One October day in sixth grade, I stayed home sick from school but summoned the energy to watch the Detroit Tigers host the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. (Back then, World Series games were only played during the day.) A singer I had not heard of, José Feliciano, sang a very unusual, soulful version of The Star-Spangled Banner, accompanying himself on guitar. In my memory, he sat among the crowd in the stands, but YouTube makes clear that he was standing on the field in front of an awkwardly motionless brass ensemble.
Game 5 was the turning point in the Series. Down three games to one, the Tigers took the last three games and the Series. Their number two pitcher, Mickey Lolich, won game 5 and somehow outdueled future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in Game 7. (Gibson had just set one of the game’s great records, with an earned run average of 1.12 for the season.) But in that tumultuous year, Game 5 was remembered for Feliciano’s avant-garde performance and the enraged reactions of traditionalists.
Feliciano has said that he did not mean his version to be disrespectful, and the video bears this out: it was simply a non-martial arrangement. He was no Nina Simone and this was nothing like his incandescent version of “Light My Fire.” If anything, the choice of Feliciano might have caused some local resentment in Motown, home of the musical hit factory. The city had been engulfed in race riots the summer before. The Tigers, ironically, were one of the least integrated of baseball’s elite teams, with just one regular Black starting player, the slugger Willie Horton. The Cards, in contrast, started future Hall of Famer Lou Brock and Curt Flood in a legendary outfield1, and Latino stars Orlando Cepeda and Julian Javier in the infield; most unusually for the time, Gibson was their number one pitcher. Indeed, almost every elite team of the era relied on Black (including Black Latin) regulars, and not just an isolated All-Star. 2 Some envious Detroiters might have been forgiven for expecting an even more soulful anthem.
But 1968 was a year of traditionalist rage. Anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, compounded by the anguished reactions to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, provoked a conservative backlash we still feel. Richard Nixon won the presidency with his law-and-order message and his strategy of flipping Southern states, but we should remember that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was cheered at the Democratic National Convention for his harsh suppression of antiwar demonstrators, and Democrats nominated the candidate most identified with President Johnson’s Vietnam war escalation, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
I was still too young to pay much attention to politics, and in Portland, Oregon, there was not a lot of racial tension (due to some pretty shameful history that I also didn’t know). Most of what I had learned about race was from my passion for baseball, including its history: Jackie Robinson’s endurance of verbal abuse, especially in border cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis, when he started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947; the emergence of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron from Jim Crow Alabama; the totemic wisdom of Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige, who was denied access to the major leagues until age 42 (“don’t look back, somebody might be gaining on you”). But to an eleven-year-old watching The Game of the Week on NBC, these stories of discrimination already seemed to belong to a different era. A true fan, I cared only that the game be played at its highest level.
Without realizing it, I had bought into the myth of meritocracy: now that civil rights laws were in the books, anyone with talent and drive (and maybe a little assist from affirmative action) could succeed. Recent scholarship, reinforced by so many cell phone videos of tragic police encounters, has thoroughly debunked that myth. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander documents the impact of mass incarceration from the 1970s forward; in The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein recounts the legacy of 20th century government-sponsored discrimination in the form of discriminatory zoning, redevelopment and eligibility rules for government benefits. Many other essayists, memoirists and poets have explored the stomach-turning ugliness of contemporary discrimination, in works like Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. But these correctives seem to have done nothing to stop the propagation of baseless claims of voter fraud and the wild fiction of “replacement theory.”
This essay explores the long history of American racial mythmaking, leading up to the brief, exceptional period of the 1960s, when just enough Americans saw past the myths to enable civil rights progress. In a country almost ninety percent white at the time, white attitudes dictated just how far the movement could go, before another set of myths emerged.
Today we know that race is no more than a social construct: genome sequencing shows that all humans share nearly one hundred percent of our DNA; the archeological consensus is that almost all of us descend from groups that walked out of Africa between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand years ago (which helps to explain the genetic overlap).
Yet family histories show that people had always understood the artificiality of race. Take the “one drop” rule adopted by state legislatures in Virginia and other southern states. A person with one great grandmother of African descent could have seven ancestors of European descent out of eight in that generation. What purpose could be served by assigning such a person a Black identity?
