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

Lecture 19

 - Black Power (continued)

Overview

As the movement moved out of the South and away from a largely Christian orientation, it became clear that people were prepared to enlarge the struggle so that it became linked to international issues including the war in Vietnam, the spread of capitalism, and the exploitation of developing countries. Yet for every moment of great promise, there was a moment of great confusion and despair. In this lecture, Professor Holloway traces the competing lines of activism, change, struggle, frustration, and political brinksmanship that occurred in the late sixties. He focuses on SNCC’s trajectory, Martin Luther King’s poverty campaign in Chicago, his views on Vietnam, the riots that followed his 1968 assassination, and the Poor People’s Campaign. The remainder of the lecture focuses on the national and international events of 1968 that contributed to this feeling of unrest sweeping the country. As the movement grew beyond its traditional boundaries, the moral and psychological hold it had on America began to lose its strength. As Professor Holloway explains, by the end of the 1960s, it seemed that Americans cared little for the larger and more complicated truths pointed to by black radicals’ political, social, economic, and cultural critique.

 
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

AFAM 162 - Lecture 19 - Black Power (continued)

Chapter 1. The Students National Coordinating Committee [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  You’ll remember from last lecture, Gwendolyn Brooks’–what I think at least, is a haunting poem–We Real Cool.

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Written in 1966, but really stands in for, in so many ways, this fundamental shift that I’ve been talking about the last couple of lectures, and sort of the mentality from mid-1960s, heading into the end of the 1960s. And that’s where we are in the course right now. For this lecture will be the last heavily focused on the 1960s. Although it will come up again in next week’s lectures, it will only be coming up really in, in fleeting fashion. So really, we’re beginning to move out of the 1960s with this lecture.

We’ve been lingering over the–this period, this decade, for essentially three weeks, two and a half weeks of the course, in no small measure because it is the famous height of the Civil Rights Movement, but because, even though I’ve been trying to rewrite that narrative for you, the fact is, there are so many different competing lines of activism, of change, of struggle, of frustration, of political brinksmanship of all different sorts, all really captured in this moment. Moments of great promise, followed by moments of great confusion, moments of great promise again, moments of great confusion, and then despair. Overwhelmingly, the story of the late 1960s is one of political and cultural confusion, and one striking moment of–anxiety is far too polite a word to put on it, but real fear, about what, where this country’s headed or how it’s going to get to where it should be headed.

The barometer, as I pointed out quite some time ago for a lot of these changes in the 1960s, is the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I want to start there by telling you the end of this, of SNCC’s story, essentially. So you’ll remember that SNCC was founded out of the, the sit in movement in 1960, college age students, Shaw, North Carolina. It was brought under the wing of the–organized under the wing of the SCLC, embraced an integrationist ethos. Respectability was at its core. Belief in group’s inner leadership and is dedicated to civil rights education, where there’s voter registration, leadership training, etcetera, in the early 1960s. The cracks start to appear as it struggled to find its own voice, feeling smothered by King’s presence. Selma, the famous Bloody Sunday march that SNCC led, and Tuesday turnaround that, that King orchestrated without SNCC’s awareness or knowledge marked a fundamental break in the org–between those two organizations.

SNCC then goes on a journey over the next handful of year about what it’s going to be and how it’s going to run. It’s caught up in the Black Power passion of the time. Stokely Carmichael consolidates leadership within his very charismatic self-representation. SNCC kicks whites out of the movement, forms a temporary alliance through Carmichael’s doing with the Black Panthers, but SNCC is too radical for the Panthers on race lines. I’ll come back and over–overlap a few little details in today’s lecture about this, but essentially, Carmichael leaves SNCC. He has no future there. And he leaves the country, in reasons I’ll get to later on in the lecture. In the leadership void left behind by Carmichael, you have a cadre of different leaders battling it out, who’s going to be the person representing SNCC.

