East St. Louis, 1917: Race Riot
Mob Stopping Street Car, East St. Louis Riot, July 2, 1917
Whites are protesting the employment of blacks. The whites call in the militia and police. Lieutenant Arbuckle of the United States Army Reserve Corp is in East St. Louis on business on July 2. He sees whites burning railway cars in yards…members of the militia of Illinois shooting blacks. He sees policemen of East St. Louis shooting blacks. He sees mobs go to the homes of blacks and nail boards over the doors and windows and then set fires and burn them up. He sees the whites take little children out of the arms of their mothers and throw them into the fires and burn them up.
Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, To Serve the Devil, I: 175
New York, 1917: Silent Parade of Protest
The 1917 Silent March
It is July 28 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is waging an effective campaign against lynching. The little children, dressed in white, are leading them. Behind them march the women in white followed by the men in black, the color of mourning. Although silent, they carry their words of protest on banners and streamers.
Just before the American flag is a cloth banner with sewn letters: Your hands are full of blood.
The children carry signs: Mother, do lynchers go to heaven? Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?
On Fifth Avenue, twenty thousand African American feet walk for justice.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 349
Effects of World War I
World War I soldiers
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
Many African Americans fought in World War I. Although the army was segregated and they suffered many of the same abuses and name-calling they endured in the United States, there was a change in them when they returned home after being told they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy. The contradictions of their own unjust situation became much clearer. They came home to poverty, discrimination, and the resurgence of white hatred.
Something had to give. And in 1919 it did as the nation exploded into twenty-six different outbreaks of racial violence.
Valdosta, Georgia, 1918: Lynching
The white mob hangs Mary Turner from a tree. A couple of them douse her with gasoline and motor oil. Another takes a match. When she has finished burning, a man steps forward with a pocket knife and slits open her abdomen. Out tumbled the prematurely born child. Two feeble cries it gave—and received for the answer the heel of a stalwart man, as life was ground out of the tiny form.
During this year, whites lynch sixty people.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 352
When Jean Toomer visited Sparta, Georgia in 1921, echoes of the gruesome lynching of Mary Turner and the rash of eleven other lynchings that followed were still resonating, surrounding the black population of the nearby areas in a haze of fear and paranoia. It was in this setting that Toomer composed a collection of stories that comprised the novel Cane. In one of these stories, "Kabnis," an NAACP report's account of Mary Turner is recreated with few alterations, depicting the brutal execution of Mame Lamkins at the hands of a lynch mob.
They killed her in the street, an some white man seein’ the risi’n in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any cow, took an ripped her belly open, an the kid fell out. It was living, but a nigger baby ain’t supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it and stuck it to a tree. And then they all went away.
France, 1918: Secret Orders
New York's 369th Regiment Arrives Home from France
Three of the four all-black regiments fighting in World War I receive the Croix de Guerre for valor. U.S. military policy arrest black soldiers for walking down the street with French women.
Secret orders from General Pershing’s headquarters to the French Mission:
- We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers….We cannot deal with them [black officers] on the same plane as with the white American officer without deeply wounding the latter. We must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside of the requirements of military service.
- We must not commend too highly the American troops, particularly in the presence of [white] Americans….
- Make a point of keeping the native cantonment population from “spoiling” the Negroes. [White] Americans become greatly incensed at any public expression of intimacy between white women and black men.
Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower, 348-349
United States, 1919
Black troops come home after fighting what they were told was “the war to make the world safe for democracy.” This year there are seventy-six lynchings. Segregation is everywhere. In the South black sharecroppers are enslaved by a debt system that keeps whites in power. The Ku Klux Klan is resurging. What could not be won with silent protest or rational debate spills into the streets of America.
Poet Claude McKay, part of what is to be called the Harlem Renaissance, writes:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs,
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock of our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die….
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Twenty-six race riots explode throughout the country.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 353; Vincent Harding, The Other American Revolution, 105
1919: Red Summer
Omaha Courthouse Lynching of 1919
Historian Vincent Harding summarizes the atmosphere of 1919:
From Charleston, South Carolina, to Longview, Texas, from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, Illinois, black and white people went to war on the streets. There were various specific occasions: the taunting attacks of arrogant white servicemen; the movement of white mobs against black people; the violent reaction of whites to the continuing black search for a place to live and breathe.
