Black politcal movements

The black political movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries were part of the search for a black identity. Many of the black political and cultural movements developed in America. Slavery was abolished there only in 1865. The black population was subject to many restrictions. Black and white rarely mixed, and the black population had few rights and no power. Richard Wright, the black author of the novel Native Son, published in 1940, wrote about the Southern states of America from an insider’s point of view. ‘In Dixie [the Southern states] there are two worlds, the white world and the black world, and they are physically separated. There are white schools and black schools, white churches and black churches, white businesses and black businesses, and, for all I know, a white God and a black God… This separation was accomplished after the Civil War by the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, which swept the newly freed Negro through arson, pillage, and death out of the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, the many state legislatures, and out of the public, social and economic life of the South… when the Negro was freed, he outnumbered the whites in many of these fertile areas. Hence, a fierce and bitter struggle took place to keep the ballot from the Negro, for had he had a chance to vote, he would have automatically controlled the richest lands of the South and with them the social, political and economic destiny of a third of the Republic… disfranchisement had to be supplemented by a whole panoply of rules, taboos, and penalties designed not only to ensure peace (complete submission) but to guarantee that no real threat would ever arise… The white neighbor decided to limit the amount of education his black neighbor could receive; decided to keep him off the police force and out of the national guards; to segregate him residentially; to Jim Crow [segregation laws] him in public places; to restrict his participation in the professions and jobs; and to build up a vast, dense ideology of racial superiority that would justify any act of violence taken against him to defend white dominance; and further, to condition him to hope for little and to receive that little without rebelling.’

It was against such a background that the black political movements arose. These movements covered a wide range of thought, from the integration of black and white to complete separation.

W E B Du Bois (1868-1963) was brought up in the northern states of the USA. He studied history at university, and found that the history of Africa was all but ignored by white schools and historians. Part of his work was in researching the history of Africa, with the aim of giving black people a sense of pride in the achievements of Africa in the past. He felt that Africa’s ability to progress had been destroyed by the slave trade of the Arabs and Europeans. He was also a sociologist and political activist, and made a significant contribution to debates on race, politics and history in the USA. Through his writings and lectures, he advocated integration. Black and white had to live together. His view was that blacks (in the USA at least) had to develop intellectually and culturally to gain respect from the white world and be accepted as equal. In this, he was opposed by other black activists such as Booker T Washington. Washington felt that black people had first to develop skills, which would allow them to advance economically. Economic status would gain respect from the white world and allow political and social advancement.

Du Bois was also a Pan-Africanist, believing that all people of African descent, wherever they were, had common interests and should work together for freedom and advancement. He may have been the first to promote the idea of ‘Beauty in Black’, an idea taken up in the 1960s by ‘Black is Beautiful’.

Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) held the opposite idea to Du Bois, that of black nationalism. Garvey was born in Jamaica and travelled throughout the Caribbean and Central America before going to the United States. He was and still is an influential black leader. Many people still revere him as a leader who transformed the awareness of black people. The basis of his thinking was simple: people should take pride in the fact that they were African. He argued that the subordination of black people was because white people controlled them not only physically but also mentally. An obvious example of this mental control was the Christian church. Black people were taught to believe in and worship a white image of Christianity. Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints were all depicted as white. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association told people to replace those white images with black Christs and black Madonnas. One aim of the UNIA was to restore black people to their homeland, to take them back to Africa. Garvey argued that integration with white society was impossible, therefore black people should return to Africa. Another aim of this thinking was to create strong economic links between the people of the Diaspora and Africa, in order to improve the position of both Africa and people of African descent around the world. Marcus Garvey remained an influential thinker. He identified a problem not in how white society saw and controlled black people, but in how black people accepted in their own minds that they were inferior and thus failed to achieve their own potential. In making people take pride in their African ancestry he left a lasting impact.

Other movements continued this idea of taking pride in an African heritage. Négritude was a movement begun in the 1930s by black artists and writers from the French-speaking Caribbean. It was about the awareness of African values, and sought to create an African consciousness for black people wherever they were. The leaders of the Négritude movement did not, like Marcus Garvey, put forward a return to Africa. But they accepted that it was possible to return to Africa in the mind, rather than physically, through a sense of history and culture and a pride in being black.

The Civil Rights movement in the USA was kick-started in 1955 by the refusal of Rosa Parkes, a black woman, to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Alabama. Her arrest for this action led to a bus boycott by black people (like the Bristol bus boycott in the 1960s over discrimination in employment). The Civil Rights movement was a loose alliance, mainly church led, of black groups. Organised non-violent protest over segregation, led by the Revd Martin Luther King, eventually gained political support for an end to discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Out of the Civil Rights movement came the Black Power movement in the United States in the 1960s. It was also known as the Black Consciousness and Black Arts movements. The Civil Rights movement gave black Americans the right to vote and ended racial segregation. Black Power generated debate on political strategies and helped to use the civil rights gained to get black people into political office. Ideas from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, as well as from black nationalists like Malcolm X, spread outwards from America and influenced black activists in other countries.

Garvey and Négritude in the early part of the 20th century were mirrored in the second half of the century by the idea that ‘Black is Beautiful’. Once again, young black people began to take a pride in their African identity. It was not a political movement in the way that Garvey’s UNIA and Black Power were, but it had its effect on the attitudes of both black and white people through fashion, music and art.