AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

Lecture 16

 - From Voting Rights to Watts


In this lecture, Professor Holloway revisits Malcolm X’s life in order to offer a more nuanced interpretation of the black leader than is traditionally taught. Professor Holloway links Malcolm X to a tradition of black intellectuals and political activists like Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Robert Williams, and he explores the philosophy of the Nation of Islam (NOI), the organization for which Malcolm X is the national spokesman before his split with Elijah Muhammad in 1964. In the final year of his life, prior to his assassination by NOI members in 1965, Malcolm X makes a religious journey to Mecca, rejects his prior views on race, starts the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and adopts the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In the remainder of the lecture, Professor Holloway backtracks to explore some of the other historical events that frame the civil rights movement, including Freedom Summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)

AFAM 162 - Lecture 16 - From Voting Rights to Watts

Chapter 1. Introduction: Reframing the Civil Rights Movement Iconic Figures [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Alright, why don’t we go ahead and get started. I’m going to beg your–Welcome back from spring break. I hope you all had a lovely time of it. I’ll apologize at the beginning. I have gotten sick right at the end of spring break, so if you can hear me in the back?  Is that, is that fine in the back?  Okay. I don’t have much more than this in the tank. Okay. Now, I know you’ve all done the reading for the week already and I know that you remember everything I was saying at the last minute before break, but just for my sake, I’ll just remind you that we were just wrapping up talking about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the assassination of the four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, essentially spending the time, much of our last week of lecture, dealing, dealing with these iconographic individuals and moments in Martin Luther King and the March on Washington, and trying to unravel a lot of the more familiar historiography or history around these individuals. What I want to do today is to continue in that work of reframing the Civil Rights Movement iconic figures and spend today’s lecture talking about Malcolm X.

Now a couple of caveats, maybe just one caveat, to begin with is that for this week’s, this week’s lectures are going to be overlapping themselves, so that we have today talking about Malcolm X from say, well his, his biography essentially, till his assassination in sixty-five, and then on Wednesday, we’re going to go back over the time period between roughly ‘63 and ‘65. It’s the simplest way that I know of to make sure that we handle a new understanding of, of Malcolm X, or maybe a different understanding, and also make sure we get the events on the ground that are happening at the same time. So the chronology’s overlapping.

Chapter 2. A Sampling of Malcolm X’s Famous Rhetoric [00:01:42]

Okay, with that explanation out of the way, let me begin with a sampling of Malcolm X’s famous rhetoric, and this one is following the March on Washington. So we’re talking about now in August of 1963. When asked about the March on Washington, Malcolm X replied or giving a, giving a speech–this is an excerpt from Message to the Grassroots:

“No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover. When James Baldwin came in from Paris, they wouldn’t let him talk, because they couldn’t make him go by the script. Burt Lancaster read the speech that Baldwin was supposed to make; they wouldn’t let Baldwin get up there, because they know, they know Baldwin’s liable to say anything. They controlled it so tight —— they told those negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make; and then told them to get out town by sundown. And every one of those Toms was out of town by sundown. Now I know you don’t like say–my saying this, but I can, I can back it up. It was a circus, a performance that beat anything Hollywood could ever do, the performance of the year. (Walter Reuther, labor leader) Walter Reuther and those other three devils should get a Academy Award for the best actors because they acted like they really loved negroes and fooled a whole lot of negroes. And the six negro leaders should get an award too, for the best supporting cast.”

It’s quite a statement. This is again from Message to the Grassroots, although he would respond to other people that the speech was nothing but a circus on other occasions, it’s delivered shortly before Malcolm X breaks with the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. The reading for this week, one of the readings, Malcolm X Speaks, excerpts, a collection of, of talks edited by George Brightman, are all ex–speeches from Message to the Grassroots to the end of Malcolm X’s life, a, a time period that’s rather important for reasons you’ll see as the course of the lecture–over the course of this lecture. Now Malcolm X was famous for rhetoric like referring to the March on Washington as a circus and for other, other sort of notorious, infamous statements. I want to play a couple of other excerpts, because there’s nothing like hearing the person speaking. The first is from–and I’ll let the two speeches run together. You’ll, you’ll notice the break, definitely. The first is from The Ballot or the Bullet and the second is from The Black–The Black Revolution.