Most often the initial intention of the whites was the same: to invade the black community, to attempt another slaughter, another scorched earth. But in 1919, the outcome was different; a new stage in history had been reached.
Throughout the nation that spring and summer, thousands of black people decided to fight back, to move out into the streets against the white aggressors. Often they pressed on to carry the offensive against their historic oppressors. Especially in Washington and Chicago, the fighting was fierce and extensive.
Black men set up roadblocks of wood, bricks, and concrete on the streets of their communities! Both blacks and whites used cars of armed men to roar like armed military vehicles through the opposite communities. Black snipers operated from the windows of houses. Bands of attackers swooped down on persons of the opposite race who happened into their territory. Everywhere, black veterans played a central role in the fighting, often using weapons they had managed to smuggle back into the black community, weapons as large as machine guns. In Chicago, it lasted for almost a week, spreading over much of that sprawling city (Harding, 104-105).
A New Form of Resistance
John Jacob Lawrence’s painting depicting migration north
The resistance of blacks in the South took another form as the new century began. They simply left the area. In 1910 the first wave of black migration came north. During that decade 300,000 blacks moved, mostly to the large urban areas of Chicago, Detroit, and New York. From 1920 to 1930 the second wave of 1,300,000 came north. The third wave in the 1940s of 2,500,000 completed the largest migration in U.S. history.
Montgomery, Alabama, 1955: Front of the Bus
Arrest of Rosa Parks
A few weeks earlier she was at a leadership training workshop at Highlander Folk School in the Tennessee Mountains. Rosa Parks is a seamstress by trade, quiet but determined. When she boards the bus that night after a long day at work, she doesn’t feel defiant, just tired. But when the bus driver tells her to move to the back of the bus so that a white can sit in her seat, she refuses. She is arrested and the women of Montgomery swing into action.
Jo Ann Gibson Robinson hears about the arrest and realized that now is the time for action. For a year, she and other women have been planning a bus boycott, just waiting for the right moment. That moment has now arrived. She mimeographs the first leaflet calling for a boycott. She and other women convince the black Montgomery pastors to lead it. The women organize carpools, raise money, negotiate with the white authorities, pass out leaflets; in short, do all the behind the scenes activities that make the boycott work.
For over a year they walk miles to work, car pool, sing, and encourage each other to keep from losing hope. By the end, a black person can sit wherever he or she wants to on the bus.
A young preacher who was thrown into leadership of the boycott becomes known outside of Montgomery. His name—Martin Luther King, Jr.
See Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It
Greensboro, 1960: Sit-in
Late Monday afternoon, February 1, four black freshmen from North Carolina A & T take seats at a downtown Woolworth’s lunch counter. They ask for service but receive none. When the counter closes they return to campus.
The following morning thirty students return and occupy half of the lunch counter. They stay for two hours without being served. The next day they return, filling all sixty-six seats at the counter. They are now national news, inspiring sit-ins all across the South. In some places ice cream sundaes are poured over the protestors’ heads and they have to endure insults, taunts, and violence. Most protestors keep their poise and their sense of humor.
A waitress tells a pair of sit-inners, I’m sorry, but we don’t serve Negroes here. Oh, we don’t eat them either, comes the reply.
Claybourne Canon, In Struggle, 11-12
The Black Freedom Movement Continues
Mississippi Freedom School
The Black Freedom Movement surged forward from 1956 to 1972. The energy of resistance that young African Americans mobilized during that period has rarely been equaled in U.S. history.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its historic Brown vs. the Board of Education case, said that it was illegal to segregate schools according to race. In 1956 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, igniting a bus boycott that lasted over a year and began what has been called the civil rights movement.
In 1960 four North Carolina A & T students sat in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. They returned with more students until they were finally served. As a tactic, the sit-ins spread like wildfire across the South. In that year alone fifty thousand protestors carried out sit-ins in seventy-eight communities, resulting in two thousand arrests.
The sit-ins were spontaneous eruptions of pent-up anger over decades of injustices. By themselves they had no direction. Since most were organized by students, Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference brought together some of the leaders, and they founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was to play a role in the future of deepening and advancing the Black Freedom Movement beyond the immediate goals of civil rights.