Meanwhile, the organization is infiltrated by the FBI. Seeds of doubt are sown left and right. And the Student Non–Nonviolent Coordinating Committee changes its name to the Student National Coordinating Committee. In the height of late 1960s violence, which is part of the theme of this lecture, it disavows nonviolence as a solution, or as a tactic, or as a belief system. All bets are off. So it goes from nonviolent civil disobedience, integration ethos, to an all black organization, far more progressive than it was when it started and eschewing nonviolence as a core mission. Leadership gets broken up, different kinds of battles. FBI infiltrates it successfully, and by 1973, with leadership in disarray, scattered throughout the, the globe actually, the FBI closes the file on SNCC. There’s nothing left of the organization. SNCC is a metaphor for the great successes and great failures and great anxieties of the 1960s.

Chapter 2. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Poverty Campaign in Chicago [00:05:20]

This was a decade of great crescendos and great collapses. Great crescendos, of course, with–embodied in King and his dream, embodied in the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But as we’ve seen, immediately after these crescendos, great collapses. Four young, young girls blown up in Birmingham, riots in Watts. So you arrive at the moment, and this is where the lecture really begins–this was all preface–you arrive at the moment of 1966, after Selma, King casting about, I think it’s really the fair word to use, casting about for the next step of the movement. Selma was, even though SNCC was infur–was furious with, with King, this successful. The final march was one of the, is, remains, one of the great iconic moments of the, sort of the famous narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. But it became just profoundly clear to King, and to others of course, that these great changes in, in, in law, the great changes in national consciousness, were overwhelmingly seen as southeastern phenomena, southeastern United States phenomena. This is where the problem was.

You saw in whites the–in Watts, excuse me, the problem was something quite different. You see in the great northern cities of the country, the problem was really quite different. They have these laws on the books already. And King goes, decides to go to Chicago in sixty-six to try to address some of these deeply woven, deeply embedded problems that ran along racial lines in the great cities of the north and the northeast. This is where the next stage of the Civil Rights Movement is going to be fought, according to King. King had been talking about, from the beginning of his rise to national prominence, he had been talking about economics and poverty. However, at this moment, sixty-six, partly out of result of searching for the next great agenda for the movement, partly out of the shifting logics of how the U.S. economy is functioning on a global scale, partly out of the radicalism and the internationalist radicalism that starts being articulated more aggressively by SNCC and would soon be articulated by the Black Panther Party, with its Marxist ideology, King really starts to emphasize poverty. This is the next frontier of the movement. This is what we need to address.

So King goes to Chicago, takes the SCLC with him, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with him, and sees in Chicago de facto housing segregation, limited educational opportunities. He sees Chicago as, or the, the way life is lived in Chicago, as a manifestation of economic exploitation, pure and simple, as manifested, grows out of, is part of, the housing problems, educational opportunity differential, manifested in trade unions and the way in which trade unions kept the color line intact. It’s manifested in real estate, who could live where. It’s manifested in banks, the kind of loans you can get, if you can get loans. Mortgage companies, slum landlords, the welfare system, federal agencies, courts, police, political system, the city administration. It was systemic, economic exploitation, the way it was witnessed, the way it was experienced in Chicago.

So King and SCLC moves from a rather point specific series of campaigns about voter registration drives, for instance, campaigns related to racial discrimination written in the law books, segregation written, you know, de jure into the law books, and recognized, “We’ve got a much bigger problem here.”  The diversity of the agenda that King starts to pursue when he’s looking at economic exploitation in all the different places in which it makes itself known in Chicago, it’s the diversity of the nature of the problem, ultimately turns into King’s undoing in Chicago. Chicago is, giving away the punch line, a, a moment of profound failure for King. So King is in Chicago, setting up shop and by July, the midsummer, things are organized enough and he prepared enough logistically, he organizes a march. He takes several thousand marchers to city hall in Chicago, and much like his namesake quite some time ago, tacks twenty-four demands to the door. Demands called for an end to racial discrimination in the kinds of institutions I mentioned just a moment ago. It was actually not much more than pub–a publicity stunt that King hoped would create space for him at the bargaining table with Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley.

