Sunday, April 06, 2008

More on "the 60s"

Brave white police in Birmingham in 1963 didn't seem to care whether civil rights demonstrators were nonviolent (this particular photo makes me think again about the threads connecting the segregation mentality and the Cheney-Bush torture program: remember the dogs in the Abu Ghuraib photos?)

Following up on my previous post on the aftermath of the King assassination in 1968, I do think it's worth remembering the kinds of social tensions that came to the fore in the 1960s and early 1970s, never more dramatically than in 1968. There was no shortage of explanations, denunciations and schemes to deal with those tensions the violence that was one result of them. Certainly the violence was something that Republicans and authoritarians (who were by no means so polarized into the Republican Party as they are today) were happy to emphasize. The Nixon-Agnew campaign of 1968 made "law-and-order" a central theme.

Yes, hard as it may be for younger people to imagine, in those days the Republican Party actually claimed to respect the law! Not that Nixon and his Watergate co-conspirators actually did respect it. But they at least pretended to.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s, which even Republicans today pretend to respect, was largely focused on the Southern and especially the Deep South, where legal (de jure) segregation has been enforced since the 1890s. As white Southerners have always been eager to remind people - more often than not to make excuses for Southern racial practices - white racism wasn't limited to the South. What the South did have that was distinct was an elaborately structured, legally enforced system of segregation that even drastically restricted the freedom of whites in many ways. Though generally, only those Southern whites who actually cared about freedom noticed that aspect of things.


Violent racial and social outbreaks didn't just start occurring with the assissination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In his contribution to What's Going On: California and the Vietnam Era (2004), Clayborne Carson describes the formation of a group called the Nonviolent Action Committee (N-VAC) "by three black activists - Woody Coleman, Robert Hall, and Danny Gray - who wanted to break free of the constraints of the predominantly white Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)." He describes the growth of militant rhetoric among both civil-rights movement in 1964-65.

And the rhetoric didn't simply come out of thin air. He describes observing an incident at that time "police searching every black person on an entire block in Watts", then a predominantly black neighborhood. His description of the Watts riot of 1965 is dramatic:

In June 1965 I wrote a profile of Woody Coleman for the Los Angeles Free Press that opened with his bold forecast: "I'm looking for a bloodbath this summer. We're going to get tired of being peaceful and nonviolent without getting anything. We're still getting crumbs; we're going to get a big slice of that cake." I could not have realized then the accuracy ofhis prediction, but I had learned enough about race relations in the city to give it credence. The article included his description of N-VAC as a "mean and nasty organization" that would become the northern equivalent perhaps of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] or the political counterpart of the Nation of Islam [the Islamic group of which Malcolm X had been a minister] which, he said, lacked "an active program.' The article concluded with another provocative prediction: "We won't get a solution until we put enough pressure, until the politicians realize that there's not going to be any peace until the Negroes get their freedom. The movement will probably come to bloodshed. We've tried enough nonviolence and seen that it doesn't work."

Despite Woody's prescience, I doubt any of us were prepared for the unprecedented black insurgency of August 1965 ... when a mass protest against police abuse engulfed a large section of the city. The Watts "riot" was actually an insurgency that briefly transformed large sections of South Central Los Angeles into liberated zones of the black freedom struggle. I recall standing outside N-VAC's Central Avenue headquarters trying to make sense of the fiery, deadly racial rebellion that made our nonviolent, interracial militancy seem so insignificant and inadquate. I can never forget the sight of Central Avenue buildings in flames as far as I could see (although the N-VAC headquarters was undamaged). The spreading violence attracted more community support than had all of N-VAC's organizing efforts. We did our best to show our sympathy for the rioters, but none of us actually joined int he looting and other popular forms of uncivil disobedience. Instead, we organizaed an ambulance patrol to assist injured people - an activity that resulted in a clash with police that left me and two other N-VAC members with wounds from billy-club blows to our heads. I felt fortunate to have been spared the fate of many other resident who became "justifiable homicides" after similar encounters with police. N-VAC member Jerry Farber wrote about this incident in a widely reprinted Free Press article that expressed both our sense of solidarity with the rebellion and our uncertainty about its consequences. When National Guardsmen arrived, we felt a sense of pride that the Los Angeles police had not been able to overcome the black community's resistance without military assistance.
Did this push forward the movement for better conditions for African-Americans in Los Angeles or other cities where riots occurred? Yes and no. It made the very real problems difficult for even the most conventional-minded politicians and community leaders to ignore. It certainly provoked a "white backlash", as it was called at the time, though many white Americans had been "backlashing" ever since the end of the Civil War.

And while black communities in those situations may have been energized in some ways by events and the often sub-optimum responses to them by the forces of "law-and-order", there had to have been a great deal of demoralization, as well. After all, the Watts riot and well as the Neward riot of 1967 and those that followed the King assassination generally did the most physical damage in black neighborhoods themselves. And it was mostly African-Americans from those neighborhoods found among the dead and injured afterwards.

The David "Bobo" Brookses of today and also in the 1960s like to contrast the nonviolent approach represented by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the South with the violence of riots like those in Watts and the rhetoric and occasional actions of groups like the Black Panther Party. What the Bobos actually want is the kind of "nonviolence" that comes with people not trying to do anything to actually addresses real social injustices, racial or otherwise.

In the real world, in many ways there was a radical difference between the two situations. The South's "de jure" segregation was in blatant conflict with the Constitution, a conflict that the Supreme Court highlighted in a dramatic way with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Ending de jure segregation in the South was by no means easy. And if King's brand of "nonviolence" had meant social and political passivity, de jure segregation would still be largely in place in 2008. And while neither the Kennedy or Johnson administration would have acted as aggressively as they did on civil rights without the pressure of civil rights activists, the federal government had a formal responsibility to enforce the Constitution against segregationist laws that violated it.

And while the Democratic Party in those days was also the "cracker party" (as Malcolm X called it) of George Wallace and Ross Barnett, both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations were willing to act against segregation. In addition, the Republican Party in the 1960s was more sympathetic to civil rights concerns than is even conceivable today. So the Southern civil rights movement, including King's shrewd appeals to the American democratic traditions and Christian values, had a real chance at bringing practical political pressure to bear that had a meaningful chance of ending de jure segregation. The singular obnoxiousness of many Southern defenders of segregation clearly played a role in that process, as well.

But the problems of race and poverty outside of the legal structures of formal segregation were far more intractable than the nasty but embattled segregation system in the South. That was especially the case in urban areas in both the North and the South. But to understand the role of violent outbreaks like in Watts or the appeal such militant rhetoric as that associated with groups like the Panthers or the Nation of Islam or other "black nationalist" groups played in urban ghettoes of the time, we have to recognize that the problems manifested themselves in different ways than segregated lunch counters and the avenues for practical redress were not as clear as in the fight against de jure segregation.

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