In the midst of the eugenics movement, just as Hitler was coming to power in Germany, William Faulkner provided a devastating answer in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner’s use of multiple narrators, slight inconsistencies and branching sentences spanning several pages, immerses the reader in the perspective of the Deep South’s planter class. Henry Sutpen, son of the wildly avaricious, self-made Mississippi planter Thomas Sutpen, defends the engagement of his sister Judith to his college friend Charles Bon, even after learning that Charles is their half-brother. But when he learns that Charles is also an “octoroon” (that is, he had a Black great-grandmother), Henry will do anything to prevent the union. Bigamy, fornication, incest, murder and arson are more tolerable in the novel’s reflexively hierarchical society, than the rise of a mixed-race person to the propertied class.
Faulkner was barely exaggerating. In the National Book Award-winning The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed recounts two hundred years of the Hemings family, house servants, in-laws and descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was no Thomas Sutpen, of course, but North American plantation slavery was cruel even in the most “refined” settings. He had inherited several members of the Hemings family from his late wife Martha, including young Sally Hemings. As the daughter of Martha’s father John Wayles and Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, a mixed-race house servant, Sally was Martha’s half-sister, and no more than one-fourth of African descent. By some accounts, Abigail Adams saw danger ahead when the beautiful 14-year-old arrived in London accompanying Jefferson’s younger daughter, on their way to join Jefferson in Paris in 1787. Gordon-Reed ties the story together. Jefferson had promised the dying Martha that he would not remarry, so that their two daughters would not have to answer to a stepmother. When Sally became pregnant in Paris, at seventeen, the forty-six-year-old Jefferson promised her that their children would be freed after his death, in order to preserve the relationship and, quite possibly, to keep it secret. (Gordon-Reed explains that Sally could have walked away, because pre-revolutionary French courts did not enforce slaveholder ownership claims.)
Jefferson found a way to keep his promises to both women, and to abide by the norms of his race and class, while getting what he wanted. Indeed, he followed through with that promise of freedom even though only two of their four surviving children were freed in his will; the other two, William Beverley Hemings and Harriet Hemings, had been freed as young adults a few years before Jefferson’s death, per their parents’ longstanding plans. As no more than one-eighth of African descent, Beverley and Harriet “took white spouses and left blackness completely behind.”
It’s tempting to see Beverley and Harriet as relatively fortunate, to be both free from slavery and able to assume white identities. But pause on that for a moment. In order to pass as white, Beverly and Harriet, at twenty-four and twenty-one, respectively, would have had to invent new life stories, move out of Virginia, have no further contact with their families and make their way North into a new world of complete strangers. This must have been an unbelievably lonely and risky prospect. Yet their parents wished this life for them, giving them money and hoping never to see them again. They would have been obligated to hide the identity of their parents, one of whom was the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia. Jefferson again did his part to protect (by denying) his children, making a careful record that these slaves “ran away.” And this elaborate ruse was seen as better, far better, for them than living even as free black adults in the Virginia of 1822.
Gordon-Reed also emphasizes that Virginia had changed the rules of inheritance for Black families in the 1700s; children received the racial status of their mothers rather than their fathers. Otherwise, as Faulkner’s characters feared, plantations could be split between a patriarch’s white and mixed-race children, and the social order upended. Much easier to regulate social class than the sexual prerogatives of planters. Reed quotes the white Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut: “Unable to do anything about it, many a Southern white woman feigned ignorance of illicit, interracial relationships, at least those that occurred under her own roof.” This meant that enslaved Black women, already subject to their masters’ life-or-death control, also had to employ their wombs to bear children for their masters’ financial benefit.
The fluidity of race, then, was always pretty obvious, as were the social and financial prerogatives at stake. Faced with that reality, after slavery was abolished, even more explicitly race-based (as opposed to property-based) measures would be needed to sustain the existing social order.
The new racism included infamous measures that lasted until the 1960s: Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, prison labor camps and lynching. These were supported in white communities throughout the country by layers of long-held, widely accepted disinformation:
- The “states’ rights” narrative of the Civil War - - that the Confederacy fought against federal interference and not about slavery (and certainly not about abuses of basic human rights);
- Union virtue - - that since the federal government had done what it could, blame for racial inequities could be deflected to the explicit laws and practices of the former Confederacy;
- The “Redeemer” narrative about Reconstruction - - that the restoration of white control in the South in 1877 ended a period of chaotic rule by freed Blacks incapable of governance,
- Eugenics - a fake science of racial hierarchy that lent intellectual support to race-based policies, widely accepted for decades until Nazi atrocities thoroughly discredited it.
