Civil Rights, Black Power and Urban Riots

Many books have been written about the tumultuous civil rights movement of the 1960s and how African Americans gained the freedom to be Americans rather than segregated into a separate, less-than classification.  This period on the country’s history created a storm of debate and led to drastic changes in public policy and public opinion.  While race relations have gradually continued to improve over time – though some prejudice remains an undercurrent in society – it was this decade in history that started it all.

A great deal of prose written about and during this period have been scribed by African Americans and stems from their desire to be seen as equals.  Several biographies have been penned about Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks.  Additional works were written by Martin Luther King, Jr., about the movement as a whole.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley, covers the life of Malcolm X and his influence on civil rights.  The introduction to this book was prepared by M. S. Handler, who knew King personally, believed him to posses both a compelling decorum and potential for violence.  The remainder of the book is a first person autobiography, as though Malcolm X were speaking to the reader directly rather than through a separate author.

  He reveals both his positive and negative attributes, including the darkest times in his life in order to explain how he came to the position he took in the 1960s.  Malcolm X pushes for the liberation of the African American rather than the integration.  This was a core in his beliefs and the basis for his actions and teaching.  He believed that African Americans should be free to live their own way of life alongside the whites rather than below them.

Malcolm X structured his argument as a chronological accounting of his own life and how he was moved, by what he heard and experienced, to fight for the rights of his fellow African Americans.  He uses his own first-hand experience and the stories told to him as the evidence for his position.  His first clear memory was of the “white man” burning down his family home with the family inside, barely escaping with their lives.  As he was growing up, the position of the black man was distinctly separate and they were treated as second-class citizens, often by their own race, the “so-called ‘middle-class’ Negroes” who turned up their nose to the masses (1965, 8).

Malcolm X’s childhood was full of poverty and disintegration, particularly after his father’s death.  His own disparate treatment at the hand of the white man, for example, when he was caught stealing and sentenced a much longer than usual sentence because of his “crime” of being with the white women, also compelled him to take a stand change things for the black men and women of the country.

Malcolm X had a definite bias in his autobiography.  Having narrated most of it himself, describing his own life experience and his belief system, he doggedly pursued the rights of the black man in order to wage a war with white America and gain African American freedom.  He fought for the black Muslim, as he converted in prison, and did not believe in segregation.  He wanted the black man to live an equal but separate life from the white man.  His perspective takes into account how the white man perceived blacks at different times in American history, and he understands their perspective though he does not agree with it.

His own sympathies are well known and often discussed in the prose.  What Malcolm X did not cover was the history of race relations prior to his lifetime, though that would be an account of research rather than his own autobiography.  With the exception of the introduction and epilogue, the balance of the views presented is wholly that of Malcolm X, without other interpretation or opinion.

Douglas Brinkley’s biography, Rosa Parks, does not solely attempt tell the story of her life.  Its primary focus is to explain why she refused to give up her seat that day in December 1955.  She is credited with starting the Civil Rights movement as her actions sparked a 381-day boycott of Montgomery, Alabama’s bus system.  Parks had spent a lifetime of privately fighting segregation as well as promoting women’s rights, believing that every man and woman was created equal, a statement founded yet incomplete, in the Declaration of Independence.

The book considers many potential reasons for Parks’ actions but offers no definite answer.  One possibility is that she was simply too tired one day to rise and give up her seat.  This is the reason most often attributed to her by modern society; it is the acceptable reason.  However, an equally compelling and considered explanation is based on Parks’ belief in the equality of men and women, black or white.

The book takes a mostly chronological accounting of her life, with occasional inserts of information from outside the time period discussed.  The structure of the book is to promote Rosa Parks and her contribution to the American Civil Rights movement.

The author’s approach is to explain both the history of her life, of how and why she was raised in her beliefs, including the impact her childhood had on her. Growing up, Parks was aware of the black man’s place in society.  “By the time I was six, I was old enough to realize that we were not exactly free,” she remembered (2000, 24).  As the book progresses through her life, its bias is obvious, though it fails to find an answer to its posed question.

