Committed: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Justice
Valerie Sweeney Prince
Civil rights were first constitutionalized in the 13th Amendment. However, the fact of civil rights as a false category is immediately revealed by the caveat written into the amendment for the terms of continued enslavement. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States” [emphasis added]. In the wake of the Civil War, the country failed to redress slavery as a crime against humanity; instead, it sought to preserve the union by issuing civil rights. And because slavery was both reprehensible and legal, the nation is clear on its moral culpability, hence it has willfully refused to construct a legal system that would require a cost it imagines as too painful to endure. But justice requires punishment. In fact, the language of punishment appears in the amendment. However, in a kind of legislative slight of hand, the 13th Amendment displaces punishment of those agents enacting the transgression of slavery onto those who would be convicted as outlaws. This transferal resists the constitutional gains of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as the 1965 Voter Registration Act, which some mark as the end of the Civil Rights Era, allowing for the continuing disenfranchisement of segments of the society well into the twenty first century.
During the mid twentieth century, “Civil Rights Movement” began to circulate as an overarching term for the struggle for civil liberty; however, the aims at the grass roots of the movement were always broader than the limits of the law. Rather than reject the term “civil rights” as a misnomer, the literature produced during the 1960s reveals how the notion of civil rights complicates and to some degree frustrates those seeking human dignity. Rather than foregrounding the law, which is inherent in a term like “civil rights,” the literature focuses on the experiences of a people. And the effort to represent those experiences using a lexicon that has proven inadequate to achieve its larger aims has often been depicted as a maddening descent.
During the1960s, black Americans en massbrought the demand for social justice to the public forefront, while the nation continued to assert itself in opposition. Evidence of this tension manifested during the 60s in pervasive legal protests like boycotts, and in illegal, un-armed, non-violent protests like sit-ins, and in Black militancy such as armed self-defense, and in riots that occurred across the country in cities such as Harlem, Watts, Detroit, and Chicago. The vehement resistance to each of these forms of protest was often underscored by violence, state sanctioned and otherwise. Since the quest for equity under the law is compromised by a fundamental absence of justice, the society encounters the cognitive dissonance of constitutional values that remain untethered from the daily practice of an entrenched racialized citizenry. The struggle of those who hoped to put the law to rights appeared in a wide range of public utterances most famously embodied by two figures: Malcolm X and the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Arguably, the most iconic moment of this period is the image of Dr. King standing in 1963 on the steps of the memorial dedicated to the great emancipator, flanked by throngs who have marched on Washington. The preacher’s words hammering the ground like a spade, excavating the roots of his people’s enslavement, untangling them from the promise of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the challenge of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the imagery of the American Dream. Since King’s ascendancy to the forefront of the non-violent civil rights movement in the early 1960s, his politics of love have been upheld as the normative mode for advocating for reform within a system that has been fundamentally hostile to one’s identity. This image of the civil rights movement, as Nikhil Pal Singh explains, “with King frozen in time before the Lincoln Memorial—is represented as part of an achieved national, political consensus, shattered only where blacks themselves abandoned the normative discourses of American politics.” Singh continues, “This narrative is built on a number of misleading representations of modern U.S. racial history. It relies on an abbreviated periodization of the civil rights era, as well as fallacies about the South as an exception to national racial norms.” In a context wherein fundamental freedoms have been so consistently and violently disregarded, the mainstream populace prefers cultural production that promotes an image of civil rights—by foregrounding representations of civility in particular.
As is the case in the April 16, 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King generally directs his attention toward “[white] men of genuine good will” whose “criticisms [of civil rights activism] are sincerely set forth.” To their criticism of his presence in Birmingham as outside agitation King’s responds: “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns… so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” It is in this letter, too, that he famously states, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King’s savvy combination of religious conviction and patriotism has become emblematic of an American universalism in large part because it imagines the achievement of a color-blind democracy while affirming the salience of the Constitution without requiring the blood of those who oppose racial equity.
This image projected of King’s civility is often set in opposition to that of Malcolm X. Unlike King whose (black) Christianity required more sacrifice of him than that of his (white) Christian brethren, Malcolm X felt no compulsion to turn the other cheek. While both men’s perspectives on the most advantageous approach to matters of social justice continued to evolve over the course of their lives, the core commitment to nonviolent resistance, on the one hand, and to armed self-defense, on the other, remained a key distinction. So too did the distinction of audience.
