American History as It Happened

MODULE SEVEN: 1966–1990

View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they demonstrate, fists raised outside the New York City courthouse, New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)


Source: “Freedom’s Crisis: The Last Steep Ascent” by Martin Luther King Jr., The Nation, March 14, 1966

The danger of this period is not that Negroes will lose their gains. History will not repeat itself in a simple cycle. It can, however, fail to move forward and can become stalled on a higher plateau without prospect of reaching the summit.

Our nation is now so rich, so productive, that the continuation of persistent poverty is incendiary because the poor cannot rationalize their deprivation. It is an anachronism in the second half of the 20th century. Only the neglect to plan intelligently and the unwillingness genuinely to embrace economic justice enable it to persist.

Negroes expect their freedom, not as subjects of benevolence but as Americans who were at Bunker Hill, who toiled to clear the forests, drain the swamps, build the roads—who fought the wars and dreamed the dreams the founders of the nation considered to be an American birthright.


Source: “A White Look at Black Power” by Paul Good, The Nation, August 8, 1966

In the middle of June, the words “Black Power” were shouted by a handful of Negroes marching along a Mississippi highway. The national reaction to this small verbal stimulus was extreme. It was as though someone had cried “fire” in…[a] factory. Before the echo had died, the civil rights movement was in disarray. The White House, many white liberals and most white men in the street were aghast, angry, or both. Not a few black men were upset. Why should these two words have produced such exorbitant reaction? The answer involves many racial facts and fiction current in American life.

…. Many Negroes felt that white power, which had led whites to prosperity, was leading to slow death for Negroes. They believed that…the stirring [dream] that Dr. King had recounted on the Washington march had turned to rude awakening, the alarm bell of reality ringing in Watts and in Canton and in every community where white promises to Negroes were not being redeemed. … Negroes saw Mayor Daley in Chicago boasting that he was getting rid of the rats in the ghetto while the ghetto remained. They saw sprinklers on fire hydrants and ten portable swimming pools as the white largess bestowed to end riots there. Would the next white inspiration be to bus colored children to white hydrants?


Source: Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (aka The Kerner Commission Report) released on February 29, 1968

The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation. The worst came during a two-week period in July, first in Newark and then in Detroit. Each set off a chain reaction in neighboring communities.
On July 28, 1967, the President of the United States established this Commission and directed us to answer three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
To respond to these questions, we have undertaken a broad range of studies and investigations. We have visited the riot cities; we have heard many witnesses; we have sought the counsel of experts across the country.
This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.
Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.
This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice. It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.


Source: “Television” by John Horn, The Nation, March 18, 1968

Television is a fifth column bringing into Negro homes white nonsense, white violence, white affluence, white materialism, white indifference to fellow Americans of color. To all human beings, television is a continuous assault on the heart, the mind and the spirit. To Negroes, as to all racial minorities, it is a major alienating force.

The promise of television was that of a window on the world. The reality of television today is a shop window on a world of commercial-studded frivolity created by broadcasting and advertising interests. Negroes in the ghettos look at this artificial world and see that it is white, hedonistic, violent, affluent and exploitative. The situation comedies, the game shows, the Westerns, the adventure tales, the dramas, the movies, variety, comedy, discussions and commercials—just about all the fare is aimed at the white middle class. Black viewers did not need the Kerner commission to tell them that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Television by and large excludes Negroes. It denies them the public air waves. It tells them the great white society does not care for them. It gives them a false image of themselves.

The world of television, of course, is a false image of the white world as well, but it is a true reflection of white values. Affluent whites who have control of television employ it to their own economic ends, not for human communication. It is a deprivation of grave consequence.


Source: “Black Panthers: The Cornered Cats” by Michael Harris, The Nation,  July 8, 1968

Huey P. Newton, 26, the militant black nationalist who founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, is charged with the murder of an Oakland policeman…
The Panthers are young, they are armed and they are ready, as they have demonstrated, to claim the freedom and manhood they say has been taken from them. Their name, the leaders explain, is intended to be taken symbolically: “The Black Panther doesn’t go looking for trouble. But if you corner him and he has to fight, he’ll claw you apart.”
Charles Howe of the San Francisco Chronicle, who recently completed a thoughtful study of the Panthers, summarized the organization’s goals:
In essence, they are asking for:

  • Total self-determination; full employment; removal of all white businesses from the ghetto; decent housing; education which teaches black history and “the true nature of the decadent American society . . .”
  • Military exemption for all blacks; an end to “police brutality and murder [and] freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails; trial of all blacks by a jury of their peers—that is, poor and black ghetto residents, “we want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.”