The book is very favorable to Parks, calling her bearing and quality mystical, and sympathetic to the civil rights cause.  It concludes with her meeting Nelson Mandela, laying the foundation for a pro-civil rights perspective and clearly demonstrating the author’s bias, though by his own words, Brinkley sought to add a neutral perspective to Parks’ story.

Brinkley used Parks’ autobiography, Rosa Parks , My Story, as a reference as well as other accounts of her life; however, his primary source was a series of interviews with Parks, now an octogenarian.  He set them up fairly quickly as Parks’ health was failing.  He needed these meetings in order to gain a first-hand account of her life story instead of one based solely on research.  This gives his work a personality and depth lacking in later accounts of her life.  What is missing from this work are details on Parks’ death because this book was written while she was still alive.

A book written by Martin Luther King, Jr. titled, Where Do We Go From Here, is about power, the active power of using nonviolent means to achieve change.  As King writes, “Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose” (1967, 44).  He believed that equality is not something given, it is something taken.  Only relentless pressure would achieve full equality for all Americans, black and white.  His argument was that power, aligned with morality, could achieve anything.

King begins by stating the current state of civil rights at the time of his book, written in 1967.  He proceeds to outline why blacks had power and what could be achieved by utilizing that power before leading into a chapter about racism and the “white backlash” (1967, 67).  The book presents the dilemma of the African American in the current society, their place in white America’s eyes and their battle for equality.

Following that is the point of the book, a focus on the direction of American civil rights, trying to awaken the black people to their “latent strengths” (137).  King utilizes extensive research in this book, everything from a report by the Department of Health titled “Vital Statistics 1961” to the book Negroes and the New Southern Policies by Mathews and Prothro.

His research backs up his own experience and he combines them both to achieve a blend of knowledge and teaching aimed at creating motivation and movement among blacks and whites.  King’s obvious bias is present on every page as he struggles to ignite a passion in America about the inequality of treatment between the races.  He does not consider any other perspective outside his own.  He does not appear to understand the point of view of any African American who does not stand up and fight for their rights.

Each of these books were clearly presented to battle for equality and civil rights.  They are impassioned and eloquently executed and incite strong passion in the reader delving into the material.  I felt strongly compelled to turn each page in inwardly rooted for them as I sympathized with the battles they fought.  Knowing that both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were murdered for their cause when they were fairly young and at the height of the movement saddens me because it speaks of such deep hatred in the country’s history.

Racism and prejudice is not something I ever understood.  I was raised in an all-white town and did not see a black man until I was nine.  He knocked on our front door and I screamed, embarrassing both of us.  No matter how far race relations have come, the color of our skin remains one of the first things that is noticed when two people meet, and people usually feel more comfortable with people that are similar to them.

I disagree with Malcolm X’s position that African Americans should not be integrated.  Living completely separate lives would deprive both of the cultural depth possible when the societies are blended.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was an inspiring man and I found his book to be written eloquently with his point often obscured in rhetoric; yet his message was always clear.

Rosa Parks’ story is inspiring in that it demonstrates exactly what one person can achieve.  Though I learned that she was not the first to refuse to give up her seat, the cause ignited with her and she lived up to the expectation.  I believed strongly in both Martin Luther King’s and Rosa Parks’ mission, integration and equality, should and did become the norm rather than prejudice, beatings and lynchings.  Sadly, there are areas of the country where racism is an issue, the laws have been changed to allow them to live a normal, free life.  I believe these three freedom fighters would be proud of the progress.

References

Brinkley, D.  (2000).  Rosa Parks.  New York: Penguin Group.

Haley, A.  (1965).  The autobiography of Malcolm X.  New York:  Ballantine Books.

King, Jr., M. L.  (1967).  Where do we go from here: chaos or community?  New York:  Harper and Row P.