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The Sixties: Class Papers, Spring 2019
- Ready for Revolution
- Supplementary Reading

 
Czech radicals confront Soviet tanks in Prague, August 20, 1968

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paper on Ready for Revolution, due April 1
A five-page paper (about 1500 words) in response to Kwame Ture's autobiography is due at outr first seminar meeting after the spring break. Focus the paper on this question: Like Malcolm X (b. 1925), Rosa Parks (b. 1913), and Yuri Kochiyama (b. 1921), Kwame Ture (b. 1941) devoted himself to the Black Freedom Movement, but he belonged to a younger generation of activists. In what ways did that distinguish--or not distinguish--his experience and politics from theirs?

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Papers on Supplementary Reading -- various books and due dates
Over the course of the term, every student will present a short paper (3-4 pages; 900-1200 words) on a book related to seminar reading. Focus your paper on the most important things the books adds to our understanding of the U.S. sixties based on reading assigned to the whole seminar. See the class schedule for assignments and due dates.

Click here for papers on...

Melba Pattillo Beals, Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High

Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson

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Rebecca Lee on Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, by Melba Pattillo Beals

The book Warriors Don't Cry is a memoir written by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the nine black teenagers who attended the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, as part of the desegregation effort. The book follows her experience as a young black girl from early childhood, but focuses primarily on the time leading up to school integration and integration itself. As a child, she visits Cincinnati, where for the first time in her life she feels respected by the white people that she interacts with. This experience allows her to picture what integrated society would look like. Soon after this experience, she decides almost on a whim, to add her name to a list passed around her class asking for volunteers to attend and begin the desegregation of Central High. The results of this decision eventually affected almost every aspect of her life, from her education to her family to her dating.

On the first day that she is meant to attend Central High, she goes to the school to find not only angry parents who do not want the school to integrate, but also National Guardsmen who turn her away at the door. She and the other students have defend their right to attend Central High in court before they are able to start school, despite segregation's already being declared unconstitutional. When she finally is able to enter the school, she is harassed by the other students, and the violence in the school forces them to leave the building before the first day is over. While eventually it is declared "safe" enough for the students to return, for the whole year, she is harassed every day, regularly puts up with death threats, and at one point is attacked with acid. Towards the end of the year, even her family is threatened--her mother is threatened with being fired.

From a number of places, Melba finds ways to deal with the dangers of her situation. For one, she gathers a great deal of support from her family. She is raised by her mother and Grandma India, after her father divorced her mother. While they often fight with Melba about the freedoms that she should be allowed (as Melba's status as a target makes a very traditional parent/teenager relationship argument much more intense), they are a consistent source of support for her. Notably, they never blame or punish Melba for the effect that her choice to attend Central High has on the family, which, in addition to the obvious dangers, includes near constant press attention. Melba also forms her own sort of family with the other black students who are attending Central High. In the opening and closing of the book, when she writes about the unveiling of a new monument to the nine students in the present day, the thing that she focuses on most on is the happiness she feels at being among her fellow students again. She particularly notes her close friend Minnijean Brown, whom she lived very close to and was close to in age. Minnijean faces her own particular challenge that the other students do not. After an incident in the cafeteria, she is suspended and then expelled from Central High. It is clear in how she writes about Minnijean how important she is to Melba, as she writes about two overwhelmingly strong but conflicting feelings--happiness that Minnijean will no longer have to face the challenges of Central High, and a great sadness that she will no longer have her by her side.

Additionally, Melba gains an important advantage from two unlikely sources--the guard watching her, Danny, and a white son of a school segregationist, Link. Danny protects Melba from life threatening attacks, but he also provides her some comfort at the beginning of the year, just when she needs it most. After he leaves, Melba is protected by Link, who secretly clues her into where and when the worst of the harassment will be, so that she can avoid it. It is worth noting that these men do not give up very much to protect her. Neither of these men gives her everything she needs, or is totally understanding of her, but they provide her a little bit of extra safety just when she needs it.

