AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

Lecture 17

 - From Voting Rights to Watts (continued)

Overview

In this lecture, Professor Holloway focuses on the events between 1964 and 1966 that contribute to a fundamental shift in the tone and tactics of the civil rights movement. By examining the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s quest to seat alternate delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 1964; “Bloody Sunday” and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery; the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and the riots that summer in Watts, a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, Professor Holloway reveals that people were struggling with the new tactical change in the movement. The militancy seen in Watts was becoming more recognizable and more frequent, partially due to rhetoric but also do to the increasing U.S. military occupation in Vietnam. Impatience was growing not just in urban or northern areas, but all over the country. In the final portion of the lecture, Professor Holloway offers a preview of the first Black Panther Party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, founded in Lowndes County, Mississippi, and the shifting racial philosophy of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, led by Stokely Carmichael.

Warning: This lecture contains graphic content and/or adult language that some users may find disturbing.

 
Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video
html

African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

AFAM 162 - Lecture 17 - From Voting Rights to Watts (continued)

Chapter 1. Mississippi Freedom Summer [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  What I’d like to do today is go back very briefly so we’re all on the same page, moving from events in 1964 through 1966 actually. I’m trying to compress some information so we can really be ready to catch next week right where we should be. Remember in the last lecture, I talked about the events leading up to this pivotal summer of 1964, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Baines Johnson taking up the mantle of Kennedy’s civil rights legis–legislation, the battles over the civil rights bill, a bill being essentially stuck in Congress, especially the Senate filibuster, student leaders from SNCC conceptualizing the idea for a Freedom Summer, freedom vote to train people how to become–how to fully embrace their rights as citizens in the state of Mississippi, setting up freedom schools. These things all come together in the summer of 1964.

Students from all around the country, Yale included, travel down to various points in Mississippi to begin Mississippi Freedom Democratic–Mississippi, Mississippi Freedom Summer, set up freedom schools, help organize votes to create a, a separate delegation to the Mississippi Democratic–to represent the Mississippi, Mississippi Democratic Party at the Democratic national convention in August. And the day after Mississippi Freedom Summer begins, three of the workers, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, disappear and are very quickly presumed to have been murdered. During the course of the summer, the Civil Rights Act of sixty–the Civil Rights Act is passed, signed into law, the most comprehensive law in support of racial equality in the nation’s history. There was an immediate white backlash. George Wallace declares, the governor of Alabama, declares his candidacy. Ultimately has strong showings in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland. Public places in the South go private in order to prevent integration. Civil Rights Act had not addressed the private institutions.

It’s a long summer of riots in 1964. Riots aren’t just in southern U.S. In fact, they’re largely urban and northern: New York City; Rochester; Paterson, New Jersey; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Philadelphia; Chicago. It’s a time of trial. And as you’ll recall from my lecture on Monday as I was wrapping it up, weeks before the Democratic National Convention convenes, the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney are found, August 4th. And they become martyrs of the movement, there’s no doubt about it. It’s really important that you know that they were found in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for reasons that become very important later on in this course. The bodies are found in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. There was an aspiration to have them buried together, but Mississippi state law said the races had to be buried in separate spaces.

David Dennis, the head of CORE in Mississippi, agrees to give a eulogy in honor of James Chaney, the sole African American of these, of these three people who were murdered. And he agrees to do it and then he sits down to do it and something happens. I want to play for you a clip. It’s a three minute long clip. It’s a little bit longer than I normally like to play, but you’ll actually see the transformation happen during the course of the eulogy.

[Narrator:]  August 7th, 1964. The funeral of James Chaney in Meridien, Mississippi.

<>

[David Dennis:]  I feel that he’s got his freedom and we’re still fighting for it. But what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi, but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to sign up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with. That includes the President on down to the governor of the state of Mississippi. In my opinion, as I stand here, I not only blame the people who pulled the trigger or did the beating or dug the hole with the shovel, I bury the peace, but not up there with God. But I blame the people in Washington, D.C., and on down in the state of Mississippi for what happened just as much as I blame those who pulled the trigger. You see, I know what’s going to happen. I feel that even if they find the people who killed those guys in the summertime, you got to come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury, all their cousins, their aunts, their uncles. And I know what they’re going to say, ‘not guilty’ because no one saw them pull the trigger. I’m tired of that. See, another thing that makes me even tireder, though, that is the fact that we as people here in the state and the country are allowing this to continue to happen, even us as black folk. So I look at the young kids here, that’s something else that I grieve about. And little Ben Chaney here and the other ones like him around in this audience. Well if you want someone to babysit for your kids, hire a black mammy to hold your baby. And as long as he can do that, he can sit down beside me, he can watch me go up there and register to vote, and he can watch me take some <> in this state and he can sit down as I rule over him just as he’s ruled over me for years. This is our country, too. We didn’t ask to come here; they brought us over here.