[Malcolm X:]  This is why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet. It’s liberty or it’s death. It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody. America today finds herself in a unique situation. Historically, revolutions are bloody. Oh, yes, they are. They haven’t ever had a blood-less revolution, or a non-violent revolution. That don’t happen even in Hollywood. You don’t have a revolution in which you love your enemy, and you don’t have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolution destroys systems. A revolution is bloody, but America is in a unique position. She’s the only country in history in a position actually to become involved in a blood-less revolution. All she’s got to do is give the black man in this country everything that’s due him, everything. I hope that the white man can see this, because if you don’t see it you’re finished. If you don’t see it you’re going to be coming–you’re going to become involved in some action in which you don’t have a chance. And we don’t care anything about your atomic bomb; it’s, it’s useless because other countries have atomic bombs. When two or three different countries have atomic bombs, nobody can use them, so it means that the white man today is without a weapon. If you’re going–if you want some action, you’ve got to come on down to Earth. And there’s more black people on Earth than there are white people on Earth. It’ll be–it’ll be the, the ballot or it’ll be the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death. And if you’re not ready to pay that price, don’t use the word freedom in your vocabulary.”

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  That’s the end of the first clip. And the second clip begins right now.

[Malcolm X:] “We should defend ourselves. And when I say we should defend ourselves against the violence of others, that if they use their press skillfully to make the world think that I’m calling on violence period, and I wouldn’t call on anybody to be violent without a cause. But I think the black man in this country, above and beyond people all over the world, will be more justified when he stands up and starts to protect himself, no matter how many necks he has to break or heads he has to crack.”

[recording starts from beginning and you can hear the following] This is why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet.

Chapter 3. What was Unique about Malcolm X? [00:07:47]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  So it’s important to ask, when thinking about Malcolm X, and these–playing these excerpts, are we hearing a different kind of voice?  Are we hearing a different engagement or interpretation with the present moment, 1964?  Are we hearing a different agenda?  Is this what makes Malcolm X so different from Martin Luther King and other famous African American leaders?  Well, you know by now that what he’s asking for in The Ballot or the Bullet, the excerpt from the speech The Ballot or the Bullet, he’s asking for civil rights. He says there’s no need for a bloody revolution, certainly. All he’s asking is for that–for the black man what is due him, he says in the quote. Is he doing something new when he’s asking for these things?  You can go back to the Niagara Movement in 1905 and hear a lot of the same kinds of things that Malcolm X is seeking.

Okay now the Niagara Movement wasn’t calling for violence upon violence, in, in response to violence, self-defense, not that way. So one might say well he was doing something new there. But even then, no. If you look back to Robert Williams in the 1950s, head of the NAACP chapter in North Carolina, something I’ve already brought up before and in your reader, he was calling for black men to, you know, gather up their arms and respond with force. So Malcolm X is talking really in a longer tradition, certainly a long tradition of calling for full civil rights and equality, and, and speaking in a long tradition as well, although much less talked about and much less consistent really, but always there, about violent self-defense, embracing violence, if, if this is–embracing self-defense, and if that means using violence, so be it.
Now why is this lingering, worth lingering over?  It’s worth it because like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X’s life is frozen in time. We’ll be coming back next to King next week and you’ll–I’ll flesh out that statement more completely. But like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X is frozen in time. And really frozen in time incorrectly. Malcolm X’s life is encapsulated by just, you know, the phrase “By any means necessary.”  Certainly, gosh, I can’t remember how many years ago now, when Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X came out, there was just an amazing moment at the commodification of Malcolm X, embodied in really cool baseball caps with a white X on the front, or in t-shirt and such. And, you know, that’s how you kept it real, by walking around town wearing that kind of outfit, wearing Malcolm X, and his belief system, allegedly with an over–overpriced cap you’re wearing or the t-shirt. The fact is that the popularized, commodified image of Malcolm X is also one that’s out of date. In fact, by the end of his life, he was not even known as Malcolm X, and he distanced himself in an incremental fashion from a lot of his most famous declarations in the early 1960s.