Princeton historian James McPherson provided a corrective view in Battle Cry of Freedom (1988). The Civil War was triggered by an economic impasse between white constituencies over the geographical scope of slavery. Northerners had long wanted to assure that new states were available for white settlement and paid white labor in the Northern economic model.3 Unpaid slave labor could fatally undermine this still-racist goal: Louisiana, Mississippi and (nearly) Alabama became majority-Black states dominated by a small number of massive plantations. The sectional split became stunningly clear when party lines shattered over Democratic Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot’s unsuccessful 1846 proposal to bar slavery from territory acquired during the Mexican War; regardless of party, almost every Northern congressman supported the “Wilmot Proviso” and almost every Southern congressman opposed it.
While McPherson’s corrective view greatly complicates the story of Union virtue, it destroys the remnants of the states-rights theme. Southern politicians and their constituents could not, and would not, tolerate any effort to hem in their peculiar institution. Only at the risk of war did they agree to parity with the North in the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850: a new slave state for each new free one. The reason is clear enough: the southern states had nearly half their wealth tied up in slave ownership, and the rest mostly in land, the value of which depended on the cost of labor. Every additional slave state drove up demand for, and the market value of, enslaved persons. Southerners were the main supporters of the Mexican War, which added the huge slave state of Texas, and more adventurous efforts to annex Cuba and parts of Central America. Without those new markets, they worried, their property values, and the institution itself, would collapse. They did not seek merely to preserve the power of states to permit human bondage - they wanted a growing empire of slavery.
The war then moved the Union toward full abolition, but largely for strategic reasons. Because former slaves consistently and courageously chose an uncertain fate with the Union Army (which may as well have arrived from Mars) over the supposedly benign rule of the planters, slavery - - and the plantation economy - - ended wherever the Union Army went, all the way to Juneteenth. To help ensure that the old South would not rise again, Congress made ratification of the 13th and 14th amendments, abolishing slavery and guaranteeing equal protection of the law, as well as “manhood suffrage” (later the 15th amendment), conditions for the southern states’ readmission to the Union. The universal manhood vote, to include upcountry whites as well as Blacks, was seen as necessary to prevent restoration of plantation owner dominance; it did not pose political concerns outside the South since few Blacks lived there. Reconstruction clearly was intended to empower Black voters; it was also in the self-interest of the dominant Republican party, which expected (correctly) to benefit from Black votes.
Reconstruction failed, as its preeminent historian, Eric Foner, concluded, but not for the reasons put forth by redeemers. To understand the twentieth century civil rights revolution, it is essential to see that Reconstruction failed partly because of its own insufficiencies, partly because it was abandoned by national Republicans, and partly because it was actively killed off by southern Democrats.
Reconstruction was not a single coherent program but a series of compromise steps that gained majority support at the moment. With hindsight, we can see that its major omission was a meaningful economic program. While Blacks were initially allowed to earn wages, vote, hold office and acquire property, they had been deprived of education and had essentially no capital; only the incredibly ambitious, and fortunate, could succeed with such a handicap. To make matters worse for all, the region’s agrarian economy was underdeveloped and severely damaged by the war. In 1889, Atlanta newspaper editor Henry Grady could still complain that every item at a recent funeral, from coffin to wagon to clothes, had been made in the North from raw materials widely available in the South.4 Reconstruction could have included economic reforms like straight land redistribution (“forty acres and a mule”) – but General Sherman’s isolated wartime redistribution in Georgia was soon reversed by President Andrew Johnson – and/or a trade-financing program like the post-World War II Marshall Plan designed to revive and diversify the entire Southern economy. The Panic of 1873 and the deflationary economic policies of successive Republican administrations (the “Cross of Gold” derided by four-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan) further disadvantaged southern and western farmers, of all races, for a generation. An ebbing tide lowers all ships.
