The struggle for equality in the United States of America has never been a simple one. From emancipation to the present day, black people in the United States have faced discrimination, segregation and racism. The 1960s is famously known as the decade in which momentous protests, demonstrations and mass rallies swayed the perceptions of the United States public and heralded changes in segregation and equal opportunity laws. Names of such men as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton are remembered for their contributions to the fight for equality. However, these men did not stand alone, nor did they stand united. All too often the civil rights movement is seen as one homogeneous entity, represented by a small number of charismatic men, with one common goal, and a small number of detractors. I plan to challenge this assumption, using testimony from those 'ordinary' members of the civil rights struggle to show the diversity of views concerning the issue of civil rights.
The Right to Rights
As a concept, the right to equality may appear to be a black and white issue. The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, the 14th Amendment assured citizenship rights to all people born or naturalised in the United States, and the 15th Amendment stated that 'the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude'. These three amendments theoretically gave former slaves and their descendants the same rights as any other citizen of the United States. However, society could not be changed as 'easily' as the Constitution. Until 1866 the southern states instituted their own laws, known as 'Black Codes', which gave blacks minimal rights, such as the right to marry and testify against other blacks in court, but restricted the right to vote, testify against whites, or serve on juries. In the 1890s Jim Crow laws segregated schools, transportation and eating facilities. In order to limit the number of blacks voting, southern states instituted a variety of laws to disqualify blacks from registering to vote. These included literacy tests, 'grandfather' clauses, which allowed only those whose grandfathers had voted the right to register, and poll taxes, which disqualified the poor of both races. These tests were in place until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which would enforce the right of all citizens to vote, as promised by the 15th Amendment in 1870. This law, along with a number of others, was passed in the aftermath of civil rights protests and acts of violence against civil rights protesters in the southern states in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
While the civil rights movement is popularly considered to be a product of the 1960s, people and organisations in the United States had been fighting for the right to equality for all persons, regardless of race, for decades. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 by a group of black and white men and women. While a small number of whites joined and provided funding for the association, the vast majority of the membership was black, and mostly 'ordinary people of every possible vocation'. CORE, or the Congress of Racial Equality, was founded in 1942 by an inter-racial group of students at the University of Chicago. Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, and writer W.E.B Du Bois were involved in early-twentieth-century civil rights discussions, and influenced the movements of the 1960s. The events of the 1960s did not occur in a vacuum. Since before the United States Civil War notable individuals had been advocating equal liberties for all, regardless of skin colour.
While groups such as NAACP, CORE, and SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee)1 originally consisted of both blacks and whites, as the civil rights movement grew, the inclusion of whites was increasingly questioned, for a variety of reasons. This study aims to explore and explain the trend towards racial exclusion, using the voices of those who were in the forefront of the movement. Oral testimony is an invaluable tool in the study of recent historical events. In 1987 a fourteen hour documentary was aired on United States television, consisting of interviews of 'ordinary people' who were involved in the civil rights movement or who witnessed some of the century's greatest racial controversies. The testimony from this series was compiled into Voices of Freedom, edited by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, which is the primary source used in this study. Also invaluable was The Black Panthers Speak, edited by Philip S. Foner, which contains many documents, letters, and interviews from the leaders and members of the Black Panther Party. Some of the secondary sources consulted were Civil Rights and Wrongs by Harry S. Ashmore, a white journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner with fifty years of participation in the civil rights movement, Freedom's Sword, a history of the NAACP by Gilbert Jonas, and Peace and Freedom, which investigates the civil rights and Vietnam protests.
The publications Voices of Freedom and The Black Panthers Speak offered insight into the mentalities of those involved in the civil rights struggle, including their justification and understanding of events as they happened. Voices of Freedom included statements from people who disagreed with various aspects of the civil rights movement: for example, the Governor of Michigan, George Romney, gave testimony to explain his point of view during the Detroit riot. The Black Panthers Speak offered Black Panther members and leaders the chance to communicate their points of view without the criticism of the press or the general public. The objectiveness of the testimony is therefore suspect.
