Every February, African Americans and the nation alike, take the month to reflect upon the history of Black people in these United States. From the beginnings of slavery to the election of the first African American president, Black people have made many strides along the way and have certainly made their mark in the annals of American history.
In recognition, this is Part Three in OurWeekly’s four-part series on the 15 most pivotal aspects of Black History.
8. Blaxploitation Films
Once upon a time in Hollywood, films starring Black performers dominated the silver screen. The turbulent 1960s gave way to a more vocal Black community in the 1970s and independent filmmakers heeded the call: Soon stories about Blacks and told by Blacks were appearing on the silver screen.
In 1971, two significant films got the ball rolling. Variety credits ‘‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” written, directed and starring Melvin Van Peebles, as the independent film that started it all. However, others believe that “Shaft,” also released in 1971 and directed by Gordon Parks, deserves that honor. The difference, however, was “Shaft” was not an independent film but was released by MGM Studios.
Regardless of this debate, Blacks added something else to the Black film movement—Black music. In the beginning of the trend, Earth, Wind and Fire produced the soundtrack for “Sweetback,” and Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for the soundtrack for “Shaft.” Black music with its mixture of funk, soul, jazz and distinctive rhythms set a new standard of film sound that thrives to this day.
Suddenly, it seemed a flurry of films starring Black actors and actresses flooded the theaters. They ranged from action thrillers, revenge flicks, comedies, musicals, to releases about thug life, drug wars, pimps, prostitutes, political corruption, martial arts, even horror flicks and slave tales. Many theaters had long lines of Blacks waiting to see the latest flicks such as “Superfly” (1972), “Three the Hard Way” (1974), “Sparkle” (1976), “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), and “Willie Dynamite” (1974), just to name a few.
In the midst of all this action, Black women were thrust into the limelight. From bone-crushing karate kicks, to gun toting, sharp shooting sistahs, nothing seemed to be too hard for them to do. The unforgettable “Cleopatra Jones” (1973) starring Tamara Dobson, is a case in point and Carol Speed shook us to the core in “Abby” (1974).
And no one can deny that actress Pam Grier and her tough-as-nails characters, Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Friday Foster left a lasting impression on film audiences.
Years after the demise of Blaxploitation films, Grier continued to work in such movies as Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Blaxploitation films, “Jackie Brown” (1997).
Former pro-athletes became stars, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey and Jim Brown took down the man and both had healthy careers in Hollywood. Martial artist Jim Kelly let Black folks know we could do Karate too. And who would have guessed that a former Ebony Fashion Fair male model, Richard Roundtree would turn out to be the coolest Black man on the planet … I’m talking about Shaft, John Shaft. Can you dig it?
Mainstream Hollywood films at that time were not as profitable as they had been in past years. Some industry watchers believe that better television programming had a lot to do with people staying home. So, studios were looking for other sources of revenue to generate and produce their films and keep the studios afloat.
Blaxploitation films stepped in to fill that role.
In the beginning, a number of these Black flicks being produced were commonly low-budget independent films that resulted in big returns in box office revenue. Simply put, they were making money for Hollywood. “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was made for $150,000. The domestic box office revenue to date was $15,200,200.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was also released the same year as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song” and cost a reported $3 million dollars to produce, but it only took in a domestic box office revenue of $4 million dollars.
And “Shaft,” the first Blaxploitation film to be produced by a studio, MGM Studios, brought in $12 million in revenue.
But unfortunately, what began as an African American venture, soon became a Hollywood production. Initially, the major studios paid minimal attention to Black stars and Black-themed movies. But when the dollars started rolling in, Hollywood bean counters took note and the game abruptly changed. Black films were being now written, produced, and directed by Whites. With Whites connected to the films, it was believed that the films could now attract White moviegoers.
Case in point, in 1974 Mel Brookes produced “Blazing Saddles” about a Black railroad worker (Cleavon Little) who became sheriff of an all-White town in the Old West.
The Encyclopedia of Great Movies reported that “Blazing Saddles,” one of the very few Black films listed in the book, was a Warner Brothers release, and the total box office gross was $35,200,000 for the film, proving their point.
According to a report created by South Carolina State University, “Understanding Movies” said the term “Blaxploitation” was coined in the early 1970’s by the Los Angeles NAACP head, and ex-film publicist Junius Griffin. The movies were accused by some of perpetuating common White stereotypes about Black people and benefiting the profit-wise at the expense of the Black community at large.