More important, white southerners essentially rebelled again. Their Democratic party advocated measures to keep the freedmen subjugated economically and socially, even to the detriment of regional economic development; the Ku Klux Klan and other violent white supremacist groups soon formed to keep freedmen from, among other things, voting. Congress and the federal government under President Ulysses S. Grant initially took decisive action to stifle the violence, passing the Ku Klux Klan Act (1871) and dispatching federal troops when necessary to stop what amounted to political insurrection. But Grant’s interventions proved unsustainable. By the mid-1870s, he explained that: “there was no sense in trying to save Mississippi if the attempt to do so would lose Ohio.”
In themes repeated in the twentieth century, the withdrawal of national support caused the freedmen’s loss of personal safety and security, and spelled the end of Reconstruction. The Democratic “Redeemers” swiftly suppressed Black voters and reasserted white power in every state of the former Confederacy. They left the Constitutional amendments and civil rights laws unenforced, with the blessing of several decisions by the US Supreme Court, leading up to the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which effectively encouraged systematic segregation. This was the most visible and visceral driver for the civil rights movement all the way through to the 1960s.
Amazingly, this history of local terrorism and nationwide neglect got repackaged into the Redeemer narrative of salvation. The landmark film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) reached a wide audience that included President Wilson’s White House and helped to trigger a revival of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the 1920s, including in my native Oregon. And leading academic historians supported this narrative for decades until a generation of revisionists, inspired by WEB DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America (1935), blew up its racist and narcissistic foundations.
The backlash did not make the Civil War amendments meaningless. As recounted in The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, even the very unequal accommodations provided by interstate rail carriers enabled one crucial demographic change: the Great Migration. From the 1910s to the early 1970s, about 6 million Blacks moved out of the former Confederacy to cities in the North and West. Many were pulled by industrial hiring during the First and Second World Wars, though migration continued even without this incentive. The migrants experienced explicit discrimination and wretched economic and living conditions. This was neither equality nor real freedom, but it offered somewhat wider economic opportunities and some relief from the constant intimidation and threat of violence. It was enough that the migrants’ friends and relatives, especially the young and ambitious, continued to leave their homes in remarkable numbers for sixty years.
It was enough freedom to allow a free Black culture to emerge in neighborhoods of the receiving cities, especially New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. A few stars could shine, and white northerners began to notice. Musicians like Harlem-based Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and athletes like the UCLA and Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, became national icons in the 1920s and 1930s. Mississippi-born Richard Wright moved to Chicago as a young man and published the national bestseller Native Son in 1940. More concretely, the liberal wing of the Democratic party began pressing vocally for new civil rights legislation during the Roosevelt administration, though they were stymied by Southern Democratic senators whose support President Roosevelt needed to pass other New Deal legislation.
Thus, as the World War II ended and Winston Churchill declared that an Iron Curtain was falling in Central Europe, the states of the former Confederacy still maintained what amounted to a system of apartheid. Not even the mildest civil rights legislation passed the Southern-dominated Senate until the late 1950s. But the internal diaspora of the Great Migration had already created new possibilities and challenges: Blacks now had some political influence in the North; and whites outside the South now had to deal with race issues for themselves.
The Cold War did spark changes, but its impact was mixed at best. International criticism, from allies and foes alike, put a lot of heat on the US government. American leaders could not credibly hold up the country as a bastion of democracy and freedom, in contrast to totalitarian communist regimes, as long as Black citizens were so visibly denied basic rights, including their supposed Constitutional right to vote. Jim Crow segregation embarrassed national leaders - - even President Eisenhower, a little - - both by fueling Soviet propaganda and by alienating diplomats from newly independent African nations, which were among the “nonaligned” free agents of the era.
But Cold War concerns often eclipsed civil rights issues. Groundless communist conspiracy theories were used to demonize left-leaning figures, including Black activists. And even welcome international attention did no more than amplify themes formulated by Black leaders. The actual case for justice had to be made right here at home in the USA.
Black-led organizations, including the NAACP and the Union of Sleeping Car Porters, gained some important victories in the 1930s and 1940s, as their voters gained visibility outside the South. Though he was not especially progressive, President Truman took action because he knew he would need northern Black voters in the 1948 election, and he worried about both liberal challenger Henry Wallace and Republican Tom Dewey running to his left on this issue. In response to a wave of violence against returning Black servicemen in 1946-47, Truman sponsored a Presidential Commission on Civil Rights which concluded that in southern states “the white population can threaten and do violence to the minority member with little or no fear of legal reprisal.” Truman then pushed anti-lynching legislation (blocked by Southern Democrats), issued an executive order integrating the armed forces and the federal civil service and, at the height of the 1948 presidential campaign, gave a speech in Harlem to a crowd estimated at 65,000. The movement also achieved important court victories, well before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine of the Plessy case. The Supreme Court banned segregation in interstate transport (1946) and voided racially restrictive real property covenants (1948), while the California Supreme Court ruled the state’s anti-miscegenation statute unconstitutional (1948).
