I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement

I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement

I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement

I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement


The civil rights movement was first and foremost a struggle for racial equality, but questions of gender lay deeply embedded within this struggle. Steve Estes explores key groups, leaders, and events in the movement to understand how activists used race and manhood to articulate their visions of what American society should be.

Estes demonstrates that, at crucial turning points in the movement, both segregationists and civil rights activists harnessed masculinist rhetoric, tapping into implicit assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality. Estes begins with an analysis of the role of black men in World War II and then examines the segregationists, who demonized black male sexuality and galvanized white men behind the ideal of southern honor. Later, he explores the militant new models of manhood espoused by civil rights activists and groups such as Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panther Party.

Reliance on masculinist organizing strategies had both positive and negative consequences, Estes concludes. Tracing these strategies from the integration of the U. S. military in the 1940s through the Million Man March in the 1990s, he shows that masculinism rallied men to action but left unchallenged many of the patriarchal assumptions that underlay American society.


I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I
one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and
liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because
people refuse to see me.—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

He had no name. At least, we never knew it. Yet we knew, or thought we knew, intimate details about his life. Raised and educated in the South, he attended one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning open to African Americans early in the twentieth century. A bright, bookish young man, he had not learned a lesson that other black southerners seemed to internalize from early in their youth—that African Americans, especially African American men, had to hide their true selves behind masks of deference to whites. Expelled from school for offending one of his university's white benefactors, this man traveled to the North where he became active in the struggle for racial equality. As he rose through the ranks of an integrated civil rights organization, he honed his skills as a public speaker and activist, fighting for the rights of the dispossessed in Harlem. Then, almost without warning, the white leaders of his organization withdrew their support for him after a relatively minor dispute over movement strategy. Shorn of his position and persona as an activist, the man came to understand that it did not matter what identity he chose; others could not see him, and in some sense, he had never really been able to see himself.

Published in 1952, Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man chronicled the life of this unnamed protagonist, exploring the racial blind spot in the mind's eye of white America. In the first half of the twentieth century, racism forced African . . .

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