Revolt Is Always an Inch Below the Surface
In the following excerpt from Chapter 17, “Or Does It Explode?” of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes about the legacy of Black resistance in the 20th century, and the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Although the government attempted to quell social unrest through civil rights legislation and to bring Black people into the political fold, Zinn writes, “It did not work. The Blacks could not be easily brought into ‘the democratic coalition’ when bombs kept exploding in churches, when new ‘civil rights’ laws did not change the root condition of black people.” Zinn continues, “It was discovered later that the government in all the years of the civil rights movement, while making concessions through Congress, was acting through the FBI to harass and break up black militant groups” —known as the Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. Following are related resources.
The black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s—North and South—came as a surprise. But perhaps it should not have. The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface. For blacks in the United States, there was the memory of slavery, and after that of segregation, lynching, humiliation. And it was not just a memory but a living presence—part of the daily lives of blacks in generation after generation.
In 1967, in the black ghettos of the country, came the greatest urban riots of American history. According to the report of the National Advisory Committee on Urban Disorders, they “involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society,” symbols of authority and property in the black neighborhoods—rather than purely against white persons. The Commission reported eight major uprisings, thirty-three “serious but not major” outbreaks, and 123 “minor” disorders. Eighty-three died of gunfire, mostly in Newark and Detroit. “The overwhelming majority of the persons killed or injured in all the disorders were Negro civilians.”
The “typical rioter,” according to the Commission, was a young, high school dropout but “nevertheless, somewhat better educated than his non-rioting Negro neighbor” and “usually underemployed or employed in a menial job.” He was “proud of his race, extremely hostile to both whites and middle-class Negroes and, although informed about politics, highly distrustful of the political system.”
The report blamed “white racism” for the disorders, and identified the ingredients of the “explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II”:
Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing .. . growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs. …
A new mood has sprung up among Negroes, particularly the young, in which self-esteem and enhanced racial pride are replacing apathy and submission to the “system.”
But the Commission Report itself was a standard device of the system when facing rebellion: set up an investigating committee, issue a report; the words of the report, however strong, will have a soothing effect.
That didn’t completely work either. “Black Power” was the new slogan—an expression of distrust of any “progress” given or conceded by whites, a rejection of paternalism. Few blacks (or whites) knew the statement of the white writer Aldous Huxley: “Liberties are not given, they are taken.” But the idea was there, in Black Power. Also, a pride in race, an insistence on black independence, and often, on black separation to achieve this independence. Malcolm X was the most eloquent spokesman for this. After he was assassinated as he spoke on a public platform in February 1965, in a plan whose origins are still obscure, he became the martyr of this movement. Hundreds of thousands read his Autobiography. He was more influential in death than during his lifetime.
Martin Luther King, though still respected, was being replaced now by new heroes: Huey Newton of the Black Panthers, for instance. The Panthers had guns; they said blacks should defend themselves.
Congress responded to the riots of 1967 by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Presumably it would make stronger the laws prohibiting violence against blacks; it increased the penalties against those depriving people of their civil rights. However, it said: “The provisions of this section shall not apply to acts or omissions on the part of law enforcement officers, members of the National Guard … or members of the Armed Forces of the United States, who are engaged in suppressing a riot or civil disturbance….”
Furthermore, it added a section—agreed to by liberal members of Congress in order to get the whole bill passed—that provided up to five years in prison for anyone traveling interstate or using interstate facilities (including mail and telephone) “to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot.” It defined a riot as an action by three or more people involving threats of violence. …
Martin Luther King himself became more and more concerned about problems untouched by civil rights laws—problems coming out of poverty. In the spring of 1968, he began speaking out, against the advice of some Negro leaders who feared losing friends in Washington, against the war in Vietnam. He connected war and poverty:
… it’s inevitable that we’ve got to bring out the question of the tragic mix-up in priorities. We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development… when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.
King now became a chief target of the FBI, which tapped his private phone conversations, sent him fake letters, threatened him, blackmailed him, and even suggested once in an anonymous letter that he commit suicide. FBI internal memos discussed finding a black leader to replace King. As a Senate report on the FBI said in 1976, the FBI tried “to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King.”
King was turning his attention to troublesome questions. He still insisted on nonviolence. Riots were self-defeating, he thought. But they did express a deep feeling that could not be ignored. And so, nonviolence, he said, “must be militant, massive non-violence.” He planned a “Poor People’s Encampment” in Washington, this time not with the paternal approval of the President. And he went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike of garbage workers in that city. There, standing on a balcony outside his hotel room, he was shot to death by an unseen marksman. The Poor People’s Encampment went on, and then it was broken up by police action, just as the World War I veterans’ Bonus Army of 1932 was dispersed.
The killing of King brought new urban outbreaks all over the country, in which thirty-nine people were killed, thirty-five of them black. Evidence was piling up that even with all of the civil rights laws now on the books, the courts would not protect blacks against violence and injustice:
- In the 1967 riots in Detroit, three black teenagers were killed in the Algiers Motel. Three Detroit policemen and a black private guard were tried for this triple murder. The defense conceded, a UPI dispatch said, that the four men had shot two of the blacks. A jury exonerated them.
