By Chet Yarbrough
Great Figures of the Civil Rights Movement
By: The Great Courses
Narrated by: Hasan Kwame Jeffries
A timely refresher on the civil rights movement is given by Hasan Kwame Jeffries in the “Great Figures of the Civil Rights Movement”. It is timely because of the resurrection of the assassination of Malcolm X and its reification of a fundamental split in the black civil rights movement in America.
Viet Nguyen writes in his fictional novel, “The Committed, “I am from my mother”. Nothing else matters. Color, national origin, religious belief, or sexual orientation do not determine the value of a human being.
Marcus Garvey (1887-1940, publisher and jornalist, black nationalist.)
Jeffries reminds us of the movement initiated by Marcus Garvey. Though the idea of a return to Africa has come up many times in the history of America, Garvey established a black movement for the creation of an independent African nation.
To one who believes in the principles of freedom and equality for all, the idea of equality through independence is wrong. All humans live on space ship earth. It is the principle of our equal humanness that preserves civilization. Separate is not equal. The problem is human freedom, equality, and equality of opportunity are works in progress toward a goal of equal treatment by society.
Women and minorities are not treated equally in America or in most places of the world. Since America’s beginning as a republic, many believed in qualified freedom, and a few in universal equality, but equality is falsely preached by white power and never achieved. Slavery is an undeniable truth in world history. In America, atrocities of black slavery in the south and institutional discrimination in the north are well documented. It is no wonder that Marcus Garvey successfully tapped into a desire of many black Americans to achieve equality through separation. Separation’s appeal is in its potential as a base for political power. Even though that power is limited by being a faction in a dominant social and political power structure.
What Jeffries shows is that Garvey is the father of the idea of Black Power that is symbolized by the Black Panther movement in the mid-20th century.
From Jeffries’ history, one can see and understand a more nuanced and broader American civil rights movement. White American power did not exhibit much understanding of the black power movement in the 1960s. White America responded with violence. White America murdered Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther Chairman and local leader. This unjust murder lies at the feet of the City of Chicago and the FBI.
Stokely Stanford Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (1941-1968, 4th Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.)
Jeffries notes the idea of Black Power came from a Stokely Carmichael’s rallying slogan in the 1960s. (The phrase is said by some to have originated in a non-fiction book, “Black Power”, written by Richard Wright and published in 1954.) Carmichael participates in the 1961 Freedom Rides in Alabama. They were organized by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) to desegregate public transit services and restaurants. In 1961, Carmichael and others travel to Jackson, Mississippi to sit in a segregated restaurant. Carmichael, along with other freedom riders, is arrested for disturbing the peace. He is sent to prison for 53 days in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Because of Carmichael’s bravery and oratorical skill, he became a full-time organizer for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
Of course, the stars of the non-violent black movement are best known as men like Martin Luther King.
King’s history is well known but Jeffries notes there were many black women that became extremely important to the movement for black emancipation. Ella Baker becomes involved with the NAACP (1938-53), SCLC (1957-60), and the initial foundation of SNCC (1960-66) as a black activist and highly successful recruiter. Rosa Parks becomes the face of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Diane Nash, as a Freedom Rider, is known for integrating lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. Nash is also a co-founder of SNCC. Fannie Lou Hamer fights for women’s rights as the vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi. The newly formed party successfully gets several local black politicians elected in Mississippi. Jeffries notes the FDP is less successful on a national level, but Hamer is elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964, and later serves in the Mississippi State Senate.
In order pictured left to right: Ella Josephine Baker (1903-1986, Political activist for the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC.), Rosa Parks (1913-2005, Civil Rights Activist, best known for the Montgomery bus boycott.), Diane Judith Nash (Freedom rider and co-founder of SNCC.), Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977, Civil rights leader, Vice charwoman of Freedom Democratic Party, Co-founder of National Women’s Political Caucus.)
Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998, spent 7 years in exile in Cuba, returned in 1975, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became a conservative Republican.)
Jeffries glosses over Eldridge Cleaver’s leadership in ambushing Oakland police officers (two officers were wounded) and his arrest and escape to Cuba to avoid trial. However, Kathleen Neal Clever, who married and divorce Cleaver, became an active member of the Black Panther Party that helped feed people, provide family medical care services, and provide transportation for families to visit loved ones in prison. Jeffries notes Kathleen Neal Clever came from an upper middle class black family and supported the early founders of the Black Panther organization with her father’s witting or unwitting financial support.
One of the most interesting chapters of Jeffries book is about Malcolm X, particularly because of the recent release of a wrongly accused assassin. Jeffries implies Malcolm X is assassinated by the Nation of Islam. Jeffries infers the assassination is related to Malcolm X’s disillusion with the founder’s (Elijah Muhammad) dissolute sexual behavior, and NOI’s belief that the races should be separated to form a black nation to compete with all nations.
Malcolm X came to believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God, while arguing the separatist ideal of NOI and Marcus Garvey were wrong. The history of Malcolm X’s journey through life is fascinating, short, and impactful. One cannot help but wonder how Malcom X could have changed the course of history had he not been assassinated.
Jeffries could have gone further back in history to tell the story of American black nationalism but he has done a great job of identifying the history of the 20th century heroes of the movement.