For instance, mainstream Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentis in 1975 decided to depict plantation slavery that was downright bloody, nasty and cruel in the film, “Mandingo.”
Additionally, Black humanity in films was slipping away, as well as the Black history, of pain and suffering. In fact, very little joy was depicted, from the White man’s point of view. Black history was twisted to make a profit, but it didn’t even profit the Black film community.
As a result, many called for the end of the genre. The NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and National Urban League joined together against blaxploitation films. Through their influence, during the late 1970s, they contributed to the demise of the genre.
The heyday of Blaxploitation films occurred mainly from 1970 to 1975. The films were explosive and wonderful in the right hands, and will forever be a part of Black Hollywood treasures.
Hollywood filmmakers continue to pay homage to the Blaxploitation era and rightly so. It was a time of Black individuals who were larger than life. They had style, attitude, and courage. They were lovers, fighters, and always gave a certain “Power to the People.”
7. Drugs and War
Perhaps one of the least understood but most devastating things to impact the Black community has been the surge of drugs that hit at various points during our existence in America (1943 during WWII, 1965 during Laos War, and the Nicaraguan War in the 1980s).
Throughout history, governments have had within their population, a group of individuals that are unofficially considered disposable, according to Kevin Brian Bales, professor of Contemporary Slavery, University of Mississippi. “Disposable” individuals are those that government leaders have turned their backs on, and believe, do not contribute to society. They are also usually considered a burden to their country, and are often unable to assimilate into mainstream society due to racism and discrimination. These groups have suffered genocide, forced labor, and government-sanctioned medical experiments and other deprivations. Consequently, there is little outcry when these individuals are used to generate income to subsidize government activities.
In 1943, African Americans in the United States, were considered valueless and perfect to use to boost the drug economy of the Italian mafia in exchange for help with Italian theatre of WWII, according to the Kerry Comission in 1989.
This was done in exchange for unfettered access to Italy and protection from German saboteurs on the seaport during World War II.
The U.S. military reportedly assured the mob that their illegal sales of heroine would fly under the radar, and children of Blacks who moved north to work in the war industry, began shooting heroine.
African Americans previously accustomed to legal alcohol and “moonshine” would eventually become drug addicts by injecting the Mafia-controlled heroine.
Jeffrey Fagan and Chin Ko-Lin, authors of “Initiation into Crack Cocaine: A Tale of Two Epidemics” (1989) believes that three factors came into play during 1943—geography, consumption, and containment.
Geography refers the African American ghettos of the East Coast. Consumption would be the high addiction rates African Americans began to experience due to emotional depression in the 1940s, poverty, and lack of education. Containment referred to the fact that Whites were isolated from the Black ghettos and the drugs in those ghettos.
The relationship between drugs, guns and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, precursor to the CIA) was first established in 1943 during World War II to protect the United States Army that was invading Italy and to provide military intelligence about strategic entry into Italy.
At the time, Italians were attempting to topple the Mussolini government. In the European Theatre under Supreme Commander and future President Dwight Eisenhower, the Allies had begun to prep for invasion of the Nazi regime by way of Italy.
At the same time, the U.S. wanted to protect its Eastern ports from German sabotage. This was done by cultivating Mafia kingpin Lucky Luciano, who controlled the U.S. ports on the East Coast, said Victor L. Marchetti Jr., former special assistant to the deputy director of the CIA, during a 1989 John Kerry deposition on crack cocaine.
In return for preventing Axis sabotage and assisting American landings in the Italian Campaign, Luciano (who had been convicted of racketeering) was given an abbreviated sentence, and allowed to emigrate to Sicily, according to Marchetti. Once in Italy, Luciano helped keep communism out of the nation by using physical force and intimidation. As a thanks, official records say America turned a blind eye to his drug activities which directly impacted Black ghettos, said Marchetti.
While African American ghettos may not have been specifically targeted by the United States government, the poor socio-economic conditions there made it more likely that the illegal drug pipeline would eventually lead to these neighborhoods. Research has historically found that oppressed people often look for ways to numb their suffering by self-medicating themselves. America’s greater interest in defeating the Nazis and later suppressing communism allowed drugs to ravage Harlem between 1943 and 1970s.
After WWII, Luciano’s crime family imported and sold heroin to Blacks and sometimes Puerto Rican wholesalers on a regular basis.