When Malcolm explains the difference between civil rights and human rights in “The Ballot or the Bullet” delivered in 196 4, he addresses an unapologetically black audience: “Civil rights means you’re asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time any one violates your human rights, you can take them to the world court.” King drew his rhetorical cadence from the long tradition of spirituals and sermons, which were among the very few public utterances permitted black people under slavery. Malcolm’s speech tapped a different root. As Larry Neal explained,
What I liked most about Malcolm was his sense of poetry: his speech rhythms, and his cadences that seemed to spring from the universe of black music…. My ears were more attuned to the music of urban black America—that blues idiom music called jazz. Malcolm was like that music. He reminded many of us of the music of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane—a music that was a central force in the emerging ethos of the black artistic consciousness.
While the spirituals undergirding King’s rhetoric were sanctioned by white overseers, the blues buttressing Malcolm’s speech never sought permission to exist. The rhetorical flourish of jazz intonation is layered with a blues sentimentality wherein King’s dream is expressed as Malcolm’s nightmare: “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
“Nightmare” is also the title of the opening chapter of his autobiography, wherein Malcolm recounts the terrifying force exerted that murdered his father, refused to care for his family, parceled out the siblings, and psychically destroyed his mother. Of his mother’s descent into madness he writes: “I can’t describe how I felt. The woman who had brought me into the world, and nursed me, and advised me, and chastised me, and loved me, didn’t know me. It was as if I was trying to walk up the side of a hill of feathers. I looked at her. I listened to her ‘talk.’ But there was nothing I could do.” The helplessness of his position in relationship to these formative childhood experiences helps explain the street-wise stance he takes as a man. Just as King’s primary influence for his political posture is his upbringing as a lap-baby in a middle-class Baptist church pastored by his father. Nevertheless, placing the two activists in opposition constructs a false dichotomy that works against the stated goals of both men and the constituencies they represented.
Consider the fact that prior to ratification, the 1964 Civil Rights Act faced a 75-day filibuster in Congress. While the 1960s would see the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1965, Ralph Ellison predicted that the nation’s continuing resistance to full social integration had costs for white as well as black Americans:
This unwillingness to resolve the conflict in keeping with his democratic ideals has compelled the white American, figuratively, to force the Negro down into the deeper level of his consciousness, into the inner world, where reason and madness mingle with hope and memory and endlessly given birth to nightmare and to dream; down into the province of the psychiatrist and the artist, from whence spring the lunatic’s fancy and his work of art.
In the logic of this argument, the repressed “Negro” becomes the shadow of the souls of white folk, a part of the white consciousness that will need to be brought into the light if any kind of clarity and self-knowledge can occur. Ellison here echoes Baldwin’s earlier claim, one made in 1961: “To know your name, you’re going to have to know mine.”
One place in which black souls had literally been hidden away from white consciousness was in asylums. The remains of the Hospital for Negro Insane in Crownsville, which the contemporary poet Bro. Yao uses as a metaphor for the African American experience, indict the nation for the impotence of liberal gestures which amount to a refusal to accept responsibility for their psychic well-being. Instead, the nation committed its black populace to an asylum wherein they were exploited and contained rather than cared for. The exploitive practice of the Hospital for the Negro Insane is countered by the democratic idealism of Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic. In the 1940s Ellison and photographer Gordon Parks collaborated on a project depicting the work being done at the Lafargue Clinic. It had been co-founded in 1946 by Richard Wright, Earl Brown, and Dr. Frederic Wertham. Until it closed in 1959, the clinic’s volunteer staff saw patients in a basement space donated by St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. The location was selected in order to give African Americans access to mental health services; however, the clinic treated patients regardless of race or their ability to pay the twenty-five cent fee.
Ellison opens the essay “Harlem is Nowhere” by describing the descent into the basement of the clinic as a “confusing mazelike hall” leading to a “brightly lighted auditorium” where waiting social workers are seated at reception desks. He goes on to figure the clinic as “an underground extension of democracy.” In this space Ellison discerns the psychic vertigo that results from “the abruptness of change” being forced upon the “Negro personality.” Here “the grandchildren of those who possessed no written literature examine their lives through the eyes of Freud and Marx, Kierkegaard and Kafka, Malraux and Sartre.”