- In Jackson, Mississippi, in the spring of 1970, on the campus of Jackson State College, a Negro college, police laid down a 28-second barrage of gunfire, using shotguns, rifles, and a submachine gun. Four hundred bullets or pieces of buckshot struck the girls’ dormitory and two black students were killed. A local grand jury found the attack “justified” and U.S. District Court Judge Harold Cox (a Kennedy appointee) declared that students who engage in civil disorders “must expect to he injured or killed.”
- In Boston in April 1970, a policeman shot and killed an unarmed black man, a patient in a ward in the Boston City Hospital, firing five shots after the black man snapped a towel at him. The chief judge of the municipal court of Boston exonerated the policeman.
- In Augusta, Georgia, in May 1970, six Negroes were shot to death during looting and disorder in the city. The New York Times reported:
A confidential police report indicates that at least five of the victims were killed by the police…An eyewitness to one of the deaths said he had watched a Negro policeman and his white partner fire nine shots into the back of a man suspected of looting. They did not fire warning shots or ask him to stop running, said Charles A. Reid, a 38-year-old businessman…
- In April 1970, a federal jury in Boston found a policeman had used “excessive force” against two black soldiers from Fort Devens, and one of them required twelve stitches in his scalp; the judge awarded the servicemen $3 in damages.
These were “normal” cases, endlessly repeated in the history of the country, coming randomly but persistently out of a racism deep in the institutions, the mind of the country. But there was something else—a planned pattern of violence against militant black organizers, carried on by the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On December 4, 1969, a little before five in the morning, a squad of Chicago police, armed with a submachine gun and shotguns, raided an apartment where Black Panthers lived. They fired at least eighty-two and perhaps two hundred rounds into the apartment, killing twenty-one-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as he lay in his bed, and another Black Panther, Mark Clark. Years later, it was discovered in a court proceeding that the FBI had an informer among the Panthers, and that they had given the police a floor plan of the apartment, including a sketch of where Fred Hampton slept.
Was the government turning to murder and terror because the concessions—the legislation, the speeches, the intonation of the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome” by President Lyndon Johnson—were not working? It was discovered later that the government in all the years of the civil rights movement, while making concessions through Congress, was acting through the FBI to harass and break up black militant groups. Between 1956 and 1971 the FBI concluded a massive Counterintelligence Program (known as COINTELPRO) that took 295 actions against black groups. Black militancy seemed stubbornly resistant to destruction. A secret FBI report to President Nixon in 1970 said “a recent poll indicates that approximately 25% of the black population has a great respect for the Black Panther Party, including 43% of blacks under 21 years of age.” Was there fear that blacks would turn their attention from the controllable field of voting to the more dangerous arena of wealth and poverty—of class conflict? In 1966, seventy poor black people in Greenville, Mississippi, occupied an unused air force barracks, until they were evicted by the military. A local woman, Mrs. Unita Blackwell, said:
I feel that the federal government have proven that it don’t care about poor people. Everything that we have asked for through these years had been handed down on paper. It’s never been a reality. We the poor people of Mississippi is tired. We’re tired of it so we’re going to build for ourselves, because we don’t have a government that represents us.
Out of the 1967 riots in Detroit came an organization devoted to organizing black workers for revolutionary change. This was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which lasted until 1971 and influenced thousands of black workers in Detroit during its period of activity.
The new emphasis was more dangerous than civil rights, because it created the possibility of blacks and whites uniting on the issue of class exploitation. Back in November 1963, A. Philip Randolph had spoken to an AFL-CIO convention about the civil rights movement, and foreseen its direction: “The Negro’s protest today is but the first rumbling of the ‘under-class.’ As the Negro has taken to the streets, so will the unemployed of all races take to the streets.”
In July 2010, the FBI declassified 243-page file on Howard Zinn, dating back to 1949. The first recorded contact with Zinn is this report filed four years later on November 25, 1953. Two FBI agents questioned Zinn about matters based on information provided by informants. FBI files on individuals and groups are notoriously unreliable. They are shared here simply as relevant primary documents. Transcript of this file follows. Continue reading.
In April 2001, Howard Zinn offered his expert testimony in the Judi Bari/Michael Cherney civil case regarding the FBI’s history of using the Counterintelligence Program—COINTELPRO—to discredit and neutralize Bari, Cherney, and the environmental movement. Continue reading.
As deputy chair of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton set up the Black Panther’s free breakfast program and coined the phrase “Rainbow Coalition” after forging a multi-racial alliance between Chicago’s gangs, eventually joined by groups including the Young Lords and Young Patriots. Watch at Voices of a People’s History on Vimeo.
Dramatic reading of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” (1967) speech by Michael Ealy. Watch at Voices of a People’s History on Vimeo.
By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca. A 1971 break-in at FBI offices revealed a conspiracy—known as COINTELPRO—for the FBI to infiltrate, disrupt, and destroy a wide range of activist groups, especially civil rights organizations. Textbooks ignore this chapter in U.S. history, but it’s essential background to understand what’s happening today. Read more.