Jackson, Mississippi, 1961: Freedom Rides
Freedom Riders Bus Burned
The whites firebomb a bus full of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Georgia. White mobs regularly beat riders as they leave the buses. But Parchman State Penitentiary is reserved for the real criminals—the Freedom Riders themselves. They have all of their belongings taken. Strip searched, they are put under maximum security. When they begin singing the guards threaten to take away their mattresses. They keep singing and the guards take the mattresses.
They write freedom songs: Woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom….The guards take their sheets. They keep singing. The guards take their toothbrushes and towels. They keep singing, getting louder all the time.
They sleep for three nights on steel springs without covers and with cold air deliberately blown on them.
And in the morning when they awaken after restless, sleepless nights, their minds are set on freedom….
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, 54-55
James Farmer, one of the founders of CORE
In 1961 the initiative passed to the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) as they initiated freedom rides in the South, reviving a tactic used in 1947. Under federal law, it was illegal to have segregated buses and waiting rooms. But in the South local authorities never enforced in law. Determined to confront this injustice, seven blacks and six whites left Washington, D.C. on May 4. They integrated the buses; when the bus stopped the whites went into the black waiting room and the blacks into the white one.
The group was met with violence. One rider had to have fifty-stitches in his head, and a white man from Madison, Wisconsin, was so badly beaten by a white mob that he was damaged for life.
SNCC did not want the violence to stop the rides so they took up the call for more riders. When arrested they began to chant, “Jail, No Bail!.” Their tactic was to fill the jails and bring national attention to the injustice. Their courage and commitment became contagious as thousands of young people joined in the movement.
SNCC tactics were simple. Organizers would go into the most racist communities and look for the indigenous black leadership. One commented, “There was always a mama. She is usually a militant woman in the community, outspoken, understanding, and willing to catch hell, having already caught her share.” Women like these were at the heart of the movement.
Respect in the black community as well as in SNCC was measured by how many times an organizer when to jail. As early as 1962 many SNCC organizer had been jailed more than twenty times and some had been beaten.
McComb, Mississippi, 1962: Defiance
Diane Nash Bevel
Diane Nash Bevel is charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors because she taught nonviolent tactics to McComb teenagers. She has just found out that she is pregnant and now wants to refuse her option for appeal and take the jail sentence.
I believe if I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free—not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives.
The judge, not wanting to risk adverse publicity, suspends her sentence. She still serves ten days for sitting on the white side of the courtroom.
Claybourne Carson, In Struggle, 68
Winona, Mississippi, 1963: Freedom
Fanny Lou Hamer
Fanny Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, and four other African Americans are returning from a meeting in South Carolina. As a matter of principle, when they get off the bus in Winona, they walk into the white waiting room. The police arrest them all. In jail the police separate them. Annell, in her twenties, begins screaming and praying to God to forgive them. They take Fanny Lou to a cell where the police force two black prisoners to beat her all over her body with a night stick. Fanny Lou Hamer joined the Freedom riders because the only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’s been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.
The next day a group of SNCC people arrive, led by Lawrence Guyot, a twenty-three-year-old graduate of Tugaloo College. Lawrence insists on seeing the prisoners and refuses to answer the State Trooper with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” After slapping him, the trooper hands Guyot over to the White Citizen’s Council, who beat him so badly he cannot life his arms. His eyes swell shut.
Finally, another SNCC worker arrives and gains entrance to Annell’s cell. Her face is also swollen, she can barely talk. She looks at the visitor and whispers one word…freedom.
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, 94-95
Mississippi, 1965: Black Power
Black power! Shouts Stokely Carmichael, and the crowd enthusiastically responds, Black power! The Northern cities are in flames. Four black children are killed in a church bombing while attending Sunday school in a Birmingham Baptist Church. The litany of deaths and violence seems endless. Some blacks are now talking about self-defense.
…for once, black people are going to use the words they want to use—not just the words whites want to hear.
Claybourne Carson, In Struggle, 219
In 1962 the spontaneous sit-ins gave way to door-to-door voter registration drives. Whites had systematically denied the right to vote to black people for generations. Using poll taxes, literacy test, and sheer intimidation, whites kept blacks from registering. SNCC and other civil rights groups were out to change that.
Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon talked to people about there being “worse chains than jail and prison.” They referred to a system that imprisons the mind and robs people of their creativity. They mocked the system that taught people how to be “good Negroes” instead of good people. As organizers they told people what had been accomplished through resistance and registration.
