The image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos with black-gloved clad fists held high in the Black Power salute caught the world by storm. For some, it was a moment of immense pride, for others, one of great distress and confusion. To understand why this display was so provocative one needs to examine the previous decade of the civil rights movement and the events that led up to the year 1968.
There was a community within the black protest movement between 1945 and 1960. Veterans who returned from WWII demanded rights inspired the workers of the 1950s who led in working within the system to alter and create legislation that would achieve these goals. The NAACP Youth Group in Greensboro that was sparked by Ella Baker in 1943 gave birth to the sit-in movement. The Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee (SNCC) led in bus boycotts and in the struggle for voting rights. Landmark victories such as Brown v. the Board of Education finally deemed segregated schools unconstitutional. Various combinations of community organizing, publicity, and court case victories gave Blacks at the time a reason to be optimistic, however that optimism began to deteriorate.
Eisenhower’s failure to follow through on enforcement of Brown and other civil rights measures stemmed from his conviction that the federal government should remain passive on controversial social issues or local affairs and his desire to leave the southern political system unaltered. His inaction encouraged white resistance. This resistance began more as inaction; the failure to enforce the new legislation. Unfortunately, it grew into aggressive attacks on Blacks who attempted to exercise their rights.
When Kennedy took office he was obsessed with international politics and the image of heroism. Though he founded the peace corps and nasa, he invested little energy or time in domestic policy, especially civil rights. Robert Kennedy’s respect for law enforcement made him more sympathetic to civil rights issues, especially when it concerned legislation that was blatantly ignored. It was not until 1963 that he finally heard the message about civil rights and decided to act. The confrontation in Alabama when peaceful demonstrators were met by violent mobs, police men, dogs, and water hoses was nationally televised. John f Kennedy attempted to contact every business and city official to place pressure on them to resolve the issue in Birmingham. When that was unsuccessful, he initiated a federal response and made a public denouncement of the situation. For the first time of his administration, he aligned himself publicly with civil rights activists. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson managed to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964, yet his egomania and quest for dominance made him ineffective in office and aliened the American public. What many Americans regarded as the deception of Vietnam did not aide in creating a sense of faith in America’s leaders.
As though the failure of political leaders were not enough. The unity of the movement began to deteriorate. In the years that led up to the aforementioned events there was a belief in “the essential goodness of American society and (the belief that) change would come quickly once white people acknowledged the error of their ways.” The difference in opinion over leadership (should it be centralized or disbursed amongst student leaders) was there from the beginning, but the contentions regarding the receipt of money and the compromise involved in that created an even larger gap. Funds earmarked for students would, at times, not reach their destination. At times, funds would be contingent on certain conditions. For example, the American Federation of Labor decided to contribute to a SNCC conference, but only if Bayard Rustin, considered to be “too left” was excluded from the event. Martin Luther King’s speech during the March on Washington had to be greatly modified for the same reason. As though differences regarding leadership and money were not enough, the failed promises of political leaders also were a factor; most notably, Robert Kennedy’s failure to provide federal protection of voter registration that he promised in exchange for SNCC’s agreement to pursue voter rights within the means of the “system”. A schism amongst Black activists was inevitable.
The most monumental event that lent itself to this division occurred in 1964. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed to represent Blacks in the areas of Mississippi and Alabama where White resistance was most fierce. At the Democratic National Convention LBJ’s supporters would only allow for two seats. Fannie Lou Hamer and others were outraged at this compromise. The following year the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama began to assert their independence from national civil rights groups. The slogan was born: “Black Power for Black People”. Black power proponents challenged their counterparts to fight for the transformation of living conditions that would apply to the masses rather than general civil rights such as voting. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and others came to represent the leadership of this group of Black Americans who refused to continue to labor tirelessly for their cause only to met by failed promises and menial progress. They embraced a form of Black militancy that was not opposed to approaches that were outside of the traditional democratic system. After extreme disillusionment, they were willing to claim equal rights “by any means necessary.”