The Panthers maintain they and the black community have little or none of these things and they want them right now. No lengthy dialogues; no additional statutes on the books: no committees of review, but right now. And if they don’t get these things right now, they maintain, the white power structure, by fudging on these requests, will provoke rioting and bloodshed which will, they believe, lead to bloody repression which, they maintain, could lead to the liquidation of all black Americans.


Source: “Halfway on the Long Walk” by Carey McWilliams, The Nation, December 16, 1978

For a decade the civil rights agitation was of prime national concern and interest. From 1955 to 1965 it held the spotlight of national attention, and some highly significant gains were scored. But the movement began to sputter out with the Watts riots of 1965, which in turn coincided with the escalation of the war in Vietnam. From then on, television cameras focused on the peace marches, college sit-ins and anti-war demonstrations that resulted in the withdrawal of the last US troops in Vietnam in the late spring of 1975.

The assassination of Dr. King [in 1968] was a tragic postscript to the civil rights movement, for by then it had achieved its major objectives. The struggle for civil rights was not a social revolution. It had limited objectives, though objectives of critical importance. Legal barriers and discriminations had to be removed before more significant progress could be made. … By 1968 more than a million new black voters had been registered; by 1977 the number of blacks holding elective office had increased from 1,835 to 4,311. … These gains cannot be reversed. With a solid base of power in electoral politics, the black minority’s political influence will increase. Restrictive covenants have been ruled unconstitutional, miscegenation statutes are a thing of the past; segregation in the armed services has been virtually eliminated. Most Jim Crow racial barriers have been repealed or declared unconstitutional. Jim Crow signs in public places and facilities have vanished. Blacks today can travel from coast to coast by train, bus, or plane, stay in hotels or motels of their choice, and patronize restaurants they select without discrimination. Social intercourse and exchanges between blacks and whites have significantly increased. Culturally, there have been many changes: blacks and other minorities are appearing in new roles and relationships in films, theatre and TV (including commercials). Educational barriers have been lowered; colleges and universities are sensitive to their responsibilities and seek to enroll blacks, Chicanos and other minorities.


Source: “Notes on the House of Bondage” by James Baldwin, The Nation, November 1, 1980

This excerpt is from an essay published on the eve of the 1980 presidential election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps only black people realize this, but we are dying, here, out of all proportion to our numbers, and with no respect to age, dying in the streets, in the madhouse, in the tenement, on the roof, in jail and in the army. This is not by chance, and it is not an act of God. It is a result of the action of the American institutions, all of which are racist: it is revelatory of the real and helpless impulse of most white Americans toward black people…

I lived in California when Ronald Reagan was Governor, and that was a very ugly time—the time of the Black Panther harassment, the beginning (and the end) of the Soledad Brothers, the persecution, and trial, of Angela Davis. That, all that, and much more, but what I really found unspeakable about the man [Governor Reagan] was his contempt, his brutal contempt, for the poor.


Source: “Beat the Devil: All in Their Family” by Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, July 24, 1989

Amid the ravages of the 1982–83 recession in [President Ronald] Reagan’s first term… there were a lot of needy and desperate people about. By 1982, black unemployment approached 20 percent. The reasons for this were as obvious as the misery such numbers implied. Reagan’s agenda, scarcely secret, was to lower the costs of production and redistribute wealth upward.
…As the 1980s advanced, so did the economic oppression of the poor, particularly the black poor. By 1987, while Reaganites extolled the breadth of general economic “recovery,” black unemployment still stood at 13 percent; 1965, the year of the report, it was 8.1. One out of every three blacks was poor. The median earnings of full-time black male workers fell 10 percent between 1979 and 1987. In the same period more than half of all new full-time jobs paid poverty wages ($11,610) for families of four.
Today, more black men are in jail than in college. The number of blacks attending college stands at 26 percent, down from 33 percent in 1976. College-educated black men have an unemployment rate four times greater than their white peers.