The black awakening of 1964 to 1972

      In Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, representatives of twenty-nine newly independent Asian and African nations met to declare the importance of Third World unity in opposition to European colonialism and Western imperialism.  The Bandung conference had a tremendous impact on the peoples of the Third World, such that political leaders and intellectuals of the era spoke of the “Bandung spirit.”  The conference was followed by the 1957 Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference in Cairo, Egypt.  

     In 1961 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, representatives of twenty-three governments of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe established the Non-Aligned Movement.  The giants of the era were present: Tito of Yugoslavia, Sukarno of Indonesia, Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, Zhou En-lai of China, U Nu of Burma, Ben Youssef of Algeria, and Nkrumah of Ghana.  President Osvaldo Dorticós represented revolutionary Cuba, the only Latin American nation present.  The Summit called for the democratization of the United Nations, particularly with respect to the domination by the core powers of the Security Council and its unbalanced power vis-à-vis the General Assembly. 

     In 1964, seventy-seven nations of the Third World formed the Group of 77, an organization that functions as a bloc within the United Nations.  In 1966, the First Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America was held in Havana, convoked by the revolutionary government of Cuba.  The 513 delegates represented 83 governments and national liberation movements from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, including the National Liberation Front of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).  The conference named colonialism and imperialism as the source of Third World underdevelopment, and it defended nationalization as an effective strategy for attaining control over national economies. 

     At its Third Summit in Algiers in 1973, the Non-Aligned Movement declared that the international order continued to promote the underdevelopment of the Third World nations.  The Summit supported the creation of public cartels to transfer power to raw materials exporters; it called for a linking of the prices of raw material exports to the prices of imported manufactured goods; and it affirmed the principle of the sovereignty of nations over their natural resources, including their right to nationalize property within their territories.  The Summit endorsed a document on the New International Economic Order, which had been in preparation by Third World governments for a decade.

     In 1974, the UN General Assembly adopted the Third World document on a New International Economic Order, with the support of the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77, and the nations of the socialist bloc.  The document affirmed the principles of the right of self-determination of nations and the sovereignty of nations over their natural resources.  Among other proposals, it advocated: the creation of raw materials producers’ associations to give raw materials exporting states control over prices; a new international monetary policy that did not punish the weaker states; regulation and control of the activities of transnational corporations; and the promotion of cooperation among the nations of the Third World. 

     The emergence of the Third World as voice proposing changes in the political-economy of the world-system could not fail to impact the evolving African-American movement in the United States.  For strategic reasons, the movement in the period of 1955 to 1965 had focused on the protection of black civil and political rights in the South, often utilizing mass action strategies.  In this project, the movement had the sometimes-inconsistent support of the federal government, the backing of some corporations, and the sometimes-paternalistic participation of white liberals.  During 1963 and 1964, the inconsistency, equivocation, and paternalism of white allies led to an increasing alienation in the movement from the strategy of forming alliances with whites. 

     Especially important in this radicalization was the reluctance of the federal government to protect voting registration workers from violence in Mississippi as well as the denial of the Democratic Party liberal establishment of the proposal to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Democratic Convention.  The MFDP had been organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) through an alternative voter registration process, developed in response to the fact that local state authorities had registered only 10% of black citizens who had presented themselves to register to vote.

     In the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention, SNCC Chairman Stokely Carmichael declared that events at the convention demonstrated that “Black people would have to organize and obtain their own power base before they could begin to think of coalition with others.”  Many alienated SNCC workers evolved to appreciate Malcolm X, who had emerged as a radical leader in the urban North.

     Malcolm’s conversion in prison to the Nation of Islam had empowered him to leave behind a life of drugs and crime and to convert himself into an exceptional leader.  Driven by outrage at injustice and boundless compassion for his people, Malcolm’s radical, honest, and rhythmic discourse had touched the hearts and moved the minds of the black masses in the urban North.  For example, in making clear the economic dimensions of the black reality, he described the local store owner as “a man who does not look like you do; and when the sun goes down, he takes that basketful of money to the other side of town.”

     In his rapid evolution after his break with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm declared for black nationalism, and he maintained: “The political philosophy of black nationalism only means that the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community. . . .  The economic philosophy of black nationalism only means that we should own and operate and control the economy of our community. . . .  Black nationalism means that you should control the politics of your community, the economy of your community, and all of the society in which you live should be under your control.”

     By 1965, many of the younger members of the movement had acquired black consciousness, seeing the need for the development autonomous black institutions, under the control of the black community.  “Black power” and “black pride” emerged as slogans of the historic moment.  In 1966, Carmichael declared for “Black Power” in speech during a march in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the crowd responded with an enthusiasm that surpassed Carmichael’s expectations.  The moment was captured by television cameras, and suddenly the whole world knew of the historic turn that the movement had taken.  The advocacy of the development of autonomous institutions culminated in the 1972 black independent political convention in Gary, Indiana, in which black nationalism was the dominant philosophy, and the poet Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) declared, “It’s nation time!!!”  