The Role of Whites in Demonstrations
The idea of 'reverse racism' is a controversial one. Historians Joseph G. Conti and Brad Stetson's book Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment criticised the trend towards racial exclusion within the civil rights movement. Other publications criticise what are considered racist groups like the Nation of Islam, but shy away from extending the idea of 'reverse racism' beyond such accepted parameters. The study of the extent of racism within civil rights organisations is an often neglected field.
By using oral testimony rather than historians' already condensed versions of events, this study can investigate conflicting opinions and come to a hypothesis about this emotive issue. Civil rights, as a concept, has a universal aim: to ensure equal treatment for all people, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. In practice, however, there are almost as many different opinions as there are people involved. The issue is by no means black and white, and racism comes in all colours. This study will focus on the conflict among civil rights activists, particularly concerning the role of white demonstrators.
In the latter part of the 1960s, groups such as CORE and SNCC expelled white volunteers from their organisations. This decision was a culmination of years of conflict over the roles of whites within the groups, and it split the black community into those who still sought integration and those who wanted the movement to be solely black. There were two main arguments against allowing whites to participate in the civil rights movement. The first was the fear that white presence would incite more violence and endanger the lives of the black and white protesters. The other compelling reason to limit involvement in the movement to blacks was the fear that allowing whites to dominate the campaign would be self-defeating, in that it would prove that black people were not capable of spearheading the movement on their own. Simon Hall, the author of Peace and Freedom, theorised that 'another reason for excluding whites was to reduce the chance of Communist manipulation'. As an alternative to white northerners travelling into the southern states to organise blacks, both separatist Stokely Carmichael and integrationist Bayard Rustin suggested that white supporters of the movement should 'stay home, go into white communities, work as hard as any black SNCC worker to convince the white people to support this movement'. Carmichael claimed that 'almost all white supporters' were 'afraid to go into their own communities – which is where the racism exists – and work to get rid of it'. The debate over white participation in protests was one of the major factors which determined the split of the civil rights front into pro-integrationist and separatist groups.
White participation in protests in the south had a tendency to provoke more violence from the white southerners than the presence of black protesters. In Mongomery, Alabama, during the Freedom Rides in 1961, a black university student named Fred Leonard recounted how the southerners 'couldn't believe that there was a white man who would help us, and they grabbed him and pulled him into the mob'. The white man, Jim Zwerg, was 'damaged for life' by the beating, which left him hospitalised.
White presence could also endanger the black protesters. After the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, a student volunteer named Ruby Sales went to Fort Deposit in Lowndes County, Alabama, to demonstrate against the fact that in a town where 12000 of the 15000 residents were black, none were registered to vote. Before the demonstration, the groups met to decide whether the demonstration would involve whites:
One of the things that we were very conscious of is that sometimes in that kind of situation, white presence would incite local white people to violence. So there was some concern about what that meant to jeopardise the local black people.
She went on to say that 'ultimately it was decided that the movement was an open place and should provide an opportunity for anyone who wanted to come and struggle against racism to be part of that struggle'. When the demonstration did, in fact, result in the death of Jonathan Daniels, a white seminary student, Stokely Carmichael said that 'to bring white workers in was just, in fact, to court their death'.
The second reason groups such as SNCC debated having white leaders was the sense of inferiority that could be caused by the assumption that black people could not lead their own movement towards equality. As Stokely Carmichael explained:
The disagreement about whites was not on having whites. The disagreement was on having white leadership on the march ... White liberals could work with SNCC but they could not tell SNCC what to do or what to say. We were very strong about this because of the inferiority imposed upon our people through exploitation that makes it appear as if we are not capable of leading ourselves.
This attitude, while understandable, can be seen as a form of racism. Stokely Carmichael had specific views on race relations which contributed greatly to the rise of 'Black Power' and accusations that some groups in the civil rights movement were guilty of 'reverse racism'.