During this time, African Americans living in the south were not exposed to illegal drugs. According to substance abuse counselor Jackie Wilbourne, “we did not have access to narcotics, because we did not have access to physicians and prescription narcotics. In the south, we had midwives and herbs that were within our African culture.”
Most of what African Americans consumed prior to 1940 that would impact psychological or physiological stability was moonshine, commonly known as “white lightning,” a homemade, high-proof distilled alcoholic beverage flavored by adding fruit that was produced illegally.
Prior to 1940, about only 20 percent of those arrested for narcotic law violations were Black; that figure increased to more than 50 percent by the mid 1950s, according to Drug Narcotic Research Inc., and archived records from federal institutions created back in the 1930s known as “Narcotic Farms.”
The Civil Rights Movement brought about many changes for African Americans. The 1960s marked the beginning of the modern age of addiction treatment for African Americans. This came in the form of methadone clinics springing up in many Black communities, with the aim of helping heroin addicts and reducing crime. Researchers now know that methadone is more addictive than heroin and is much more difficult to withdraw from. Consequently, these clinics only exacerbated the problem.
John DiNardo a professor of economics and public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, believes the first use of illegal drugs by the United States Department of Defense and our intelligence agencies, during World War II and the Cold War may have initially been a uncalculated government blunder.
The government officials who allowed the proliferation of drugs to happen believed its impact could have been reversed by law enforcement, by simply arresting all users. However, the epidemic became an affliction that would be just as impactful on African Americans as the slave trade.
Prior to these wars and covert actions, African Americans were already suffering from the cultural trauma of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. However on numerous occasions, Blacks would be directly impacted by alliances formed by U.S. intelligence agencies and drug lords with ties to foreign lands.
The administrations of presidents Roosevelt (WW2), Johnson/Nixon (Vietnam), and Reagan (Iran contra) made it a practice to defend freedoms of individuals elsewhere, while African American communities were being disenfranchised, degraded, denigrated and inundated with heroin, and cocaine.
Cocaine and heroin abuse still impacts African American communities today, a result of decisions made in the Pentagon years ago.
For Black Americans, sports figures are more than just entertainment figures. They have always been on the forefront of breaking barriers and pushing for civil rights. During the dark days of segregation, sports was one of the few areas where African Americans were given a little more leeway.
One of the first African American national sports figures was Jack Johnson, who became the first Black heavyweight champion when he defeated Jim Jeffries in 1910. But that victory was controversial. For years, Johnson was barred from competing against White boxers. According to Complex, which listed Johnson as one of the 25 Black Athletes Who Changed the World, before the fight, Jeffries said “going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a White man is better than a Negro.” There were riots after Johnson’s victory, and he was hounded by the authorities for his relationships with White women. He later went into exile to avoid charges and was jailed for 10 months when he returned to the United States. Politicians are still lobbying for a presidential pardon for Johnson.
The early part of the 20th century saw the emergence of two Black athletes who also went on to become national figures. Jesse Owens’ performance in the 1936 Olympics upended Adolph Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority. After Owens won four gold medals, Hitler famously refused to shake his hand. Joe Louis also captured the nation’s imagination in the late ‘30s when he defeated German boxer Max Schmeling.
Louis’ feat was followed by Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The 1960s, which saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, also saw the rise of arguably the greatest Black athlete, Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Clay (he later changed his name to Muhammad Ali after he joined the Nation of Islam.), Ali was a different kind of athlete. Unlike Louis, who was humble and soft spoken, Ali was loud, brash and unapologetically Black. He earned the ire of much of White America, when he embraced Black nationalism and joined the Nation of Islam. (He later converted to mainstream Islam.) But Ali made one of the greatest political stands of an athlete when he refused national service and was sentenced to prison instead of being sent to Vietnam. The case was argued all the way to the Supreme Court where Ali’s conviction was overturned. He famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… They never called me n*er.”
Ali’s political stand against the Vietnam war, may have been the peak when it came to political activism for black athletes. Modern-day athletes seem to be much more reluctant to take strong political stands because of the huge rewards offered by sport. The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the rise of Michael Jordan, who went on to be a global superstar because of his basketball prowess. But Jordan was also famous for his commercial success, which saw him pitch everything from shoes to underwear, and appear in Saturday morning cartoons and movies. Now, Jordan is a billionaire and he has become more politically outspoken.
