The Black Freedom Struggle: From “We Shall Overcome” to “Freedom Now!”

  • Van Gosse


The Civil Rights movement was the original motor force for the New Left and its dominant element during the years leading up to the political watershed of 1964–1965, when at last Congress acted to outlaw the major forms of discrimination based on race (or religion, or sex, or ethnicity) and to guarantee black voting rights. It was the only mass movement of the decade, the only one that received sustained media attention, and the only radical movement of those years that caused shifts in national political alignments: as the Republicans gave up their historic if nominal commitment to Black Americans as “the Party of Lincoln,” the Democratic Party moved towards becoming the party of civil rights. In the wake of the thousands of black southerners who marched, sat-in, boycotted, and walked through mobs to register to vote, enduring arrests, beatings, burnings, bombings, and killings, came a host of other movements. Slowly, the “best of all possible worlds” of the 1950s began to seem like a straitjacket, as apparently separate sources of frustration, alienation, and nonconformity converged. Inspired by the stubbornness and daring of African Americans, all the excluded or belittled outsiders—students and bohemians, gays and lesbians, underground feminists, intellectuals and ethnic minorities—began to imagine themselves as part of “the Movement,” as the New Left called itself in those days. But the revival of public protest had its start in the most modest fashion, through the long-festering frustration of law-abiding African Americans over their daily humiliations on the public conveyances of a minor southern state capital.


Black Community Black People Black Panther Party Nobel Peace Prize Black Vote 
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A Selected Bibliography

  1. The historiography on the Civil Rights movement is monumental, so I will simply indicate some books that directly contributed to this chapter, beyond those already listed that trace its roots in the 1930s and 1940s. Of all the general histories, I preferGoogle Scholar
  2. Steven Lawson, Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America Since 1941 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1997) because of its chronological breadth, and attention to partisan dynamics. On Dr. King and SCLCGoogle Scholar
  3. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Random House, 1986), pays particular attention to organizational matters.Google Scholar
  4. Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981) remains essential, both in its focus on ideology and the connections it makes between civil rights and the emerging Black Power movement. August Meier andGoogle Scholar
  5. Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study of the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975) is the most complete organizational history, if undeservedly forgotten, like its subject.Google Scholar
  6. Newer scholarship has broadened our understanding of the international reach of the civil rights (or black freedom) movement, and its profound internal tensions. In this regardGoogle Scholar
  7. Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) has been very influential, since Williams was the self-conscious alternative to both Dr. King’s nonviolent strategy and the NAACP’s institutional leadership.Google Scholar
  8. Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) emphasizes the degree to which the imperatives of anti-communist containment shaped the discourse of the movement, and in turn created opportunities for it. Another important new book isGoogle Scholar
  9. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), since Baker’s articulation of a grassroots approach deeply influenced the entire movement.Google Scholar
  10. A handful of first-rate local studies greatly deepen our understanding of how the Civil Rights movement was really many movements, with profound differences depending on the political economy, existing pattern of racial domination, and location.Google Scholar
  11. William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980)Google Scholar
  12. John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), andGoogle Scholar
  13. Robert J. Norrell, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee (New York: Knopf, 1985) are exemplary works in this regard.Google Scholar
  14. Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003)Google Scholar
  15. Suzanne Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999) and the essays inGoogle Scholar
  16. Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, eds., Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940–1980 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) have begun the crucial work of shifting our focus from the South to the nation as a whole.Google Scholar
  17. These scholarly accounts are inflected in profound ways byGoogle Scholar
  18. James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (New York: Macmillan, 1972), since Forman was the organizer par excellence of the assault on Jim Crow. From a very different personal perspective, a remarkable angle on the urban, usually Northern milieus that bred Black Power is found inGoogle Scholar
  19. Amiri Baraka: The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1997). Equally important isGoogle Scholar
  20. Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  21. Regarding Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as one root of the Black Power movementGoogle Scholar
  22. Essien Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) is remarkably fresh.Google Scholar
  23. William Strickland, Malcolm X: Make It Plain (New York: Penguin, 1994) captures this remarkable personality better than any of the biographical studies, andGoogle Scholar
  24. William Sales, Jr., From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (Boston: South End Press, 1994) has important insights about his last year, especially when combined withGoogle Scholar
  25. Jan Carew, Ghosts in Our Blood: With Malcolm X in Africa, England and the Caribbean (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1994). Otherwise, the narrative of Black Power’s origins in this book largely derives from my own research and inter-views for a forthcoming book.Google Scholar

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© Van Gosse 2005

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  • Van Gosse

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