The presence of whites in black protests was not as much of an issue in the early days of the movement. The Freedom Rides in 1961 involved both black and white demonstrators. In fact, the white participants were as vital as the blacks, because the organisers planned to reverse the customary seating arrangement in the buses, having the whites sit in the back and the blacks in the front, and 'at every rest stop, the whites would go into the waiting room for blacks, and the blacks into the waiting room for whites, and would seek to use all the facilities, refusing to leave'. Without white participation, the Freedom Rides would have had only half the effect, and arguably less publicity. The white participants in the Freedom Rides risked as much as the blacks, and suffered the same consequences. However, the interracial cooperation shown during the Freedom Rides was not to last.
The Move Towards Separatism
By 1965, one of the participants of the Freedom Rides, John Lewis, the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said that:
There was a sense that the organisation, not just SNCC but the civil rights movement, had to take on a different role ... there was a sense, this feeling, that somehow and some way this movement must be more black-dominated and black-led.
John Lewis argued against this separatism, but Black Power leaders like Stokely Carmichael had increasing influence over the movement. The historian and civil rights campaigner Harry S. Ashmore wrote that
CORE, which had its roots in the North, began to abandon its interracial character under pressure from black chauvinists; in 1965 James Farmer, the instigator and one of the heroes of the Freedom Rides, was forced to resign when he resisted the effort to purge CORE of its white officers and board members.
The conflict between integrationists and separatists within the civil rights movement over the role of whites created debate over the existence of 'reverse racism'.
Organisations such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam have long been associated with what is sometimes known as 'black racism' or 'reverse racism'. Billed as the black version of the Ku Klux Klan, black separatists have been accused of promoting racism and undermining the fight for integration. Blacks and whites en masse condemned these groups. Roy Wilkins, the leader of the NAACP, called Black Power 'the father of hatred and the mother of violence. It is a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan'. This sentiment was shared by a great number of blacks and white sympathisers. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey called Black Power 'reverse racism', and claimed that 'racism is racism – and there is no room in America for racism of any colour'. Racism was by no means a white man's prerogative.
Malcolm X, spokesman for the Nation of Islam, and arguably the most well-known 'black Muslim', was infamous for his vitriol against white people in general, labeling them 'white devils'. Journalist Mike Wallace said that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, were racists and separatists: 'They wanted to separate the blacks from the whites in this country'. However, after visiting Africa, Malcolm tried to remove himself from his 'sharply defined racial position ... that all whites were intrinsically evil, that they were possessed of the devil, and that there was no basis on which one could strike a harmonious existence with them, and certainly no basis on which to rely on them to help us with our cause'. Actor and entertainer Harry Belafonte said that Malcolm realised that 'in reality, however, there were whites who were deeply committed to our struggle and were demonstrating on the front line this commitment ... certainly there were many whites in the movement who on a daily basis were giving of themselves and their lives'. This is an example of the fallacy of labeling people or groups as racist or not racist, right or wrong. People and organisations change with time.
Similarly, one cannot take the Black Panther Party on face value. As Simon Hall wrote, the Black Panthers were 'connected in the popular (white) imagination with revolutionary violence and hatred of all things Caucasian'. However, the leaders of the Black Panthers repeatedly disavowed racism. They were particularly critical of Stokely Carmichael's stance against whites. Huey Newton explicitly claimed that 'we don't hate the white people; we hate the oppressor'. Eldridge Cleaver, in an open letter to Carmichael, wrote 'you should know that suffering is color-blind, that the victims of Imperialism, Racism, Colonialism, and Neo-colonialism come in all colors, and that they need a unity based on revolutionary principles rather than skin color'. He went on to say that 'you were unable to distinguish your friends from your enemies because all you could see was the color of the cat's skin'. Philip S. Foley, the editor of The Black Panthers Speak, claimed that 'the Panthers would not accept the view of the SNCC leaders that all whites were evil and only blacks were worthy of being considered for inclusion in any struggle which had black liberation as its goal'. The Black Panthers may have had a reputation as a racist group, but the correspondence between its members shows that the individuals who made up the party were no more or less racist than any other 'ordinary' member of the civil rights movement.
