2013 Winner - First-Year Essay
A Dream Not Yet Reached: Beyond the Civil Rights Movement
The prevailing historical narrative of the Sixties Civil Rights Movement is one which has tried to smooth complexities, ignore unsettling implications, and in short, simplify and beautify a history wrought with issues that would otherwise still grind at the deepest conscience of America. It has tried to transform a sprawling amalgam of events and struggles, groups and leaders, conflicting opinions and interests into a neat package tied up with neat legislation, an unequivocal success. The average modern textbook does not dispute President Lyndon Johnson’s claim that with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “the last major shackle of . . . fierce and ancient bonds” had been removed for blacks in America (qtd. in “Where?” 2). The leading black voices of the Sixties, those who were integrally involved in the fight for black equality, disagree, unanimously and vehemently.
This is not to say that black civil rights leaders considered the cornerstone legislative reforms of the era, namely the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to be useless. As Martin Luther King, Jr. admits, America “has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change,” and “Substantial progress has been made in the South” (“Where?” 5, 13). But he also says that the passage of the Voting Rights Act was just “one phase of development in the civil rights revolution” (“Where?” 3). Malcolm X echoes this lack of satisfaction with civil rights legislation alone, writing, “A desegregated cup of coffee, a theater, public toilets - the whole range of hypocritical ‘integration’ - these are not atonement” (370). Well after desegregation and voting rights laws were on the books, black leaders recognized that many hurdles still stood in the way of true equality, supported by centuries of oppression. The most grave of obstacles were the cycle of poverty in which an undue proportion of blacks were trapped, the fundamental dependence of American capitalism on racism, and the unwillingness even of the mainstream white liberals in power to meaningfully challenge this status quo of black oppression. The resounding message of African American seekers of equality in the Sixties, even after legislative attempts at justice, was that there was much more work to be done to eradicate racism and create an America in which blacks and whites could live as equals. One of the more disturbing truths of today’s so called “post-racial society” is that contrary to popular belief, this work has not been completed.
The plague of poverty has maintained a relentless presence in much of the black community for all of American history. King sums up the unequal share of poverty held by the Sixties black man in America with the phrase, “Of the good things in life he has approximately one-half those of whites; of the bad he has twice those of whites” (“Where?” 6). He points out that “half of all Negroes live in sub-standard housing, and Negroes have half the income of whites.” Further, he writes that in black populations “There are twice as many unemployed,” and even among those that are working, “75 percent hold menial jobs” (“Where?” 6, 7). In the most damning evidence against the assumed equality of modern America, poverty statistics from 2009 reveal that black Americans still have on average only about 60% the income of whites, along with nearly twice the rate of unemployment (Conaway; Ryssdal). In these areas, the vast financial gulf between black and white has barely changed, more than forty years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X refers to “the unemployment, bad housing, and inferior education already in the ghettoes” of the Sixties as an “explosively criminal condition” (366). Were he able to witness the lack of progress on these fronts even today, he would rage at the fact that society’s crimes have been left uncorrected. With such a striking contrast between the economic lives of blacks and whites in America, full equality is still a distant dream.
Black leaders of the era are quick to point out that the civil rights reforms of the Sixties did nothing to address this issue of black poverty. As the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman Stokely Carmichael states, “integration speaks not at all to the problem of poverty, only to the problem of blackness” (264). Perhaps such integration, when properly implemented, is a sincere attempt to subvert racism in American consciousness. But to Carmichael, the busing of a few black students into white schools or the moving of a few black families into predominantly white suburbs “has no relevance to the Harlem wino or to the cottonpicker making three dollars a day” and does not change the fact that the black schools and neighborhoods they left behind are tragically underfunded or in poor condition (264). For all the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, it did not result in the economic improvements desperately needed by African Americans in their fight for equality.
Of those that are even aware of the lasting wealth gap between blacks and whites in America, a large portion stoops to the belief that those who are poor are poor simply because they are not trying hard enough to be successful. The deeper truth, voiced by many of the black leaders of the Sixties, is that American capitalism has been inextricably tied to racism since its inception. King notes, “It is important to recognize that the basis for the birth, growth, and development of slavery in America was primarily economic” (“Racism” 71). Slavery was established for the simple fact that unpaid labor allowed capitalists to incur greater profit. It was not until slavery became common practice, King says, that theories arose attempting to establish the innate superiority of whites over blacks, as now “men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable” (“Racism” 72). Black activist James Boggs goes further, writing “This kind of systematic oppression of one race by another was unknown to mankind in the thousands of years of recorded history before the emergence of capitalism 400 years ago” (148). He is effectively arguing that capitalism created modern racism, the only form of mass prejudice which fabricated a system of scientific and moral justifications to insure the continued exploitation of one race by another, since the system was fundamentally dependent on that exploitation for success.