The 2000s saw the rise of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and Tiger Woods, athletes who have gone on to dominate tennis and golf, sports that were not traditionally considered to be “Black.” (However, Althea Gibson became the first Black woman to win the Wimbledon tennis championship in 1957 and Arthur Ashe became the only black man to win Wimbledon in 1976.)
Although the Williams and Woods went onto great professional and commercial success, their rise was anything but smooth. The Williams have complained about racial abuse from fans who think they are moving into a “white” sport and they have received ugly comments about their muscular physiques. Even though Serena Williams has been described as the most dominant woman in tennis, the Atlantic reported she earned $13 million in endorsements in 2015. In the same year, Maria Sharapova, a much less successful player, earned $23 million in endorsements. Serena Williams suggested that sponsors were more eager to work with Sharapova because of the way she looked.
“If they want to market someone who is White and blond, that’s their choice,” said Serena Williams in an interview with The New York Times Magazine.
Woods also faced ugly comments from angry fans who were upset that a Black man was dominating a traditionally white sport.
Although in recent years, black athletes have shied away from using their platform to express their political opinions, the controversy over San Francisco Giants quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kicked off a trend of athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence, shows that some players are still willing to take a stand.
Additionally, Cleveland Cavaliers star Lebron James is equally as acclaimed for his feats on the basketball court as his feats off it. After winning NBA championships with the Miami Heat, he returned to his hometown when won Cleveland a national title. James has also invested in his community and paid for the college education of both adults and young people.
Over the course of American history, the Black community has endured the unrelenting wrath of a system designed to perpetuate White supremacy. This has resulted in the implementation of racially-biased laws and policies that have both positively and negatively impacted the Black experience. They include the following (in chronological order):
The Emancipation Proclamation
This executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln (Jan. 1, 1863) was purported to change the federal legal status of more than 3 million enslaved people in the designated areas of the South from “slave” to “free.” It had the practical effect that as soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government or slave master, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the slave became legally free. Eventually, the order reached and liberated all of the designated slaves in the South. It was issued as a war measure during the American Civil War, directed to all of the areas in rebellion and all segments of the executive branch (including the Army and Navy) of the United States. At the start of the war, however, Lincoln presumed that trying to emancipate all slaves would create a deeper political divide between northern and southern states. However, despite his fear of fueling the proverbial fire, Lincoln ultimately followed his inner conscience and moved to emancipate slaves in every region of the country. Simultaneously, the Republican Party of California, Lincoln’s appointees and allies, brought an end to legal enslavement of Blacks and California Indians. This act of compassion shouldn’t be confused with Lincoln’s views on the Black community. According to published sources, Lincoln started off as a conflicted racist and as time elapsed, he became a reformed racist, fighting against his former beliefs. Prior to the Civil War, Lincoln at times argued Blacks were inferior. In the famous Lincoln-(Stehpen) Douglas debates, Douglas as the far more racist of the two, angrily accused Lincoln of being “the Black man’s friend.” Lincoln responded with a qualified defense of Black civil rights. He said he did not favor intermarriage nor Blacks on juries, but he did believe Blacks had the right to earn a living and live free from slavery and violent racism.
The Voting Rights Act
Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson (1908-73) on Aug. 6, 1965, this piece of legislation aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment (1870) to the Constitution of the United States. The act significantly widened the franchise and is considered among the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history. In 1964, numerous pro-civil rights demonstrations were held, and the considerable violence that erupted brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights. The murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Selma, Ala., gained national attention and persuaded President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to initiate meaningful and effective national voting rights legislation. The combination of public revulsion to the violence and Johnson’s political skills stimulated Congress to pass the voting rights bill on Aug. 5, 1965. Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963 upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the presidential race of 1964, Johnson was officially elected in a landslide victory and used this mandate to push for legislation he believed would improve the American way of life, such as stronger voting-rights laws.
Creation and evolution of the Congressional Black Caucus
As the number of African Americans serving in Congress grew, a long-desired movement to form a more unified organization among Black legislators coalesced. With the opening of the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), the number of Black Representatives rose to 13—the greatest number of African Americans ever to serve simultaneously in Congress. The Democratic Select Committee (DSC) met on Feb. 2, 1971, and accepted a recommendation put forth by Congressman William Clay Sr., of Missouri, to create a nonpartisan, formal network for African-American Members. Charles Rangel of New York, who narrowly defeated longtime Rep. Adam Clayton Powell in 1970, thought of a name for the group—the Congressional Black Caucus. The CBC elected Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. as its first chairman. In the midst of its transition to a more formal organization, the CBC waged its first public battle during the early months of 1971. Upset with President Richard M. Nixon’s refusal to meet with the group, members made national headlines when they boycotted the January 1971 State of the Union address. The CBC has since collected and disseminated information on African-American preferences regarding policy, assisted individual Black Americans with a range of requests by providing casework services, and has spoken on behalf of special-interest groups within the Black community.