Professor Jonathan Holloway: It’s cut off at the last bit there, but he simply reiterates, “this is our country too.”  Asked about this eulogy afterwards, Dave Dennis said he looked down–he was planning to abide by the rules and give sort of a calming and reassuring, mournful and certainly angry, but in a polite sort of way, mournful eulogy. And he looked down at Ben Chaney and he just snapped, “because I can’t do this any longer.”  What you see happening in sixty-four and you’ll see more in sixty-five as well, is a fundamental shift in the tone of the movement. This is really one of the most important things to understand about this moment in the movement’s history. You also see in the wake of great triumphs of the movement, like the Civil Rights Act being signed–there’s no mistaking it’s a triumph–you also see a very clear tactical shift in the movement, and that’s what this lecture really is about, the fundamental tone and tactical changes in the movement that happened in the, in the sixty-four, sixty-five moment.

From the standpoint of tactics, it’s clear to Johnson and to others–Lyndon Johnson and to others–that by signing in the Civil Rights Act, he was kissing away the Democratic Party in the South. This is the, this is the real fear. And the only Democrats who were going to vote for him were African American Democrats. From the highest levels of political government, organized government, the notion is, “you’ve got to get these black folks registered.”  Well, as it happened–at least for the Democratic Party. On the ground, that’s the agenda as well for people in Mississippi, people who were working on Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. So the Freedom–MFDP, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an attempt by white and black activists in Mississippi, with support from other places, to set up a slate of candidates to run as the alternate to the Mississippi Democratic delegation, that would ultimately be seated at the, at the Democratic National Convention.

The vice chair of the MFDP, a very famous activist named Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of twenty children, sharecropper all of her life, no education after the third grade, but had powerful presence, incredibly eloquent, captivating speaker. And sadly, part of what made her so captivating is the story she had to tell was nightmarish. When I say that, you know, she was in school to the third grade, the schools were only open for three or four months, because the rest of the time you were working in the fields. Well, as other SNCC activists and SCLC activists come to, to Mississippi, they meet this  person they’ve been hearing about, Ms. Hamer, and she begins to be inspired by them and starts to try to organize voters on her own. She’s harassed by the police. People would call all day and night on her home telephone number to the point she had to just take the phone off the receiver. Threats with her losing her job, threats against her life, but she’s unfazed. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is more than just her, but she embodies so much of it.

As they’re marching to the Democratic National Convention, the debate is which Democratic delegation will the national Democratic leadership accept?  MFDP insists that they’re going to be the party to be recognized. Democratic established leadership said, “That’s just not going to happen.”  Southern delegations in other states threaten to walk if Lyndon Johnson, Democratic National Committee admit or–yeah, admit–MFDP to the floor of the convention. Johnson’s already afraid of losing the South and now this is confirmation. And these were states that are already leaning towards Barry Goldwater anyway, the Republican candidate.

Anyway, the convention arrives and Fannie Lou Hamer goes to the credentials committee, representing the MFDP, and starts to talk with them about why the MFDP needs to be recognized as the proper delegation. This is the committee that’s setting the rules for the conference, for the convention. And her statement is captured on live TV. This is when you’d have what, what is it called?  Gavel to gavel cover–coverage of conventions and such. And she starts telling a story about her efforts to organize people to exercise their full civil rights just to vote, get them to register to vote, and being arrested by the police, being taken to jail. And while she’s in jail for breaking no law, they put–the jailors stand by and get two black inmates, bring them over and threaten them with further punishment if they did not beat Fannie Lou Hamer, and they beat her senseless. She survives the beating, she survives it, but is physically, permanently damaged from the beating. This is what being a citizen meant if you’re an African American activist in Mississippi. Could end up like James Chaney, could be beaten to an inch of your life like Fannie Lou Hamer, certainly sending signals to the rest of black Mississippians.