Chapter 4. Who was Malcolm X? [00:11:35]

So who is then Malcolm X?  Let’s work through the biography. His birth name is Malcolm Little. He was born in 1925. He’s assassinated in February 1965, less than a year after he breaks from the Nation of Islam. Now this, this little fact is actually inconsequential, but it is funny the way we think about things, that Martin Luther King is the, you know, middle class, moderate, grownup and Malcolm X, the fiery, youthful ambassador to the Nation of Islam, in a sense. But Malcolm X is older than Martin Luther King by four years. I mean, yeah, it’s kind of inconsequential, but it actually speaks to the way in which we kind of remember these people in our minds. Both of them were very young men. So Malcolm Little is born in 1925. He’s known over the course of his life as Detroit Red, as Malcolm X most famously, and finally as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He’s a child, a middle child, of eight. His father’s a Baptist minister, and an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. There’s different versions about Malcolm X’s early life and you know, forgive me, I will, I will often use Malcolm X in this lecture, just out of old habits.

There’s not a whole bunch about Malcolm Little’s life. His father has died, either murdered by a Klan styled group in Michigan, the Black Legionnaires, or died an accidental death. In either case, Malcolm’s fatherless at age six. The family disintegrates. Malcolm Little drops out of school, moves to Boston and then to Harlem, and becomes a hustler. He’s running numbers, selling drugs, he’s pimping, and is a petty thief. During this era in his life, he’s adopted the street moniker as Detroit Red. At twenty-one–and I’ve just, and I’ve encapsulated, or sort of put parentheses around the first twenty-one years of his life in just that little biographical sketch–at twenty-one, he’s arrested and sent to prison for burglary and larceny. He’s given an eight to ten year sentence and ultimately serves six and a half years. He’s paroled in 1952, about twenty-seven years old. While he’s in prison, he has a religious conversion. He–while he’s in prison, he’s converted to the Nation of Islam, and adopts the name Malcolm X. The X is a reference to a long legacy of African Americans who were in an enslaved past who were given the master’s last name. And X is a, is a decoration that they are wiping out the slave name from their past, and they’re speaking to an unknown past, but claiming it as their own. [student sneezes] Bless you.

Anyway, Malcolm X, now, is a member of the Lost Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America. That’s the full name. The Lost Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America. It’s a religious sect founded by a rather shadowy person, we really don’t know much about him at all, named Wallace Fard, founded around 1930. Fard disappears under curious circumstances. I’ve never seen anything convince–convincing of what actually happened to Fard, but one of the people he brought into his circle before he disappears is a janitor in Detroit, Michigan, in Detroit, Michigan named Elijah Poole. Elijah Poole becomes the spiritual head of the religious organization known as the Nation of Islam and renames himself Elijah Muhammad. Now the Nation of Islam is a very unorthodox version of traditional Islam. There’s barely any connection between the two in truth, at least at that moment in time. The Nation of Islam grafts together black nationalism and some Islamic fundamentals. Elijah Muhammad teaches, through the Nation of Islam, to his disciples, his followers. That Muhammad taught–excuse me, I lost my place in my notes here.

Muhammad taught that whites were a mutant race of blue-eyed devils, created by, created by a mad black scientist to persecute black people. As the messenger of God, Elijah Muhammad would free his followers one day when Allah’s apocalyptic wrath finally destroyed whites. In the meantime, the black Muslims, followers of the Nation of Islam, the black Muslims would offer hope to blacks through self-discipline and self-help. So the Creation myth revolves around a, a crazed black scientist who fashions white to persecute blacks. Just as bizarre as any other Creation myth, I suppose, that’s out there. Anyway, this is what it is. And that black Muslims would, would be the population to help blacks through this time of struggle, through teaching self-discipline and self-help. This is one of the reasons the Nation of Islam is so traditionally–been so powerful at, or so successful at, converting people who are in prison. Teaching self discipline and self help, being those things that are most desperately needed, often, by those who are in prison, after all. Teaching race pride as well, independence.

