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Monday, January 29, 2007

…Plus Here’s a Special Morning News Item

posted by on January 29 at 7:06 AM

Malcolm X was always pretty good at being macho. Here he is circa 1963 putting down the wimpy civil rights movement:

An old woman can sit. An old man can sit. A chump can sit. A coward can sit. Anything can sit. Well, you and I been sitting long enough. And it’s time today for us to start doing some standing. And some fighting to back that up.

Of course, in his bombast, Malcolm X missed the significance of the sit-in movement. Namely: You bet anyone can sit. That is precisely why the civil rights movement—built on sitting down at lunch counters and on buses—was so powerful.

I’m sick of the conventional “contrarian” wisdom—among hipsters, anyway— that casts the early civil rights movement as soft, while the post-civil rights/Black Power crowd was supposedly the real deal.

You see: You didn’t have to be Muhammad Ali to bring the fight. You could, in fact, be a small woman. In particular, you could be Diane Nash—one of my all-time heroes from American history.

And so, I was thrilled to see this article about Nash and her former civil rights comrades ( James Lawson, John Lewis and Jim Zwerg) in today’s NYT.

Zwerg, Lawson, and particularly Lewis and Nash (both college students at the time), were superstars of the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961, when groups of integrated activists rode from bus station to bus station in the South to compel the federal government to enforce the 1946 and 1960 US Supreme Court rulings which had supposedly desegregated interstate bus travel. (Speaking of macho: Lewis and Zwerg, who was white, withstood bloodthirsty mob beatings when their group arrived in Montgomery, Alabama.)

This past weekend, taking along busloads of students, Nash and her aging colleagues retraced the route of the 1961 Freedom Rides as a rolling history lesson.

Nash, no chump nor coward, is also noteworthy for being one of few women who emerged as a leader in the civil rights movement.

That’s Nash second from the right (wearing glasses), sitting down at a lunch counter.

If any of this piques your interest, here’s a great book about the Freedom Rides.

RSS icon Comments


I'm absolutely in favor of non-violence as both a means and an end goal.

However, my read of history is not that the gains of the civil rights movement came as a result of the moral persuasion from the non-violent actions alone.

It was in the context of a non-violent movement that was losing control of the masses, and a rising tide of a willingness to overcome by any means nessisary.

In short, I don't think that Johnson would have signed the civil rights act and the voting rights act if the only threat he was facing was the threat of continued non-violence.

Johnson faced a tide of political change that gave him a choice between peaceful change, or general rebellion and widespread race riots.

Dr. King held the carrot, the Panthers held the stick.

Johnson, wisely, took the carrot.

Posted by RainMonkey | January 29, 2007 7:46 AM

Dr. King held the carrot, the Panthers held the stick.

Uh, no. Wikipedia on the Panthers:

Founded in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in October 1966

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and signed two years earlier.

1964 was also when Malcolm went on the Haj and left the Nation of Islam.

The violence (and the fragmentation of the non-violence movement) really didn't pick up until Selma in March 1965, and then the Watts Riots in 1965 began the years of rioting and formed the seeds of the Panthers.

(Thanks, Manning Marable, for that Black Protest Movements class you offered my freshman year.)

Posted by dw | January 29, 2007 8:05 AM

@ #1,

LBJ was not scared of the Panthers. The Panthers didn't even exist in '64 and '65 (nor '63 when Kennedy proposed the civil rights act.)

Yes, the FBI cracked down on the Panthers in the late 60s. But the Feds didn't simultaneously pass any civil rights leg during that time. Where's your proof that the Feds did anything meaningful thanks to the Panthers.

The major civil rights legislation of the 60s was a direct reaction to Birmingham ('63) and Selma ('65) and the outcry of mainstream America. Birmingham and Selma were King projects. Meanwhile, the real meaningful stuff was done in the courts—40s, 50s, and 60s.

The "threat" posed by the Panthers didn't motivate the Feds do anything except infiltrate, spy, and assassinate.

Posted by Josh Feit | January 29, 2007 8:11 AM

The "hipsters" I hear making that point usually A.) fancy themselves revolutionaries (in spite of doing very little towards that end) and B.)are offering up the ineffectiveness of non-violent protest as justification for their continued inaction. As in "No I'm not going to some damn march. Non-violent protest doesn't work! Pass the bong, please. When the revolution comes...."