When slavery was outlawed, “the scientifically cloaked theory of white superiority and black inferiority” did not disappear (Boggs 149). With the removal of the chains of slavery, the white power structure left blacks “with no bread to eat, no land to cultivate, no shelter to cover their heads,” and was actually invested in keeping them in this condition (“Racism” 79). Boggs writes in 1969 of “a horizontal platform resting on the backs of blacks and holding them down, while on top white workers have been free to move up the social and economic ladder of advancing capitalism” (152). American capitalistic growth, well after slavery, was contingent upon maintaining a lower class of blacks. Poverty-stricken African Americans were needed to take the necessary low paying jobs and occupy the obsolete “used homes, used schools, used churches, and used stores,” inevitable waste products of expansionist capitalism which would otherwise cease to produce profit (Boggs 155). In this way, even the poorest of whites were granted economic mobility since there was a class of people below them willing to perform cheap labor and consume outdated cheap goods. The machine of capitalism could only continue at its current rate of growth if poor African Americans were kept in poverty, and this is exactly what occurred. When King calls for a “radical revolution of values” and Stokely Carmichael claims that “For racism to die, a totally different America must be born,” they are expressing the need for drastic reforms to the American form of capitalism so entrenched in racism (“Declaration” 436; Carmichael 264). Laws such as those banning discrimination in employment considerations have been passed, but fundamentally, capitalism in the United States has been unchanged since the Sixties. Unsurprisingly, a lower class of minorities is therefore still present.
Perhaps the most unfortunate truth recognized by many of the Sixties black leaders was the tendency even of most apparently progressive Americans to resist meaningful changes to society. King writes of the “strange ambivalence” of mainstream white America which, on the surface, claimed to recognize the evils of racism (“Racism” 83). But most whites were unwilling to address issues beyond desegregation and voting rights, changes which required no financial investment from those in power. They did not, as Malcolm X says, “have it in them to make any serious atonement - to do justice to the black man” (370). Black poverty, the most relevant aspect of racial inequality, would require a level of commitment and sacrifice from white America that it was unwilling to meet. Priorities would have to be shifted, budgets redefined, money redistributed from programs of war to programs against poverty. Surprisingly, King implicates most of all the white liberal segment of society, “a leading voice in the chorus of social transition” that was tragically “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” and who preferred “tranquillity to equality” (“Racism” 88). Carmichael agreed with this allocation of blame, writing of “whites who will not accept their responsibility as the majority power for making the democratic process work” (266). The white liberals in power at the time were potentially the most valuable allies to the politically voiceless blacks in America. Instead, they condescendingly attempted to tutor them on the need for slow, gradual change that wouldn’t upset the status quo too violently. Malcolm X referred to these halfhearted actions as “the steady lullabys sung by foxy liberals,” designed to present the illusion of change while power remained securely in the hands of whites (374).
In 1967, King wrote that “a sound resolution of the race problem in America will rest with those white men and women who consider themselves as generous and decent human beings” (“Racism” 89). He recognized the necessity of mainstream white involvement in the fight for black equality because that was where political power was concentrated. So did white America accept the responsibility thrust upon it by King? And perhaps more importantly, do mainstream Americans today, even those who label themselves as politically progressive, truly possess a commitment to equality? Once again, the enduring economic discrepancy between black and white Americans must be considered in answering these questions. The startling lack of improvement in this area is another case of society’s seeming willingness to address Carmichael’s “problem of blackness” without rectifying the “problem of poverty” for black Americans, as this would affect the pocketbooks, and therefore the share of power, held by white America (264). Just as those in power in the past refused to fully answer King’s rallying call in the struggle for equality, there is no significant societal thrust today for equal economic opportunity regardless of race. Wealth inequality remains as starkly divided along racial lines as it was in the Sixties, and not even the modern liberals in power show any serious inclination to combat it. It seems that the “bonds to the status quo” are just as strong now as they were when King wrote those words in 1967 (“Where?” 5).
The Civil Rights era is vastly misunderstood. Conventionally, it is seen as the time when America finally triumphed over racism, living up to its promise of equality through legislative remedies that ended segregation and assured voting rights for blacks. But racial inequities were more deeply entangled in American society than such a rosy view of reality would permit. As black leaders of the time recognized, severe poverty remained an unconquered obstruction to black progress, the American system of “expansion by all means necessary” (Boggs 159) was determined to maintain racial class divides, and the vast majority even of seemingly liberal white “allies” refused to meaningfully address these issues that only they had the political power to address. In a further simplification of truth, the Civil Rights struggle is traditionally treated as something separate from current American society. The alarming specter of largely unimproved wealth inequality between the races, along with the lack of a widespread desire to change this, profoundly undermines that perception. The black voices of the Sixties, who have, as King said, “taken white Americans at their word when they talked of [equality] as an objective,” are still echoing in modern America, perhaps encouraged, but still unsatisfied by the state of race relations as they exist today (“Where?” 8). There remains work to be done before this nation, which has elected a black president, can truthfully say that it treats all of its black citizens with the human dignity that full equality demands.
Boggs, James. “Uprooting Racism and Racists in the United States.” 1969. Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970. 146-160. Print.
Carmichael, Stokely. “What We Want.” New York Review of Books (22 Sept. 1966). “Power and Racism.” Rpt. in The Sense of the 60’s. Ed. Edward Quinn and Paul J. Dolan. New York: The Free Press, 1968. 260-270. Print.
Conaway, Laura. “Chart: American Income By Race.” Planet Money. NPR, 22 Sept. 2009. Web. 18 Mar. 2013
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam.” Riverside Church, New York. 4 Apr. 1967. Rpt. in Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America. Ed. Lillian Schlissel. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968. 426-438. Print.
---. “Racism and the White Backlash.” Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967. 67-101. Print.
---. “Where Are We?” Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967. 1-22. Print.
Malcolm X. “1965.” The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1965. 364-382. Print.
Ryssdal, Kai. “Wealth gap grows between black and white in U.S.” Marketplace. American Public Media, 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.