A month later, finally getting an audience with Daley, King presents a ten-point plan on housing. Daley works with the plan. They sign this plan together, and it’s calling for open housing reform. So it seems like King’s made some difference already. Daley’s a staunch Democrat but really embodied–I mean, he owned Chicago politics, heck, he owned state politics. And King got Daley to sign this pledge for housing reform. The signing a pledge isn’t really doing anything, except for putting your name on a piece of paper. You’ve got to put political will behind it. And Daley didn’t want to expend any of it when it came to enforcement. So King’s earliest efforts in Chicago are merely symbolic efforts. It’s not actually creating change. Now Chicago locals were very excited about King’s arrival and his pres–and his, and his abiding presence. He’s staying in town. Black Chicagoans believe that now that King was there, the city and the country would pay attention to the problems that blacks faced on a daily basis. But the excitement begins to fade just as quickly as it was built up.

[student sneezes] Bless you. Locals begin to realize that King’s not really well suited for the complexities of the northern black world. And that sounds kind of condescending. I’m not talking about, you know, does he know how to, you know, buy a loaf of bread and, you know, act properly; that’s not it at all. The problem is, is that King is used to, because of the legal structures of discrimination in the South, used to a very simple political landscape. Blacks had no voting presence, they had no representational presence. There were local activists, certainly, but they did not–they were not emboldened in the way–I mean they did not have the kind of support network behind them to catapult things to the national scene. That’s not the case in Chicago.

Chicago had significantly more diverse populations within the black community, just in the city itself, than any single place King had been before and tried to wage a campaign. There were many other people who were established leaders in the community, who were recognized as such, and they had their access to Mayor Daley. Then King comes in and wants to have access by himself, not understanding the political theater that defined Chicago. To put simply–I mean to put it in its most simple, simple way, King comes to Chicago and without realizing it, steps, starts stepping on the toes of all these other black leaders who are already in place, who had their organizations, who had their movements, and who had access. Now the real split between Chicagoans and King happens in a swirl of events that surround a march, a march into Cicero, one of Chicago’s most famously all-white enclaves.

King organizes a march to call attention like he’s done on so many other occasions to systemic discrimination, and the way it’s been embodied in Chicago, and then at the last minute, tries to cancel it when, when Daley agrees to sign a, a new housing plan. The actors who had committed themselves to the march were furious and decided to proceed without King. Now right there, there’s the difference. In the case of, if you think back to Selma just a year earlier, slightly more than a year earlier, Bloody Sunday following Tuesday turnaround, Chicago–Chicagoans saying, “There will be no turnaround. We’ve seen you do this before and we’re not going to abide by it up in Chicago.”  It’s also important–so, so the, the Chicago, the local activists decides, “We’re going to march without King. We don’t care if he signed anything with the mayor.” 

Now what’s also important to realize is that the Chicago activists were not trained in a culture of non-vil–nonviolent civil rights activism. Now I think I’ve already mentioned before, there was a lot of violence in the Civil Rights Movement, violence on all sides. But there was also a commitment, a rhetorical and then a lived commitment, to a nonviolent tradition. One clip actually, I’m sorry, I didn’t get a chance to show you, when it came to Freedom Summer, black and white students coming down to Mississippi and having to walk through gauntlets where they were actually beaten by fellow activists to get them ready for what might happen in Mississippi. And if they started to fight back, they couldn’t go out in the field. I mean, the training was literally bruising. Chicagoans didn’t have that training. So you have an untrained but politically experienced and savvy group, diverse group of activists coming together, to march on Cicero; a lot of anger, a lot of fear as a result.

Knowing all these different facts were in place, the National Guard is brought in immediately. We’re not even going to wait for a riot to happen. We’re going to start with the National Guard being in place. The National Guard is there to ensure that the march proceeds peacefully. But in a telling sign, the guardsmen’s rifles are with, with fixed bayonets, are pointed at the marchers instead of at the hecklers who line the street to protest the march’s arrival. So the marchers are walking through a gauntlet of guardsmen, there to protect them, but the marchers are facing the bayonets and the rifles. Well, the march proceeds, but then hecklers, who were there behind the National Guard line, start throwing rocks and bottles and most of the marchers start returning fire. Now it’s nothing short of a miracle that the march does not explode into a riot. But it didn’t accomplish anything either. Well, I guess it accomplished the fact that King’s leadership style was really, at that point, now considered irrelevant in Chicago.