The practical benefits of those sorts of protests are inextricable from the ethical/moral benefits. Seizing the moral high ground and involving participants who wouldn't be much use in a fight are part of the same package. It has time and again proven highly effective.

Posted by flamingbanjo | January 29, 2007 9:08 AM

You are absolutely right, Josh, and I hope you carry on with these posts for another month. The Panthers, more specifically the images of guys holding rifles on the TV news, did a lot to roll back the "hearts and minds" opened by the earlier civil rights movement. They allowed ordinary Americans to dismiss their claims wholesale, and to lump them in with the similarly destructive hippie-leftie anti-war protestors who were gaining visibility at the same time. Chicago '68 is a metaphor for a lot of things, but where it counts it's a metaphor for a hijacked freedom movement and a paralyzed and lost Democratic Party.

The contrast between the unassailable dignity and justice and focus of the earlier civil rights movement could not be greater. A lesson one wishes that lefties and anti-war people today would pay attention to. Alas, they will not. Paying attention to things isn't their style. And style is everything.

Posted by Fnarf | January 29, 2007 9:22 AM

Um, okay, so I was wrong.

Right now on KUOW there is a South African speaking about the relationship between violence and non-violence in the context of Aparthid and the ANC.

He is taking a similar reasoning as I presented. But, you know, he gets the facts right.

Posted by RainMonkey | January 29, 2007 9:35 AM

I was particularly impressed with Walking with the Wind. I was assigned the book to read as source material for my India & the American Civil Rights movement.

It was one of the least dry class materials I've ever read. It had a unique viewpoint that I'd never heard from before that time and I came away with a unique impression.

Posted by Nay | January 29, 2007 9:42 AM

I can't understand why anyone would think the Civil Rights movement was soft or ineffective. They got RESULTS that last to this day. Of course, it was a combination of things that effected change, but they made things happen. What's soft about that?

Posted by rights | January 29, 2007 9:45 AM

The thing about the earlier Civil Rights movement is that, because of the bedrock-solid nonviolence, there was no way for their opponents to get a handhold on them. There was no argument there. The only argument against what they were doing was to be explicit about the reasons for segregation. Ironically, the civil rights movement forced the Old South to articulate its own precise reasoning out loud for the first time, and that was its downfall: the ideology was ultimately repugnant to its own followers, and they fell back. They had to; they were wrong.

Black Panthers (and today, "Free Mumia" or whatever) allow their opponents an easy out: all you have to do is say "well, I support equal rights, but not these nutjobs marching down the street with guns", or "well, I want us out of Iraq, but I don't want anything to do with these idiots going on about the WTO". You've handed your opponents their own best argument. And you lose.

It's bizarre and unfortunate that the intellectually and politically successful protestors of the 1950s and 60s are not the model for would-be protestors today, but the retrograde failures of the 1960s and 70s are. They're the ones that stopped the civil rights movement in its tracks and prolonged the Vietnam War. Why are people emulating them today?

Posted by Fnarf | January 29, 2007 9:55 AM

Anyone calling the early civil rights movement soft needs to read, "Parting the Waters"

Posted by StrangerDanger | January 29, 2007 10:14 AM

Way to go, Josh. Keep working on your street cred.

Posted by Belltowner | January 29, 2007 10:27 AM

Reply to 10 and 7
"Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement" and "Parting the Waters"
are two of the best books ever. Mandatory reading for anyone who wants to change america for the better. Both are real page turners and give you a sense of what it really take to make big change. History focuses at the few big names but their are dozens of leaders who all together have a part and make it happen. Although Malcom X's rhetoric is stronger the nation of Islam lacked the breadth and depth ofleadership the "non-violent" civil rights movement had.

Posted by wl | January 29, 2007 10:29 AM

It's true that "any fool can sit," but only if they're given the choice to sit, without fear of retaliation. Those people who sat at segregated counters had to display tremendous courage since they faced the threat of violene, arrest, and even death for themselves and their families. If non-violence were not a threat, Southern racists would not have reacted so strongly to the tactic and feared it so much (or the British in India, apartheid government in South Africa, etc.). The contrast between dignified blacks attempting to receive the same treatment as any human deserves, and racist whites acting like animals provided the moral argument against segregation and showed what was really behind it. Violent action was something the system knew how to deal with: infiltrate, provoke, shut down. Even among the Black Panthers this was true. Hoover was largely unconcerned with them flaunting arms, but called their free breakfast program the most dangerous threat to America.

