In describing the civil rights movement and its influence, Deloria identifies integration and separatism as the main ways in which African Americans fought for more equality in society (Deloria We Talk 205) and this is also what most historical accounts suggest, highlighting the early period as a time of integration and peaceful protest, which gradually transformed into a more confrontational type of activism, focused on separatism. Although there are two distinct periods and integration and separatism were the main strands of civil rights activism, historical accounts often struggle to provide a clear description of how activism progressed. This obscures complex realities and leads to a fairly simplistic perspective on what was actually a difficult and gradual transition. Ultimately, the best way to capture these issues is not as a polarized debate, but rather as a spectrum of viewpoints along which people and movements moved over the course of the nineteen-sixties.
Integration and separatism
Baldwin and Cleaver provide good examples of the nuances that can be observed within the civil rights movement, with both presenting more complicated views than mere integration or separatism. Baldwin is usually considered a fervent supporter of integration and nonviolence, but a clear progression is visible in the decade between The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street. Although this is mostly a personal development, it is indicative of larger changes within the movement. He shifts from an naive optimism focused on love to a somewhat more pessimistic vision. In The Fire Next Time, he for example criticized the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown that desegregated schools because it was motivated by the circumstances of the Cold War (Fire 101), not by love. He did not merely want change, he wanted change for the right reasons, although he also recognizes that this is very difficult. Baldwin and others like him, including Martin Luther King, gradually came to realize that perfect integration on the basis of love was not realistic, especially not in the short term. Throughout No Name in the Street, he talks about what happened to the civil rights movement mostly in negative terms, yet he remains fundamentally optimistic. In the end, he is confident that “the white man’s sun has set” (No Name 199) and that the civil rights movement has set in motion changes that cannot be undone. Some of his essays from the intermediate period also shed light on the fact that he thought it was more important for African Americans to overcome internal differences than to have discussions about strategy. In a 1968 essay on Black Power, Baldwin expresses his sympathy with Stokely Carmichael, emphasizing that although their approaches differ, he admires him for confronting Americans with their racism (“Black Power” 84), supporting the larger points he was making.
‘The white man’s sun has set.’ (Baldwin)
As far as separatism is concerned, perhaps the most important indication that Cleaver held more nuanced views is his attitude toward Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Although he was a radical thinker early on, advocating black pride rather than equality, he rejected Elijah Muhammad’s talk of white devils, which he considered to be reverse racism. Clearly, separatism and black power meant an increased emphasis on black identity, but not at the cost of their moral integrity. Cleaver describes the struggle he felt to separate himself from Muhammad’s negative views (Soul on Ice 54), which is a crucial comment because it shows that even though they can both be characterized as more radical thinkers, Cleaver held very different views from Muhammad, as did many others, who instead decided to follow Malcolm X, who is perhaps less extreme than often believed. This is particularly interesting because Baldwin felt almost the same way about Elijah Muhammad, saying that although he did not necessarily disagree, his rhetoric was divisive (The Fire Next Time 86) and not constructive to a meaningful debate about race. Clearly, the binary notion of integration versus separatism is too simplistic to accurately capture the debates of the civil rights era.
Another interesting take on this debate comes from Deloria, who was not personally involved in the civil rights movement, but observed what blacks were doing and made some insightful comments. For one, merely ending desegregation is insufficient: “Simply because a middle-class black can eat at the Holiday Inn is not a gain. People who can afford the best generally get it” (Custer 174) and changes should be more structural in nature, benefiting all rather than a limited number of people. That is why he is actually in favor of separatism, suggesting that it could be beneficial for African Americans to separate themselves from white society, at least temporarily. After all, “all groups must come to understand themselves as their situation defines them and not as other groups see them” (Custer 195), so that they could form their own culture independently of white society. Once the black community develops nationhood, there is hope for their future because it can help to destroy white myths about their culture.
Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that although there are not really two distinct periods, integration and nonviolence were the dominant attitudes in the early nineteen-sixties, with a limited number of exceptions, and as a result, radical thinkers who either were part of that movement or saw what was happening, were inspired by the fact that people stood up for minority rights. Cleaver, for example admits that actions like the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins inspired him (Soul on Ice 26), even if he ultimately disagrees with their approach. The position of Indigenous people in relation to the civil rights movement was complex, but Deloria still provided some important insights on how these debates developed. For him and other Native people, the choice between integration and separatism seemed void. It was not surprising that they turned to black power, but rather that they took so long to get there. Once they did, however, it was a watershed moment. Deloria identifies the moment that Stokely Carmichael declared the birth of Black Power, as an event that definitively “closed the era of the integrationist-individualist approach to racial problems and ushered in the era of the group as a group” (We Talk 100), an important step forward in the struggle for civil rights. 1968 was another defining moment, even if it was not clear what would happen next. Although one phase clearly ended, there was nothing to take its place:
“No one seemed to know which direction the country would take. Return to the old integration movements seemed out of the question. Continuing to push power movements against the whole of society seemed just as senseless.” (Custer 183)
Deloria later also pointed out that even if it was unclear what would come next, “we have passed the point of no return, so that we cannot go home again” (We Talk 208) and they had to move forward as best they could. In discussing the civil rights movement in Armies of the Night, Mailer talks of peaceful protesters in a way that gives the impression that they are outdated. This draws attention to the fact that although the old civil rights movement definitely still existed at this time, it was perceived as a shadow of its former self. Black power on the other hand represented significant progress. Comparing race relations in 1963 and 1968, Mailer comments that blacks “had moved in to the future, into that Black Twenty-first Century when Black Power had succeeded in rendering the white man invisible at will for the black” (Armies 101), making them more at ease. The self-assertion that came with militancy had really helped their movement in having them come into their own, giving a more optimistic view on the status of black activism around this time than Deloria.
Although the debate over these issues mainly played out within the African American community, it had an important effect on their interaction with whites, especially white liberals. In the early days of activism, it was mostly white students who were attracted to the civil rights struggle (Soul on Ice 56), providing them with the inspiration to form their own movements a few years later to fight for other issues. Soon enough, however, the government took notice of what blacks were demanding and decided to focus their attention on activists with less radical views, leading to an uneasy cooperation, from which African Americans ultimately benefited little. The March on Washington is a good example of this, as it was supposed to be almost an occupation of the city, but was ultimately toned down to a fairly tame protest, consisting mostly of speeches. Mailer also described the day as a happy affair, but notes “there had been discomfort in the air” (Armies 101), as people were well aware of the reality of race relations. The march also highlighted the problematic position of John F. Kennedy, who is often wrongly perceived as a champion of civil rights. This played a role in the radicalization of some black activists as well, as people lost faith in their white allies, especially after a black delegation representing Mississippi at the Democratic Convention in 1964 was rejected, irreparably damaging connections between white and black.
‘The white ally only appears at times of crisis.’ (Deloria)
Part of the problem was that civil rights activists send the wrong message, or stated the wrong demands, which gave the impression that “passage of certain legislation would bring the civil rights issues to solution” (Deloria We Talk 48), allowing whites to pride themselves on the progress they had made, even if it was hardly substantial. Martin Luther King also realized this, describing white liberals as the real enemy because “he appears at times of crisis and not during times of tranquility” (We Talk 68), providing no consistent support and showing little interest in the philosophies behind their demands. This became even more problematic once the leadership’s dominant philosophies were no longer in line with what whites found acceptable. In response to Black Power, white liberals put “a non-representative dictatorial leadership” (We Talk 74) in charge that was more in line with their views than the actual leadership of the civil rights movement at that time. Doing so, they further alienated blacks, leading to resentment of white intruders. The complicated relationship with whites is therefore another important factor in the debates that is often underestimated.
- In how far does it matter that the goals civil rights activists set themselves were not always realistic or achievable in the short term?
- Was there ever really such a thing as the civil rights movement, or should we be talking about it in the plural form to acknowledge the many different perspectives?