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The 1960s: A decade of racial turbulence


In June 1966, James Meredith began a solitary protest march for voting rights and an end to segregation. Four years earlier, Meredith became the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi. That year, President John F. Kennedy called in 320 U.S. marshals and authorized the use of regular Army troops so that Meredith could register at the renowned Oxford campus. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett stood literally in the doorway of the registration building to prevent the historic exercise in school choice.

“Someone had to seek admission to the University of Mississippi, and I decided to do so,” Meredith said after the 16-monthlong battle to gain admission.

After his admission, Meredith, 10-year Air Force veteran, had to be escorted onto the campus to begin his semester. Rioting erupted at the school leaving two persons dead and 375 injured. That first year saw Meredith live virtually under siege, with U.S. Marshals sharing his dormitory suite. So Meredith marched those years later from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to encourage African Americans to register and vote. He was greeted near Jackson with a shotgun blast. The crime mobilized many civil rights leaders to continue the march, which Meredith resumed after hospitalization.

This pivotal “march against fear” attracted other civil rights workers, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Floyd McKissick and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Locals along the way fed marchers; federal registrars were subsequently dispatched by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to sign up about 3,000 Black Mississippians to vote for the first time.

Dorothy Height is among the most influential American women in history. Height, a protégé of Mary McCleod Bethune, served much of her career as president of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1960s, though, women were still an “invisible” cog in the civil rights struggle; so much so that the morning of the 1963 “March on Washington” rally, Height complained bitterly to organizers Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph that no woman Black or White, Christian or non-Christian-was scheduled to speak that day. To Height’s dismay, none did.

During the 1960s, Height headed the National Board of the YWCA and also became the director of the Center for Racial Justice, a position she held until her retirement. Height worked with King, Randolph, Farmer, Whitney Young of the National Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and with a young John Lewis (today a Georgia congressman) to form the United Civil Rights Leadership.

Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was an early martyr of 1960s racial mayhem. Mississippi was a place of blatant discrimination, where Blacks dared not speak openly of civil rights, much less actively campaign for them. Evers was a thoughtful, committed member of the NAACP who wanted to change his native state. He was shot in the back on the front porch of his Jackson home on June 12, 1963. Evers was featured on a nine-man death list in the Deep South as early as 1955, but he persisted in his efforts to integrate public facilities, schools and restaurants. He organized voter registration drives and demonstrations, speaking eloquently about the plight of Blacks and pleaded with the Barnett Statehouse for some sort of progress in race relations.

“We both knew he was going to die,” said his widow, Myrlie Evers, herself a Los Angeles civil rights activist in the 1970s and ’80s. “Medgar didn’t want to be a martyr. But if he had to die to get us that far, he was going to do it.” Another sense of purpose, though, replaced common apprehension with anger and provided an opening for more militant Black voices (Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Clever and Maulana “Ron” Karenga) to criticize the national White power structure.

Baptist preacher, social activist, driver behind the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, Dr. King never wanted to be famous beyond spreading the Good News at his pulpit at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. King accepted this public role reluctantly, mostly by virtue of his father, Martin Luther King Sr., who fought against racial prejudice, because the elder King believed racism and segregation to be an affront to God’s will.

King’s leadership was fundamental to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Conversely, his steadfast adherence to nonviolent protest by then had many detractors because the “sweltering heat of oppression” nationwide by the mid-1960s saw no immediate decline and only increased because of constant Black marches and sit-ins, a disingenuous [northern] condemnation of the southern White “red neck” and daily television reports of violence and police brutality.

By 1965, the philosophy of nonviolence had largely reached its tipping point among some Blacks.

In August that year, riots erupted in the Watts region of Los Angeles.

What began as an act of police brutality at 120th Street and Avalon Boulevard led to 65 deaths and tens of millions of dollars in property damage throughout South Los Angeles. Stunningly, the influence of a popular disc jockey, the “Magnificent Montague” of radio station KGFJ, would be unfairly attached to the violence because of his catchphrase “burn, baby, burn” which was spray-painted on looted and burned-out buildings. Also, popular talk-radio host Louis Lomax was falsely implicated in inciting the violence. The press asked for an assessment of the damage to the community; Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker responded: “Like monkeys in a zoo . . . once one of them starts, they all jump in.” Another race riot occurred in Newark, N.J., in the summer of 1967, this time in rebellion of the White school board there which would not share power with Black educators.