In 1963 in the South, 930 public protests took place in 115 cities. Over twenty thousand persons were arrested. Ten deaths were directly related to the protests, and at least thirty-five bombings occurred. In Birmingham, the viciousness of racism was brought home to the U.S. public as Eugene “Bull” Connor, director of public safety, unleashed fire hoses and police dogs against marchers. Martin Luther King was arrested there, writing from prison his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Also that year more than two hundred thousand people converged on Washington demanding “Freedom…Now!”
IN 1964, SNCC went into Mississippi with a voter education and registration drive that it called Freedom Summer. Organizers set up freedom schools for children to learn about their African American roots of resistance. They went into small towns where the law and the white citizens’ councils were one and the same. That summer, the bodies of three of those freedom workers were dragged from a ditch, on the same day that Lyndon Johnson announced the U.S. bombing of Vietnam.
By 1965, Freedom Summer had put SNCC into the national limelight. More militant than their older counterparts in the movement, they began to see both the depth of racism in the United States and the need to make international connections.
Selma, Alabama, exploded on the scene as state troopers stopped peaceful marchers from crossing Pettis Bridge. When the marchers refused to turn around, the police beat them with billy clubs and threw canisters of tear gas.
Continued white violence made many blacks wonder about the effectiveness of nonviolence. In a rural Alabama county that year, the Black Panther Party was formed. Stokley Carmichael, a SNCC organizer who had been arrested twenty-seven times, began using the slogan “Black Power.” It resonated with the people as their frustration grew in the face of white racism.
In the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, the first of several urban riots exploded. SNCC was beginning to make the connections between racism at home and imperialism abroad. Why were young black men dying to save democracy in Vietnam when they were kept from voting at home?
In the summer of 1967, 150 cities were hit by urban rebellions, including Newark and Detroit. The Vietnam War was heating up; four hundred thousand U.S. soldiers were fighting there. Martin Luther King became outspoken in his criticism of the Vietnam War. He too was making the economic and international connections with racism at home and injustice and intervention abroad. Those in power understood how dangerous his statements were for them.
See Vincent Harding, The Other American Revolution; Claybourne Carson, In Struggle
Harlem, 1964: Malcolm X
The key to our success lies in united action….As long as the freedom struggle of the 22 million Afro Americans is labeled a civil rights issue it remains a domestic problem under the jurisdiction of the United States….But once our struggle is lifted…to the level of human rights, our freedom struggle has then become internationalized.
When Malcolm rises to speak, he talks in terms that are plain, direct, devoid of flowery trimming. He uses metaphors and figures of speech that are lean and simple, rooted in the ordinary experiences of his audiences. He knows their minds and hearts because he identifies with them. They laugh, they learn, they move forward. He is down-to-earth and totally consumed by love for the oppressed.
Malcolm founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity in order to put before the United Nations the petition charging the United States government with genocide against twenty-two million black Americans.
….We assert that in those areas where the government is either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of our people, that our people are within their rights to protect themselves by whatever means necessary….
…Basically, there are two kinds of power that count in America: economic and political, with social power deriving from the two. In order for Afro-Americans to control their destiny, they must be able to control and affect the decisions which control their destiny: economic, political and social, This can only be done through organization….
Malcolm X does not equivocate. He goes straight to the point: We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of that rebellion against oppression and colonization which has characterized this era…We are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.
This man is dangerous. In a few months he will be killed.
Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion, 95; John Henrik Clarke, ed., Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, xvii, 337, 339
New York, 1965: Another Martyr
Assassination of Malcolm X
It is February 21. A few days before, arsonists firebombed the house of Malcolm X where he and his family were sleeping. He is scheduled to speak tonight. Talking to Brother Earl he says…I always knew it would end like this….Brother, I’m sorry I never had a chance to tell you about my father. He, too, tried to help the people and was hunted and finally killed by the powers of that day. Now, I know how he must have felt, with a family and all.
…Don’t look so sad. I’m no stranger to danger. I have lived with danger all of my life. I never expected to die of old age. I know the power structure will not let me. I know that I have done the very best that I could to help our people….I did not want an organization that depended on the life of one man. The organization must be able to survive on its own.
The first shot rings out. Then a pause and a long series of shots! Malcolm X, the black skinning prince, is dead.