None of these things would have happened without Black activism. It is true that Truman cited Cold War concerns in advocating anti-lynching legislation, but NAACP petitions to the United Nations had helped put it on the international agenda. That Harlem crowd of 65,000 did not spontaneously assemble. These indications of Black political influence are even more remarkable when we remember that about half the country’s Blacks, who still lived in the South, had effectively no say at the ballot box.
The progress of the late 1940s was not followed up. What happened to civil rights in the 1950s? One answer is: the Cold War. Beginning with to the communist military victory in China (1949), followed by the Korean War and Soviet advances in nuclear weapons, fear of communism dramatically escalated in the US. Even before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious inquisitions, the Truman administration moved on its own to “clean up” the State Department, drew a hard line in Korea and vastly escalate defense spending. Nevertheless, Congressional Republicans swept into power in 1950, claiming that Democrats were soft on Communism, and Dwight Eisenhower was elected President in 1952. Unlike northern Democrats, Eisenhower-era Republicans relied on a white voting base outside the South and could afford to go slow on civil rights issues. The President himself seems to have hoped that these issues could be resolved locally, lifting a finger only when Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus pointedly refused to obey a 1957 federal court order integrating Little Rock schools. Even then, Eisenhower tried to steer a middle ground, praising the Confederacy while condemning white violence.
Perversely, prominent civil rights activists were harassed for fear their criticism of the US would aid the cause of global communism. In the early 1950s, the State Department prevented the singer Paul Robeson from leaving the country, and the dancer Josephine Baker, by then a French citizen, from entering the US and from performing in pre-Castro Cuba. As Orwell might have observed, freedom was denied in the cause of freedom.
The most powerful conspiracy-minded segregationist was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Having cut his teeth during the first Red scare of the early 1920s, Hoover was a media-savvy operator who prioritized anti-communist espionage over the agency’s ostensible job of enforcing federal law. (Attorney General Bobby Kennedy actually had to shame Hoover into investigating the Mafia.) Hoover was sure - - quite wrong, but sure - - that civil rights leaders were connected in some way to international communism. He dragged his feet on requests to protect civil rights activists and to prosecute vigilantism in the South - - effectively worsening the violence - - but intentionally compiled dossiers on the sexual behavior of politicians and civil rights leaders, including President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, in service of his political goals. An FBI Conference Agenda from late 1963 expressly stated that “[w]e are most interested in exposing [King] in some manner in order to discredit him.” Even more shockingly, Hoover attempted to silence King by having excerpted hotel room tapes sent to him with a crudely worded blackmail message. King did not need to be Sherlock Holmes to guess the real source of the wiretaps and, though shaken, he persisted.
Finally, US leaders consistently decided that Cold War concerns outweighed racial justice in many other parts of the world. The US needed South African uranium, so it said little and did nothing about apartheid. The US needed a jet refueling station on Portugal’s Azores islands, so it said little and did nothing about Antonio Salazar’s unapologetic colonial repression: “I cannot give in Africa what I cannot grant to my own people.” Worst, and most lasting, was Vietnam. The US and Britain desperately needed the understandably reluctant French to join their recent tormentors in western Germany in a European Common Market, in order to discourage Soviet influence. The price was supporting France’s defense of its colonial holdings in Southeast Asia. After northern Vietnamese communists defeated the French in 1954, the US further committed to fight the fall of any further “dominos” to communism. This ill-fated intervention would play a major role in limiting the success of the domestic civil rights movement.
Out of Sight
Unlike the nuclear threat and Vietnam, civil rights issues got almost no attention from Hollywood, and Black American stories only very little. The Production Code, in effect from the 1930s the mid-1960s, limited national distribution to films that would not offend sensitive white audiences; McCarthy-era blacklisting of supposed communist sympathizers reinforced this self-censorship by driving politically active artists underground or overseas.