Well, while Hamer is giving this testimony to the credentials committee, Lyndon Johnson, still in Washington, D.C., at the White House, hears about it, knows it’s going out live and is furious, and immediately calls a press conference trying–[student sneezes] Bless you–trying to simply distract the media from what’s now airing over the country. Just a trumped up news conference. He had nothing to actually talk about. A lot of the cameras stay with Hamer, but Johnson recognizes that he’s losing grip of retaining any, any hope of keeping the white South. He asks his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, to get Walter Mondale to coordinate this resolution to a dispute, and the resolution says that the Mississippi–Mississippi delegation, the Democratic delegation, Democratic Party would be seated if they swore allegiance to Johnson’s civil rights platform. But–And in addition to that, two delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would also join the Mississippi Democratic delegation.

All but three of the Mississippi Democratic Party delegates, the “formally” elected delegates–this is an all-white, all-white party in Mississippi, I should have said in the beginning–all but three of the Mississippi delegates bolt, and the MFDP refuses to compromise. “You either seat all of us or none of us.”  The Democratic Party National Convention ultimately recognizes just three of the delegates from Mississippi who didn’t leave. The rest of the Mississippi delegation votes for Barry Goldwater. The MF–the, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates ultimately vote for LBJ. There’s no logical choice, frankly, between LBJ or Goldwater, as far as their actions were concerned. Johnson, of course, goes ahead and gets re-elected, or gets elected, I guess, for the first time in a landslide, but he loses five states in his native South. The states that were threatening to bolt if he caved in to the MFDP came through. He might have lost them anyway, but it becomes very, very clear to Johnson at this point, to any Democratic activist, that the black vote is now critical in the South, if there’s any hope to hang onto a Democratic presence.

Chapter 2. Martin Luther King, Jr Advocates a New Voter Registration Drive [00:15:55]

So this is the end of the summer in 1964. Civil Rights Act is there, but the question of the vote is unresolved. Civil Rights Act does not address voting. Right away, activists on the ground and those at the highest reaches of the federal government, Democratic Party at least, hone in on voting. This is the next, this is the next challenge. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He goes to Oslo to receive it, and he returns in January of sixty-five to participate in this next wave of challenges, the vote. He goes–In January of sixty-five he goes to Selma, Alabama, Dallas County, Selma, Alabama, and he announces a new SCLC initiative to register people to vote. The sheriff in the county, a guy named James Clark, was much like–oh my goodness–our favorite punch–punching bag from Birmingham.

Students:  <>

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Ah, you guys were paying attention. Thank you, Bull Connor–much like Bull Connor. So he’s, he’s pulling out cattle prods, clubs and tear gas to break up crowds. I mean he is ripe for becoming a target of national media coverage. The situation in Selma is really quite astonishing–in, in Dallas County, I should say, not Selma. The larger district. In Dallas County, out of fifteen thousand people who are registered to vote, only three hundred and thirty-five of them are black. Now if you don’t know Alabama, it’s important to understand, it is a state with, in many places, a majority black population, and in all places, a significant black population. So in Dallas County, there is no black voting presence. In Alabama in general, seventy-seven percent, over three quarters of eligible blacks, are still off the voting rolls. It’s a much higher percentage than what you see in other places, other southern–throughout the South in general.

So King goes down there to announce a new voter registration drive, knowing that the sheriff would be one he could bait pretty easily. Rallies are organized, marches are planned. Middle of February, peaceful SCLC rally in a neighboring, neighboring area was attacked by the police. The city police, the county police and the state police. And during the melee, one of the people involved in the rally, a twenty-six year-old named Jimmie Lee Jackson, according to witnesses, shields his mother who’s in the process of getting beaten by a state trooper, and he’s shot in the stomach and dies. Now the police account of what happened is different, as one would expect, but the fact of the matter is, he’s shot in the stomach, and he dies. Guaranteeing—I mean this would be horrible enough as it is, and one would hope gather attention, but what guaranteed gathering the attention to this fact is that news cameras were there. And in the, in the confusion of the rally being broken up by the police, several reporters from NBC are injured. Essentially attacked, hit–they get beaten up by the police as well. Guarantees national coverage.