Anyway, shortly after his release from prison, Malcolm X meets Elijah Muhammad and becomes an assistant minister in Detroit temple number one. This is where the Nation is headquartered. Malcolm X, despite the interesting ways he’s been historicized, one cannot deny the fact that he’s an incredibly charismatic speaker, powerful speaker. Elijah Muhammad recognizes this and very quickly sends Malcolm X to, to Harlem, and establishes him as the minister of the Harlem temple. And although it’s not the headquarters of the Nation of Islam, because it’s in Harlem, sort of black Manhattan, it very quickly becomes the most important temple. And Elijah Muhammad asks, asks Malcolm X to be his–the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. So very quickly, Malcolm X goes from jail to meeting Elijah Muhammad, to becoming assistant minister at the Detroit temple, to becoming the head of the Harlem temple, to becoming the spokesman for the Nation of Islam, although he’s not the head of the Nation of Islam.

Under Malcolm X’s charismatic leadership, the Nation of Islam grows exponentially. It’s really very small in the 1950s. It grows from several hundred followers to over ten thousand by the early 1960s. Still rather small, of course. As Malcolm X continues to speak and advocate, the membership grows and new temples are established. Radio stations are purchased. Stores are opened up. The Nation of Islam in their early 1960s, late fifties, early sixties, is tapping into a growing disaffection within black America, particularly urban and northern black America. This is a movement that is overwhelmingly northern at this point in time. The Steel Belt, Steel Belt, thinking along the, the northern, middle west of the United States, Ohio and Pittsburgh, heading across to Michigan, is becoming the Rust Belt, going through a period of deindustrialization. The jobs that caused blacks to migrate north to the–after the Second World War are going away and they’re stuck in crumbling ghettoes.

And the rhetorical flair of Malcolm, I’m sorry of Martin Luther King’s speeches–this is also the period of King’s greatest triumphs–aren’t doing anything to change the daily quality, quality of life for most blacks, particularly those living outside of the South. So if you’re stuck in a slum apartment in Detroit, Michigan or Chicago, Illinois, the powerful rhetoric that’s coming from King and the struggles in Birmingham, Montgomery, and other places, they aren’t putting food on your table, they aren’t changing what happens when you look for a job. Malcolm X’s rhetoric isn’t necessarily putting food on the table, but when you marry the rhetoric with the establishment of these temples and stores, Nation of Islam stores, and laundries–if you think back to Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, black owned, entrepreneurial opportunities, serving a black community–that’s what the Nation of Islam is doing as well. If you tap into—if, if you are, are listening to Malcolm X’s rhetoric and actually going to a temple, then maybe going to a store, you’re finding yourself in a community that will help you.

So Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam are tapping into something sort of festering, disillusioned urban slum dwellers. There’s growing skepticism in black America about the worth of integrating into the white mainstream, with James Baldwin famously saying, “Why would I want to integrate into a burning house?”  There’s a growing increase in support for violent methods to solve problems and a surge in nationalist sentiment among African Americans not seen since the Garvey years, since the height of the Garvey movement in the nineteen-teens and the 1920s. All of these things working together are increasing the numbers in the Nation of Islam, developing a broader support base. Now the Nation is a religious organization and was steadfast in its refusal to get involved in contemporary electoral politics, very different from Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for example, SNCC, other organizations.

The Nation is a religious organization. Had a very conservative social view, very much along the lines of Booker T. Washington’s notions of self-help. It is racially separatist. It’s not embracing any of the integrating logics of, of SNCC at that point, or NAACP, or other groups. Malcolm X, in fact, had represented Elijah Muhammad in the Nation in negotiations with the national heads of the KKK and the American Nazi Party. Thinking back to Marcus Garvey, believing that the head of the Klan was the most honest white man in America. You have the same kind of mentality being expressed in the Nation of Islam. But all is not well with the Nation of Islam either. There are whisperings, as we get into the early 1960s, that Elijah Muhammad and the allegations he’s having affairs with teenage members of the Nation, whisperings he’s actually impregnated several members of the Nation, and then publicly rebuked the same young women for fornication, never naming himself in the process and getting them thrown out of the Nation. There have been whisperings for a long time about financial improprieties, and there’s an increasing sense of frustration, certainly felt by Malcolm X, but also by other members of the Nation, that coming down from Elijah Muhammad is a steadfast refusal to get involved in the politics of the day. There’s also a tension created by the fact that Malcolm X is increasingly popular and although he’s not the leader of the Nation, because he is the spokesperson for the Nation, he is seen as embodying the Nation.