Now I’ve simplified these–this story about King and Chicago for the sake of time, but this is the core fact, is that King comes to Chicago as the testing ground for his new campaign to bring attention to economic exploitation. It’s part of his new agenda relating to poverty or, as, are more clearly articulated agenda relating to poverty. And his organization and his style just don’t work. They don’t line up with the structured politics in a place like Chicago.

Chapter 3. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Views on Vietnam [00:18:31]

Now complicating things further in all of this, especially for King, is the escalating war in Vietnam. I’ve made allusions to it a couple of times already, but now we’re at a point of crisis for King. He is a pronounced pacifist. He was always against the war, but he had kept his opinions quiet in order to ensure successes in the civil rights agenda, the different battles he was fighting up to that point. King starts to wrestle openly with what he sees as the morality happening over in Southeast Asia, that he’s silent on that regard, on that front, that he’s talking about the immorality and now the economic system in the United States. He couldn’t reconcile the two.

Meanwhile, King’s fellow civil rights leaders make a point of talking King out of making a public announcement against the Vietnam War. So King, really seen as the leader of the movement–there’s a lot of air quotes there–the leader of the movement, he’s really one of equals of the leaders of several other major civil rights organizations, the National Urban League, the NAACP most famously, and they’re now trying to silence him, saying, “You cannot risk everything we’ve been fighting for, for this war someplace else.”  One such leader, Whitney Young, of the National Urban League, advised King to, quote, “leave the war to the experts,” and that, quote, “the Negro was more concerned about the rat at night and the job in the morning.”  Young, Whitney Young, I should point out, was pulled aside–or pulled aside King at Lyndon Johnson’s insistence. The White House had been working for–closely with these leaders now for years, working with John F. Kennedy before he was assassinated. He’s, you know, trying to convince them to change their agenda in certain ways for the sake of the civil rights bill success, but they’re working with John F. Kennedy, they’re working with Lyndon Baines Johnson.

And this in itself is a radical shift. I mean, think back to 1941 when A. Philip Randolph bluffs his way, basically, into a meeting with FDR. Now leaders of civil rights organiz–organizations are called into the Oval Office frequently. “How can we manage this crisis?  I need your advice” on this, that, or the other. Well Johnson, who’s finding himself now stuck in Vietnam and trying to find a way out, although he’s escalating it, Johnson tells the civil rights leaders, hearing rumors about King’s increasing confusion–that’s not really the word I want to use–confusion about the war, or at least the public agenda. LBJ tells the civil rights leaders, “If you break with me on Vietnam, I will close my door to you.”  I mean LBJ’s no stranger to brinksmanship. He’s an expert at it, and he essentially threatens the civil rights leaders with killing their agenda if they try to get their fingers involved in what he sees as his agenda, that’s the war in Vietnam.

As we move through 1966 and into 1967, I mean King got the message. He knows he’s not supposed to say anything, but he finds that he can no longer be quiet about this. And he starts giving talks, mostly in the South, about the war in Vietnam. You know, much like the, the famous I Have a Dream speech, where, you know, we only get the, the short excerpt that makes us all feel really wonderful and we don’t get the excerpts that make us feel, well, pretty bad, King was giving–I mean so the, the basic speech is much longer than what we know. King is giving, not even sermons, lectures that are forty-five, fifty minutes long, talks, talking about structural inequality, economic super-exploitation, the immorality of the Cold War battles being played out, well, anywhere, but especially in, in the developing world. Giving the kind of lecture you’d expect from a political scientist or an economist and the kind of detail in political economy. He’s testing out the ground basically.

And in the spring of 1967, he’s invited to speak at Riverside Church in Manhattan, with a long tradition of progressivism, and he famously breaks his silence. I mean he’d been breaking the silence for months now, but now it’s on this national platform. And so on April 4th, 1967, King steps to the pulpit at Riverside Church, saying that he felt he could no longer, he could no longer be silent. He declares that the Great Society has been shot down–Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, this effort to, you know, fight a war on poverty–that “the Great Society’s been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam.” 

“It would be very inconsistent for me to teach and preach nonviolence in this situation and then applaud violence when thousands and thousands of people are being maimed and mutilated and many killed in this war.”