Ellison envisioned Parks’s images as being placed alongside his words and hoped to publish their findings in the Magazine of the Year, 1948. Unfortunately, the short-lived magazine went bankrupt days before the collaboration’s publication. The essay did not appear in print until 1964, when it was published in Harper’s Magazine and then again that same year in Ellison’s collection Shadow and Act, in the former with no mention of the Lafargue Clinic—which had by that time closed—and in both cases unaccompanied by Parks’s photos. As Jean Christophe Cloutier notes, “between the original publication date of ‘Harlem is Nowhere’ and the civil rights movement, the fight for democracy had forcibly shifted aboveground.”
So, by the early 1960s, the “Negro” was no longer Ellison’s Invisible Man. And, just as the fight for social justice had moved into the harsh light of images being televised from Selma and Birmingham, and as the white backlash continued to mount, the question of appropriate and effective black response became increasingly urgent. While Marin Luther King continued preaching nonviolence, others anguished over the cost of such a stance. Addison Gayle put the question: “Was it psychologically healthier, for example, for the family of Emmett Till to watch passively as men led their son away to certain death? Is it psychologically healthy for young people today to accept non-violently the excesses of a system which ravages their minds, bodies, and spirits, bringing a more lingering and painful death than that suffered by Emmett Till?” In their two plays, Blues for Mr Charlieand Dutchman, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka attempted to answer the question.
In his eulogy for Baldwin, Amiri Baraka said, “Jimmy was a ‘civil rights leader’…. He was in the truest tradition of the great artists of all times. Those who understand it is beauty and truth we seek, and that indeed one cannot exist without and as an extension of the other…. Jimmy’s voice, as much as Dr. King’s or Malcolm X’s, helped shepherd and guide us toward black liberation.”After Baldwin’s “Letter From a Region in my Mind” (published in the November 17, 1962 issue of The New Yorker) came to the attention of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a meeting with Baldwin was arranged in order to discuss the issue of civil rights. The meeting took place on May 24, 1963 at Kennedy’s New York apartment and included actor and musician Lena Horne, singer Harry Belafonte, psychologist Kenneth Clark, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and a Freedom Rider associated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Jerome Smith. Smith directly challenged Kennedy’s assertion of federal aid and good will and, according to Baldwin,
set the tone of the meeting because he stammers when he's upset and he stammered when he talked to Bobby and said that he was nauseated by the necessity of being in that room. I knew what he meant. It was not personal at all . . . . Bobby took it personally and turned away from him. That was a mistake because he turned toward us. We were the reasonable, responsible, mature representatives of the Black community. Lorraine Hansberry said, "You've got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there."
Smith’s credentials had been earned by operating as part of the Freedom Movement in direct confrontations with a brutalizing, white rage and in the presence of indifferent, if not directly antagonistic, federal officials. Kennedy left the meeting shaken and ordered J. Edgar Hoover, the then director of the FBI, to increase surveillance of Baldwin and others.
While the meeting surely left an impression on Kennedy’s perspective of civil rights, Baraka saw Baldwin’s 1964 play as perhaps even more consequential—at least for the Black Arts Movement. As Houston A. Baker, Jr. explains, “The Black Arts Movement emerged in conjunction with a radical shift in strategy and protocols of the black liberation struggle in America. When in the mid-1960s, non-violent, direct action protest yielded to the rhetoric and agenda of Black Power, there seemed to arise a felt need for a ‘cultural wing,’ as it were, of the Black Power Movement.” With his founding of the Black Arts Theatre/School in 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka is often seen as one of the fathers of the movement. Writers including Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins, June Jordan, Ron Milner, Gil Scott-Heron, Addison Gayle, Maulana Karenga, and Larry Neal came to be indelibly associated with the BAM. But Baraka was to single out Baldwin too, as a co-founder: “The celebrated James Baldwin of earlier times could not be used to cover the undaunted freedom chants of the Jimmy who walked with King and SNCC or the evil little nigger who wrote Blues For Mr. Charlie! For as far as I’m concerned, it was Blues For Mr. Charlie that announced the Black Arts Movement.”
Blues for Mr. Charlieopens with a dedication to Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist shot down in his Mississippi driveway. In the play Richard Henry, after living for eight years in Harlem, returns to the Deep South only to be murdered by a white shopkeeper. While the play portrays the oppression that drove migrants out of the Jim Crow South, Baldwin rejects the logic of a Great Migration in which the northern city acts as a refuge. Instead, Harlem is placed in continuum with Money, Mississippi wherein the slow death from bitterness and drug addiction is complemented by state sanctioned murder.