     The turn to black community control and autonomous black institutions was reinforced by books that were published in the United States at the time.  Harold Cruse’s widely read The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, published in 1968, argued for the need for blacks to develop cultural, economic, and political autonomy.  The book sought, in addition, to expand the meaning of democracy to include not only the rights of individuals but also the rights of groups.  Cruse was highly critical of U.S. Marxists for failing to adapt Marxist concepts to the conditions of the United States.  In addition, Malcolm’s Autobiography was published in 1965, not long after his assassination on February 21, 1965.  Carmichael’s Black Power, co-authored with political scientist Charles Hamilton, was published in 1967.  An important collection of Malcolm’s speeches, entitled Malcolm X and edited by John Henrik Clarke, appeared in 1969

     The concept of autonomous black institutions had emerged because of the demonstrated unreliability of white allies.  The disintegration of the black alliance with the white power structure also led to an increasing identification with the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements of the Third World, and to the belief that the movement ought to form alliances with Third World governments and movements.  And this strategy gave rise to an increasing tendency toward colonial analysis and the view that European colonial domination is fundamental to modern reality. 

     Here too, Malcolm was at the forefront.  In 1964, Malcolm declared: “We [blacks in the USA] have suffered colonialism for the past four hundred years.  American is just as much a colonial power as England ever was.  America is just as much a colonial power as France ever was.  In fact, America is more so a colonial power than they, because she’s a hypocritical colonial power behind it.” 

     The example of Third World nationalism had inspired Malcolm’s embracing of black nationalism in the United States.   In 1964, he declared: “When we look at other parts of this earth upon which we live, we find that black, brown, red, and yellow people in Africa and Asia are getting their independence. . . through nationalism. . . .  And it will take black nationalism to bring about the freedom of twenty-two million Afro-Americans here in this country, where we have suffered colonialism for the past four hundred years.” 

     The tendency toward colonial analysis and identification with Third World national liberation struggles was supported by the literature of the time, in books that were widely mentioned in social discourse, even if they were not always read.  The book by the well-known sociologist and leader W.E.B. DuBois, The World and Africa, originally published in 1940, was re-issued in 1965.  In this classic work, DuBois maintained that the economic and social relationship between Europe and Africa had promoted the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa.  The Colonizer and the Colonized (also published in 1965), by the Tunisian intellectual Albert Memmi, described the ways in which the colonial relationship defined every aspect of social and individual life in the colonial situation.  The insights of these social analyses were reinforced by the Ibo novelist Chinua Achebe, who in Things Fall Apart (1959) described the devastating impact of European colonialism on a traditional African village. 

     Problems and prospects for the future were addressed by two African leaders who were widely known in the black nationalist movement and in the United States.  Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister of Ghana, analyzed the economic stranglehold in which European nations held newly independent nations in Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (published in 1966).  Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, described in Ujamaa: Essays in Socialism (1968) a form of African socialism to be attained through large-scale agricultural cooperatives based on the principles of traditional African society.  

     Frantz Fanon was more cited by African-American leaders of the period than any other writer.  Born in 1925 in the French West Indian colony of Martinique, Fanon was the son of a government civil servant and was of mixed Native American and Martiniquen (African and European) background.  He studied in France under the direction of a psychiatrist who focused on the effect of social context on mental health.  In Black Skin, White Masks (published in French in 1952 and in English in 1967), Fanon maintained that in the colonial situation, expressions of white superiority and black inferiority are found in all places and in all aspects of life.  In response, blacks seek to prove their equality by succeeding in the white world, in accordance with white cultural standards, which in Fanon’s view is, in effect, a desire to be white, which Fanon called the psychological complex of the colonized.  The Wretched of the Earth (published in French in 1961 and in English in 1968) is a collection of far-reaching and insightful essays, in which Fanon explores psychological, cultural, and political dimensions of the colonial situation.  He reconstructs the class analysis of Marx, adapting it to the colonial situation, describing the class divisions created by the colonial process.  And he envisions a revolutionary process in which the colonized overcome class divisions and come to unity in armed struggle, moving from the countryside to take control of the colonial towns; and in the process, overcoming the phycological complex of the colonized.

     Reflecting the awakening in black thought of the period, the Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago, in which I was privileged to study from 1970 to 1972, offered a colonial analysis of the modern world.  In this short paragraph I provide a succinct expression of its teachings, even though doing so necessary diminishes the dynamic discourses of Professors Jacob Carruthers, Anderson Thompson, and Elkin Sithole.  They maintained that colonialism is the primary fact of the modern world, promoting the economic development of the colonizer; and creating the underdevelopment of the colonized, by seizing land, labor, and natural resources.  Colonialism, they maintained, was multidimensional, including political, economic, cultural, and psychological dimensions.  They viewed colonialism as a modern global phenomenon, adversely affecting the peoples of Africa, the Americas, South Asia, and Southeast Asia; and continuing in the present in a neocolonial form.  They viewed race relations in the United States as a particular manifestation of European colonial domination of the world.

