Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the names that come to mind for most Americans if asked about the civil rights or Black Power movements. Others may point to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom backed pathbreaking civil rights legislation. However, recent scholarship suggests that neither black male leaders nor white male presidents were always the most important figures in the modern struggle for black freedom. Presidents took their cues not simply from male luminaries in civil rights organizations. Rather, their legislative initiatives were largely in response to grassroots protests in which women, especially black women, were key participants. African American women played major roles in local and national organizing efforts and frequently were the majority in local chapters of groups as dissimilar as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Panther Party. Even familiar names like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King have become little more than sanitized national icons, while their decades-long efforts to secure racial, economic, and gender justice remain relatively unknown. Aside from activists and scholars, even fewer of us know much, if anything, about the female allies of the black freedom struggle, including white southerners as well as other women of color. A closer look at the women who made enormous contributions to both the modern civil rights and Black Power movements sheds new light on these struggles, including the historic national victories we think we fully understand, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In short, examining women’s participation in the “long civil rights movement,” which historians increasingly date to the New Deal and World War II, calls for a redefinition of more conventional notions of leadership, protest, and politics.
Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
Labor and Black Power
From the early 1960s through the 1970s, Black workers in various economic sectors organized and were inspired by Black Power principles such as community control, self-determination, and racial solidarity. This Black Power unionism utilized an array of strategies and tactics, ranging from direct action and radical class struggle to negotiation and lawsuits, to combat racial discrimination in employment. Black workers in sectors such as construction and auto and steel industries also utilized strikes, shutdowns, and other forms of protest to combat the intransigence of labor unions that failed to address segregation at the workplace, poor treatment of Black workers, and seniority policies that made work more precarious for them. While Black Power unionism enjoyed some successes—albeit often incomplete—their efforts to enact “affirmative action from below” encountered stiff opposition from employers and unions in the context of the economic and political crises of the 1970s. Ultimately, Black Power unionism exposed the limits of post-Jim Crow desegregation policy in US racial capitalism. Black Power unionism was a political movement that was as salient for Black workers as the Black Panther Party. Although its achievements were limited, its influence far outlived the Black Panther Party itself.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s
Charles M. Payne
The only youth-led national civil rights organization in the 1960s in the United States, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), grew out of sit-ins, with the base of its early membership coming from Black colleges. It became one of the most militant civil rights groups, pushing older organizations to become more aggressive. Under the tutelage of the experienced activist Ella Baker, it emphasized developing leadership in “ordinary” people. Its early years were dominated by direct action campaigns against White supremacy in the urban and Upper South, while internally, SNCC strove to actualize the Beloved Community. Later it specialized in grassroots community organizing and voter registration in dangerous areas of the Deep South. Its Freedom Summer campaign played a significant role in radicalizing young activists. SNCC, in general, acted as a training ground and model for other forms of youth activism. Notwithstanding its own issues with chauvinism, SNCC was open to leadership from women in a way that few social change organizations of the time were.
Street Gangs in the 20th-Century American City
Conceptions of what constitutes a street gang or a youth gang have varied since the seminal sociological studies on these entities in the 1920s. Organizations of teenage youths and young adults in their twenties, congregating in public spaces and acting collectively, were fixtures of everyday life in American cities throughout the 20th century. While few studies historicize gangs in their own right, historians in a range of subfields cast gangs as key actors in critical dimensions of the American urban experience: the formation and defense of ethno-racial identities and communities; the creation and maintenance of segregated metropolitan spaces; the shaping of gender norms and forms of sociability in working-class districts; the structuring of contentious political mobilization challenging police practices and municipal policies; the evolution of underground and informal economies and organized crime activities; and the epidemic of gun violence that spread through minority communities in many major cities at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. Although groups of white youths patrolling the streets of working-class neighborhoods and engaging in acts of defensive localism were commonplace in the urban Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest states by the mid-19th century, street gangs exploded onto the urban landscape in the early 20th century as a consequence of massive demographic changes related to the wave of immigration from Europe, Asia, and Latin America and the migration of African Americans from the South. As immigrants and migrants moved into urban working-class neighborhoods and industrial workplaces, street gangs proliferated at the boundaries of ethno-racially defined communities, shaping the context within which immigrant and second-generation youths negotiated Americanization and learned the meanings of race and ethnicity. Although social workers in some cities noted the appearance of some female gangs by the 1930s, the milieu of youth gangs during this era was male dominated, and codes of honor and masculinity