Even though Martin Luther King Jr. had waged a successful campaign against Jim Crow laws in the South, a growing number of younger activists began to feel that nonviolent tactics could not right every social and political injustice. Blacks might have won the right to vote, eat at white lunch counters, sit at the front of the bus, and attend white colleges, but most still lived in poverty. True social change, many argued, would come only with revolution, not integration. These militant activists grew more and more powerful, until they came to dominate the civil rights movement in the late 1960s.
One of the earliest pushes for black nationalism during the civil rights movement was the formation of the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930. Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the organization was built upon the ideas of Marcus Garvey and the “New Negro,” working to uplift impoverished blacks in the Detroit ghetto by fostering a sense of black pride. The Nation of Islam also operated a number of shops and restaurants to promote economic independence. Like Garvey, Muhammad stressed the importance of appreciating black cultural roots and distinctiveness. On the other hand, Muhammad saw all whites as enemies and “blue-eyed devils” and therefore rejected calls for integration. The Nation continued to spread to other cities in the East through the 1950s.
Although Elijah Muhammad was instrumental in the early development of the Nation of Islam, a young black preacher, Malcolm X, made it famous. Malcolm Little, the son of a civil rights worker who had been murdered by a mob of racist whites, was sentenced to prison in 1946. There, he educated himself and converted to Islam, emerging as one of the country’s most vocal advocates of black nationalism and militancy in the early 1950s. He joined the Chicago headquarters of the Nation of Islam in 1952 and changed his surname to “X” to represent the identity and heritage lost by black Americans during centuries of enslavement.
Like his mentor, Muhammad, Malcolm X rejected integration and nonviolence and called on blacks to defend themselves—with violence whenever necessary—to overthrow white domination. A self-described extremist, Malcolm X was one of the most dynamic civil rights speakers of the 1950s and early 1960s.
After a series of scandals rocked the Nation of Islam and its founder, Elijah Muhammad, a disillusioned Malcolm X left the organization in 1964 and went on a spiritual pilgrimage to the capital of Muslim holiness, Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. On the journey, Malcolm X met fellow Muslims from all over the world who challenged his attitudes toward whites and prompted him to reexamine his beliefs. He eventually returned to the United States with a new name, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, and began working for integration rather than against it. He also founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity and supported nonviolent protest. However, in 1965, not long after his return to the United States, three Black Muslim militants gunned him down in New York City, most likely in retaliation for his defection from the Nation of Islam.
Despite his premature death, Malcolm X’s emphasis on self-sufficiency and armed defense was a clarion call for others dissatisfied with “love and nonviolence.” For example, the leader of the SNCC, Stokely Carmichael, began to incorporate black nationalism into his own philosophy in the mid-1960s and eventually convinced fellow organizers to expel white members in 1966.
The following year, Carmichael and several other disgruntled SNCC leaders broke away from the SNCC and co-authored the book Black Power to promote Malcolm X’s message. Carmichael went a step further than Malcolm X and began campaigning to split the United States into separate countries—one for blacks, one for whites. The term black power, coined in Carmichael’s book, came to be synonymous with militancy, self-reliance, independence, and nationalism within the ranks of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The militant philosophies of Malcolm X also prompted frustrated activists in Oakland, California, to form the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense—more commonly known as the Black Panthers—in 1966. Unlike the SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, or CORE, the Black Panthers demanded immediate equality for all blacks, including increased and fair employment opportunities, exemption from military service in Vietnam, health care, and educational services.
Whereas Malcolm X had merely preached revolution against white domination, the Black Panthers actually prepared for war. Clad entirely in black and armed with handguns, Black Panthers patrolled urban neighborhoods in northern and western cities, on the lookout for racist violence against blacks. The organization also operated education centers and health-care clinics in black neighborhoods to help the poorest members of these communities.
The Black Panthers’ extremism and willingness to use violence, however, alienated and threatened moderate whites in the North. The federal government also perceived the Panthers as a threat and cracked down on the group between 1968 and 1969, effectively dissolving the organization.
The philosophy of black power and the shift away from nonviolent tactics also reflected a growing restlessness among urban blacks. Poverty, unemployment, and the lack of education and basic health care provoked some inner-city blacks to launch riots throughout the country between 1965 and 1970. Perhaps the most destructive of these riots were the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. For six days, more than 50,000 outraged blacks burned and looted the neighborhood, attacking whites, Hispanics, and other minorities. It took 20,000 National Guardsmen to restore order to the district, and more than thirty people lost their lives.
During the time of heightened black militancy, Martin Luther King Jr. had continued to promote racial equality in the South through nonviolent means. In April 1968, however, King was shot and killed with a high-powered rifle while making a speech from a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. After months of searching, police finally apprehended a young high school dropout named James Earl Ray, who had been seen running away from the commotion at the time of the assassination. Although Ray initially admitted to killing King, he later professed his innocence and claimed that another unnamed man had fired the shot. A congressional hearing ten years later found that it was likely others had been involved in the assassination plot, but investigators made no further arrests.
Thousands of supporters attended King’s funeral in Atlanta. President Johnson, who had recently ordered the FBI to investigate King for ties with Communist organizations, did not attend. King’s assassination inflamed racial tensions and led to scores of riots throughout the country. When the violence finally subsided, more than 30,000 people had been arrested.
King’s death in 1968 stripped the civil rights movement of its greatest leader and visionary. Ideological rifts and feuds among the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and CORE also led to the collapse of the movement, as did Black Panther violence and revolutionary rhetoric. As a result, the movement quickly lost momentum in 1968 and 1969 as Americans shifted their focus to the worsening Vietnam War.
Despite the movement’s unfortunate decline, these formative years of the 1950s and 1960s gave African Americans two important things: effective government backing and legislation. Landmark Supreme Court cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, along with legislative landmarks, such as the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finally provided the solid legal framework for protecting blacks’ rights in the face of decades of discrimination.