What strikes me most about this book is its depiction of the teenage experience. In many ways, Melba is just like any other teenage girl--she has crushes, she argues with her mother, and her world is centered on her school life and her friends. The writing style of the book emphasizes this--the language is simple, and focuses on things that would stand out to a teenager, not an adult reflecting on a teenage experience. Additionally, she does not explain things that she would not have had an explanation for at the time. However, much of the book is about how Melba didn't get to have many of the experience typical of a teenager because of her choice to attend Central High--she is socially isolated, does not feel safe participating in afterschool activities and has to deal with constant harassment and media attention. Each moment where she seems like any other teenager brings this sacrifice she is making into shaper contrast. It is clear that this form of activism cost her many aspects of a normal teenagehood. With a few exceptions, most of the stories told about activist in the black freedom movement are about adults, who fully understood and were willing to make the sacrifices needed to make the strides that they were hoping to make, and had the resources to make those changes happen.

Melba talks about feeling as if she is two separate people--the girl and the warrior. Clearly, towards the beginning of the book, she feels that the girl is her true self- the more typical teenage girl who is not part of a bigger struggle. However, as time goes on, she finds herself becoming the warrior, or the person who can deal coolly deal with anything, and forgetting how to be the girl. Melba provides an example of how young people were able to cope with the negative effects of being a part of the black freedom movement and other similar movements in the 60s--by living their lives as young people to the greatest extent that they could, then separating themselves as teenagers from themselves as activists. This book brought the movements and ideas that we are learning about, and have learned about for years, into a place much closer to home


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Thomas Hernandez on The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, ed.,

Whether you see the U.S sixties as a time best represented by the "good sixties"/"bad sixties" complex, or the Long Sixties chronology, the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. will tell you much about political and social sentiments of the time. Clayborne Carson's edited assortment of letters, essays, and speeches from Dr. King presents his struggles as a promoter of nonviolent protest, the roads he walked to achieve social progress, and insight into his personal narrative.

King grew up in Atlanta, a relatively middle class town, which was the case across racial divides in the community. He was taught at an early age to not accept Jim Crow, or any other systems put in place against him. He grew to become highly educated, going to first Morehouse College, followed by Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University. During this time you see two facets that influenced King's nonviolent perspective. The first influence is Christian ideology, by which his family was enveloped. He often wondered (as he did later in life as well) why this nonviolent concept was not evident in white Churches in the South. His second nonviolent influence was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's ideals of using love for change affected King greatly, as well as his ideals of liberalism. This led to a conflict which King soon after confronted head-on, which was essentially faith versus politics.

When King arrived in Montgomery this conflict was at the forefront. Although he worked as a pastor, he showed great potential to be a leader for civil rights. This caused him to wonder which role would serve him best, and which will prove him most intellectually sound. His place in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Christian church would be cemented with his involvement in the NAACP, the Alabama Council on Human Relations, and the creation of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). The Montgomery Bus Boycott, however, was a catalyst for his later successes in the movement. What is important to note with this (and as well with his later roles) is that King progressed in an expansionary manner, starting with Montgomery as a basis. The bus boycott was a precedent for King's later endeavors. The nonviolent manner of the movement also set up foreseeable difficulties. Montgomery's bus boycott was so effective in mobilizing the black community because it defied stereotypes, and presented little ways to counteract the local government. Oftentimes, this meant violent repercussions for King's nonviolence. King describes his home and homes of others in the black community being bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. This was followed by arrests due to the bus boycott, and threats made to a majority of the community. One of the biggest struggles King faced as a Civil Rights leader was this effect. King almost always tells about the restraint practiced by those in the nonviolent movement. Further events such as the Sit-In Movement in Atlanta, The Albany Movement, and the Birmingham Campaign further presented the conflict of nonviolence versus constant violent reaction.

Another catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement was the SCLC's stay in Birmingham, Alabama. Originally, King had seen Birmingham as nearly a lost cause. King describes Birmingham as, "A city whose fathers had apparently never heard of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights, the Preamble to the Constitution, The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, or the 1954 decision of the United States Supreme Court outlawing segregation in the public schools." (Carson, 171). Needless to say, King needed help from others such as Harry Belafonte, to gather volunteers and sufficient funds for bail bonds. What later resulted was a famous conflict between the movement, and Eugene "Bull" Connor, the city's commissioner of public safety. King tells that this conflict no longer included the white community, only the government and those it employed. This of course led to desegregation in Birmingham, which set off a chain reaction of events later championed by Martin Luther King. The most notable event that occurred in the aftermath of Birmingham was the March on Washington. This was one of the first events that gathered more communities in the Civil Rights Movement. White communities, various faiths, and even white Christian churches joined in the March on Washington.