were often at stake in increasingly violent clashes over territory and resources like parks and beaches. The interplay of race, ethnicity, and masculinity continued to shape the world of gangs in the 1940s and 1950s, when white male gangs claiming to defend the whiteness of their communities used terror tactics to reinforce the boundaries of ghettos and barrios in many cities. Such aggressions spurred the formation of fighting gangs in black and Latino neighborhoods, where youths entered into at times deadly combat against their aggressors but also fought for honor, respect, and status with rivals within their communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, with civil rights struggles and ideologies of racial empowerment circulating through minority neighborhoods, some of these same gangs, often with the support of community organizers affiliated with political organizations like the Black Panther Party, turned toward defending the rights of their communities and participating in contentious politics. However, such projects were cut short by the fierce repression of gangs in minority communities by local police forces, working at times in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the mid-1970s, following the withdrawal of the Black Panthers and other mediating organizations from cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, so-called “super-gangs” claiming the allegiance of thousands of youths began federating into opposing camps—“People” against “Folks” in Chicago, “Crips” against “Bloods” in LA—to wage war for control of emerging drug markets. In the 1980s and 1990s, with minority communities dealing with high unemployment, cutbacks in social services, failing schools, hyperincarceration, drug trafficking, gun violence, and toxic relations with increasingly militarized police forces waging local “wars” against drugs and gangs, gangs proliferated in cities throughout the urban Sun Belt. Their prominence within popular and political discourse nationwide made them symbols of the urban crisis and of the cultural deficiencies that some believed had caused it.
The African American Denominational Tradition: The Rise of Black Denominations
Dennis C. Dickerson
From the formation of the first independent African American Protestant denomination in the 1810s and 1820s to the opening decades of the 21st century, independent African American denominations have stood at the center of black religious life in the United States. Their longevity and influence have made them central to the preservation of black beliefs, practices, and rituals; have provided venues to promote movements for black freedom; and have incubated African American leadership in both the church and civic spheres. They have intertwined with every aspect of American and African American life, whether cultural, political, or economic, and they engaged the international involvement of American society and the diasporic interests of black people. Parallel assemblies composed of black ministers pastoring black congregations that remained within white denominations also emerged within the traditional white denominations, including the white Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational Protestant groups, plus the Catholic Church. Although they eschewed withdrawing from the white denominations, their extramural bodies functioned as a virtual black ecclesia, or institutional bodies, even though they remained smaller than the growing independent black denominations. Together, the black preachers and parishioners in independent black denominations and inside traditional white denominations maintained churches characterized by proud histories and long records of frontline involvements in black freedom pursuits.
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed. The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas. The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification. To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order. Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
The popular media often illustrate black nationalism with images of Malcolm X and black leather-jacketed, Afro-wearing, armed Black Panthers in the 1960s, and, in later decades, Louis Farrakhan and hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy. Although historians disagree about black nationalism’s composition and origins, they argue that it has a long pedigree in American history, traceable at least to the first half of the 19th century, if not earlier. While men were most often black nationalism’s public exponents, and some emphasized manhood and female subordination, black nationalism also appealed to many black women, some of whom also exercised leadership and organizational skills in its service. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, led the first mass black nationalist organization in the United States, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), during the 1920s. Like 19th-century black nationalists, Garvey advocated an independent state for people of African descent, black uplift, and the “civilizing” of Africa. Although not original to him, his emphasis on the right to self-defense, independent black economic development, and pride in African history boosted the UNIA’s popularity. Garvey fell victim to state oppression in the United States, but some former Garveyites joined the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and probably also the Nation of Islam (NOI), both of which rejected Christianity, identified blacks as Asiatics, and adopted particularist interpretations of Islam. In the 1950s and 1960s, Malcolm X, the charismatic son of Garveyite parents, became the Nation’s chief recruiter. Personal differences with Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader since the 1930s, eventually led to Malcolm X’s departure in 1964. Although he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X’s calls for armed self-defense, self-determination and black pride, and identification with anticolonial struggles heavily influenced Black Power advocates. Some civil rights organizations and workers, who were disillusioned by intransigent white racism and distrustful of white liberals, championed Black Power, which was multifaceted and sometimes more reformist than nationalist. In the early 1990s, polls suggested that black nationalist ideas were more popular than during their supposed heyday in the late 1960s, before internal dissension and state repression undermined many Black Power groups.