A plan evolves immediately to march from Selma, where Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered, from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, fifty miles away. The original plan was to take Jimmie Lee’s body along this path and leave him at the state house stairs. And, very quickly, saner heads prevail. This is disrespectful to the body, of course. But the fact is the plan for a march from Selma to Montgomery is hatched. On March 7th, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, begins a march across–begins the march from Selma to Montgomery. He’s leading in single file order, maybe two or three across, six hundred protesters over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s very important to know that Martin Luther King was not there, even though he knows about the plans. This is the march.

[Narrator:] We on the other side were Alabama state troopers, under orders from Governor Wallace to stop the marchers.

<>

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Oh, I hit it a second too late. You can see right here in the fading out, that’s John Lewis, now Representative John Lewis, in the tan trench coat.

[Narrator:]  <> was on the sideline.

[Man: ] <> to your safety from being in this march and I’m <>  this as an unlawful offenses. You are to disperse. You are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue. Is that clear to you? I’ve got nothing further to say to you. <> <>

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Tear gas canisters.

[video continues]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  The march, the disruption of the march, is captured on live TV, of course, and shown across the nation, leading people to ask the same question that Fannie Lou Hamer asked when she was giving her testimony to the credentials committee: is this America?  Thousands flocked to Selma as a protest was announced, “We will march again” from across the country, black, white, doesn’t matter. They all come to Selma to right this injustice. This day becomes known as “Bloody Sunday.”  Two days later, King is there, and they’re going to march a second time. And this is a pattern that has grown to become quite irritating to a lot of activists on the ground, is that King, for all of his incredible charisma and power, is never right–really quite there at the moment of crisis. His presence creates a new moment of crisis, no doubt about it, but he wasn’t there getting beaten on Bloody Sunday. And this is a tension that has been there in the movement for years already, that when King arrives, the cameras show up; when he leaves, the cameras leave. In this case, the cameras were already there.

There’s a federal order banning the march, wanting a cool down period. King goes, “We’re going to have a march anyway.”  A bold statement. So on Tuesday, March 9th, King leads a much larger group of activists across the Edmund Pettus bridge and starts the march to Montgomery. This is not the famous march though. Crosses the bridge, the police are there like they were the last time. They tell him to turn around, the same script. “Go back to your churches” and whatnot. King asks, asks his followers to kneel and pray along with him and then, in a complete shock to those SNCC leaders who are still beaten and bloody from two days earlier, King tells them to go back to their churches. This is not what they had bargained for. They were going to press forward and do this all over again. More horrified to discover that King had negotiated–to keep the peace and respect the federal order, King had quietly negotiated this whole performance, so the police knew that if King stuck to his script, he would kneel and tell his flock to pray, you know, create the visual moment, and then disperse peacefully.

SNCC leaders had no idea about this. They–so King came in and took their march, hijacked it, turned it into his circus, and then they didn’t even get to press forward to honor Jimmie Lee Jackson’s life. This is a very important moment in the movement. Not one that is–it’s not triumphed as the march, the eventual march to Montgomery that happens two weeks later, under incredible federal protection by the way. The slight cracks and fractures and fissures that were there between SNCC and SCLC–remember SNCC being organized under SCLC’s umbrella just five years ago at that point—the, the cracks are now wide open. And SNCC would no longer see itself as being part of SCLC’s organizing logic. And SNCC would no longer kowtow to King’s declarations. They are truly–it is truly its own organization, and as we’ll soon see, takes off on its own path.

So the march does proceed in–on the twenty-first. What’s that, forty-five years ago and a, and a few days. But the real drama in many ways, for the movement’s sake, is the drama that happens in the two attempts prior to that. So the issue is voting registration. This is what these rallies were about that where Jimmie Lee Jackson had been murdered. This is what the vote to Montgomery is, is all about recognizing the fact that African Americans still don’t have access to the ballot box. Meanwhile, a voting rights bill is bouncing around Congress, and Lyndon Johnson keeps upping the stakes, and, and in many ways throwing his presidency in harm’s way. He declares between the Tuesday turnaround march and the eventual march, he goes to joint session of Congress and astonishes Congress by quoting one of the famous lines of the movement. He says, you know, he’s basically saying, “As a nation, we cannot abide by treating our own citizens this way. Their struggle is our struggle and we shall overcome.”  It’s an astonishing moment, presidential rhetoric, Lyndon Johnson saying it.

