[NOTE: John McWhorter is an often provocative columnist for the New York Times. He’s a frequent dissenter from the evolving “woke-DEI consensus,” but also an advocate for his version of Black advancement (e.g., pressing for teaching reading to all students via Phonics, a crusade I completely agree with), and has called for ending the quasi-religious character of the “anti-racism” movement (which I also generally support, though a crude and less than well-informed anti-religiousness seriously mars McWhorter’s case there).
In the column below, he reaches not for polemics but for understanding. He wants to grasp the major shift in public mood that overtook the nation in 1966, focusing specifically on the seemingly abrupt appearance of the phrase “Black power” among civil rights activists.
I think I can help with that. First, McWhorter sets up his query]:
When rhetoric overtakes action in the fight for equality
By John McWhorter New York Times — March 21, 2023
Various books I’ve been reading lately have me thinking about 1966. I have often said that the history of Black America could be divided between what happened before and after that year.
It was a year when the fight for Black equality shifted sharply in mood, ushering in an era in which rhetoric overtook actual game plans for action. It planted the seed for the excesses of today’s wokeness. I wouldn’t have been on board, and I’m glad I was only a baby that year and didn’t have to face it as a mature person.
The difference between Black America in 1960 and in 1970 appears vaster to me than it was between the start and end of any decade since the 1860s after Emancipation. And in 1966 specifically, Stokely Carmichael made his iconic speech about a separatist “Black Power,” the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he led expelled its white members (though Carmichael himself did not advocate this), the Black Panther Party was born, Black replaced Negro as the preferred term, the Afro went mainstream and Malcolm X’s, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (co-written with Alex Haley) became a standard text for Black readers.
I doubt most people living through that year thought of it as a particularly unique 365 days, but Mark Whitaker, a former editor of Newsweek, has justified my sense of that year as seminal with his new book, “Saying It Loud: 1966 — the Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement.” Whitaker has a journalist’s understanding of the difference between merely documenting the facts and using them to tell a story . . . .
But one question keeps nagging at me: Why did the mood shift at that particular point? The conditions of Black America at the time would not have led one to imagine that a revolution in thought was imminent. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just happened.
The economy was relatively strong, and Black men in particular were now earning twice as much or more than they had before World War II. As the political scientist and historian duo Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom noted in their book, “America in Black and White,” “Before World War II, Black bank tellers, bookkeepers, cashiers, secretaries, stenographers, telephone operators or mail carriers were rare. By 1970 they were very common, though far more in the north than in the south.”
And as to claims one might hear that Black America was uniquely fed up in 1966, were Black people not plenty fed up in 1876, or after World War I or World War II?
What Whitaker so deftly chronicles strikes me less as a natural development from on-the-ground circumstances than as something more elusive for the historian: the emergence and influence of that mood shift I referred to. . . .
COMMENTS: Of course, lots of factors whirled together in that tumultuous year, as I well remember. Here are a few which seemed crucial to me, and McWhorter largely neglects:
— The civil rights movement was now past its peak, the Selma voting rights campaign of 1965.
Two shocks marked this crest and the following slide: On August 11, 1965, the Watts riot/uprising exploded in Los Angeles. Fighting continued for five nights, more than 34 were killed, many millions of property were burned, 14000 national guard troops were called in, and the reverberations were felt all across the country.
From then through the end of the Sixties, summers were to be marked by more bouts of urban unrest. As anxiety about them grew, white sympathy for Black activism, epitomized by the nonviolent heroism of Blacks in Selma, led by Dr. King and John Lewis, hit a solidifying wall of white backlash. (There were several more eruptions in the summer of 1966.)
King’s work suffered another major blow in the north. He attempted to recover his post-Selma momentum with a poverty-centered campaign in Chicago beginning in early 1966. But this months-long thrust was a major flop; King was repeatedly outwitted by Chicago mayor Richard Daley.
Further, as the Chicago effort sputtered, Dr. King came under increasing pressure to face up to an “external” issue, namely the still-escalating Vietnam war.
King had long avoided or minimized speaking out on the war, but through 1966 both outside activists and his own nonviolent conscience increasingly urged him to join or even lead the growing antiwar protests. He hesitated, fearing that would divert public attention ever further from Black struggles. After all, in 1966, most of the public, Black as well as white, including many previously liberal civil rights sympathizers, still supported the war.
King was right that Vietnam was diluting the impact of his racial justice work. But the war’s cost and body count only grew and became more inescapable every week.
The other major victim of this tragic dilemma was president Lyndon Johnson. After his landslide election victory in 1964, he had presided over a historic series of legislative achievements, from creating Medicare, to voting rights and other pillars of what he called “The Great Society.” But his escalation of the war squeezed the federal budgets, and soon was splitting his governing coalition.
Even worse, the untruths that underlay the war began to leak out, and many reporters and editorialists, who had once strongly backed him, soon coined a barbed euphemism, the “credibility gap,” to speak these revelations while holding back from plainly calling the president a liar. But again, it seemed that every day this “gap” widened and deepened. The two cartoons here were among many that took its measure.
As one who lived through this year, it is still painful for me to recall how far the public’s favorable opinion of LBJ fell in such a short time: It seemed as if one minute he was declaring “We shall Overcome” to a packed and cheering congress. Then in almost the blink of an eye he was doubling down on a visibly failing war, vowing hollowly that sending more troops and dropping more bombs would quickly rout the Communist North Vietnamese and save “democracy” (in the form of a string of corrupt, bloody dictators) there, and at home.