Now King is talking about Vietnamese being killed. He’s also talking about American soldiers being killed, and it’s a, a theme that you see, you hear more from people on the street who are very angry. I didn’t bring it; it’s in a different lecture, but the statistics are rather stark about who’s going off to fight in Vietnam and who’s actually in the positions of most danger and who’s dying. The poor, regardless of the race, and African Americans in numbers far disproportionate to their representation in the U.S. public, the poor and blacks are the ones that are in the most dangerous positions and essentially become cannon fodder in the Killing Fields. So, you know, King is not on his own amongst black leaders for being horrified–in black citizens, being horrified what’s happening in Vietnam. He decides to break his silence.

[Martin Luther King:]  Now, I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam today because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence is betrayal. The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing, as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on. Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony. But we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  And as I’ve already alluded to, or mentioned a few moments ago, King continues to speak about the linkages between–in the speech–about the linkages between capitalist economies, their imperialist tendencies in the war in Southeast Asia. This was not a King that the national public knew; didn’t recognize this person. This was also not a King that LBJ was going to tolerate. He immediately distances, distances himself from King. Just as he threatened to do, he followed through. The White House is now closed to King and SCLC. Now just as this is not a King that people recognized for his sort of laser-like focus on political, economy, hyper-capitalism; it’s a King that’s not been mor–memorialized for all of us. It brings us back to something that I’ve been talking about, the issues of how we remember, how we’ve been taught to remember the Civil Rights Movement and what those national narratives do as far as how we interpret our own notion of what makes a citizen.

It’s a period of incredible anxiety. Urban violence is spreading unchecked. In Detroit, thirty-five people die in a huge race riot. In Newark, nearly as many as–are left dead. I mean, Newark’s seen as an incredible battle zone. The statistics of the amount of bullets that were fired by the police state is rather astonishing, the order of thousands upon thousands, compared to the number of shots fired by those people who were rioting. And as you know, Newark is still struggling with the legacy of these, of these, of what happened in the 1960s, the late sixties. It’s a city still on its mend. In early 1968, a little less than a year after he comes out against the Vietnam War, King issues a call for a massive protest event, called the Poor People’s Campaign. It’s an event that would take place in Washington, D.C., and would call national, and hopefully international, attention to the plight of the poor, regardless of color.

At the same time that King’s developing this, the logistics for this campaign, he agrees to lend his support to a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Sanitation workers were clamoring for union recognition, and the city’s black community–this was largely a black force–and the city’s black community lent its hearty support. The mayor refused to acknowledge the black workers. An economic boycott followed that almost crippled the city, and a riot was barely averted, despite the fact that citizens essentially began to attack the police on one occasion. It’s a heightened era of urban violence and systemic economic exploitation. King comes to Memphis in March and tries to rally the public. He has to leave town very quickly, but he returns. He said he was going to return in ten days, and he vowed that he would stay put, which is not something that King did. But he would stay put in Memphis until the workers were recognized. On April third, King speaks to an audience at a nighttime rally.

Now it’s important to understand, by this point in his young life, and he really was a young man, King was frustrated and dismayed. The civil rights establishment figures with whom he had grown up politically, that he had led essentially, the establishment figures had now distanced themselves from him. The White House had cut him off, and this was always his trump card. Remember back when, when John F. Kennedy’s running for the White House, they used each other to, sort of, pull attention to troubled situations in the South and Birmingham most famously. But the White House is now closed to him, and since the successes of sixty-three, sixty-four, and sixty-five, King had only been met with a series of setbacks. Now he’s struggling mightily to pull off a new direction in his public activism via the Poor People’s Campaign. It’s a bringing together of his racial world views and his economic, his class world views.

For months leading up to this April third speech, King had been walking round in sort of a daze. I mean if you’ve seen—I, I, I’ve been trying for years to find this movie again. King gives a speech at Stanford University, I want to say sixty-seven. I’m not quite sure of the year, but it’s between sixty-seven, maybe early sixty-eight, and the King–it’s a film, it’s a, you know, full–they filmed the speech from beginning to end. And it is a King that we, that we are not used to seeing. I mean, he is flat out exhausted and depressed, and you only get to his–some moments, you know, four-fifths of the way through this hour long speech or so, where you get these recognizable moments of oratorical flight. But the rest of it, he’s, you know, he’s just despairing about the human condition. People worried about him working himself to a state of exhaustion, wondering about his spirit. They were disturbed by the fact that he’d been, he’d been having visions of his own death, literally thinking that his time on earth was actually limited. He’s giving the speech on April third, trying to rally the Memphis sanitation workers in the community. And then towards the end of his speech, he turns his attention to his own mortality and his notions of how long he might be on this planet.

