Civil Rights and The Black Power Movement – Elisa Princic

Key figures in the Struggle for racial equality

The program I listened to was a panel entitled “Civil Rights and The Black Power Movement” held on November 19th, 2014. The conversation took place at the Presidential John F. Kennedy Library and museum and was held by Professor Peniel Joseph, Elaine Jones, an activist, and Professor John Stauffer and it was moderated by Kim McLarin. The main topics were the evolution of the Civil Rights struggle around the fifties and sixties in all its complexity. People need to know what African Americans have been through and fought for. What I found very interesting was their attention to those left out of the narrative. We all know and have heard about Martin Luther King Jr., but there have been so many other key figures over the years fighting for racial equality. There is still a lot of work to eliminate inequalities, and to do so we have to honor and learn about the past so that we can finish what they have started.

The years from 1954 to 1965 are called by Peniel Joseph as “the heroic years” for the Civil Rights Movement. The event that opened was Brown’s victory in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in the Supreme Court. He proved that the doctrine “separate but equal” led to nonconstitutional acts, and ended the racial segregation in schools. Although the first freedom suits were initiated around 1770 and Brown’s case didn’t end racial segregation, it led to a time of political revolution.Elaine Jones As Elaine Jones said, the strongest way to get equality is through the law, and Brown did so by recognizing the “Personhood of African Americans” (Elaine Jones). Also, as she points out, there were no black people in the Senate when the Civil Rights Act in 1965 was passed (Elaine Jones). 

The reason why we can’t simplify the movement to one big leader is that it was largely spread out. Joseph Peniel explains that multiple parts were working together: The Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, individuals in organizations like the NAACP, and people protesting down the streets.Professor John Stauffer

A key protagonist for the growth of Black abolitionism, that is later essential for the development of the movement, is David Walker. During the conversation, John Stauffer described his brilliant mechanism of sewing the pamphlet he wrote in the lines of coats so that he could share it around the State (Stauffer John). This was key for Black pride, self-determination, and political action as they later decided that they wanted to be recognized in their terms and not to adapt to white morality. After learning what black people had to face to gather and found small movements, how much they risked over time, I think David Walker’s figure is key to understand the ways within black nationalism grew, how he influenced abolitionist agitation and why soon after events like Turner’s rebellion, “Virginia’s leaders instead revised the state’s legal code to bar slaves and free blacks from preaching or even attending religious meetings without white supervision” (White, Bay, Martin Jr., 189). Since African Americans were segregated outside of the church and couldn’t participate, they instituted the Invisible Church. They believed that they were all equal under God and that gave them hope that one day they were all going to be free.

A big part that is often left out is the contribution of black women. Since from earlier periods women were discriminated against and weren’t included in discussions of slavery and Black oppression as a whole. Black women had to face multiple forms of violence. They were abused by whites, forced to have sexual intercourse with other men only to give birth to new slaves. They had to take care of their slaveholders’ houses and family, work on the fields, and look after their own children. They had to work while pregnant and supposed to be back at work right after giving birth. I admire their strength and it’s so important to remember their work behind the scenes. Because of a patriarchal society women were told to step back, pushed in the background, they were told to take care of cleaning and babies. Some of them are key protagonists during the era of uplift like Douglass or Maria W. Stuart or for the Civil Rights Movement like Ella Baker, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Committee (SNCC) and many more.

Peniel’s book, Stokely: A Life, reveals how Stokely Carmichael, even if he respects and treats women equally in his private life, publically replies that “the position of women in SNCC is prone” (Peniel, 73). This comment describes perfectly the system of patriarchy that didn’t consider women worth doing anything more than childcare or cleaning after men. 

Stokely Carmichael is another key leader who started as a moderate but was very influenced by Freedom Summer and became more radical, getting wrongly described as “Martin Luther King Jr.’s alter-ego” (Peniel). They were actually close friends, he admired his devotion to black poor people and as Peniel Joseph tells us, Stokely states he would have taken a bullet for him. Peniel JosephStokely was a key component of the SNCC, his philosophy was based on Black power and radical self-determination and was against the Vietnam war. Because of his popularity and activism he faced jail many times and proclaimed that the only way out was to step up. Following his steps, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for self defense, with the goal to stop violence from the police. Their involvement is important to understand what was aside from Martin Luther King Jr. and how the struggle continued after his assassination.

Since generations of slaves, activists, and many more fought for civil rights and racial equality, new generations shouldn’t take them for granted and hold on tight to them. There are plenty of examples of discrimination happening still nowadays like harassment by police or racial profiling. If we think that the Civil Rights Movement ended and that we are in the post-racial era,  we are never actually going to achieve racial equality.


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