     By 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. evolved to conclusions that placed him within the framework of mainstream black scholarship and the black nationalist perspective of the period.  In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here?, written in January and February 1967, King laments that white allies have disappeared and are not willing to support the second stage of the Civil Rights movement, in which attention ought to be focused on inequalities in income, employment, housing, education, and health care.  Because of the disappearance of white allies, black despair has risen, symbolized by riots and cries of black power.  At the same time, white resistance has risen, not because of riots and black power, but because of white racism.  Seeking to overcome this situation, King at the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968 was working to develop a new coalition, a multiracial coalition of blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and poor whites in a Poor People’s Campaign for “an economic Bill of Rights.” 

     King thus had abandoned the strategy of alliance with the white power structure, beginning to see that, although the power elite had an interest in protecting the civil and political rights of blacks, it did not have an interest in a more far-reaching social and economic transformation.  King thus turned to seeking alliance with the various popular sectors that have an economic interest in a proposed socio-economic program of social change.  He differed with black nationalists in this regard; he did not believe that alliance with Third World governments and movements was practical. 

     But King in other respects arrived to share the black nationalist perspective.  In Where Do We Go from Here?, although rejecting Black Power as a slogan, King described the concept of black power as a legitimate call for black political and economic empowerment and as a form of self-affirmation, necessary for overcoming the psychological dimension of white colonialism.   

     Moreover, in Where Do We Go from Here?, King uses colonial analysis to explain that African and African-American underdevelopment is causally related to Western development.  The African slave trade, he wrote, was central to the underdevelopment of Africa and the economic development of the European powers and the United States.  Furthermore, King wrote, with the development of the system of African-American slave production in the West Indies and the United States, slave labor functioned to produce raw materials such as rice, sugar, cotton, and tobacco for export to Great Britain.  At the same time, the plantation economy of the Americas served as a market for the manufactured goods produced in Great Britain.  In this way, African-American slave labor contributed to the economic development of Great Britain.

     In the same book, King wrote that the civil rights movement in the United States is part of a worldwide movement of people of color in opposition to colonial rule.  This global movement of people of color is reversing the “direction of history” of the last several centuries; and as a result, “the era of colonialism . . . is at an end.”

     On February 4, 1967, at the Riverside Baptist Church in New York City, King condemned the U.S. war in Vietnam as a colonialist war that seeks to stop the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination and democracy.  He further declared: “These are revolutionary times.  All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.  The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before.  The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.  We in the West must support these revolutions.”

     Thus, in the period 1964 to 1972, the African-American movement had formulated different yet complementary concepts and strategies, including: local black community control; an anti-imperialist foreign policy; alliance with progressive Third World governments and movements; and alliance with whites with respect to common interests.  These concepts and strategies constituted a comprehensive proposal from an African-American perspective, rooted in the African-American struggle for democratic rights.  It was, moreover, a proposal that defined the necessary road for the nation.

     Why do I see the proposal as defining the necessary direction for the nation?  In the first place, the proposed alliance with progressive Third World governments, if it had been fully developed, would have had been important politically and culturally, of tremendous symbolic value to the peoples of the world.  But it probably would not have led to investments from the U.S. government and U.S. corporations, necessary for the social and economic development of the black community.  To attain such investments, alliance with whites also was necessary.  If developed in a politically effective manner, a black-white-Latino alliance would have enabled control of the federal government by popular sectors in the implementation of a progressive agenda, including public and private investments that were designed to promote the economic and social development of the black community, in accordance with the plan of the community, acting in accordance with its right to autonomy. 

     In the second place, the cooperation of various popular sectors in support of a progressive agenda was made necessary by the changing nature of the economy, which increasingly required higher education for employment opportunity.  As a result of these dynamics, the white ethnic path to upward mobility of the previous hundred years was coming to a close; a path that had been based on the availability of relatively good-paying jobs for persons with low educational levels. Accordingly, in this changing situation, there was the need for a progressive agenda that included investment in economically-useful industries that utilize a high-percentage of good-paying jobs with low-educational requirements.  Inasmuch as the program would have been backed by an alliance of various popular sectors, the newly generated jobs would have been available to all, regardless of race or gender.

     In the third place, anti-imperialism was (and is) the necessary road for the popular sectors and the nation.  The world-system has been on an unsustainable road, overextending the geographical and ecological limits of the earth; and confronting sustained popular anti-systemic movements in the expansive colonial and neocolonial zones.  In this global context, beginning in the 1970s, the necessary road for the nation is to wean itself from industries dependent on economic penetration in other lands and on military interventionism, the twin pillars of imperialism that provoke resistance and political conflict, and that lead to ecological overreach.  The nation needs to develop new sustainable forms of production that would be able to economically grow through mutually beneficial trade with other nations.  Again, such an ambitious national project politically would require support from all popular sectors.  The development and implementation of the project would require blacks and whites to work together, which might turn out to be an excellent therapy for remnant white racism and black rage.

     Thus, the necessary road for the nation was formulated by the several complementary proposals emerging from the African-American movement of the period 1966 to 1972.  But the movement quickly came to an end after 1972, a phenomenon that I will discuss in my next commentary on Tuesday, April 20.

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Preface - April 6, 2021