Two decades later, evidence will surface of the involvement of the FBI and other federal agencies in his assassination.
John Henrik Clarke, ed., Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, 91, 95; Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1982, 100
The North, 1967: The Radical King
Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the Vietnam War drags on and white violence continues, Martin Luther King becomes radicalized. The FBI is after him because his words sound more and more like those of the young SNCC militants.
He sees now the limits of the U.S. government and how it is imperative for black people to formulate new tactics that no longer depend upon the goodwill of that government. These tactics will have to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice.
The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to…lift the load of poverty.
The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation or armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables men everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. The American Negro…may be the vanguard of a prolonged struggle that may change the shape of the world, as billions of deprived shake and transform the earth in their quest for life, liberty and justice.
This is not the King who says, I have a dream….This is not the King seeking integration and civil rights. This is the King demanding revolution and redistribution of the world’s wealth. He is beginning to see the connections between Latin American problems and United States policies. Americans must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism. This man is now too dangerous. In a few months he will be killed.
Vincent Harding, The Other American Revolution, 198-199
Washington, D.C., 1967: COINTELPRO
Political Cartoon on COINTELPRO
Black militancy is on the rise. People are in motion. The U.S. government is worried.
J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI issues a memo concerning a counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) against black nationalist groups….The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters….
The memo directs field offices to keep these operations totally secret. What emerges is a variety of tactics to carry out this directive.
An internal memo congratulates them on a job well done: shootings, beatings and a high degree of unrest continue to prevail in the ghetto area…it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.
In the guise of infiltrating white hate groups, the FBI actually arms, directs, and protects a variety of racist organizations which they use to attack progressive groups.
The FBI targets CORE, SCLC, SNCC—all veteran civil rights organizations. The black leaders who cannot be silenced, embarrassed, discredited, or co-opted are killed.
Brian Glick, War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What You Can Do About It, 41-62
Washington, D.C., 1969: FBI Internal Memo
FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover
For maximum effectiveness of the counterintelligence program, and to prevent wasted effort, long-range goals are being set.
…Prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups. In unity there is strength…
…Prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement….
…Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability…
…Prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth.
Brian Glick, War at Home, 78-79
Oakland, 1969: The Black Panther Party
The Six Original "Black Panther Party for Self Defense" Members
They run a free breakfast program for young black kids; they monitor police brutality; they open a free health clinic; they educate each other about the history of the black struggle in the United States. They also carry guns in self-defense.
Part of their ten-point program says: We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
By July, they are the targets of 233 separate actions under the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations. By the end of the year, twenty-seven Black Panthers are dead from police bullets. Over seven hundred are in jail or arrested.
Brian Glick, War at Home, 18; Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion, 122, 125
Chicago, 1969: Fred Hampton and Mark Clark
Fred Hampton Mark Clark
Fred Hampton is a charismatic black leader pulling together a “rainbow” coalition of progressive groups. Taking on national leadership of the group in the wake of the jailing and exile of other leaders, Hampton becomes a prime target of COINTELPRO. On December 4, after Fred Hampton has been drugged asleep by an FBI infiltrator, a fourteen-man police hit squad with automatic weapons attack. Fred Hampton and Chicago Black Panther leader Mark Clark are killed. A year later, a federal grand jury find that the police fired eighty-three shots into the apartment, while only one shot was fired at the police.
An elaborate cover-up begins. It will take years before the parents and survivors will be paid $1.8 million in damages by federal and local governments for the carnage of that winter night.
Brian Glick, War at Home, 63; Manning Marable, Race, Reform and Rebellion, 142
Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO)
FBI agents infiltrated progressive groups and became provocateurs directed to disrupt, spread rumors, provoke splits, sabotage activities, steal fund, exacerbate rivalries, publicly embarrass leaders and generally undermine trust and instill fear among groups and supporters. From the outside, the FBI waged psychological warfare against progressive groups and leaders by planting false media stories, passing out bogus leaflets and publications, forging correspondence, writing inflammatory letters, tampering with the mail and telephone and generally creating “disinformation.” The FBI also used false arrest, conspicuous surveillance, and political trials to harass leaders and activists. And finally, the FBI resorted to violence. The FBI maneuvered the Mafia to move against activist-comedian Dick Gregory and incited violent rivals to attack Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.
Brian Glick, War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What You Can Do About It, 41-62