Where from Here? Ideological Perspectives on the Future of the Civil Rights Movement, 1964-1966

By Burrell, Kristopher | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Where from Here? Ideological Perspectives on the Future of the Civil Rights Movement, 1964-1966


Burrell, Kristopher, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction and Literature Review

Unfortunately, the dominant narrative of the civil rights struggle still rests, in part, on the premise that the integrationist racial liberalism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the separatist black nationalism of Malcolm X were the only significant strands of black thought between 1954 and 1965 (Theoharis and Woodard, 2003, p. 2). This false binary, which still shapes popular understandings of the era, obscures the myriad perspectives black intellectuals held during the mid-1960s. Thus, it is more useful to speak of a "spectrum" of black intellectual thought because it allows scholars to more easily grasp that there was a range of ideological perspectives among blacks-- from conservative to socialist--like the blended, yet distinct colors of a rainbow. Historically, black intellectuals have never thought in a singular fashion. Neither have they confined themselves to only two ways of seeing the world.

Constructing black thought in this bipolar way also maintains other false binaries that recent scholars have been working to break down. Namely, that the civil rights movement suddenly shifted northward and became more urban, angry, and less-deserving of public support after 1965. And that the northern movement represented a distinct break from the rural, southern, and more moral movement of the previous decade (Theoharis and Woodard, 2003, pp. 5-7; Singh, 2004, pp. 5-11). Scholars of the civil rights movement in the South have often characterized it as springing entirely from the types of social, political, and economic structures considered to have been present only in the South. However, conceptualizing the movement as a solely southern phenomenon introduces severe limits for effectively analyzing the trajectory of the black freedom struggle in other regions of the country. It becomes much easier to dismiss the existence of civil rights activism in the North and more difficult to produce an accurate historical narrative of the black freedom struggle.

In the last twenty years scholars have hammered away at the argument that there was no northern civil rights movement before 1965 and, therefore, no significant relationship between what was happening in the South and in the North (Countryman, 1996; Sugrue, 1996, 2008). Books such as Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980, edited by Jeanne E Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (2003), for example, explicitly dispel the "southern paradigm" in civil rights movement scholarship. They argue that our typical ways of thinking "miss the systems of racial caste and power--pervasive and entrenched across the North--that denied people of color equitable education, safe policing, real job opportunities, a responsive city government, regular sanitation services, quality health care, and due process under the law" (p.3).

Examining the movement in the North and from an ideological perspective also allows for a better understanding of why, and how, Black Power ideology gained more traction throughout the country by the mid-1960s. Indeed, "black power" did not merely spring fully formed into the consciousness of black people in 1966. By the mid-1960s, however, the movement's legislative successes, the increasing difficulty that liberals were having plotting the future direction of the movement, continuing grinding poverty, systematic discrimination in black ghettoes throughout the country, and the political challenges to liberalism in the wider society combined to allow for Black Power to gain more adherents in urban areas throughout the country (Joseph, 2006, p. 3).

Therefore, this article takes ideology seriously, arguing that there were four major political ideologies present among black intellectuals during the civil rights era: socialism, racial liberalism, black nationalism, and black conservatism. Through their application by Bayard Rustin, Kenneth Clark, Malcolm X, and George Schuyler, each of these ideological perspectives influenced the proposals put forth to achieve racial equality in the United States. …

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