Posted by Gitai | January 29, 2007 10:34 AM

Well, Josh, I was there and you hadn't even been born, so I don't mind telling you that you don't know what you're talking about.

The Panthers came later. They were minor players on the scene, although the press paints them as villains and the right wing has used them as bogeymen for years now. They were easy targets because they were visible and high-profile.

The real armed threat that the U.S. Government feared, and since has done everything possible to suppress its memory, was the black armed self-defense practiced by Robert F. Williams in Monroe NC in 1962, years before the Panthers ever appeared on the scene.

The U.S. forced Williams to flee to Cuba, where he lived until his death in 1996. He was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. His book "Negroes With Guns" tells his story, and there is a decent Wikipedia entry.

Having been born and raised in an almost all-black community in Philadelphia PA, I can assure you that black people at the time knew damned well who Robert F. Williams was and what he represented.

I marched with Martin Luther King and practiced nonviolence, and I don't dispute that the nonviolent component of the Civil Rights movement was stong and effective, and required plenty of courage.

But the threat of violence personified by Williams was very real, even if some people don't remember it. Black people at the time sure knew about it, the Panthers sure knew about it, Malcolm X sure knew about it, and JFK, RFK, LBJ, and the FBI sure knew about it.

They teamed up with white racist southerners to suppress Williams and everything to do with him and what he represented. The effect has been to paint Williams as a minor footnote in history. I can assure you that in 1962, Williams was not a minor footnote in black communities in this country.

The bottom line for this post, Josh, is that you do not know jack shit about this part of history, so quit pretending that you do.

Posted by ivan | January 29, 2007 10:36 AM

And just to demonstrate that I can be just as full of shit as anyone else, Williams did not live in Cuba until his death in 1996. The Wikipedia entry, which I failed to read thoroughly, has the full story.

Posted by ivan | January 29, 2007 10:47 AM


Of course I know about Williams. In fact, there's a good book on Williams and Monroe, NC .... and his radio broadcasts from Cuba. The book is called Radio Free Dixie by a guy named Timothy Tyson.

Williams, however, was not the spark for the '63 and '65 acts— nor the Feds push for desegregation. That's SCLC and SNCC.

Congrats on marching with MLK. Must have been exciting for you.

Posted by Josh Feit | January 29, 2007 11:04 AM

I'm sorry, Josh, you just can't just make a blanket statement such as "Williams, however, was not the spark for the '63 and '65 acts— nor the Feds push for desegregation. That's SCLC and SNCC." and expect it to go unchallenged.

LBJ did not want more Robert F. Williamses. Neither did J. Edgar Hoover. That threat was always out there, even though the administration did everything it could to refrain from publicly acknowledging it. It was a big part of the equation, but the administration never could and never would admit it.

I marched with MLK at the March on the Pentagon and the March on Washington, the "I Have a Dream" speech. We worked in Philadelphia on the Woolworth boycott, to force the chain to eliminate segregation at its southern lunch counters. It was exciting but we did it because it was necessary, and still is.

Posted by ivan | January 29, 2007 11:16 AM

What is this "conventional 'contrarian' wisdom—among hipsters"? I don't know anyone who thinks the sit-ins were a lame waste of time. Not even Malcolm X was against sit-ins. He just didn't think it was enough. And anyway, how many violent protests did Malcolm X take part in? Like, none? The premise of this post seems wrong.

Also, I think some of the posts above seem confused about why black power emerged, especially outside the south. The key sites of racism in the north (housing and employment) proved even harder to crack than Jim Crow in the South, mainly because most white Americans simply would not admit there was a problem. Non-violent protest achieved very little in both these areas. So, for instance, the same year that the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, Tacoma voted down Open Housing 4 to 1, Seattle voted it down 3 to 1, and the entire state of California also handily defeated it. It took a sit-in at City Hall to even get open housing on the ballot in Seattle, but it wasn't enough.

I think black power developed in response to this intransigent racism, and played an important role in finally prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing, or at least cracking the "defacto" Jim Crow of the north. Meaningful civil rights legislation did not end around 1965. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, the creation of affirmative action by the Nixon administration in 1969, and the strengthening of affirmative action by congress in the 1972 Civil Rights Act were absolutely crucial events in the history of the civil rights movement.