Personal experiences could and did affect the opinions of 'ordinary' people. During the Detroit riot in 1967, a black man named James Ingrim was arrested for attempting to buy petrol while restrictions were in place to prevent rioters making Molotov Cocktails. He was threatened by the police and burnt with a cigarette before being released without charge. He related his state of mind after the ordeal:
I left the Seventh Precinct with a burning, raging fury inside of me. These people I'd have thought were guardians of the law and protectors of the people were in fact brutal racist oppressors, and I felt that they had to be wiped out totally. I had a personal mission out of that experience that meant that it was my job in conjunction with others to kill them all and make sure they had no chance of ever reproducing, that they were evil devils, much as the Muslims had said. I along with eleven other people formed something that we called the Order of the Burning Spear, and that was our primary mission – to kill white people, beginning with the police and guardsmen.
This is one example of how 'racism begets racism'. A member of the Black Panthers made the point that 'to be a racist in America is certainly justified, but it is a handicapped position to take as a revolutionary'. Individuals may have had prejudices, but organisations such as the Black Panther Party gained nothing from alienating most of the United States public. The perception of the Panthers as a racist organisation is understandable. The group recruited only black people, dressed in pseudo-revolutionary uniforms, and carried weapons. They were involved in a number of violent attacks, and one of the leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, acknowledged raping a number of black and white women in his book Soul on Ice. Whether or not the Black Panthers deserved their reputation as a racist group is debatable. Simon Hall claimed that 'most of white America' focused on 'its alleged racism and violence', while disregarding the 'subtleties and distinctions of the ideology'. The Black Panther Party disbanded in the early 1970s, but it remains one of the most well-known civil rights groups of the 1960s.
Groups such as SNCC and CORE began as interracial organisations dedicated to the desegregation of United States society. By the end of the 1960s, they were separatist organisations calling for Black Power, under the control of Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick. Black Power was criticised for its racist overtones, though its supporters claimed that it encouraged racial pride. Simon Hall claimed that 'Black Power brought with it heightened sensitivity to race, cultural distinctiveness, and hostility towards interracial cooperation, all of which made a meaningful peace and freedom coalition less likely', an assertion that was shared by many of the civil rights leaders. Roy Wilkins, the leader of the NAACP between 1955 and 1977 said that 'no matter how often [black power] is defined, this slogan means antiwhite power. In a racially pluralistic society, "Black Power" has to mean that every other ethnic group is the antagonist. It has to mean "going it alone". It has to mean separatism.' Critics of the Black Power slogan have charged that separatists have harmed the civil rights cause by offering white racists exactly what they want: racial segregation. Roy Wilkins emphasised this point by saying that 'the young black separatists ... are giving aid and comfort to the enemy by calling for separatism'. This was especially evident when Floyd McKissick left CORE to plan Soul City. Soul City was designed to be a self-sufficient model city, and was commonly thought to be a town for blacks, although McKissick originally intended that it be interracial. One white contractor reportedly stated that he supported the idea, noting that 'I think all the n*****s should move in there and we could put a fence around it and let 'em stay there'. This attitude was typical among white racists and was one of the major arguments integrationists like Roy Wilkins used to oppose Black Power.
The popularity of Black Power rose after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. More and more black people turned away from non-violence and toward the more militant Black Power philosophy. A white supporter of the movement, Arlie Schardt, described how Stokely Carmichael encouraged a group of SNCC volunteers to call for Black Power over the traditional 'Freedom Now':
Stokely gave a very, very fiery address that evening, in which he basically told the group that they couldn't count on support or cooperation from the white man, and that blacks had to do it on their own ... He began leading the crowd in a chant for Black Power, which of course many people began interpreting as a call for black separatism.
