Politics of the 1960s and the Black Arts Movement

The Black Community in the 1960s experienced a great deal of progressive change within their community and gained rights and freedoms that before the 1960s did not seem to be realistic. With Jim Crowe Law ruling the land in the south and the economic situations of most Blacks living in urban environments throughout the United States, the possibility of equal rights being awarded to the Black community was highly unlikely. However, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the non-violence that accompanied this movement, steps were made towards equality. With the Civil Rights Movement in full swing in the late 195os and early 1960s and also with a strong support system and an organized central body of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr, Blacks gained the right to vote, gained equal opportunity, and segregation became unlawful in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. Also, in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, literacy tests and other measures used by local registrars to deny blacks the right to vote were outlawed.[1]

However, as the '60s progressed, the Civil Rights movement began to fragment and come apart. Even though the Black community experienced social and political gains, the economy and welfare of most of the Black community did not improve. Urban centers, especially, were consumed by crime and drug addiction, terrible domestic conditions which usually meant a fatherless household and a single mother raising multiple children, and financial insecurity. Also many blacks still faced alienation and frustration when attempting to progress themselves in the American society.[2] On August 11, 1965, a riot broke out in the Watts black neighborhood of Los Angeles. Tired of social and financial despair, the members of this community rose up and rioted. For the duration of three years, black communities, like the Watts neighborhood, rose up and rioted. Overall, two hundred people were killed, seven thousand were inured, and forty thousand were arrested.[3] Also, as the 60s progressed, inner city black ghettos faced increasing threats of poverty, decaying communities, and police brutality.

The mid-sixties also saw rise to militant black groups who rallied under the phrase “Black Power”. Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, two leaders of the black militants began to reject MLK Jr’s call for non-violence and created their own doctrine based on a militant philosophy.[4] This concept of Black power grew out of the ideas of the traditions of black nationalism and how all the Black people of America were united under one race and that they all share the same ancestral roots in Africa. Along with that idea and growing frustrations about Black life in the slums of cities and also the teaching of Malcolm X, which taught African Americans to organize themselves to take control of their communities “by any means necessary,” including violence, the Black community was becoming more violent. Malcolm X also preached the idea that the white man was the black man’s enemy and that his goal was a self-reliant, separate black community within the United States.[5] Malcolm X's ideas began to gain popularity and so this gave rise to militant groups.

Under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael and his successor H. Rap Brown, the “Black Power” idea was infused into an organized group called the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. H. Rap Brown even said to the SNCC, grab your guns, burn the cities, and shoot the “honkey to death”. Another group alongside the SNCC called the Black Panthers were formed in California.[6]

During the summers between 1965 and 1968, urban America was rocked with violent social uprisings and protests. This increased violence even forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to create a special National Advisory Commission of Civil Disorders lead by the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner. This commission’s goal was to find the cause of this racial turmoil. In 1968, the Kerner Report was published and discovered that a “compassionate, massive, and sustained commitment to racial equality and social justice was needed to quench the fires that burned in the cities and to appease those responsible for the uprisings.[7]

“However, by the end of the 1960s the quest for racial equality had become interwoven with other powerful social currents, including the antiwar protests and the feminist movement. The combined energies of these and other crusades coupled with the conservative backlash they provoked threatened to unravel American society by the end of the 1960s.”[8]

Now, of course, to make a connection between the Black Arts Movement and the political waves that flowed throughout the 1960s. The Black Arts Movement and the Black Power movement of the 60s found common ground in the idea that both concepts relate broadly to the Afro-American’s urge for self-determination and nationhood. Both of these concepts are very nationalistic.[9] Also, both concepts believe that Black people need to define the world in their own terms. The artist of the Black Art Movement took this idea to mean that they needed to speak based on the cultural and spiritual needs of the Black citizen. Also, the Black Arts Movement uses protest literature to advance the ideas of the Black community. Politically, the artists furthered the ideas of themselves and of the Black Nation. [10]

[1]New Frontiers: Politics and Social Change in the 1960s.” W.W Norton Document Overview. W.W. Norton. 14 Feb. 2010 http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/archive/resources/documents/ch34_01.html

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Neal, Larry. “The Black Arts Movement.” Chicken Bones: A Journal. 14 Feb. 2010 .

[10] ibid


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