Fair Housing was passed immediately after King's assassination, mainly out of fear of black power and riots. LBJ had tabled affirmative action as a policy, and Nixon revived it mainly to quell black power protests at federal construction sites (they were protesting racist unions working in all-black communities in cities around the country, including Seattle). And the 1972 Civil Rights Act gave anti-discrimination law more teeth, paving the way for the 1970s to be a key decade of enforcing the legal changes of the 1960s.

Personally, I think it was backlash against these laws- fair housing, affirmative action (and also busing)- that really helped give birth to the new right. Blaming the Black Panthers for the new right, or some kind of splinter group of SDS, seems to give those groups far more significance than they actually had.

Posted by Trevor Griffey | January 29, 2007 11:30 AM

Good points Trevor, but the black power movement literally started in Mississippi—and with SNCC's frustration in the South. You're right, though, that the frustrations in the north were fertile ground for what the radicalized SNNC folks were saying in '65, '66. (And of course, Watts and Kings mess in Chicago also nudged it over.)

The conventional "contrarian" thing I'm talking about is this: There's a pseudo read by a lot of people who think they're boldly challenging the conventional wisdom by putting down King as unsuccessful and stating that Malcolm and black power was the real engine. It's been a trendy read for the last decade or so, I think.

You're probably not familiar with this dumb analysis because it's probably not as prevalent in academia where you are because people there are dealing with facts. So, you've likely been spared this grating "contrarian" stance.

Trust me: It comes out of everybody's mouth at bars—like they're really laying it down for me, man.

Posted by Josh Feit | January 29, 2007 11:42 AM

"Trust me: It comes out of everybody's mouth at bars—like they're really laying it down for me, man."

I guess taking on random drunks in bars is better than inventing your own strawman.

In the public schools around here, civil rights begins and ends with MLK and rosa parks. Malcom X gets a little mention and appeals to stoner anti-establishment kids.

The bigger question is what are a bunch of white guys doing taking about civil rights at the bus stop?

Posted by doink | January 29, 2007 12:56 PM

The importance of Malcolm can not be reduced to a macho buffoon from a quote he made in the context of what he saw as his struggle in facing urban racism. His struggle was urban and as an ex street wise tough, Malcolm was able to communicate with the alienated under class, something which is soooo needed these days and he grew both politically and pragmatically, and he outgrew the backward teachings of Elijah Muhammad which ultimately cost him his life.

The importance of Malcolm and Dr. King are not in dispute, but it is clear that Malcolm’s struggle was urban, regardless of where the black power movement was born, Malcom did not see himself yet as part of a bigger movement, but rather as an organizer and he grew in being more revolutionary than reactionary; thus the nation assassinated him with , Im sure a wee help from the Bureau. Dr. King also recognized the importance of class struggle and labor struggles, solidarity and economic empowerment as did a lot of the followers of the civil rights movement. One can not deny the importance of the civil rights movement both early and later, and I don’t know anybody that does, nor do I know anybody who thinks Dr. King and the Alabama folks were cowards, nor do they think that Malcolm was a macho buffoon, but then again I don’t hang out with people that do.

I’m sure this was mentioned, but this book also talks about the early days of the civil rights movement before it was called that.

Speak Now against the Day

Though I am a Latino, I also grew up in Camden on the other side of the Ben Franklyn bridge and the first book I’ve read in the 5th grade was the autobiography of Malcolm X which I still consider one of the more important books I’ve ever read. I can’t recall people dissing the civil rights movement or such nonsense.

Finally, Mumia was and is a cause for white hippies so don’t bring him into this cuz it has nothing to do with this.

Posted by SeMe | January 29, 2007 1:42 PM

"Right now on KUOW there is a South African speaking about the relationship between violence and non-violence in the context of Aparthid and the ANC."

That must have been the Albie Sachs interview that I also listened to. It was a very interesting program.

Sachs said that the major way in which the anti-apartheid movement diverged from the principles of Gandhi was on the issue of violence. The anti-apartheid movement DID use violence, but limited it to "hard targets". I took that to mean that they directed the violence towards the security apparatus of the apartheid state rather than against average white citizens (i.e. "soft targets"). They weren't terrorists bent on wholly destroying the status quo at the cost of the stability of their society.

Posted by NPR listener | January 29, 2007 3:22 PM

Diane Nash is also featured extensively in the Freedom Rides chapter of Eyes On the Prize, the award-winning documentary recently re-aired on PBS (only the first 1/2, unfortunately.) I recommend that as well.

Posted by ef | January 29, 2007 4:04 PM

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