Black Nationalism and Militancy

The race riots reflected the increasing anger and hostility of the black community. To many at the time, the personification of black militancy was Malcolm X. Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His family moved from Nebraska to Michigan during his youth to escape harassment from local Ku Klux Klan activists. Unfortunately, racial violence followed them to Michigan. His father was murdered by white supremacists a few years after they moved. As a youth, Malcolm went to prison for burglary. While in prison he became a Black Nationalist and converted to the Nation of Islam. Upon his release in 1952 he abandoned his surname “Little,” which he considered a relic of slavery, in favor of the surname “X”—a tribute to the unknown name of his African ancestors. (Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, generally.)

Malcolm X served as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam and Black Nationalism during the 1950s and 1960s. Black Nationalists questioned the whole program of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of assimilation and integration, they advocated separation of the races that would foster racial pride and honor their African roots. (Id.; Jennings and Brewster, p. 404.) Malcolm X exhorted blacks to cast off the shackles of racism “…by any means necessary…” including violence. According to his nephew, Rodnell Collins, “[Malcolm] was not urging blacks to act as aggressors. Rather, he was telling them they had a right to defend themselves against lynchings and other violence perpetrated by whites.” (USA Today, 2/16/15, “Death of Malcolm X Froze Image in Time,” p. 5A) The fiery black nationalist broke with the Nation of Islam shortly before his assassination on February 21, 1965.

By the latter half of the 1960s, there were other fractures in the Civil Rights Movement. Tensions were growing between SCLC and more militant protest groups such as SNCC and CORE. Amid calls for ‘‘Black Power,’’ King and SCLC were often criticized for being too moderate and overly dependent on the support of white liberals. “The cry of ‘Black Power’ drowned out the ebbing echoes of ‘Freedom Now’… freedom songs became seen as irrelevant.” (Roy, Reds, Whites and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music and Race in the United States, p. 26.) “By 1966 whites had been largely elbowed out of the civil rights movement by the nationalist impulses of young black leaders…. The nationalist themes of the movement’s black power phase were reaching a broad audience through popular black recording artists such as Curtis Mayfield: ‘Keep on Pushing’ (1964) and ‘People Get Ready’ (1965); Nina Simone: ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1965); James Brown ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ (1968); and Aretha Franklin: ‘Young Gifted and Black’ (1971).” (Goldsmith, pp. 384-385.)

In May 1966, a new stage in SNCC’s history began with the election of Stokley Carmichael as chairman. Because Carmichael identified himself with the trend away from nonviolence and interracial cooperation, his election compromised SNCC’s relationships with more moderate civil rights groups and many of its white supporters. During the months following his election, Carmichael publicly expressed SNCC’s new political orientation when he began espousing the concept of cultural nationalism and calling for ‘‘Black Power’’ during voting rights marches through Mississippi. The national exposure of Carmichael’s Black Power speeches brought increased notoriety to SNCC. (Eyerman and Jamison, pp. 103-05.)

The NAACP, supported by SCLC, strongly opposed CORE and SNCC’s move toward cultural nationalism and militancy. (Farber, Colburn and Pozzetta, “Race, Ethnicity, and Political Legitimacy,” p.126-27.) They saw these new tactics as a direct challenge to the struggle for integration. For many blacks, the NAACP and its allies were seen as supporting the status quo while the militants were seen as the dynamic new force. By the latter part of the 1960s, the tide in the black community decidedly favored the militants. (Id.)

At the same time that white involvement was called into question, the Civil Rights Mmovement debated the efficacy of singing. Advocates of black power argued that singing had gone on long enough and that there were too few changes to show for it; it was time for action. Malcolm X stated “Whoever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome’ while tripping and swaying with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?” (Quoted in Mitchell, p. 138.) Folksinger and SNCC organizer Julius Lester wrote of this new mood:

Now it is over. America had had chance after chance to show that it really meant ‘that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights’…Now it is over. The days of singing freedom songs and the days of combating bullets and billy clubs with love…. Love is fragile and gentle and seeks a like response. They used to sing”I love everybody” as they ducked bricks and bottles. Now they sing “Too much love, too much love, nothing kills a n—-r like too much love.”

(Dunaway and Beer, Singing Out – An Oral History of America’s Folk Song Revival, p. 146.)

Similarly, James Smethurst stated the following:

If revolutionary politics of one kind or another never became the predominate view of the black masses, it certainly was seen as a plausible and sensible position with which the majority of black people felt at least some sympathy. Looking back, it is often hard to grasp how touch and go the civil rights movement, challenged by massive Southern (and, often, Northern) resistance, seemed in the mid-1960s. While much of what went on might be thought of as petty Jim Crow in public accommodations (restaurants, buses, hotels, stores and so on), larger questions, particularly the segregation of public education and voter rights, remained unsettled despite various court decisions (and some Northern systems, as in Boston) would not be effectively desegregated until the 1970s. Civil rights leaders and rank and file workers were arrested, beaten, fire-hosed, bitten by police dogs, bombed, shot, and murdered with shocking frequency. The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four girls at choir practice, served as iconic instance of this massive and ongoing racial violence. Court decisions and laws also seemed unable to touch the hyper-segregation, discrimination, and police violence of the urban ghetto, north and south, east and west. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Southern Christian Leadership Council, and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations encountered some of the worst incidents of racial mob violence against the civil rights movement when they marched against slum conditions and for open housing in white neighborhoods during the Chicago Freedom Movement Campaign of 1966. …the successful implementation of such [civil rights] advances were far from clear in the mid-to-late 1960s. (Routledge History, “R&B. Soul and the Black Freedom Struggle,” pp. 116-117.)

“The Movement’s Moving On, sung and written by Len Chandler (1965) ( can be seen as representing the shift from accommodation to militancy.

Mine eyes have seen injustice in each city, town and state
Your jails are filled with black men and your courts are white with hate
And with every bid for freedom someone whispers to us: wait
But the movement’s moving on.

Chorus: Move on over or we’ll move on over you (3x)
O the movement’s moving on

It is you who are subversive, you’re the killers of the dream
In a savage world of bandits it is you who are extreme.
And you never take your earmuffs off nor listen when we scream
O the movement’s moving on.

Your dove of peace with bloody beak sinks talons in a child
You bend the olive branch to make a bow, then with a smile
You string it with the lynch rope you’ve been hiding all the while
But the movement’s moving on

You conspire to keep us silent in the field and in the slum
You promise us the vote then sing us “We Shall Overcome”
But John Brown knew what freedom was and he died to win us some
O the movement’s moving on.


I declare my independence from the coward and the knave
I declare my independence from the fool and from the slave
I declare that I will fight for right and fear no jail nor grave
O the movement’s moving on.

(Not present here but sometimes mentioned as the last verse:)

Many noble dreams are dreamed by small and voiceless men
Many noble deeds are done the righteous to defend
We’re here today, John Brown, to say we’ll triumph in the end
O the movement’s moving on