Martin Luther King:  And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  That would be the last speech that King would give. The next afternoon, April 4th, 1968, a year to the date after he comes out against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church, he’s assassinated.

Chapter 4. The Riots after Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1968 Assassination [00:35:30]

 As news of King’s death races across the country, cities go up in flames. Uprisings occur in over one hundred cities, over fifty people are killed collectively, thousands are injured. Seventy thousand troops are called out around the country to restore order. Large sections of cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., are wiped out. Chicago’s mayor, so recently an ally of King, terrified of what’s going to happen in the wake of his assassination–not terrified, angry–gives his police the order to shoot to kill. I know from personal experience, having done a lot of research from my dissertation and first book, Washington, D.C., at Howard University, these riots happened in 1968. Areas around Howard were still burned out in the early 1990s, I mean, still. If you’ve been donw, down to Washington DC in the last six or seven years, the city that you see in those areas around U Street, east of Dupont Circle, north of the capital, those areas are unrecognizable. The change or the restoration of those parts of the city took well over thirty years.

Now King’s death is one of the most important moments in a year of real horror. Nineteen sixty-eight, students on many university campuses radicalize, joining new protest movements, taking over campus buildings. If you look at the buildings of the early 1970s, you can tell what’s basically riot architecture: you know, large stone buildings with very small windows that chairs cannot be thrown through. Radical black workers organize into the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the critique of its economic exploitation. LBJ announces that he will not run for re-election. Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated the night he wins the California Democratic primary. Democratic national convention is held in Chicago. It’s a convention marred by police rioting. You know, they battered demonstrators and reporters on a daily basis. COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program, is trained upon black radicals, starts beating up on the Black Panthers, one of the groups J. Edgar Hoover called “hate group.”  Starts infiltrating S–excuse me, SNCC–and begins to break that organization up.

Around the world, the French government collapses when nine million workers stage a general strike against Charles de Gaulle, only to have the country’s armed forces mobilized to restore order. In Mexico, the government ordered its troops to fire upon hundreds of student protesters who were trying to call attention to their plight in the weeks preceding the start of the Mexico City Olympics. Famously, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, sprinters for the U.S. Olympic team, did the famous Black Power salute when they were on the medal stand; stripped of their medals. Richard Nixon narrowly defeats Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey for President, and Nixon wins by brokering a deal with Strom Thurmond, a powerful senator from South Carolina, promising Thurmond that he would lay off the South in regards to civil rights if Thurmond would deliver southern votes to Nixon instead of to the third party candidate, George Wallace, who happens to get nearly ten million votes, by the way.

In the midst of all this confusion, King’s assassination, Stokely Carmichael, who I already mentioned as seen as being the heir apparent to the civil rights leadership pantheon, you know, the next great black leader. He’s isolated, he’s–I mean essentially not in the Panthers, he’s isolated from SNCC, but people are still thinking that he might be the one to take up King’s mantle. But in the wake of King’s assassination, and D.C. going up in flames especially, people start blaming Carmichael for the riot, for fanning the hysteria about the riot, that turns into the riot, and start blaming him for not being able to restore order. And Carmichael actually flees the country and essentially lives in exile the rest of his life. The, the, quote, job, and I really put big quotes around it, the job of leading black America is unstaffed and maybe unmanageable. In the wake of King’s assassination, as the riots are cooling down, leaders start to–the other leaders of the civil rights organizations, people in King’s inner-circle are saying, “What are we going to do to honor King?  What can we do?  The count–the count–the world is in disarray.” 