One of the most important concepts to gather from Martin Luther King Jr.'s autobiography besides his works and narrative is his life's philosophy. King talks frequently about the three largest conflicts confronting mankind: racial injustice, war, and poverty. The conflict of racial injustice is what King is most known for fighting against, but he also acted much against war and poverty.

Martin Luther King was heavily and decisively against the Vietnam War. This was a stance he shared, but was ultimately criticized for. The reason for this was his departure from the conflict of civil rights. Many people felt that he was reaching for a topic not his own. "Peace and civil rights don't mix," he was once told. He even writes that a majority of the criticisms came from the black community itself. The fact is that King's message of nonviolence transcended civil rights, and bled into the conflict of war itself. However, this stance was little seen because of the backlash he had faced. His stance against economic inequality, however, was acted upon. When King traveled to Chicago, his goal was not only to assist in civil rights struggles, but also to address inherent poverty. The difference between racism in the South and racism in the North is that they are expressed differently. In the South (as shown by King's many movements), racism was systematically ingrained. Jim Crow had made race a socio-political matter, and that of the state rather than the people. In the North, racial inequality was both social and economic. Racism was rampant in white communities as a whole, and the black community often suffered for it in income and quality of life. King even lived in the ghettos of Chicago to observe the wrongdoings placed upon the communities. In this, King focused on economic assistance of the black communities of Chicago. King also later assisted (along with the SCLC) the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis.

Martin Luther King Jr. was ultimately a man passionate for the progression of society in many facets. His work is not only limited to that of civil rights, but also includes nonviolence, economic equality, and ideals of liberalism. To understand what King accomplished, you need to look at his passions, and his worries. These concepts are those that he advanced not only in American society, but also internationally.

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Corinne Davenport on For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, by Chana Kai Lee

Fannie Lou Hamer (born Townsend) was born in Mississippi on October 6, 1917 to two sharecroppers and grew up with 14 older brothers and 5 older sisters. Growing up in rural Mississippi, Hamer was tricked in to picking cotton on a plantation when she was six years old, and by the time she was twelve she had to drop out of school completely so she could help her family make enough money to get by. This wasn't a unique story in rural Mississippi at the time, but Hamer became an extraordinary public figure because of it, inspiring people in the civil rights movement for years with her tenacity and ability to connect to people, never giving up on her community and always working to represent the interests of poor people who weren't allowed to have a voice. One of the most important things that studying Fannie Lou Hamer adds to our understanding of the 1960s and the civil rights movement is a focus on grassroots movements that were more focused on a single state or county rather than the entire country. Even in the endeavors that Hamer undertook on the national scale, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's appearance at the Democratic convention in 1964, the outcome was based on local politics and demands, not national issues. When the Civil Rights Movement is discussed, it's generally through the lens of national movements, goals, and laws, but studying Hamer brings to light what grassroots movements can look like, and how they can both succeed and fail, as she faced her fair share of both outcomes.


Hamer would often tell stories of her childhood to explain why she became an activist for the poor working class, especially sharecroppers. One of these stories was from when she was 12 years old. Her family was in extreme poverty and often went through cycles of debt, but when she was 12, her family had enough money to rent some land for themselves, buy some livestock and farming equipment, buy a car, and renovate their home, all of which would allow them to finally become economically independent. The renovations meant that the Townsends had to stay elsewhere for a bit, and one of the nights they were staying in a different house, a white man put poison in the stock feed for all their livestock, so by the time the Townsends returned the following morning, all of their livestock was either dead or too sick to survive. The actions of that man, in one night, destroyed any chance the Townsends had to escape from sharecropping and debt, and this event is what prompted Hamer to leave school completely so she could help make money for her family year-round. This is one of the stories that she would tell often in at speaking events and fundraisers, and it's understandable why. Through her own experience in this one example, we can understand why Hamer focused so much on political and economic independence for sharecroppers and other poor, working class Mississippians.