Parnell James, a well-meaning white liberal and wealthy newspaper publisher, serves as a go-between for Whitetown and Blacktown. He is friendly with both Lyle Britten, the murderer, and Meridian Henry, the victim’s father. Parnell comes from old money and his wealth insulates him from the pressures of the changing economy that Lyle finds increasingly constricting. Lyle’s shop once thrived by exploiting black sharecroppers. Now African Americans have decided to walk farther down the road. But economic uncertainty is just one of many unsettling shifts occurring in Whitetown. Meanwhile, Parnell’s class offers him the privilege of liberal non-conformity, even as his race insulates him from the injustices that dehumanize Blacktown. In the following exchange with Meridian about Richard’s murder, Parnell expresses confidence in the legitimacy of his own position as well as the validity of democratic ideals:
MERIDIAN: Lyle’s responsible for Richard’s death.
PARNELL: But, Meridian, we can’t, even in our own minds, decide that he’s guilty. We
have to operate the way justice always has to operate and give him the benefit of the doubt.
PARNELL: We must forget about all—all the past injustice. We have to start from
scratch, or do our best to start from scratch. It isn’t vengeance we’re after. Is it?
MERIDIAN: I don’t want vengeance. I don’t want to be paid back—anyway, I couldn’t
Meridian would never make a case for reparations—it would bankrupt the country and besides, he cannot imagine a way in which African Americans could ever be repaid for their losses. Meridian’s sense of defeat is endemic in Blacktown. The push back, when it comes, gets coded in other ways. Blues For Mr. Charlie is a lamentation summed up by Meridian when he asks, “What hope is there for a people who deny their deeds and disown their kinsmen and who do so in the name of purity and love, in the name of Jesus Christ?”
Baraka read a powerful eulogy at Baldwin’s funeral in 1987. In the month following, forty-eight writers decried in an open letter to The New York Times Book Review, “It is a fact that James Baldwin, celebrated worldwide and posthumously designated as ‘immortal’ and as ‘the conscience of his generation,’ it is a fact that Baldwin never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: never.” The signers went on to declare, “We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy.” The stance was unprecedented—forty-eight writers from across the broad spectrum of African American literature—and the names are listed below:
Robert Allen, Maya Angelou, Houston A. Baker Jr., Toni Cade Bambara, Amina Baraka, Amiri Baraka, Jerome Brooks, Wesley Brown, Robert Chrisman, Barbara Christian, Lucille Clifton, J. California Cooper, Jayne Cortez, Angela Davis, Thulani Davis, Alexis De Veaux. Mari Evans, Nikky Finney, Ernest J. Gaines, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Paula Giddings, Vertamae Grosvenor, Cheryll Y. Greene, Rosa Guy, Calvin Hernton, Nathan Irvin Huggins, Gloria T. Hull, Gale Jackson, June Jordan, Paule Marshall, Nellie McKay, Louise Meriwether. Louise Patterson, Richard Perry, Arnold Rampersad, Eugene Redmond, Sonia Sanchez, Hortense Spillers, Luisah Teish, Joyce Carol Thomas, Eleanor Traylor, Quincy Troupe, Alice Walker, Mary Helen Washington, John Wideman, Margaret Wilkerson, John A. Williams, Sherley Anne Williams.
In the meantime, Le Roi Jones/Amiri Baraka wrote Dutchman, a remarkable one-act play. The plot centers on the interactions of Lula, a 30-year old white woman, and Clay, a 20-year old black man. The action occurs entirely in the subway. In Dutchman, Jones/Baraka puts into play the codes of the black man as aggressive predator and the white woman as innocent prey encoded in the post Reconstruction era and popularized as a national narrative by D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The figure of Lula calls into question the tragic victim at issue in Birth of a Nation. If the vulnerability of the white woman is central to the way the nation imagines itself, then Baraka is clear about the impact of that vision on African American men. As Nita Kumar explains, “The play does not so much posit an authentic black sense of selfhood as explore the processes and modes of misrepresentation concerning it. It engages dialectically with racial domination in terms of representation and attempts to invest art and language with the power and immediacy of action.” In Baraka’s mind, theater is a more active art than poetry for rendering racial and gender dynamics.