So we’re in 1963. John F. Kennedy is assassinated in November, and Malcolm X, because he is such a prominent individual in the Nation, was asked what he thought about this moment, this moment of great national tragedy, and white and black Americans are devastated that the seeming prince of a person had been cut down. And Malcolm X very famously says, “It was merely a case of the chickens coming home to roost.”  That’s a response that Malcolm X meant to use to highlight the fact that JFK lived by the sword, and he was quite a saber-rattler as a President, that he lived by the sword and therefore he was going to die by it. Whether Malcolm X’s comment made any sense or not, it was a comment that horrified the country. Elijah Muhammad saw this as an opportunity, as it turns out. He is getting feedback, whisperings as well, that Malcolm X is becoming too popular, that Malcolm X is, is growing away from the Nation and from Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad is concerned about his ability to control Malcolm X.

Chapter 5. Malcolm X Breaks Away from the Nation of Islam [00:27:34]

So Muhammad jumps on this opportunity and silences Malcolm X for ninety days, based on that comment. He was not allowed to represent the Nation of Islam and not to speak on the Nation’s behalf. Now from a standpoint of public policy, it made perfect sense. I mean, this is such a, a moment of anger, folks on the Nation of Islam, that to have anything less than silenced Malcolm X would have been, would have been seen as to support this notion of chickens coming home to roost. But the truth really does lie elsewhere in terms of Elijah Muhammad’s anxiety, growing anxiety about Malcolm X and his popularity, and also because Malcolm X had confronted Muhammad about his affairs, that he’d heard that these things were happening. He was waiting for Elijah Muhammad to refute them, and he never could. Financial improprieties, he couldn’t refute those either. During this moratorium, this ninety day silence, it becomes clear to Malcolm X that his silence, his ban on public speaking would not be lifted, and so he breaks from the Nation of Islam.

His speech, Message to the Grassroots, which I spoke from at the beginning of the lecture, it’s one of the last speeches he gives before he breaks from the Nation. And if you look back at it, you can see sort of the handwriting on the wall, because peppered throughout Malcolm X’s declarations would be, you know, that he speaks on behalf of the honorable Elijah Muhammad. “As the honorable Elijah Muhammad says,”  “The honorable, honorable Elijah Muhammad believes” this that and the other. He can’t say it in this speech. He’s growing apart. So the split becomes official in March of 1964. Malcolm X establishes a religious organization called the Muslim Mosque Incorporated, and a political organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity, thus reflecting, or creating, this two headed–or maybe these two organizations on, on separate paths. Certainly embodying a belief by Malcolm X that broad social engagement provided blacks the best chance for ending racism, not just a set of personal belief systems, but also engaging the battle on the ground. This was the political aspect of the OAAU, the Organization, Organization of Afro-American Unity that Malcolm X felt was lost–a lost opportunity for the Nation of Islam.

Before establishing the OAAU, Malcolm X makes a hajj, a religious journey to Mecca, and during that trip has a stunning change of heart on race relations. Very famously in the autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haey, you see Malcolm X talking about meeting Muslims who were whiter than the whitest person he’d seen in the United States, blue eyes and blond hair. He had a very sort of immature notion of what traditional Muslim–Islamic faith was like and what Muslims would, quote, look like, even. So whites are no longer the blue-eyed devil in Malcolm X’s view. His outlook, his political, religious, and ethical outlook, which certainly is revolutionary while he’s with the Nation of Islam, becomes increasingly anti-capitalist. And this is something we’re going to see, not just in Malcolm X’s belief system, but in other leaders’ belief systems, as we head into the mid and late 1960s. Anti-capitalist thinking and rhetoric becomes much more important and is certainly a string that ties a lot of these individuals together, although that linkage is often not talked about.

He rejects his prior views on race. He rejects the idea of black separatism. He rejects his anti-Semitism. He rejects his opposition to intermarriage. All of these are views that he espoused while in the Nation of Islam. He comes to recognize that women actually did have an important role to play in the political struggle. And he begins to accept and look for–accept the idea of and look for alliances of black organizations with other groups committed to revolutionary change. This is a complete change of heart. His prior views on race, race separatism, his, his notion of the role Jews played in the world system, his anti-Semitic views, his opposition to intermarriage, all of those are gone. Women might have a role in the struggle. Whites are no longer blue-eyed devils. There could be other organizations blacks could relate to, attach themselves to, as long as they’re working towards revolutionary change. In the end, Malcolm X acknowledged that his political views are rapidly evolving, embodied in the fact that he no longer goes by Malcolm X. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz is the name he adopts during this last conversion.