One of the most important aspects of her story is that she also brings to light the brutality black people faced in Mississippi in their everyday lives. I fear that sometimes when classes focus on the peaceful protests and the reactions to larger acts of solidarity, it can overshadow the violence that people could face for doing nothing illegal, which Hamer can serve to show in one story that she often used herself as an example of the brutality of rural Mississippi. One day, she and a group of people were on the bus back to Ruleville from South Carolina, and the bus driver pushed some of the members of her group to the ground before forcing all the black passengers to board after the white ones. As they traveled, the driver would get off the bus at every intermediate stop and use the phone, and eventually, when they got to a stop with a short break, they got off the bus to find a highway patrolman and sheriff. Some went inside to get lunch and sat at the lunch counter, and the police followed them in and harassed them. Those outside saw this and started to write down the license plate numbers of the officers so they could report them, and this led to all but 2 in the group getting arrested, including Hamer. After being taken to the local prison, each member of the group was taken in to a separate cell one at a time and beaten nearly to death. Hamer has said in interviews that as she was being beaten, she began to hope that one of the blows to her head would kill her so she wouldn't be able to feel the pain anymore. Injuries she and others sustained while in that prison for a few days stayed with them for the rest of their lives as a permanent reminder of the brutal reality of the rural South.

Hamer was one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was established to challenge the white Democrats in Mississippi who maintained their power through intimidation of people attempting to register or vote. Although they did participate in multiple congressional elections in Mississippi, the largest scale effort they made was at the Democratic convention in 1964. Sixty-eight delegates from the MFDP, vice co-chaired by Hamer, travelled to the convention to challenge the seating of the all-white delegates that had been sent by Mississippi. Although the MFDP wanted to replace all of the delegates sent by the state, that was never going to be on the table, but two offers were made. One would require all the delegates, state-sent and MFDP, to sign a pledge of loyalty to the party, and then split up the votes the delegation as a whole would have evenly between those who did, and one from President Johnson that would replace 2 of the state-sent 68 delegates with two specific members of the MFDP, neither of whom was Hamer. Although the MFDP agreed that they would only go for the first deal, they somehow gave the impression that they would take the Johnson deal. While discussing the details of it (without Hamer present), "Bayard Rustin asked whether the two-vote compromise might include Hamer for seating, [Hubert] Humphrey added, 'The President will not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention" (95) even though Hamer was, of course, quite literate, a great public speaker, and a well respected figure in Mississippi and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Ultimately, this two-seat compromise was seen as a loss for the MFDP, and was quite hard for Hamer to swallow, but she did and continued to work.

One of her last major projects that exemplifies her focus on combatting poverty is the Freedom Farm Corporation, which was meant to help poor black families in Sunflower County become economically independent. The first part of this project was a "pig bank," which started with 50 pigs donated by The National Council of Negro Women. A needy family would receive a pregnant female pig from this "bank" and take care of it until it gave birth. The mother would be returned to the bank and when two female pigs from the litter were pregnant, that family would donate those pigs to two families in need. The second part involved the purchase of nearly 700 acres of land by 1971. Although they didn't, at first, have the tools or infrastructure to grow any cash crops, by 1971 the farm began acquiring the equipment necessary to do so, and they could keep up with expenditures, although most of the land was always used to grow vegetables. The third part of this project was housing, using crop revenues and small loans from banks to help families buy rather than rent, and build affordable homes on plots of land that they purchased. The fourth project was providing grants for students so they could keep going to school, and the fifth was a business development plan, lending support, loans, and grants to local small businesses to help them get started or keep going and serving as a referral service that helped unemployed people find work. Membership at the farm cost a dollar a month, but no one who couldn't afford this was ever turned down when requesting services.

Although Hamer participated in and experienced so much more than these few examples, I feel that they show her specific role in our study of the '60s and the Civil Rights Movement. She worked for decades as an advocate for the worst off in the deeply racist and violent rural South, and no matter how many losses she seemed to face, she continued to work hard and help people around her. It adds nuance to how we see success and failure in the era and movement. Sure, the MFDP didn't achieve its goal in 1964 and it made the party lose steam, but the Freedom Farm and other anti-poverty organizations that Hamer was a part of helped families across her county and state, and raised awareness through her fundraising tours across the country, having a very positive impact on lives everywhere in the United States, at times quite directly. She shows the power of local activism and that you don't need to win every battle, but help as many people as possible as you keep fighting them.

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Wyatt Button on Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson

George Jackson was born in Chicago in 1941, the second-born of five children. As a youth, he spent time in and out of juvenile correctional facilities, charged with burglary, assault, and armed robbery. At the age of eighteen, he was arrested and charged with the armed robbery of a gas station, accused of stealing $70. Though there was little evidence against Jackson, his lawyer convinced him to plead guilty, as his previous criminal record would ensure he'd be convicted. With this, he was sentenced to one year to life in prison. He would remain incarcerated until his killing, one month shy of his thirtieth birthday. Seven and a half of his years in prison were spent in solitary confinement. While incarcerated, George educated himself, formulating ideas of revolution, and language that he could only express through letters he wrote back home; letters that were compiled into the book Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. The letters published begin in the year 1964. All previous letters were destroyed, as he believed they were too overtly bitter, and unaligned with the message and mindset he wanted expressed.