For these and other reasons, during the key decades 1950-1970:
- Only one Black actor, Sidney Poitier, and two Black actresses, Dorothy Dandridge and Juanita Moore, were even nominated for Oscars.5
- 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, Barron’s fairly inclusive critics list of American and foreign titles, includes by my count only five American movies with Black leads.6
- Most tellingly, only one film from those two decades made the 2016 Slate critics’ survey of greatest movies by Black directors, The Learning Tree (1969) by the acclaimed photographer-director Gordon Parks.
Sidney Poitier’s rise to A-list stardom was an amazing achievement at the time, but it could also seem as though he was the only Black leading man in Hollywood. What’s more, he was often cast as a nearly flawless hero, in roles designed to make white audiences comfortable. For example, Poitier’s Philadelphia homicide detective is miles smarter, cooler and braver than any of the whites in small-town Mississippi in In the Heat of the Night. The film (just) avoids caricature by allowing Poitier’s character a moment of anger (“They call me Mister Tibbs!”), and by casting Rod Steiger as a racist, but pragmatic, local police chief who resists political pressure for the larger purpose of solving the crime. The Black cotton field workers whom Poitier’s character sees on the way to meet the local patriarch, remind us how little had changed.
The Learning Tree, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film set in rural 1920s Kansas, also dramatizes discrimination - - and also settles for a morally straightforward story. The white sheriff murders fleeing suspects in three separate incidents; the teenage protagonist’s girlfriend moves away after she is impregnated by a rich white boy; and the Black teens can only order their after-school Cokes to go. But the young protagonist’s almost saintly behavior, and the fairness of the local judge releasing a wrongly accused Black farm worker in reliance on the protagonist’s testimony, suggest that Parks (or the studio) was still very cautious about white audience reaction. It wasn’t because of the Production Code: much edgier films like Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy came out that same year. Not until 1971-73 did a small wave of Black-led films come out, a result of rather than a contribution to civil rights reforms: the action movies Shaft (also directed by Parks), Superfly, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and The Spook Who Sat by the Door, as well as award magnets Sounder and Lady Sings the Blues.
In music, Black artists had career opportunities, and they used forms they’d inherited to mount a revolution. It would be enough to say that the 1940s-1960s was a golden age for jazz; Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone supplanted the high energy big bands with a full spectrum of innovative personal expression, from introspective to angry to soaring. This is American classical music, every bit as much as Bernstein, Copland and Gershwin (another group of outsiders), and much of it will be played for centuries.
But jazz can be difficult, an acquired taste. The popular revolution was rock and roll, a blues-based form adopted or co-opted by white artists. The mass appeal of Elvis Presley in the 1950s and The Beatles in the 1960s created a generational watershed. Baby Boomers of all colors and classes, and every generation since, have found it hard to enjoy older forms. Frank Sinatra, an A-list celebrity since his own years as a teen heartthrob in the 1940s, released his most acclaimed work in the mid-1960s, such as “Strangers in the Night,” but he may as well have been singing in Latin. We couldn’t understand what our parents saw in Sinatra; in contrast, our kids would always love the Beatles.
Recent documentaries now give us the chance to see Black artists at work in the 1960s. Netflix and other platforms have made it a point to carry documentary or fictionalized biopics (both, in some cases) of individual stars, all of them pioneers and survivors of official and de facto discrimination: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Charlie Parker, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin.
But the best films widen their lenses. Twenty Feet From Stardom (2012) profiles the predominantly Black, predominantly female singers who - - with almost no recognition and very little reward - - provided the church choir-like counterpoints for everyone from Ray Charles to the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and, yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s a testament to their artistry and perseverance, and an example, if another were needed, of how Black contributions to our culture have been overlooked.
And now we have Summer of Soul (2021). In collecting and editing somehow-forgotten tapes of the summerlong Harlem music festival of 1969, with reflections from artists and attendees, the producer Questlove has given us an indispensable history of that creative, tumultuous and now distant time. (Filmmakers have had little trouble finding footage of the Woodstock festival that same summer.) The Harlem festival, backed by the liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, ran several weekends over the summer as a sort of escape valve to the Harlem community, which had endured occasionally violent demonstrations during the terrible summer of 1968. Naturally there were pop stars like the teenage Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin (recently of the Temptations) and the Fifth Dimension, but festivalgoers also got to see gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, and the political advocacy of Nina Simone. I personally got a chill to see the dozens of choir members of the Ephesian Church of God in Christ, from Berkeley California, assemble on stage and sing O Happy Day. I remembered the song of course - - it’s mesmerizing and life-affirming even for a committed agnostic - - but only from the radio. For all these years, I had had no idea who sang it. The true fan cares only that the music be performed at the highest level.
