THE NATION CLASSROOM
American History as It Happened
RACE RELATIONS and CIVIL RIGHTS
MODULE SEVEN: 1966-1990
STUDENT PRACTICE ACTIVITY ONE
Read each question carefully, then review the documents cited. In every case, you are asked to compare and contrast points made by the authors. Write brief examples explaining those differences.
1. In Document One, Martin Luther King Jr. states, “The danger of this period is not that Negroes will lose their gains.” Twelve years later, McWilliams (Document Six) echoes that sentiment, saying, “These gains cannot be reversed.” Identify a passage from another excerpt that appears to dispute these opinions.
Answers will naturally vary because students can cite several different documents. Here are a number of possible replies:
The rise of Black Power, as described in Documents Two and Five, indicate that the gains of the civil rights movement were not uniformly embraced as a fait accompli by either whites or blacks. White people, as well as some blacks, were alarmed at the new, militant tone of Black Power supporters. This passage in Document Two is pertinent: “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 [Mississippi] and in every community where white promises to Negroes were not being redeemed.”
The goals of the Black Panthers—and their warnings of potential race warfare—were shocking and disturbing to many people of both races. This passage in particular disputes King’s assertion: “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.”
In Document Six, James Baldwin states, “We are dying… [as] 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.”
2. In Document Six, Carey McWilliams paints a relatively optimistic portrait of the civil rights progress achieved by African Americans as of 1978. Compare and contrast the McWilliams piece with Document Four, the 1968 essay “Television” by John Horn. In what ways does the McWilliams essay portray a different sort of society than the one described by Horn ten years earlier?
Although Horn is focusing on the role of television, his comments can be taken as reflections of American society as a whole in 1968. In doing so, he characterizes American culture as largely defined by white affluence, materialism, and indifference to Americans of color. Black people not only felt excluded from that life and culture, Horn says; they were systemically and deliberately excluded from full participation in all aspects of American life, as their lack of physical presence on television in 1968 demonstrates. It was as if black Americans didn’t even exist, and perhaps in the white fantasy of the time, as reflected on TV, that was the ideal.
By contrast, ten years later, Carey McWilliams describes a society that is far more open and inclusive. Certain systemic methods for excluding or restricting African Americans—legal discrimination in politics, housing, marriage, the military, public places and facilities, and education—had been eliminated. As McWilliams goes on to point out, by 1978 the appearance on television of black actors, along with those of other minorities, came to be seen as normal.
3. Compare and contrast the following two quotations:
“The continuation of persistent poverty is incendiary because the poor cannot rationalize their deprivation. … Only the neglect to plan intelligently and the unwillingness genuinely to embrace economic justice enable it to persist.” —Martin Luther King Jr. in Document One.
“We are dying, here, out of all proportion to our numbers… 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…” —James Baldwin in Document Seven.
Both passages assert that black poverty is a direct result of the [white] American power structure. Dr. King attributes the enduring problem to a sort of passive “neglect” on the part of the powerful, as well as a grudging “unwillingness” to change an unjust system. Fourteen years later, Baldwin goes much further. He argues that black poverty is deliberate form of oppression enforced by the all-encompassing racism of American institutions, which reflect the will of “most white Americans.”
4. In Document Seven, James Baldwin states, “American institutions [are all] racist.” Find three examples in the other documents that illustrate how American institutions—in the broad sense of the word—may have been seen to be racist.
Here are three examples that students may cite:
In Document Four, John Horn describes the institution of national television broadcasting as highly racist in its exclusionary programming which focused exclusively on white America.
In Document Five, the Black Panthers regard American business, housing, education, and the military—along with the police, the courts, and the penal system—as all being racist institutions.
In Document Eight, Alexander Cockburn implies racism in the economic policies of the federal government, which he describes as “economic oppression of the poor, especially the black poor.”