One October afternoon in 1966 underlined this fall: during a congressional midterm campaign swing, Johnson made a campaign stop with Bobby Kennedy, then running for the U. S. Senate, near where I was working, on Long Island New York, seemingly a loyal Democratic bastion.
It was barely a year since the president had signed the Voting Rights Act, to near-universal acclaim. But when he stepped to the New York microphone, a large impromptu crowd of angry antiwar protesters, including me, loosed such a chorus of boos that he couldn’t be heard for a couple of minutes above the din, til aides managed to crank up the speakers to the ear-splitting level.
The next day, New York news media tiptoed silently around this eruption. But it was real, and such enraged mockery was becoming the melancholy sound track for the rest of LBJ’s tenure. The war and the lies were a steady drip, corroding my confidence and that of others in American institutions with an acid cynicism which has persisted ever since.
That day also forecast a stark election outcome. While Johnson’s Democrats maintained formal control of Congress, they lost more than 40 House seats, and Johnson’s working majority was shattered. The parade of new programs stalled, blocked by the burgeoning costs of war — fiscal, political and social.
The end of Johnson’s “Great Society” efforts, and the retreat of the nonviolent struggle, mixed with the persistence of poverty and heavy-handed repression of urban uprisings increased the frustration of many Black Americans. The Voting Rights Act brought some new Black faces into office, but made few visible inroads on poverty. Further, the mounting Vietnam casualty counts included disproportionate numbers of soldiers of color.
There were also generational and institutional tensions among Black activists and organizations. Many key members of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had long bern uneasy with more established leaders like Dr. King and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, regarding them as too deferential to white politicians. These activists also noted that despite the movement’s legislative wins, the needle of widespread Black poverty had hardly twitched.
They were often more moved by the fiery oratory of Malcolm X, who became an iconic martyr after his 1965 assassination. The ominous-sounding separatist gospel Malcolm preached for years had a long history among Black intellectuals and leaders, and was again a rising current in SNCC in 1965, when I worked for “the other team”(Dr. King’s integrationist SCLC) in Selma.
In May 1966, this tension resulted in the unseating of nonviolent veteran John Lewis as SNCC chairman by Stokely Carmichael in a staff election. Carmichael was a highly articulate movement veteran, who was seeking a platform to launch a more militant rhetoric and program into the national debates.
Carmichael soon got his platform, from an unlikely source: James Meredith.
In October, 1962, Meredith was the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, amid riots that killed two and were only suppressed when federal troops arrived. Meredith endured shunning and harassment, but graduated in 1963.
While Meredith’s Ole Miss enrollment became a civil rights milestone, he was a strongly individualist loner. He decided in the spring of 1966 to stage a “March Against Fear” to encourage Black voting, from Memphis, Tennessee 200-plus miles to the Mississippi state capitol in Jackson. He said he would do it alone if necessary, shunning collaboration with established civil rights groups.
His march didn’t get far. On the second day, June 6, Meredith was shot down on U. S. Highway 51 by a white sniper.
Meredith survived. While he was in hospital Dr. King and other leaders, including Carmichael from SNCC, took up his trek, along with a rapidly growing crowd of supporting marchers, including me.
The next night, a spirited rally was held near the highway. During the speeches, SNCC’s Carmichael took the makeshift stage with Willie Ricks, another SNCC stalwart, and they launched their (not really so new) slogan:
“The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us,” Carmichael shouted, “is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”
This sparked echoes and cheers from the energized crowd, and stunned the mostly white national newshounds who had hurriedly converged there.
James Meredith recovered enough to rejoin “his” march on June 26, as it entered Jackson with at least 15000 supporters, who rallied at the Mississippi capitol. As he wished, voting was highlighted for local citizens; but afterward, most public discussion on race was about “Black Power” and the seemingly drastic and abrupt shift of mood it vocalized.
These snapshots should be enough to shed some light on the complex and extended buildup to what can now, seen from 57 years later, appear to McWhorter as an abrupt national mood shift.
I came home from Jackson to Long Island with a head full of this “new” talk and energy, and an urge to make some sense of it all.
That led to writing an article, “White Reflections On Black Power,” which was published by the Christian Century in its August 10, 1966 issue. The article led in turn to a book, my first, published in mid-1967. It did well, had five printings.
As for the Black Power thrust, the rest is post-mood shift history, which we’ll leave to the other tomes McWhorter mentions. It’s worth noting, though, that at the end of 1966, Dr. King spent a month in seclusion, wrestling decisively with his conscience over Vietnam. From this retreat he emerged resolved to stride to the front rank of antiwar dissent, in what became the climactic struggle of his life.
The Vietnam war dragged on. Lyndon Johnson’s stock kept dropping, toward the eventual abandonment of his hopes for re-election in early 1968. James Meredith enrolled in law school.
One other figure surprisingly benefited from this transition: a two-time political loser, who had given his “last press conference” after a 1962 defeat, then endured years of snide political obituaries, only to emerge from a successful marathon of campaigning for the Republican 1966 resurgence renewed and ready to mount another run for the White House.
Yes, the same mood shift that made Carmichael into a shooting star, turned “Black Power” into a household phrase, and sent Dr. King toward a new, ultimately fatal crucible, also opened the door for one of the most unlikely and ominous of American political comebacks, that of Quaker Richard M. Nixon.
But that, god help us, is another story.