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GRIID Class on US Social Movements – Part II: The Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle

February 4, 2021

Over the next 8 weeks, we will be posting a summary of the class we are facilitating on US Social Movements. These posts will include a summary of the discussion, the questions we presented to frame each social movement that is discussed, a timeline and additional books that are relevant to each movement.

For the second class on US social movements, we discussed chapter 17 from Zinn’s book on the Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle, a chapter entitled, “Or Does It Explode?” The chapter begins with a powerful poem by Langston Hughes. However, many of the participants commented on how similar the current Black Lives Matter movement is so similar to what was happening in the 50s, 60s and 70s. We discussed the similarities and the differences, and several people pointed out how systems of power and oppression have figured out more effective means of repression, while promoting diversity.

Some people commented on how heartbreaking all of this information was, which is a very normal and human response to systemic oppression. We also did discuss the amazing courage and commitment of this movement, from the work of people like Ida B. Wellls to Ella Baker, Dr. King to Fred Hampton, along with the countless individuals who participated in the Freedom Rides, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Deacons for Defense, the Poor People’s Campaign and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

In the class we used a timeline of the 20th Century, which had critical points of the Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle on the top, along with other important aspects of that century, which were connected to this struggle, which were listed on the lower half of the timeline shown here.

In addition, each of the participants were provided with a list of questions to help frame and facilitate a more focused discussion. We will list all 8 of the questions and a brief overview of what was discussed for each question.

  1. What are the systems of power and oppression that existed during the period of history being discussed, and more importantly, what were the systems of power and oppression that the social movement was confronting, challenging or seeking to dismantle? People responded to this question with the idea that people were fighting for greater equality and against segregation, but also that there was a growing sense during the evolution of the movement that equality and anti-segregation were not enough and that a broader sense of racial justice, equity and abolition of White Supremacy became the work of campaigns like the Poor People’s Campaign, SNCC, the Black Panthers, the League of Revolutionary Workers in Detroit and so many others who moved to adopt more militant direct action responses.
  2. What else was happening in the country or around the world that may have influenced how both the systems of power/oppression and the social movement responded? People talked about the anti-Colonial Movements around the world and how that influenced what was happening in the US. Again, the post-WWII Universal Declaration of Human Rights framework was important, plus US imperialism displayed in Vietnam, which got people to ask the fundamental question – why should I fight for so-called freedom abroad, when I don’t have it here. The example of boxing greater Muhammad Ali was discussed and his act of draft resistance. There was also some discussion about how Neo-liberall Capitalism was gutting public funding, along with the simultaneous shift from the war on poverty to the war on crime and the war on drugs, which were both designed to suppress Black dissent.
  3. In what way(s) did the social movement organize itself. Centralized, decentralized, autonomous, etc? Here, people did acknowledge that the movement was fairly decentralized and autonomous, except for larger actions like the 1963 March on Washington  or the Poor People’s Campaign, which needed greater buy-in for these actions/campaigns from organizations all across the country.
  4. What were the goal(s), strategies and tactics of the social movement? It was difficult for people to identify one goal, but people did have a good discussion about the shift from civil rights to human rights, since human rights go further than the concept of civil rights. There were numerous strategies employed during this period, from education, coalition building, training in tactics, and direct action. Tactics included boycotts, marches, sit-ins, riots, voter registration, creating new political parties, civil disobedience, and self-defense. 
  5. How did the system of power/oppression push back against the demands and gains made by the social movement? The system pushed back by adopting repressive programs like COINTELPRO, using infiltrators, pressuring groups to not be too militant, withholding funding, jailing people, using surveillance and the creation of non-profits as a means of diverting revolutionary energy to a more managed professionalism. There was additional discussion around how large foundations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations were giving lots of money away to get movements to shift from direct action to adopting a more social service model. 
  6. Were their intersectional aspects of the struggle the social movement was engaged in? There was always a race, class and gender critique within the aspects of the Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle. In addition, people identified the Vietnam War Resistance and how the draft impacted the Black Community, the formation of the original Rainbow Coalition and the growing emphasis on economic issues, even challenging Capitalism.
  7. How did the social movement impact other existing or future social movements? The Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle clearly influenced the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Movement, the Young Lords and the anti-war movement. People also talked about how the current Black Lives Matter Movement has been influenced by the Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle, although the current movement is not simply mimicking this period, instead the Black Lives Matter Movement is more committed to an abolitionist framework. 
  8. How was the social movement compromised or co-opted, and by which external forces were they compromised or co-opted? Again, people discussed the role of non-profits, some of the more mainstream civil rights groups and even partisan politics, which did little to advance the goals of the Civil Rights Movement/Black Freedom Struggle.

Additional reading resources:

Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, by Barbara Ransby

How Long? How Long?: African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights, by Belinda Robnett

Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, by Dan Berger

We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1960-1975, by Muhammad Ahmad

Radio Free Dixie: Robert Williams & the Roots of Black Power, by Timothy Tyson

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, by Lance Hill

Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America, by Wesley Hogan

Hillbilly Nationalists: Urban Race Rebels and Black Power, by Amy Sonnie and James Tracey

The Black Panthers Speak, by Philip Foner

When Affirmative Action Was White, by Ira Katznelson

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, by Naomi Murakawa

Creating A Movement with Teeth: A Documentary History of the George Jackson Brigade, edited by Daniel Burton Rose

The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream, by Gary Younge

Lessons From Freedom Summer: Ordinary People Building Extraordinary Movements, by Kathy Emery, Linda Reid Gold & Sylvia Braselmann

A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, by Jeanne Theoharis

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, by James Loewen

Detroit I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution, by Dan Georgakas & Marvin Surkin

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein

Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, by Michael Honey

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, by Mumia Abu-Jamal

The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy Tyson

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, by Walter Rodney

Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969 – 1986, by Michael Staudenmaier

Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, by Sandra Gunning

Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, by James Cone

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, by Elizabeth Hinton

Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the US Political Crisis Began in Detroit, by Scott Kurashige

Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, by James Whitman

This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles Cobb

Black Power : The Politics of Liberation, by Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton


Negroes with Guns

King in the Wilderness

Freedom Riders

I Am Not Your Negro

The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975

Slavery by Another Name

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