King once told his followers that  “… nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist … it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” Thus, it was the pragmatism of the African American Protestant church that was most resilient in fostering within the Black community the will not to foolishly match blow for blow with White racism.

King, in 1964, received the Nobel Peace Prize and, that year, was on hand at the White House to see President Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act, and the following year to see the Voting Rights Act be enacted, thereby providing federal and local “teeth” to the precepts of the 14th and 15th amendments.

In the months before his death, King criticized the United States government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He cited America’s involvement in Vietnam as a “moral evil,” believing that the war diverted the attention of Americans away from the grave problems of racism, discrimination and poverty.

In April 1968, King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he gave a sermon that seemed to eerily foretell his future: “Well, I really don’t know what will happen now. But it doesn’t matter anymore because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I know, as a people, we will get to the promised land.”

King was shot in the head and killed the next evening while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. That evening, riots erupted nationwide, including within walking distance of the White House, and cities and towns big and small were charred by smoldering anger/retribution stemming from King’s murder.

That year saw another blow to the Civil Rights Movement in Robert Kennedy’s murder during election season in Los Angeles. Later that summer, the world watched Black Panther Bobby Seale and the “Chicago Seven” be arrested, charged and tried for sedition and inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The presiding judge had only Seale from the original seven defendants bound and gagged during courtroom proceedings.

The debate of Black self-determination had exploded by the 1960s. These winds of change had created in a worldwide storm in the Third World, kicked off by the struggle for independence against colonialism (e.g. Ghana and Kenya in 1957 and 1962, respectively) and neo-colonialism (Cuba, 1959) and in the Civil Rights Movement at home. This fight for reform, even when successful, led to a continuation of oppression in new forms, and everywhere the watchword became revolution, from Paris to Peking and from Mozambique to Mississippi.

Malcolm X reached his greatest level of leadership during this period of colonial collapse. He was the ideological leader of the Nation of Islam and of Black radicalism: Black religion (spirituality and morality), Black nationalism (institution building and collective action), Pan Africanism (identity and internationalism) and Socialism (freedom/justice/equality and anti-imperialism). These remain cornerstones of Black Muslim public service, but Malcolm X was able to tap the interest of a curious and cautious White media by discussing the difference between “house” Negroes and “field” Negroes.

“Why don’t you plan on carpentry?” asked an eighth-grade English teacher of the former Malcolm Little. “A lawyer? That’s not realistic goal for a nigger.” Malcolm X said years later that, “The more I thought afterwards about what he said, the more uneasy it made me. It was then that I began to change inside.”

Significant animosity developed between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad because of the former’s national popularity and mainstream appeal, particularly after the famous “Ballots or Bullets” speech in which he stressed that Blacks were kept down through the force of violence and murder. This issue raised the relationship of Black nationalism to Western reform and revolution–all being attributed to Malcolm X and not the certified head of the Nation of Islam.

This ideological and corporate split, debated today, is believed to have allegedly compelled Muhammad to direct a number of Black gunmen to assassinate Malcolm X at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965.

Though the Nation of Islam in public and in scripture often butts heads with the SCLC or NAACP on civil rights, that Muslim organization would become the world’s foremost authority on Western Islamic tenants primarily because no other large body in the Western Hemisphere is as influential and speaks and acts so passionately in the cause of Islam.

Carl Stokes in 1967 became the first African American elected to mayor of a big city, Cleveland, Ohio, and his tenure at City Hall would mark the entry of Black power players in local politics. In ensuing years names like Tom Bradley, Harold Washington, Coleman Young, David Dinkins, Andrew Young and Ron Dellums would herald acclaim for winning mayoral seats in still socially stratified municipalities.