Reaching the Stage
With due regard for many fascinating and charismatic political leaders - - Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Barry Goldwater, George Wallace - - the Shakespearean triumphs and tragedies of the 1960s would be played out by Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. Enormously ambitious and unbelievably energetic, Johnson and King attained leadership at the time when decades of protest and political groundwork by many thousands could finally be realized. They shared a brief, glorious triumph. Within a week in the spring of 1968, one had surrendered, the other was murdered. But in the early 1960s, several things came together to push real breakthroughs.
A peaceful and morally grounded campaign
King came to be the most widely known and respected leader because he framed the movement as a moral struggle. King was a young minister in a Montgomery church when he was elected to lead the local bus boycott, after Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in white section of a city bus in late 1956. As cultural historian Louis Menand has written, King came to see the boycott not as striking back in anger - - an un-Christian response - - but as withdrawing support from an evil system, of which the bus company was just a part. Thurgood Marshall, who had argued the Brown case and many others as the NAACP’s lead attorney, thought the bus strike was a waste of resources: the policy was illegal, why not just sue? (The strike would in fact be resolved in court.) But King’s insight was that court cases did not demonstrate that Black community’s values or its commitment to justice. As Annette Gordon-Reed has observed, they wanted more than legal recognition; they wanted to be seen as human beings, as Jesus had said they should. And they were willing to continue to demonstrate, peacefully and in the face of violent resistance, until they achieved that goal.
Menand has explained that King was in this respect unlike Marshall, who had worked for so long and so successfully to change the law; unlike the writer and public intellectual James Baldwin, who used his own writing and media appearances to change minds; and unlike Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who sought to form an exclusively Black movement that asserted its rights without apology, and without promising to turn the other cheek. All of these avenues of advocacy were important and, despite some intra-movement tension, reinforced each other. But it was the public demonstration of ordinary Black people simply seeking to behave like ordinary people, that gripped the nation.
A young population that sought tangible change in their lifetimes
King was only the most visible member of a complex movement that featured a lot of independent young activists. For example, King had nothing to do with the student lunch counter sit-ins that swept the upper South in 1960; four freshmen at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro had seen little tangible progress from Brown and other court rulings, and had had enough of waiting.
King was also not initially a strong supporter of the very dangerous Freedom Rides in 1961, led in large part by college students of both races. King’s younger colleague, James Bevel, had the brilliant and very dangerous idea to have schoolchildren march in Birmingham in 1963 when the adults weren’t eager to face Sheriff Bull Connor’s truncheons and firehoses; Bevel also initiated the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. King came to support these actions - - for example, he wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail at the outset of the Birmingham protests, and walked with other leaders in the second, successful march from Selma. But the impatience of youth created much of the energy.
Predictable and unsympathetic villains
By the mid-1950s, it should have been apparent that the harshness of segregation would not survive national attention. Yet Southern Democrats continued to defend the extreme perimeter of their states’ segregation policies, to the point of filibustering every civil rights bill, including anti-lynching legislation, the most neutral reform imaginable, until the late 1950s. Their rationalization was that, despite all evidence to the contrary, local laws were sufficient to deter wanton murder.
Likewise, regional politicians and citizens reflexively resisted every step toward integration, with increasing levels of violence: from King’s first campaign boycotting Montgomery’s municipal bus system (1956), to Little Rock public schools (1957), a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro (1960), the interstate Greyhound bus station in Montgomery (1961), the steps of the University of Mississippi in Oxford (1962), Birmingham’s downtown streets (1963), a Black church in Neshoba County Mississippi (1964), and the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama (1965), among many others. Despite losing every political and public opinion battle until the passage of the Civil Rights of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, reactionary behavior was so predictable and egregious that civil rights leaders had a bottomless well of opportunity for action whenever progress seemed to slow. (When civil rights leaders turned to face north, wily Chicago Mayor Richard Daley stalled far more effectively by agreeing with them, in principle.)