In June of the same year, sixty-five, at Howard University’s graduate–graduation ceremony, Howard being the most important, largest historically black college and university, essentially mostly funded by the federal government, Johnson at the graduation ceremony says the following:

“You do not–[coughs] excuse me—You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying, ‘Now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’ You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race saying, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still believe that you have been completely fair. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom, but opportunity; not just legal equity, but human ability; not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”

This is part of LBJ rolling out affirmative action, sort of testing the waters essentially. But very quickly, affirmative action policies now become woven into federal policies as well. In fact, women who have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, something I’ll probably say again in about three or four weeks, were not covered under the original umbrella of affirmative action. It was actually only added two years later and added by someone who was hostile to the whole idea. He thought, “My god, if we just add women to this thing, we’ll sink the whole program,” and people went along with it. He’s like, “Oh, I misjudged that one.” 

Chapter 3. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 [00:31:07]

Anyway, back to the summer of sixty-five, Johnson is going out on a limb, essentially, making clear he is going to be the civil rights presidency. Now he’s a president, president, and many other things as well, but he’s definitely the civil rights president. On August 6th of 1965, he signs the Voting Rights Act, an incredible effort to get it through. And the Voting Rights Act prohibited states from imposing literacy requirements as obstacles for accessing the ballot box. It’s the most successful way of cutting out the vote. And, most importantly, and this is the most important element, it allowed the attorney general to send federal examiners in, into any election where they thought voting rights might be curtailed.

The Voting Rights Act, just to make clear—and some of you may get–I mean I get, I get this email about once a year, or once every other year, that the Voting Rights Act is coming up before Congress and it’s gonna–they might not approve it, and they’ll end the right to vote for African Americans. My father sent it to me once, which drove me crazy. I’m like, “Dad, you know better than this.”  The fact is, the Voting Rights Act does not give anybody the right to vote. It gives the federal government the authority to protect the right to vote. It brings into bold relief the federal government’s ability and right to supersede in local affairs, which has been the, the nut of the, the bone of contention since the Voting Rights Act was passed.

The Voting Rights Act has, if you look forward from the moment of its passage in August sixty-five, makes a clear change. Within four years of its passage, three-fifths of adult blacks are registered to vote. It’s an astonishing shift. Between 1964 and sixty-nine, roughly the same period we’re talking about here, the number of registered black voters goes from, in Alabama, less than twenty percent of the population to over sixty percent of the population. In Mississippi, it goes to less than seven percent of the population to over two-thirds of the population, within five years. It’s a seismic shift, especially when you consider the number–the numbers we’re talking about in terms of the African American population. So there’s no disputing the fact the Voting Rights Act has a, a, a significant effect, as you look forward, the crystal ball, three or four, five years from the moment of its signing. It’s also clear the Voting Rights Act had astonishingly no effect in the immediate moment, in those places where blacks already had the right to vote. And this was made very clear, five days later, when the Watts community in Los Angeles goes up in flames.

A few words about Watts. It’s a riot in the, if you know Los Angeles demography, in a portion of the city that is due south of central Los Angeles, a place that had been the home for the longest, for, for a couple of decades in the wake of the Second Great Migration, World War II, where black Los Angeles was overwhelmingly found. It was not a wealthy part of the city, not by any stretch. But people had the kinds of civil rights, citizenship rights they wouldn’t have had, African Americans, they wouldn’t have had in Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia. They also had, visually, a better quality of life than those people who are stuck in high rise slums in Chicago and New York City. There’s green spaces. There’s, well maybe they’re not homeowners, but their homes, were living in homes. They aren’t in high rises, certainly. There’s sunshine, for goodness’ sakes, there’s palm trees. But the fact is, there is incredible economic degradation, powerful sense of hopelessness, and a real feeling that you were not a citizen, even though you could, could vote. But it really had no great benefit to you.

