the early Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X encouraged blacks to take up arms in self-defense from violent assaults, saying, “we’ve got to fight until we overcome” (Takin it to the streets, 122). He maintained that American system was inherently racist, calling all African-Americans “victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy” (121). In order to attain their freedom, Malcolm X encouraged Black Nationalism, which he describes as the black man controlling the politics and politicians of his own community (122). Malcolm X argued that people should focus on improving their own communities, rather than striving for integration. Black nationalism is the ideologies of unity and self-determination free from Western societal structure. Many of those that supported Black Nationalism, also expressed the need for increased black cultural expression.

In 1966, the SNCC elected Stokely Carmichael as president, in effect changing the focus of its organizational efforts to a political program of Black Power. Carmichael believed the only way to free black people from being integrated as part of the white, oppressive power structure, was to separate themselves from white people. He emphasized the importance of the black experience, proposing that the SNCC be completely staffed, controlled, and financed by blacks. He believed this would demonstrate to the black community that such self-determined organizations were possible (Takin it to the streets, 136). Stokely also calls for a reevaluation of black identity focusing on the many contributions that the black community has made in the United States. Many other later civil rights activists echo this sentiment, contending that celebration of black culture and their roles in American society will promote pride in the black community. Advocates of black culture consciousness raising knew the powerful, deep-rooted psychology caused by hundreds of years of oppression from white American society. Larry Neal addresses the importance of changing perceptions blacks have about themselves:

“Liberation is impossible if we fail to see ourselves in more positive terms. For without a change of vision, we are slaves to the oppressor’s ideas and values–ideas and values that finally attack the very core of our existence” (Takin it to the streets, 137).

The civil right movement of the late 1960s rejected desegregation as their main goal, instead vying for liberation of the black community. To some this meant promoting the principles of self-determination and self-definition. Black nationalists sought to separate from white, mainstream American society in order to establish their own institutions. This is in direct conflict with the ideologies promoted by leaders of the early mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Growing frustrations among blacks lead to the emergence of new civil rights leaders who turned from nonviolent protest and resistance in favor of self-defense. The Black Power ideology was a major shift from the early Civil Right Movement that sought the empowerment and cultural recognition for the black experience. Though the racial struggles of the second half of the 1960s saw less success than earlier efforts, questions of race and ethnic power continue to have contemporary relevance in our working understandings of racial equality.

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