George Jackson and Jonathan Jackson were two men who dedicated their lives, for better or worse, towards the Black Power Movement, and the liberation of black people. Both men were connected with Black Power organizations. Both men were killed by legal authorities. On August 7th, 1970, George Jackson's seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, was killed in the Marin County Courthouse Incident, an incident in which Johnathan attempted to kidnap Superior Court judge Harold Haley, in order to coerce the release of the Soledad brothers, a group of three African American men accused of murdering a white prison guard at California's Soledad Prison. One of these men was Jonathan's older brother, twenty-eight-year-old George Jackson. The prosecution claimed that the three men killed the guard in retaliation for another officer's killing of three black prisoners a few days prior.

During the courthouse siege, Jonathan armed three black convicts who were being held in the courthouse. Together, they took five hostages, demanding that the Soledad Brothers be released in thirty minutes. The ensuing shootout between the police and kidnappers led to four deaths, including Jonathan's. George's letter home following the event recognized his brother's nobility, reading, "I want people to wonder at what ones created him, terrible, vindictive, cold, calm man-child, courage in one hand, the machine gun in the other, scourge of the unrighteous." He goes on to say "it's just not popular or safe-to say I love him."

Jackson wrote of his experiences in the prison system as one familiar to his people, writing in one letter, "Blackmen born in the US and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison." In this, he refers to both himself, and his brother, he, being incarcerated at the age of eighteen, and his brother killed at the age of seventeen. "Being born a slave in a captive society and never experiencing any objective basis for expectation had the effect of preparing me for the progressively traumatic misfortunes that lead so many blackmen to the prison gate. I was prepared for prison. It required only minor psychic adjustments." In this he brings his experience into the large scope of the common trauma experienced by the large population of black people in the United States. Having been brought to this country in chains, kept in chains for two hundred years, and then remaining in chains under the legal system of the United States, Jackson presents the concept of familiarity, connecting his own experience to the overall experience of the American black person.

It is clear in the letters how Jackson spoke differently to the different people he wrote to. When writing to his mother, Jackson spoke with a sensitivity and optimism that he rarely expressed when writing to people like his comrades of the Black Power Movement. Writing to his mother, he typically ended his letters with a positive, or comforting closer, like "You don't know it but there is a better life...Believe me there is a better life." In another letter, he asks his mother if she could learn to play chess, so they could play together during one of her visits. He recognized his mother's understanding of the greater injustice towards black people, and was not afraid to express that towards her, sometimes expressing what he had come to terms with regarding their history. "Isolated as we were, or are, from our land, our roots, and our institutions, no group of men have ever been so thoroughly terrorized, dehumanized, and divested of those things that from birth make men strong." These strong words connect to the greater problem, rather than directing her attention towards the mistreatments against himself. In one letter to another in his family, Jackson wrote "Take care of yourself, Pop. Comfort Mom as well as you can and tell her I'm all right, healthy, happy, content. Of course, this is a lie, but she likes to be lied to." Jackson was much more intimately expressive with his friends, and brother. His mistreatments in prison, including regular harassment from the guards, physical abuse, mail interception, money interception, food withholding, and the stealing of his possessions are written of. He writes of the systematic destruction of the black psyche, writing "The broken men are so damaged that they will never again be suitable members of any sort of social unit…since in every instance they are sent out of the prison more damaged physically and mentally than when they entered." It is a description of the system of government-mandated oppression of black people, both in and out of the prison system. The economic and educational repression forced him to act the way he did before he was incarcerated, as it did for so many people. George Jackson held the reputation as a revolutionary within prison walls, as a prison activist, and founder of the Black Guerrilla Family, an African-American Marxist Leninist revolutionary organization that still exists within prison walls today, connected with nearly 50,000 current and former prisoners. His frustration developed further upon the killing of his brother, and it is believed that from that time, he began devising an escape attempt. George Jackson was shot to death by a tower guard on August 21st, 1971, during this stated escape attempt, but as writer James Baldwin wrote, "No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did."

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