So in Watts, the flashpoint revolves around an arrest that goes bad. Marquette Frye, an African American man living in that neighborhood, is stopped by the California Highway Patrol at night. He’d been drinking with his older brother. Cops pulled him over and they’re about to let him go, when another–this is Marquette Frye’s version–when another more belligerent crew of California Highway Patrol officers arrive. Frye’s mother arrives, wanting to know what’s going on, trying to get her son. And these new belligerent cops assault the mother. Frye is hit by a police officer as he is trying to protect his mother, thrown into a police car, sent off. The police version is rather different. Drunken driver, they pull Frye over, radio for assistance. Other police arrive. Meanwhile, a crowd arrives of citizens and residents of the area. Marquette Frye makes a play for one of the police officers’ guns, and they start wrestling with him, throw him in a car. And, immediately, the crowd that’s gathered around, a crowd that had been worn out by police brutality, historic police brutality in that area, city, the crowd starts to explode.

What happens, ultimately, is that thirty-four people die the next handful of days. Over a thousand people are injured; four thousand are arrested; property damage in excess of two hundred million, which was a ton of money in 1965 if you think about it; damage ranging across a forty-six mile, square mile area, larger than Manhattan or San Francisco. Thirty-five thousand adults are deemed, quote, active rioters. Seventy-two thousand are deemed close spectators. And what, why this is important in the reports that follow is that the police are going in intermittently. It’s just one big logistics mess. Police are going in now and again to try to calm things down. The riot would be sporadic. There’d be a hot point over here, a fire would be started over there, or a fake fire alarm would be called, and police would go over there. The fire department would be called to a scene and then, and then they’d be showered with bottles and bricks and then snipers. It was an urban battle zone.

So a lot of people were active as rioters who never, you know, see justice, according to the police, because they’re the ones shooting from windows the police can never get to, for instance. Ultimately, sixteen thousand National Guard, LAPD, and California Highway Patrol officers are brought in. They militarize the zone in order to re-establish the peace. It’s a massive property riot. Food, stores that sell food, liquor stores, furniture stores, clothing stores are destroyed, especially those owned by middle- and upper-class whites. Churches, homes and libraries are relatively untouched. And I say this just to–you know some people will talk about whites–Watts as a mindless insurrection. I’m not defending the riot at any–to any extent, but it wasn’t mindless. Certainly something tactical by going after those institutions that the residents thought were keeping them down. Store owners who were black would write up, you know, “soul brother” in their window to prevent their store from being attacked. Now some of them got attacked anyway, because there’s certainly going to be some level of chaos in any kind of riot. But often they were passed over.

For white America, all of this happens completely out of the blue. After all, Lyndon Baines Johnson has just signed in the Voting Rights Act. “What else do you people want?” is essentially the mentality. “What else could you want?”  And what L.A. shows is that there are deep and fundamental problems, that the Civil Rights Movement, as far as its most famous rhetoric, you know, the right to vote, you know, the right to go, go into the front door of a bus–a restaurant, ride in a bus where you want to—L.A. had all those things already. It didn’t point to more fundamental economic problems. That’s what Watts was about.

Now Watts, now whether the riot–I’m not going to play counter factual history: would the riot have happened if this or that hadn’t happened?  I, I don’t know. But what is clear is that just as people are struggling with this new tactical change in the movement, got to pursue the black vote, people are clearly struggling with a shift in tone. The kind of militancy and armed militancy that you see happening in Watts is becoming more recognizable and more frequent. Part of it grows out of the rhetoric, no doubt, of Malcolm X, even after he disavowed a lot of the rhetoric. This becomes very clear in next week’s reading. And part of it is–Part of it’s growing out of an increasing U.S. military occupation in this strange place they haven’t quite figured out yet called Vietnam, and people coming home from Vietnam with a different sense of how to pursue justice. There’s a fundamental shift in tone and you see it embodied in Watts, profound impatience.

Now impatience is not just an urban or western and northern phenomenon. It’s an impatience that’s in the, in the heart of, quote, the movement as well, in the southeastern United States. Blacks are increasingly happy about, or impatient and frustrated with, the client-patron relationship in the South, and throughout the country really. And we’ll see, we’ll see next week, when we start talking about the Black Panther Party, how it becomes articulated in Oakland, California. It’s most famously the Black Panther Party. But it’s important to take a moment to talk about the first Black Panther Party in the context of shift and tones. [computer beeps] Oh, that’s my–I have something happening soon, I guess, my computer telling me I have to go. So let’s look at the first Black Panther Party.

