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PROLOGUE When black people send a representative he is somewhat absurd because he represents no political power. He does not represent land power because we do not own any land. He does not represent economic or industrial power because black people do not own the means of production. The only way he can become political is to represent what is commonly called a military power. —Huey P. Newton, February 1970 The post–World War II American civil rights movement united disparate political and economic groups in a struggle for democratic rights and social change. Individuals and organizations, black and white, formed a united front to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson and end the legal disfranchisement and physical terror endured by millions of African American citizens. The common cause elided political, social, and philosophical differences among allies as diverse as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Americans for Democratic Action, the AFL-CIO, the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and, occasionally, the U.S. government. Civil rights organizations and African American religious, fraternal, and civic groups were primarily interested in the defeat of legal and social barriers to full participation in the American mainstream. The U.S. government, on the other hand, saw the civil rights movement primarily through a cold-war prism. This prism defined the “Negro problem” as a public relations issue that must be solved or managed for the benefit of American foreign policy. Consequently , segregation and the disfranchisement of millions of citizens were seen 2 / prologue as glaring errors in American society that hindered the government’s portrayal of itself as a champion of democracy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.1 Mainstream African American organizations, mindful of the domestic antiCommunist climate and because of their own beliefs, were careful not to challenge the democratic and free market consensus that prevailed in the United States. Consequently, critiques of capitalism were avoided for the most part. Civil rights leaders preferred to concentrate on making America live up to its promise of “freedom for all” regardless of race, creed, or color. The movement’s leaders reasoned that to achieve this goal it was first necessary to secure civil rights for African Americans as a group. Only then would it be possible for individual blacks to take advantage of their skills and education to integrate into mainstream America. The efficacy of this tactical decision seemed to be borne out by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Furthermore, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the subsequent Great Society legislation were great victories for the civil rights movement. The worldview of moderate blacks and whites was apparently validated by the liberal promise of color-blind advancement in public and private arenas. Not all African Americans were content with this political stance, however. The 1964 Harlem and 1965 Watts riots alerted the nation to new areas of racial discontent. Southern blacks had moved north and west during the great migration and World War II in search of the social justice and economic improvement that had eluded them in their birthplaces. Instead of the land of milk and honey, they found a prejudiced legal system, inferior education, employment discrimination, and slum housing. The civil rights movement’s main emphasis was initially on voting and equal access to public accommodations. This seemed distant from ghetto concerns with police brutality, jobs, and housing. In addition, some black activists were concerned with the so-called national question. In other words, what was the exact nature of black Americans’ relationship to the U.S. government? W. E. B. DuBois had argued that historically there were two schools of thought or organized programs on this issue.2 The first program argued for ceaseless agitation to achieve political rights, as well as civic and social equality. In this view blacks were citizens who had been denied their constitutional rights to equal protection of the law. The NAACP’s legal strategy and the prologue / 3 SCLC’s mass protests were intended to force the majority population and the government to redress African American grievances. DuBois referred to the second school of thought as the “back to Africa” program. Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association epitomized this ideal. The “back to Africa” idea, however, can be traced to a 1788 proposal by Philadelphia’s...


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MARC Record
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