Creation of Independent Black political party
In the United States today, Black people are effectively excluded from all the crucial decisions affecting their fate. The policies that determine how they will live are made by others and imposed upon them. Every aspect of Afrcan-American life is governed by the decisions of the Democratic and Republican agents of the capitalist rulers of this country. Their actions (or inactions) perpetuate inequality, poverty, degradation, police brutality, insecurity, unemployment, low-paying jobs, bad schools, inadequate housing and medical facilities, a shorter life-span and all the other evils suffered by Black Americans. In 1980, Black nationalists convened to form the National Black Independent Political Party, out of frustration over the Democratic and Republican Parties. Now that Barack Obama, America’s first bi-racial president, is no longer in office, the issue of a Black political agenda—or lack thereof—has the spotlight once again. The question now is whether a two-party system adequately serves the African-American electorate, if Black voters are forced to select between the lesser of two evils to ensure that their interests were protected.
The Three Strikes Law
In the United States, habitual offender laws (commonly referred to as three-strikes laws, were first implemented by states then by the federal government in 1995. These laws mandated courts impose harsher sentences on those convicted of an offense, if they had been previously convicted of two prior serious criminal offenses. The laws were designed to keep people who had shown a predilection to committing crimes in prison and away from potential victims. Twenty-eight states have some form of “a three-strikes” law. A person accused under such laws is referred to in a few states (notably Connecticut and Kansas) as a “persistent offender,” while Missouri uses the unique term “prior and persistent offender.” In most jurisdictions, only crimes at the felony level qualify as serious offenses; however, there are some states, such as California, that allow misdemeanor offenses to qualify for application of the three-strikes law, which has been the subject of controversy. The three-strikes laws significantly increased the prison sentences of persons convicted under such a law and limits the ability of these offenders to receive a punishment other than a life sentence. African Americans constitute 6.5 percent of California’s state population, but nearly 30 percent of the prison population and 44.7 percent of those sentenced to life under the Three Strikes law. According to “Racial Divide: An Examination of the Impact of California’s Three Strikes Law on African Americans and Latinos,” African Americans and Latinos are penalized at every stage of the criminal justice system at rates disproportionate to their share of the general population.
“Three Strikes laws are systematically funneling African American and Latino defendants into prison for longer and longer sentences, mostly for non-violent crimes,” said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of Justice Policy Institute (JPI), and co-author of the report.
How crack vs. coke sentencing unfairly targets poor people
Crack and cocaine may be nearly identical on a molecular level, but people who are charged with possession of just 1 gram of crack are given the same sentence as those found in possession of 18 grams of cocaine. This 18:1 sentencing disparity is actually an improvement from the previous sentencing gulf of 100:1, thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but as new research shows, any disparity unfairly targets crack users, who are more likely to be Black, low-income and less educated. The nation’s coke problem is much larger than its crack problem, with 12 percent of U.S. adults reporting coke use and four percent reporting crack use. Yet crack users are still at higher risk for an arrest, or multiple arrests, in their lifetime. Last year the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, made it to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, but the bill has since languished following the political shift within the 114th Congress. The measure would also allow for the 8,800 federal prisoners imprisoned for crack offenses (87 percent of whom are Black) prior to the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act to be re-sentenced.
The Affordable Care Act
As the crown jewel of former President Barack Obama’s legacy in the White House, the Affordable Care Act (also referred to as Obamacare) has made health insurance coverage more affordable and accessible for millions of Americans. For African Americans, like other racial and ethnic minorities, the law addresses inequities and increases access to quality, affordable health coverage, invests in prevention and wellness, and gives individuals and families more control over their care. African Americans suffer from obesity, heart disease, and diabetes at higher levels than the general population. For example, in 2010, 37 percent of African Americans were obese, compared to 26 percent of whites. Expanding opportunities for coverage has improved health outcomes for African Americans.
Cory A. Haywood