By Any Means Necessary? : Questioning Ideas of Militancy in the Civil Rights Struggle

The debate between militant and peaceful approaches to protest has been, and remains to be, a controversial one. How far is too far? What is ‘necessary’? This seminar at the MRC looked at the Civil Rights struggle in American, focusing on the actions of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers to examine the effects of militant resistance…

The event began with a lecture by Abi Awojobi:

A range of archive material, including Black Panther leaflets and community papers, were displayed for the group to spend some time examining. These sources were used as prompts for the event’s discussion seminar, which concluded the evening.

The discussion seminar began by looking at a passage in ‘Black Chat’, written by a black woman to other black women:

“We the black women must now determine the future of our children and our grandchildren. We must stop thinking like our parents. We do not owe the white man a thing, not one thing and this is what our parents must realise. We know that our parents are sometimes difficult when black power is mentioned but we must get it through to them that black power does not mean violence. Of course, if we are pushed then there must be violent but we must also tell them that if we do not fight oppression then maybe not us but our children or grandchildren will feel the neglect….”

This passage raised questions about militancy in the civil rights movement. Is violence necessary? Was fighting oppression confused with violence? Rather, was it just a means to an end? Points were made about the oppressed. When you are being brutalized it’s only natural to respond with violence; to respond to violence with violence. As the passage highlighted, violence was often necessary, but only when provoked. The group was also asked whether there was a difference between legislation and social change. Is it right for people to continue the violence after these acts/laws were passed? It seemed that social attitudes took a lot longer to change and resolve but legislation was immediately expected to satisfy the protestors.

The discussion then moved onto historical narratives. Did the role of the white narrative affect how people are framed? Are Martin Luther and Malcolm X so different? The commercialisation of important, often militant, figures was commented on. Malcolm X hats and clothing were (and are still) worn by white people. There was hypocrisy in oppression. Often violence and brutalisation was only highlighted in the oppressed parties, not the oppressors.

We then talked about multiculturalism. Abi asked the group whether they thought that we live in a multicultural society. As with the discussion seminar on Experiences of Immigration in Britain, integration was a key issue. How do ethnic minorities separate themselves and then integrate into wider society? Could the black community integrate into white American society as a community?

Or was segregation the better option? Rather than struggling to integrate, often losing their cultural identity, was it better for black communities to separate themselves? Is removing yourself from your oppressors the best way for liberation? How far does separation go before it becomes counter-productive? What is too far?

Historically, minorities have been pushed away. This often meant communities were trapped in poverty. One of the most famous Black Panther initiatives was its free breakfast programme. To combat this poverty, communities often organised and built businesses for power. However, this was viewed as separation; there was no winning for these communities. Even economic demands to improve lives for the minority were seen as radical. Black people were expected to fit into the system, despite its fundamental racism.

The discussion finished with these questions: Is it helpful to separate the black struggle from other struggles, such as sexism? Does doing this obstruct the intersectionality?

It was clear from the archive material that there was oppression within the Black Panther movement and black communities, most prominently sexism that affected black women. Even within oppressed communities there was still further oppression.

The account of the discussion above details the views expressed by members of the seminar. If you would like to contribute your opinions on any discussion points, please leave a comment.

This event ran as part of the Warwick Open Education Series, ‘After Talk Must Come Action: Racial Resistance and Remaking’. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date with news and events.

We have listed some relevant source material on the topic militancy and the civil rights struggle. All of these sources are available for use at the Modern Records Centre. We encourage you to come into the centre and examine the material for yourself.

National Guardian

  • MSS.15X/1/190/8 – vol.8, Oct 1955-Oct 1956 (civil rights, Jim Crow and racist violence, including the bus boycott and trial of Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama)
  • MSS.15X/1/190/11 – vol.11, Oct 1958-Oct 1959 civil rights, Jim Crow and racist violence
  • MSS.15X/1/190/17 – vol.17, Oct 1964-Oct 1965 civil rights and racist violence (including murders in Mississippi, the murder of Malcolm X, and attack on Selma to Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King)
  • MSS.15X/1/190/20 – vol.20, Dec 1967-Jul 1968 the civil rights movement and Black Power (including the Black Panthers, and the murder of Martin Luther King)

Progressive

  • MSS.15X/1/235/4 – vol.27, nos.1-12 Subjects include: the civil rights movement and racial discrimination. Also includes: Martin Luther King junior, ‘Tears of love’ (Jul 1963).
  • MSS.15X/1/235/5 – vol.28, nos.1-12 Includes: James A. Wechsler, ‘The cult of Malcolm X’ (Jun 1964)

The American Socialist

  • MSS.15X/1/10/3 – vol.3 Includes articles on civil liberties, civil rights / “Negro and minority groups” (including special report on the Alabama bus boycott in April issue)

Solidarity

  • MSS.15X/1/283/3 – vol.3, nos.5-12. Subjects include: race, the civil rights movement and student protest in the USA.

Other:

  • 601/D/3/5/14 Andrea Enisuoh, ‘The life and legacy of Malcolm X’
  • 601/C/3/1/2 Various documents on racism; facism; black workers; ‘discrimination and struggle’. Includes editions of ‘Panther’ and ‘Militant’
  • 758/1/3/5/29 ‘Anarchy’, no.67 Includes articles on: ‘Black anarchy in New York’, American society, and Malcolm X.

For a wider selection of sources view our ready-made catalogue searchRace, segregation and civil rights in the USA

If you would like to view these sources, please come into the centre with the source reference number. We recommend that you book a slot in advance.

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