African American Political Activists and Their Fight for Civil Rights
“The right of nature… is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life.”
– Thomas Hobbes
As a first-generation college student, I have been taught about Statistics, Biology, English, and American political science because society deems that is what’s important. Yet, I decided to take an extra class in the last semester before graduation to understand the true struggles America has faced. Black history, to me, is very important and should also be a priority to study. African American history in America focuses on the contributions of civil rights in the past and how it can be related to issues in society we face today.
The civil right movement was the dark past of America in which, minorities fought for their civil rights. There is not one part of history that can be truly understood outside of the larger context. All of American history has been significantly impacted by slavery from the beginning to now. Civil rights has and will remain an issue to those that don’t fit into societal norms, due to the ignorance of others.
I have learned the good, the bad, and the ugly of our nation’s history. In the time of Civil rights, and its leaders, they too were good or bad. The thing about history is we can learn from our mistakes and hopefully become a better nation, but there are activists and leaders who have fought hard for a cause or belief. In the time of the civil rights movement 1954-1968, African Americans ended segregation and successfully asserted their basic human rights. Black people fought hard for equality at a time in the history of our nation that promoted racism. In turn, the tactics people took to get to equality were a bit skewed. The civil rights movement was looking for a leader, and they had plenty. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey were only some of the activists who believed wholeheartedly in speaking on behalf of African Americans in the civil rights movement, yet, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey took a more aggressive approach than MLK in their strategies of political activism and economic empowerment.
Many people assume that King or Malcolm X were the only main civil rights activists but before their time was a man named Marcus Garvey. Garvey had a unique style to his leadership, in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement. His economic empowerment focused on Africa and is known as Garveyism in the 1920s. In African American History Two, Daniel Lind maintains that “Garvey’s wide popularity rested on his appeal to race pride….He exalted everything black…he told blacks that racial prejudice was so much a part of the civilization of whites that it was futile to appeal to their sense of justice and their high-sounding democratic principles” (Lind 371). In other words, he advocated to not change whites and just let them be. He in turn also supported the KKK believing their white supremacy ideals were what this country was built on. Basically, because of his methods, people and other radial leaders in the movement felt he was a supporter of the white elite.
His political activism strategy was black unification under his leadership and he focused on black people, specifically dark black people, to start and unite their own nation apart from America and white people. Garvey was considered dangerous in promoting racial separation in a country that was fighting for the unification of its people. On the bright side, the benefits Marcus Garvey and his ideas brought was an opportunity to celebrate black culture, history, and heritage in a world that saw them as inferior. What Garvey did was important because it paved the way for black nationalism in America and in the 1960s a gentleman by the name of Malcolm X would emphasize on his philosophies.
As time went on and a growing number of black people fled to urban areas such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York, they were met with persistent problems of bad housing, unemployment, and Jim crow laws. Then along came Malcolm X, using much of Garvey’s philosophies, X advocated for self-reliance and self-determination adhering to the goal of a black nation (Lind 551). This is important because about 30-40 years later Malcolm X took Garvey’s ideas yet, unlike Garvey, he saw no use in responding to white hatred with love (Lind 552). Malcolm came as a leader with the approach of self-defense and violence as empowerment. According to David Howard Pitney in A Brief History with Documents, Malcolm X’s famous speech “Message to the grassroots” discloses: “By any means necessary” (Pitney 132). Malcolm X’s point is that black people have been beaten for too long and his people have a right to bear arms like anyone else and to this ideal, I agree. He was different as Daniel Lind points out in African American History Two, “Malcolm’s anti-white statements and his belittling of the nonviolent “Negro leadership” and its goal of racial integration positioned him and Martin Luther King Jr., on opposite sides of what appeared to be an unbridgeable chasm” (552). This emphasizes that Malcolm X was an advocate of black power and he was greatly influential in getting people to believe in black power like Garvey, but with a twist of self-defense. In turn, he is the opposite of Martin Luther King and King’s ideals of political activism through peace and non-violence.
Taking a step back on the timeline between Garvey and Malcolm X was Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950-1960s. MLK’s timeline and Malcolm X’s get blurred sometimes but MLK was around first. King, unlike Malcolm, was an advocate for social change through the means of non-violence. King had a very religious side where in his activism his inspiration came from both Christian faith and the teachings of Gandhi. This is where his power and strategies to achieve legal equality stemmed from and he was successful in using words as power along with nonviolent protests and marches. King was committed to racial reconciliation and nonviolence, in his final book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” he warned: “the persistence of racism in depth and the dawning awareness that Negro demands will necessitate structural changes in society have generated a new phase of white resistance in North and South” (12).
The essence of King’s warning is that he believed even after the win for better jobs, higher wages, better housing, and equal education to that of white people that the fight will never truly be over. Kings increasing slogan in empowering others in the movement was “Black Power” (King 3). Although unlike Malcolm and Garvey, MLK was against full-on black separation from white society. He asserted, “unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice” (King 50). Basically, he maintains that there would be little to no progress in full if the separation occurred in America therefore, debunking Garvey and Malcolm’s political ideals. His fight was for unification of colored people into American society, side by side with white people.
Although it is true that Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. had very different ways about raising awareness of the civil rights issues and their attitude towards the cause, I feel they all had a common end game, to unify their people through the top-down effect. By focusing on themselves, these three intellectual activists in the civil rights movement did not make the movement about the people, but more about the political and economic ideas that they thought were the right way, and the only way to fight the cause. They were top predators controlling the structure and dynamics within the movement.
Essentially, they all chose the same type of leadership role, where their knowledge influenced the masses and their voices became the voice of the movement and not so much the people in the movement itself. I find this approach militant because from a psychological standpoint people are fearful around authority figures or people in power. I believe they used their status in rank to push their own personal beliefs onto others. People tend to gravitate towards causes that have leaders, so in turn, they don’t have to lead themselves. Most people prefer to stay out of the light and in the case of the civil rights movement I would not blame them, many did not want to go to jail, get beaten, or be lynched.
In observing these three men it is clear to see their different strategies contributing to black progress and freedom for their people. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey were only some of the activists who believed wholeheartedly in speaking on behalf of African Americans in the civil rights movement, yet, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey took a more aggressive approach than MLK in their strategies of political activism and economic empowerment. At the same time that I believe every cause needs a leader due to democratic ideals, I also believe that if the people in a movement would band together and realize there is power in numbers then and only then people might stop waiting for a messiah.
It is a human weakness to wait for someone else to fight for a cause and someone to just jump on the bandwagon based on their beliefs. The civil rights movement was much like this. African Americans had it hard for so long they became secondary to the white elite. In truth, most homes had more slaves than whites living in them, yet it would have taken someone to stand up for others to do the same. Sad to say this is how things work in America, which can still stand true today. In conclusion, I personally side with Malcolm X and Garvey.
I believe in equality for all and if someone lays a hand on you then as an American you have the right to bear arms. I did not, however, believe in Malcolm and Garvey’s approach to uniting black people separate from others. Since the civil rights movement African Americans have made great gains in America and all over the nation. I assert in an America that is free, not to just white people but all people of every race, shade, and culture. This is what makes America great, diversity!
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