 

Chapter 5. The Poor People’s Campaign [00:41:10]

Well, there was the Poor People’s Campaign, and they decide, you know, “To honor King’s legacy, we’re going to carry forth with that campaign.”  They see it as a real opportunity to marry race politics with class politics, so they start organizing a plan to bring poor people from ten cities and five rural districts to Washington, D.C., and stay for three months, calling attention to their daily plight and calling for a thirty billion dollar anti-poverty package, that included a commitment to full citizen–full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and increased construction of low-income housing. In mid-May, the first wave of demonstrators arrive in D.C., and one week later, Resurrection City, it’s a, a tent city, is built on the Washington Mall, a settlement of tents and shacks to house the protesters. But the campaign is hobbled by events that are beyond its control. It’s hoping for fifteen hundred protesters to come to D.C., but seven thousand come instead.

During the midst of the campaign, Robert Kennedy is assassinated. It completely distracts the government from the activists in its midst, and then the skies open up and turns Resurrection City into one big mudflat, and very quickly the escalating public health problems. There’s not enough housing and tents. There’s not enough essentially porta-potties, there’s not enough ways to feed these people. And the government, acting on concern for the activists’ health–it becomes an epidemiological nightmare–closed the camp after one month. So the Poor People’s Campaign, “We’re going to be here for three months to raise–call attention to the plight of poor folks,” becomes very successful in terms of the number of people. It overwhelms logistics, and then Mother Nature intervenes, and for the health of the people, the government closes the camp after one month. This in the midst of all these catastrophes had–happening on the international stage.

So we have at the end of 1968 a new era of national politics that beginning, that, that marks the beginning of a backlash against civil rights gains and the articulation of policies that had no explicit racial reference, who are clearly coded racially all the same. Nixon, as he’s campaigning and brokering dealing–brokering a deal with Strom Thurmond, campaigns on a law and order platform. Such a platform made plain that he would go after black radicals and, admittedly, the de–the degenerate hippies and anti-war activists who were destroying the country, in Nixon’s view. Law and order; “we’re going to get this house back in shape.”  This is the state of affairs that leads us out of the 1960s and into the 1970s. The country’s damaged, profoundly. Its confidence is shaken, and it’s about to get worse, actually. I want to play for you two clips that underscore the tenor of the time.

This is an era, you know, of, you know, of great political turmoil, but also an era of incredible cultural production, I mean, astonishing. The Beatles go from “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” no matter who they might have ripped it off from, according to Eldridge Cleaver, you know, to the incredible studio albums of the late sixties, rock n’ roll, Motown, all of these things mature in a way. This is on the stage of the most important sort of cultural consumptive moments that people had seen. But closer to the ground, you have a marriage of black activism and anger and cultural production that tells a story of despair. These are two clips by spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron. I’ll let them run into the other, one into the other. The first one is an excerpt from his performance piece called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The next one, a culture critique of economic exploitation and the, the space race, while ignoring folks on the ground, it’s called Whitey on the Moon.

[Gil Scott-Heron:] The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. 

You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  A lot of his lyrics talking about the–sorry, I can’t resist saying something–corporate capitalism, you know, talk about all these ad campaigns, the tiger in your tank referring to Exxon and talking about, what?, Scope and bad breath. I mean this is–He’s fighting against what he would consider the square corporate culture of Madison Avenue and what they’re trying to sell to the American people.

Gil Scott-Heron:  A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bills.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still
While Whitey’s on the moon.
You know, the man jus’ upped my rent las’ night,
‘cause Whitey’s on the moon.
No hot water, no toilets, no lights,
but Whitey’s on the moon.
I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?
‘cause Whitey’s on the moon?
Well I wuz already givin’ ‘im fifty a week
And now Whitey’s on the moon.
Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,
The junkies make me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is goin’ up,
An’ as if all that crap wuzn’t enough,
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an’ arms began to swell
And Whitey’s on the moon.
Was all that money I made las’ year
For Whitey on the moon?
How come I ain’t got no money here?
Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon.
Y’know I jus’ about had my fill
Of Whitey on the moon.
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special…                            To Whitey on the moon.

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  They picked an interesting moment to walk in, didn’t they?  [students laugh]  Anyway, we’re going to pick up at that moment of cultural challenge, and anger, and power when we reconvene on Monday morning. Have a great weekend.

[end of transcript]

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