Lula embodies a society that uses force to insist upon a position for which it has no justifiable claim—that of sole proprietors of knowledge, beauty, and the right to go unmolested. The cosmopolitan Lula is an aggressor who seeks Clay out to toy with merely because she presumes to know him better than he knows himself.
CLAY: Hey, you still haven’t told me how you know so much about me.
LULA: I told you I didn’t know anything about you… you’re a well-known type.
LULA: Or at least I know the type very well.
Lula characterizes Clay in increasingly inflammatory language as an assimilationist aspiring to transcend his caste. But to suggest, as scholars like C. W. E. Bigsby and George Piggford do, that Clay falls short of an achieved black masculinity is to fail to situate the philosophy of Dutchman within the context of the long civil rights movement, which since the time of David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World(1829) and Nat Turner’s jailhouse confession (1831), has necessarily balanced the call for justice with the reality of a nation fearful of its own culpability. And while many take W. E. B. Du Bois’s “double consciousness” as definitive on the nature of the psychic problem as residing in the mind of one who is compelled to operate under the strain of the color line, Dutchman depicts white society as psychically torn by their rigid adherence to racial codes. Of course, Lula doesn’t know Clay and she murders him in the presence of a disinterested public rather than confront the complex range of his humanity.
Clay’s reading of Lula as maddening is far more cogent than her reading of him as assimilationist, as evidenced by the thoughts he finally reveals. Clay is a type of Bigger Thomas who more clearly articulates his rage; as a result, Clay has no compulsion to act upon the violence that Lula incites. Instead Clay merely explains: “All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying, ‘Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass.’ And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would’ve played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw.” Clay understands African American artistic production as “A whole people of neurotics, struggling to keep from being sane. And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder.” “This rhetoric of murder,” Kumar explains, “is instantly contrasted in the play with Lula’s act of conducting a swift and real murder. This dialectic of speech and action is also an undercutting of one by the other. Lula’s power of speech is undercut by Clay’s discourse about the power of action, which is further undercut by Lula’s demonstration of real power through action.”
Dutchman’s concern is justice, holding people accountable for their wrong doing and implicating the society that doesn’t demand accountability. To frame Dutchman as a work of protest is to constrain it within a binary of opposition that would make it continually self-referential—reinforcing the notion that whiteness is so compelling that it must be worked against. Instead, Baraka presents in Dutchman a complex rendering of the multifaceted nature of the human struggle of becoming that is inherent in the human condition and the way becoming is integral to that of others. Eldridge Cleaver writes of the importance of this process in “On Becoming” when he says,“I became a law unto myself—my own legislature, my own supreme court, my own executive”. Unlike Cleaver when he becomes outlaw, Dutchman is not protesting—which is to suggest reinforcing notions of white supremacy by insisting on its primacy. It is making an uncensored public act of speech that reveals the lengths at which society is committed to keeping such truths underground.
The underground has been an integral part of the building and maintenance of the British Empire, upon which the nation is founded. Much has been written about the ways that the title holds the Dutch accountable by evoking the crimes against humanity in the slave trade. But the crime did not negate the humanity of those who were held as cargo. The Africans in the belly of the ship—the metaphorical underground—while in a tactically inferior position to wage war were in a superior position to refine many other meaningful expressions of humanity. It is in the underground space of the subway system that Clay finally divulges “the pumping black heart”—a violation for which Lula enacts Mary Dalton’s revenge. Lula operates as white society has in relationship to the abstraction of a black other. She reads a rigid set of codes onto Clay, positions herself as superior, and enforces her narrow view through brutality in the face of an indifferent public. Thus Clay’s failing is revealing in a public speech act the subterranean workings of the black mind. “In a complex interworking, the play thus affirms as well as denies the validity of art in the process of self-liberation.”
While Baraka seems to grow more certain of the significance of punishment as a key element of social justice, traditional forms such as narrative and historical drama do other kinds of work. Testimonies like Ann Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968) and novels like Margaret Walker’s influential Jubilee (1966), that imagines a genealogy hidden by the peculiar condition of African Americans, derive from the need to declare, “I was born.” The witness inherent in these works is vital for a people who are denied birthrights. But this kind of looking back does very little to directly address the aim of equity under the law. So while the effort to draw a genealogy that reclaims a stolen heritage helps prepare the ground for a novel like Beloved(1987) and