He admits, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, that–when asked, that he was hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which he thought was necessary for the liberation of black people in the United States. He didn’t know at this point what the right answer was. This is between middle of sixty-four and early 1965. Now Malcolm X is assassinated in February of 1965 by members of the Nation of Islam. There’s been rumor mills running nonstop since then about who was really behind the assassination, I mean, beyond the folks who actually pulled the triggers. But was it a man now known as Louis Farrakhan, someone scrambling for attention from Elijah Muhammad, who inspired or gave directions to the, the, the murderers?  Was it the FBI infiltrating the NOI, to find a way to assassinate Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, although he’s no longer part of the Nation of Islam?  The debate’s been going on really, I mean, through the very recent past, during bizarre sets of events that leads to some sort of reconciliation, I suppose, with Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X’s–one of his daughters or grand?–must be daughters, I suppose, and Louis Farrakhan saying that, you know, he apologizes if someone had misinterpreted his views or ideas in such a way that they might–thought it might be okay to assassinate Malcolm X, one of these squirrelly kind of apologies. Fact of the matter remains that Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is murdered February 1965.

Chapter 6. Malcolm X’s Legacy [00:36:14]

What does he leave behind?  He leaves behind no great leadership legacy, but in terms of, you know, what organization was left, what did he do, he’d broken from the organization that had defined most of his life, his adult life. The OAAU and the Muslim Mosque Incorporated at the moment of his assassination were really inchoate. His views were shifting. He couldn’t answer the question, what is going to be the most successful means to liberating black Americans?  He didn’t know the answer. But we, you know, it’s, even though he leaves no clear leadership legacy behind, can he be judged by normal standards of his leadership–by normal standards of leadership?  His martyrdom, as it turns out, gives him–gave him his legitimacy. Critics have said that his emotionalism, his powerful rhetoric, that he, he relied on it to win his cases and it’s also an emotionalism that, four years down the line, three and four years down the line, lent themselves perfectly well to the orthodoxies of the late 1960s, something we’ll see in next week’s reading, Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice.

So his ideas were, you know, the, the, you know, the phrase is sort of nonsensical, you know, a person ahead of his time, the ideas that become popularized, that were popular when Malcolm X was alive, become popularized after his death, become the vehicle for establishing sort of a logic, organizational logic, for groups, that really don’t even exist when Malcolm X is alive. Now martyrdom, certainly a major element of the Civil Rights Movement. In the time that remains, I want to actually segue from this Malcolm X biography and, because we have so much to cover on Wednesday, shift gears a little bit and start talking about events going backward over the last couple of years of Malcolm X’s life, that spring from the, the phenomenon, the phenomena of martyrdom, what it does for people, or for a race in this case. This is an era of martyrdom, you have Kennedy assassinated, November 22nd, 1963. Then Johnson’s now the President and calls for the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Act, something that was simmering on the table at the moment of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And Johnson commits himself for the rest of his time in office to fulfilling Kennedy’s legacy on this agen–on this score. That’s in sixty-three.

Little earlier than that, before Kennedy was assassinated–and this gets us to, if time permits, right to this moment of this, a sec–another martyrdom, the Students–Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, starts working on voter registration drives and organizes with other, with other, gathers together with other organizations to have what’s called a freedom vote, the fall of sixty-three. Plans are developed sixty-two for the fall of sixty-three, with the goal of proving one, that blacks are interested in voting. This is all happening in Mississippi, an important fact I just left out. I just remembered, sorry. The goal is to prove that blacks are interested in voting and to develop the practice for the eventual day when blacks in Mississippi might get the right to vote, helping develop the culture of voting for blacks in Mississippi. This turns into Freedom Summer, 1964. So now again we’re back after King’s assass–Kennedy’s assassination.