This charge led many white supporters of the movement to drift away from civil rights, and work instead on Vietnam. David Dawley described being ostracised at meetings: 'It seemed like a division between black and white. It seemed like a hit on well-intentioned northern whites like me, and that message ... was "Go home, white boy, we don't need you" ... Suddenly, I was a "honky", not "David"'. Ultimately, he explained, 'the strategy coming out of Black Power from SNCC was that blacks should organise with blacks and whites should organise with whites'. Accepting this strategy, he and other northern whites moved on to the issue of Vietnam. The segregation of the civil rights movement into blacks and whites was described as a step backwards for the movement. The historians Robert Cook and David Burner cited Black Power as being one of the causes behind the 'collapse' of the civil rights movement. Whether the movement ever collapsed is debatable, though some historians claim that it was a victim of its own success.
The Civil Rights movement was not the only place where black people began to call for some kind of segregation. Northern schools were often segregated to some extent by housing patterns, not by law or custom. In an attempt to desegregate northern schools, some cities, such as Boston, instigated busing, in an attempt to bring black students to the generally better equipped white schools. This policy caused a great deal of controversy, leading an attorney for the NAACP to speculate that one possible solution to the inequality between schools in northern cities and the antipathy of both blacks and whites towards busing as a solution, could be to 'just recognise that black children were going to be mistreated if white folks were in charge of them and get control of our schools, run them ourselves, hire the teachers and teach the kids ourselves'. In the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district schools in Brooklyn, New York, in 1967 and 1968, the community did take control of the schools, with controversial results.
Ocean Hill-Brownsville was one of the districts which took part in an experimental program designed to see if increased community control in schools would help the students academically. The community board fired many of the teachers and administrators and replaced them with more radical teachers such as Les Campbell, local parents and 'hippies'. Of the 19 teachers they dismissed, 17 were white, one was black and one was Puerto Rican. Albert Shanker, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, claimed:
To me, the civil rights movement was a movement for integration and a movement to eliminate segregation. In a sense, this represented a kind of backward step. It represented a step by people in the community saying "We've given up on integration, so we want to take hold of our own schools".
This type of segregation intensified the racism debate. Many people considered that the dismissal of the 17 white teachers was a form of reverse racism. One of the teachers who was fired, Fred Nauman, described how he and the other 18 teachers 'had become sort of heroes to the city – to some of the right people and some of the wrong people .... We got some very negative support from various racist groups'. While some people believed that the city was attempting to assert teachers' rights regardless of race, various racist groups and individuals encouraged the assumption that Fred Nauman and the other white teachers were attempting to 'put the blacks in their place'. Despite the controversy, Nauman insisted that the struggle over community control was not a black versus white issue: 'I don't think we ever lost the support of the black community. I think that an artificial battle was set up by some people who were taking the civil rights movement and using it for personal power, personal aggrandizement'. While attempting to provide their children with the best possible education, many black parents committed what would undoubtedly have been considered racist acts had the situation been reversed: namely, if black teachers were fired from a school with mostly white students.
At the same time as parents in New York were taking control of their children's schools, students at Howard University, a traditionally black university in Washington, DC, began to campaign for more influence in the decision making process, and better access to black courses. On 19 March 1968 hundreds of students occupied the Administration Building for five days, and this act inspired similar takeovers in universities across the country. As well as access to black course programs, including black history, literature and music, many black and other minority students wanted and demanded 'segregated living quarters, dormitories, and eating facilities, followed by segregated cultural facilities, meeting places, and even course programs – Afro-American studies limited to African Americans'. Faced with the possibility of mass protests and strikes, college administrators surrendered to the students' demands. Gilbert Jonas, who wrote Freedom's Sword, a history of the NAACP, wrote that 'NAACP leaders perceived this quick surrender as a form of racial discrimination' and urged colleges 'not to surrender to "racial blackmail" either out of expedience or guilt'. The NAACP's resistance to this form of pandering to black students was a marked departure from the early days of the civil rights movement. Rather than pushing for more privileges, the NAACP was making a conscious effort to avoid allowing the surge for equality to go too far.