A slain ally and a would-be FDR
Despite his support from Black voters, President Kennedy was initially reluctant to make civil rights a priority. Other Cold War firestorms bedeviled his administration from the very start: the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a botched summit with Khrushchev, a military standoff in Berlin (ending with construction of the Berlin Wall) all in 1961. The Cuban missile crisis took place in October 1962, the ill-fated overthrow and murder of South Vietnamese president Diem in November 1963. It was only the persistence of civil rights demonstrations that forced Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to get involved, particularly in the cases of the Freedom Riders in that eventful summer of 1961 and the James Meredith admission to the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962.
By the time TV cameras caught Bull Connor turning firehoses on schoolchildren in May 1963, the Kennedys had seen enough. The President introduced civil rights legislation that summer and greenlighted the march on Washington that August, providing King (among many others) the national platform they needed.
After John Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson, a former Texas senator and Senate majority leader, sensed what he could accomplish in that New Deal-like moment. Johnson threw his support behind a stronger civil rights bill, which passed in the summer of 1964, then swept to victory in the 1964 election with a huge congressional majority. The only dark cloud was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a possibly-made-up exchange of fire off the coast of North Vietnam that Johnson leveraged for congressional approval of military action (and to deprive his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater of a campaign issue).
Then in March 1965, just weeks after Johnson’s inauguration, James Bevins’ peaceful march for voting rights was violently halted by Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Johnson was apoplectic. He addressed a joint session of Congress the following week, calling for swift action on the Voting Rights bill. And closing with the song lyrics “we shall overcome.” Watching on television, King reportedly teared up.
This was their finest hour. It was so much - - too much for a lot of white voters - - and yet it was also not enough, as events quickly showed.
Just five nights after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, riots erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The trigger had been a police traffic stop of a young Black driver that escalated unnecessarily. Large-scale rioting broke out in Black neighborhoods every summer from 1964 (beginning in Harlem) through 1967 (beginning in Detroit), even before King’s assassination in April 1968. The cause was almost always the use of excessive force by police. Voting rights were important, but Blacks also wanted to be safe on the streets: safe from criminal behavior and from police misconduct. They were not - - not in the south, north, east or west.
This proved to be the issue that really split the country. The rioting was terrifying to Black residents as well as alarming to white viewers. But most whites trusted and felt protected by their local police; the dramatic difference in police behavior in Black neighborhoods created a climate of fear that echoed Jim Crow. This did not persuade many whites that their own local police might be part of the problem. As we now know, it took the circulation of many cellphone videos, beginning with the 2008 killing of Oscar Grant III by transit police at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station, for the pervasiveness of this problem to become undeniable.
Vietnam further polarized opinions along racial lines. Black leaders almost universally condemned US involvement as, among other things, a wasteful effort that perpetuated a form of racist colonialism. King, after some delay and considerable introspection, announced his opposition with clarity in early 1967. Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali risked jail to avoid the draft that same year, noting that the Vietnamese had “never called me nigger. . .”
Many white liberals also opposed the war, of course. Johnson’s critics included those who hated losing, those who couldn’t support more US casualties, and those who opposed the war itself. But most Americans favored the war effort as part of the larger fight against Communism and would have punished President Johnson party for backing out. As late as October 1969, polls showed large majorities - - necessarily white majorities - - opposed to antiwar demonstrations and withdrawal from Vietnam after a national TV address by President Nixon.
The year 1968 would be the beginning of a political exile for progressives. White voters vastly outnumbered Blacks, as Black leaders well knew. Nixon’s “law and order” message would be racially neutral on its surface, a tacit acknowledgement of civil rights achievements, and would sound moderate in comparison to third party candidate George Wallace’s explicit segregationism. The message also resonated with many voters, the so-called Silent Majority, who disagreed with Vietnam war protesters, feared racial disturbances in the cities, or were culturally unready to fully accept new ideas. It was effective enough to win a narrow electoral victory over the Democrats’ most centrist candidate, and to stop the tide of reform.
Nixon went on to declare a “War on Drugs,” a tough-on-crime move that would be emulated, under different names, by presidents of both parties with disproportional and devastating effect on Black communities. He won re-election with 70 percent of the white vote in 1972. A new era of mythmaking had begun.