As a young lawyer, Stokes was elected to the Ohio General Assembly in 1962 and lost an early mayoral bid in 1965. His 1967 election saw him institute needed policy to improve the city’s quickly declining economy (the “rust belt” by then was in decline because of early globalization of the steel and auto industries), but his efforts were undermined by the 1968 Glenville riots in which a shoot-out between police and African Americans led to several deaths and sparked looting and property destruction. Stokes was reelected in 1969 and retired from politics in 1971.

“The leadership belongs not to the loudest, not to those who beat the drums or blow the trumpets, but to those who day in and day out, in all seasons, work for the practical realization of a better world, those who have the stamina to persist and remain dedicated.” These words from legendary Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins of Los Angeles exemplified the determination, character and resilience of the Black World War II generation.

Upon his death in 2007, the Jefferson High graduate may have served California longer than any elected official. As a member of the California Assembly from 1935-1963, Hawkins compiled a substantial legislative record that centered on the interests of his predominantly Black and Latino district. In Sacramento, Hawkins introduced the first fair housing act, a fair employment practices act, and pushed through legislation for low-cost housing and disability insurance and workmen’s compensation.

On Capitol Hill, Hawkins was elected 15 times from his Los Angeles 35th Congressional District and is probably best known nationwide for the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill of 1976.

Shirley Chisholm, in 1968, became the first Black woman elected to Congress; four years later she was the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. The Brooklyn native was an outspoken educator-turned-politician who shattered racial and gender barriers and became a national symbol of liberal politics in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Just wait, there may be some fireworks” Chisholm said after her historic ’68 victory. I am an historic person at this point, and I’m very much aware of it.”

Once seated on Capitol Hill and awaiting committee assignments, Chisholm revealed that House Speaker John McCormack told her to be a “good soldier,” and to specifically not “make waves” and accept the agriculture assignment. Chisholm fired a parliamentary salvo at House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Wilbur D. Mills, who handed out the committee assignments. Before long, she was reassigned, first to the Veterans Affairs Committee and eventually to the Education and Labor committees.

Amiri Baraka (the former LeRoi Jones) published his first volume of poetry, “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note” in 1961. It was a postmodern plea about the underserved, underclass Black ghetto. His increasing hostility toward and mistrust of White society was reflected in two 1962 plays: “The Slave” and “The Toilet.” In 1963, he published “Blues People: Negro Music in White America” and “The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America.” It would be 2005 before Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. published the latest African American literary anthology and Baraka’s early work provided impetus for Gates’ scholarly textbook.

In 1964, Baraka received an Obie Award (for best off-Broadway production) for the controversial play “Dutchman.” Among Baraka’s literary prizes are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award and a number of lifetime achievement awards.

Eldridge Clever began reading Karl Marx, Thomas Paine, W.E.B. DuBois and Vladimir Lenin while serving in Soledad Prison for possession of marijuana. After prison in 1966, Cleaver joined the Black Panther Party and served as minister of information, calling for armed insurrection and the establishment of a Black socialist government. Shortly after, Cleaver wrote his memoir, “Soul on Ice,” and this popular work among Black youth established Cleaver as an important voice of Black nationalism.

The activities of the Black Panthers came to the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who described the Panthers as “…the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” He ordered FBI agents to employ “hard-hitting counterintelligence” measures (wiretaps, informants) to cripple the Black Panthers. History would reveal that Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton regularly provided confidential information back to FBI headquarters in order to avoid prison.

Muhammad Ali, who last month celebrated his 70th birthday, won the heavyweight championship four times and transcended the athletic arena into national politics. Ali was drafted into the Army in 1967. The former Cassius Clay declined to be inducted because of his pacifistic Muslim convictions. His belt was stripped and he was sent to prison in his boxing prime. Also, Ali threw away his 1960 Olympic boxing gold medal (light heavyweight) to protest racial policies. “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger, so why should I fight the wrong enemy?” he said then.

In later years, Ali would contract Parkinson’s disease which has robbed him of the lightning quick, witty verbal responses; his ability to walk and commitment as an international ambassador of good will. His medical plight did not prevent him from igniting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and he was later granted a full and complete pardon for draft-dodging, received a new Olympic medal and in 2005 received the Medal of Freedom Award from President George W. Bush.