Lift Every Voice
The civil rights movement wasn’t just about racial equality. It was about expanding American democracy.
Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign By Michael K. Honey • W.W. Norton • 2007 • 640 pages • $35
New Orleans After the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship and the Search for the Great Society By Kent B. Germany • University of Georgia Press • 2007 • 460 pages • $24.95
By virtue of their initial status as legal property during antebellum slavery and their disenfranchisement during the Jim Crow era, black Americans’ relationship with democracy has always been a star-crossed one. To some that may seem an obvious point, yet it goes against received ideas about the civil rights era, most often remembered as a movement to end racial segregation, restore black voting rights, and expansively redefine American democracy. It was thought of, then and now, as an era of progressive consensus, in which civil rights organizations focused wisely on issues with broad sympathetic appeal like jobs, education, housing, equal protection under the law, and police brutality. And so we remember the decade between Brown and the Voting Rights Act fondly as the civil rights movement’s heroic period, when Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Riders, and sit-ins shamed Jim Crow into submission and galvanized America’s collective democratic consciousness. Yet for all of its high drama, the conventional view of the modern civil rights movement ignores much of the harder-to-define struggles–both individual and collective–that complicate the era’s history.
For instance, while it is true that before 1965, King’s commitment to nonviolent social change galvanized large sectors of American society, during his last three years his rhetoric grew more confrontational and combative, and much of the applause and adulation receded as he repeatedly indicted a military-industrial complex that waged war internationally at the expense of poor citizens at home. For King, such indictments always grew from the same ideas that motivated his desegregation and voting-right efforts. An America that sent its poor to fight an unjust war at the expense of social programs at home could never fulfill the democratic promises of the Constitution. By the late 1960s, King challenged America to “take this rage, that’s all around us now, and transmute it into a powerful force for social transformation.” Democracy was not just about giving blacks the right to vote; it was about binding society together through active, public commitments to the lesser-off.
Moreover, for every Martin Luther King Jr., wedded to the belief that the fate of black individuals remained attached to a collective racial group destiny, there was a Ralph Ellison, who steadfastly held onto individual identity as the hallmark of American democracy. Ellison’s strident individualism was less concerned with civil rights for the collective good than with breaking down barriers that prevented individual excellence. In doing so, Ellison anticipated post–civil rights debates regarding racial symbols and representation, along with a type of rugged individualism and distrust for collective racial ideology most often identified with such contemporary black conservatives as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell.
In contrast, Black Power advocates challenged both King’s concept of a beloved community and Ellison’s aloofness to community-wide activism by embracing racial militancy as the only means toward real democracy. In the popular imagination, the Black Power era is reduced to symbols of violence, ranging from gun-wielding Black Panthers to urban riots and raised fists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But in many instances, Black Power proved to be much more than bellicose rhetoric. In cities across America, activists created local organizations and political structures that challenged civil rights advocates and liberal politicians for a more expansive definition of democracy: one that would include ex-convicts, street hustlers, and the hard-core urban poor.
King’s radicalism, Ellison’s rugged individualism, and Black Power’s (at times surprising) political pragmatism reminds us that the civil rights movement, far from being monolithic, was in actuality a mosaic of diverse voices and viewpoints. Debates over racial integration versus separatism were part of a larger conversation over how African Americans could (and would) relate to American democracy at the local, national, and international level. Civil rights was not just about joining whites; rather, it was about creating new political and cultural spaces that would put them on equal footing with whites. For some that road led to integration; for others, it meant temporary or permanent racial separatism.
If Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy inspires hopes for a new type of racial transcendence, Hurricane Katrina, the Jena 6 case, and record levels of African-American incarceration evokes the specter of America’s ugly racial past. But they all remind us that American race relations in the post–civil rights era are still defined by striking–and paradoxical–images of both racial progress and political retrenchment, images that continue to raise questions about the relationship between African Americans and the democratic ideal. Ellison, King, and Black Power activists represent three strikingly different ideas about democracy; only by understanding how they intersected and defined the black struggle from the early 1950s on can we begin to understand how the black struggle continues today.
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