The goal of the Freedom Summer of sixty-four is to organize a real party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, to establish freedom schools throughout Mississippi, sites literally of training Mississippi youth the basics of education, literacy being one of the basic elements of freedom schools, but also creating community centers for poor blacks to come to get food, to get clothing, and also to develop a political consciousness about the future–about the present, thinking about the future. In June of sixty-four, June twentieth, first wave of recruits comes down to help make Freedom Summer a reality. It’s people your age, people from Yale who are your age, are among the recruits, quite famously, a lot of them, coming from college campuses in the North and the Midwest and the West coast, coming to Mississippi to try to create real change in Mississippi, in, in Mississippi. On June twenty-first, the day after Mississippi Freedom Summer begins,  three workers disappear, Freedom Party workers. Andrew Goodman, a twenty-year-old from New York City, Michael Schwerner, a twenty-five-year-old from Brooklyn, and James Chaney, a twenty-one-year-old black Mississippian. Two white men and one black man.

They’re arrested for speeding, a fairly common offense used by the police. Speeding, you know it didn’t matter what speed you were actually going; they just arrested you for it. They were released that night, but understanding that, in Mississippi, they’re dealing with infrastructure of police terror. The organizers for the meet–Mississippi Freedom Summer had a process that if you, if you get arrested at all, that you check in. If you’re out in the field, you check in at normal intervals. Well, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney did not check in at the appointed time, or within fifteen minutes of the appointed time. This sends out alarms. Compressing a lot of history here, but based on their disappearance, LBJ sends in sailors, Navy divers, to start drag–dredging swamps, looking for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. There’s no doubt that they were killed. They’ve just go to find them now. What is quite horrific in the process of looking for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney is that the divers don’t find them, but they start pulling up other black bodies that had long gone missing in Mississippi and in other states.

Quite a state of affairs. During the summer, up in Washington, D.C., there’s frantic attempts to organize the Congress, to break filibusters in the Senate, to get the Civil Rights bill signed into law. And on July 2nd, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson, Lyndon Johnson succeeds. It’s the most far reaching Civil Rights bill in history at that point, and it gives the attorney general tremendous power. And the power, essentially, to enforce what is already on the books in many places. It provides for full access in places of public accommodation, establishes a permanent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It says there’s going to be no discrimination in federally funded programs, something that really becomes important, I mean it’s important immediately, but becomes part of the debate in the–up to our present day, in fact. Now the Civil Rights Act signed into law in July sixty-four, it’s largely irrelevant to Mississippi blacks. Despite all the work of the Mississippi Freedom Summer activists, and their success at establishing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, essentially an alternative to the Democratic Party in Mississippi, the fact is, the chance for blacks to actually vote through, quote, normal channels, official channels, is essentially nonexistent.

Still in the summer, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney have been disappeared, the Civil Rights bill is passed but is meaningless to Mississippi. There are fights within Mississippi’s state delegation, within the state government, about trying to silence the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Democrats are heading towards a convention in August for the Democratic Party. The question is bubbling about what is going to happen in Mississippi, which group of delegates are going to be recognized. Will it be the official delegates of the Democratic Party in Mississippi or will it be the delegates of the Freedom Democratic Party?  LBJ is facing a threat that five other southern states would walk away if the Democratic Party–from the convention if the Democratic Party from Mississippi, the “official delegation,” is not seated at the convention. And on August fourth, three weeks before the convention, the bodies of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney are found in an earthen dam, near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The bodies are riddled with thirty-eight caliber bullets. Chaney, sole black man, his head is, I’m sorry, his skull is fractured. He had suffered a savage beating. Mississippi law refused to allow the three men to be buried side by side, as they wished, as their families wished. Chaney had to be buried in a segregated cemetery. Eventually, twenty-one whites are arrested, including the deputy sheriff, all released by a state court. Eventually, six put on–into jail for violating federal civil rights laws, are given three to six years. David Dennis, the head of Mississippi’s CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, when asked to give a eulogy for James Chaney, agrees to do so and to give a calming eulogy. When he gets in front of the crowd, in this moment of profound emotional turmoil and political turmoil, wrestling with the martyrdom of these three men, he snaps and says something quite off the script, and that’s exactly where we’ll pick up on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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