Affirmative action was one of the most controversial civil rights policies. Designed to allow minorities such as African Americans the same opportunities as anyone else, the concept has been accused of promoting 'reverse racism’, allowing under-qualified blacks into positions ahead of better qualified whites. Supporters have argued that this discrimination is necessary to redress years of reduced opportunities and the corresponding underrepresentation by minorities in positions of power in workplaces, schools, or in politics. The popular idea that affirmative action inevitably results in lesser individuals receiving opportunities in the place of better suited applicants reinforces the idea that historically repressed groups are inherently inferior. Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, noted that in a town where 50 percent of the population was black, only half a percent of the contracting jobs went to African Americans. Attempting to redress that imbalance, he fought accusations that he had to compromise on quality:
We never ever, ever set up a lower standard. And to those who say, "Well, affirmative action means you've got to lower the standard" – that's a real insult, in my opinion, to African-Americans and other minority Americans. We never did it, didn't have to do it.
Affirmative action casts doubts on the abilities of minorities who have benefited from the scheme. Despite Maynard's claims that black people, women, and other minorities had an equal, 'not superior' right to participate in the bidding for contracts, white businessmen such as Dillard Munford claimed that the affirmative action program was unfair to white contractors. He said that jobs were being given to black contractors, even though they could not afford to bid as low as the white contractors. One black contractor, Tom Cordy, explained that black contractors could not 'compete against firms that have been in business for fifty and a hundred years', because 'major firms will bid a lower cost to get on a project, recognising that with all the follow-up work, they could make their money back. We just can't afford to do things like that'. Affirmative action, by its very nature, uses discrimination, and fuels racism, but may be considered a necessary means to an end.
A Truly Interracial Democracy
Despite the growing trend towards separatism, many people still sought true integration and equality. John Lewis, the leader of SNCC until Stokely Carmichael took control in 1966, remained confident of the 'possibility of creating a truly interracial democracy'. Even after he was replaced by Carmichael, he emphasised that he 'was going to continue to advocate the philosophy, the discipline, of nonviolence, and the sense of community, that all of us, blacks and whites, were in this boat together'. Even Floyd McKissick, who had a reputation for promoting separatism, stated, 'I don't believe in a standard for white and a standard for black. I think that violence and nonviolence is equally distributed among all races'.
Of all the civil rights organisations, the NAACP is arguably the most well-known and most influential. Its popularity is evident in that the antiquated term 'colored people' is still used in its name for tradition's sake. The NAACP under the leadership of Roy Wilkins applied itself to the struggle for human rights, not rights for only black people. Jonas claimed that this universal application of the ideology is what was 'so appealing to so many white Americans, as well as Americans of Asian, Native American, and Hispanic descent'. Rather than exclude white people, and Americans of other ethnicities, Wilkins' 'insistence on fostering a universal application of civil and human rights' allowed 'appreciative blacks to extend a friendly hand or better to whites who joined them on the picket lines, the marches, the sit-ins, and the other dangerous manifestations of the struggle'. Jonas also made the claim that 'if the roles have been reversed, that is, if a white minority had been oppressed by a black majority, Roy Wilkins would be leading the fight to free white people'. If encouraging racial harmony and cooperation contributed to the NAACP's success, then the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam may owe their decline to their practice of racial exclusion.
The prevailing view of the civil rights movement is one of triumphalism, with one right side and one wrong side. This view ignores the multitude of other 'sides', compartmentalises all opinions, and simplifies what was and still is a complicated issue. This over-simplification causes its own problems. For example, during riots, looting black people could excuse their actions as being the natural reaction to decades of exploitation within a substandard urban environment. Any criticism of these sorts of excuses can be seen as racist, or at least 'racially insensitive'. The sensitive nature of race relations is evident in the 'political correctness' of the late 1990s and early twenty-first century. While no one could reasonably argue with the view that equality is an inalienable right, some of the methods utilised in the pursuit of that goal were and remain questionable. The variety of differing opinions within the civil rights movement shows without a doubt that there was no one united civil rights front. Some groups had vastly differing philosophies and methods, but they all sought to achieve the same goal – equality.