You have the march from Selma to Montgomery, the, the famous march. So much of the political rhetoric talks about how–or historical rhetoric, it goes off without a hitch, incredible federal protection. But a hallmark to how great we are as a country because of how peaceful it was. It wasn’t so peaceful to everybody. One of the activists who came down to Selma to help out, a woman named Vi–Viola Liuzzo from Michigan, her job was working support for the march. And her job was to, in her car, ferry people back from Montgomery, from Montgomery back to Selma. She happens to be driving her car with some of the marchers in it, driving through Lowndes County, Alabama. A car pulls up next to her, rolls down the window, pulls out a shotgun, blows her away.

A young man named Stokely Carmichael, northerner raised in the, in New York City, graduated from Howard University, goes down to participate in the Freedom Summer, rises to the leadership circle in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he’s sent–Stokely Carmichael is sent to Lowndes County to figure out what the heck is going on in this place. Trying to organize the black vote, partly in honor of Liuzzo’s assassination. What he finds in Lowndes is a population that is a predominantly black population, eighty-one percent black. It’s a black county. Black citizens of Lowndes were poor, they were landless, and economically dependent on a small, white, elite planter society. It’s apartheid. Blacks outnumbered whites overwhelmingly, eighty-one percent, but they were not registered to vote, and they actually feared civil rights agitation. It’s like, “What are you doing coming in here?  Our life is horrible, but you’re going to get us killed.” 

As Carmichael digs a little deeper in Lowndes, he finds, finds a different current though, and he just discovers that trying to register black Lowndes County citizens to vote in the Democratic Party is something he’s really not going to have much success doing. There’s such hostility and such hopelessness. But he also discovers a level of militancy there as well. So they form their own party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the LCFO. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization. And it has as its goal running candidates, developing a platform, becoming a recognized party, an alternative to the Democratic Party, which had no relevance to black Mississippians living in Lowndes County. And the LCFO chooses as its mascot the black panther. And the logic was, LCFO leaders talked about the black panther as an animal that retreats when it’s pursued, until it’s backed into a corner, and then it springs forth with a life or death battle on its mind. And that’s how the Lowndes County farmers, they’re all farmers, felt. And importantly, they were armed. I mean, and this is no big deal. I mean, farmers in the South, everybody was armed. You shot your meals often. The party was armed, and it was uninterested in working with whites. Whites who sympathized, who wanted to help them, it’s like, “No, forget it.”  And this group, as we’ll see next week, becomes the inspiration for the famous Black Panther Party.

Now very quickly, by this point, sixty-five, SNCC had, you know, is breaking apart from SCLC. It becomes affiliated with the, sort of the rising new left, the radical student organizations. It’s exploring other ideological options, instead it’s, it’s of what was then certainly radical in 1960, you know, integrating lunch counters, integrating places of, of, of commerce. SNCC links up with the Students for Democratic Society, SDS, for a while, but the racial politics become too complex, because SNCC leaders felt the whites were trying to take control of SDS, black leaders in SNCC. In January of 1966, Samuel Young, a twenty year-old Navy vet, African American, recruited by SNCC to be an organizer in Tuskegee, he’s killed for using a white bathroom. At that point, SNCC comes out against the war in Vietnam and, in doing so, isolates itself from mainstream civil rights organizations. Another major break in the fabric, rip in the fabric. In the wake of this, the Atlanta cell within SNCC, which is increase–increasingly radical, starts getting racially restless. In the spring of sixty-six, Stokely Carmichael, essentially now the leader of SNCC, produces a position paper that says:

“White participation, as practiced in the past, is now obsolete. If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people. We must form our own institutions, write our own histories.”

“White participation, as practiced in the past, is now obsolete.”  Stokely Carmichael is now the chair of SNCC. Whites are now kicked out of the movement. I’m going to stop right there, but we are literally, quite literally, at the cusp of the famous articulation of Black Power. Certainly all the pieces are now in place, and the movement, the famous movement that we’ve all been taught about in our little grade books and stuff, begins its very quick descent into completely splintering apart. Those are the events from sixty-four to sixty-six. We’ll pick up from there, at there on Monday.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]