In the 1930s, the poet Langston Hughes wrote a poem that begins with the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The poem ends, “Or does it explode?” Hughes’s poem is often interpreted as a response to the failure of the African American “dream” of equality. Hughes, like many other great African American writers of the 20th century, used literature to convey the mixture of hope and disillusionment in the black community.
Throughout this chapter (and, in a way, the whole book), Hughes’s poem represents the reaction of the American people to the Establishment’s indifference to justice—in short, the Establishment’s habit of “deferring” the people’s utopian dreams. Will people accept the Establishment’s corruption and indifference, or will they fight back?
In novels like Native Son, the black novelist Richard Wright described the misery of the black community, and offered insights about how the white establishment pitted blacks against one another. Wright was briefly a member of the Communist party, and many other African American intellectuals of the early 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, were Communists, too. After World War Two, “black and yellow people in Africa and Asia” cited Marxist principles in their freedom struggles.
In the mid-20th century, many black intellectuals and writers turned to Communism as a weapon in their struggle against capitalism. In spite of its human rights abuses, the early Soviet Union was widely seen as a paragon of gender and racial equality—as a result, many left-wing activists supported Communist ideas.
In 1946, President Harry Truman formed a Committee on Civil Rights, citing three reasons for doing so: 1) a moral imperative to end discrimination in America, 2) economic harms of discrimination, and 3) the international embarrassment associated with being seen as a racist country. Truman signed executive orders ending segregation in the military, though it would be decades before the process was completed. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional and recommended that schools be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” But even ten years later, the majority of schools in the South remained segregated.
Truman’s three reasons for ending discrimination are, perhaps, indicative of what motivates government action in a variety of sectors: even if some people in the government are motivated by a strong moral imperative, many more are motivated by economic and political forces. As before, the federal government’s attempts to fight segregation were half-hearted and slow-paced.
Black people in the 1950s and 60s weren’t satisfied with government reforms on segregation. Across the country, they boycotted discriminatory institutions. This was most famously done to the Montgomery bus system, a protest initiated by Rosa Parks and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In retaliation, racist whites attempted to kill King, and they blew up black churches. Nevertheless, King persisted in organizing boycotts and nonviolent resistance, and his message of love proved powerful. Still, there were many in the black community who found King naïve. In many cities, some activists encouraged blacks to arm themselves and exercise self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan.
Because the federal government was so slow in fighting racism and segregation in America, ordinary people worked together to change society, leading boycotts, nonviolent resistance, and other protests. Unlike many high school textbooks, which talk about nonviolent resistance far more than self-defense in the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn respects both traditions of black American radicalism.
Another key black activist group of the sixties was the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. CORE activists organized the famous “freedom rides,” during which black and white people traveled South together to end segregation in interstate travel. In 1961, whites attacked the Freedom Riders’ buses with iron bars. The federal government did nothing: FBI agents watched passively, and the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, agreed to allow the Freedom Riders to be arrested in Mississippi. Even after many went to prison, the Freedom Riders remained defiant. Zinn writes, “There is no way of measuring the effect of that southern movement on the sensibilities of a whole generation of young black people.”
In this moving passage, Zinn contrasts the energy and enthusiasm of the American people with the indifference and foot-dragging of the federal government. Even supposed liberals, such as Robert Kennedy, were exceptionally weak on matters of civil rights—they complied with racist governors and politicians in the South and allowed peaceful protesters to be arrested. (Zinn doesn’t even address one of the most damning pieces of information about Kennedy: he allowed the FBI to tap King’s phones and harass him.)
Throughout the early 1960s, black people demonstrated against racism and they often faced imprisonment and police brutality. One of the key organizations in these demonstrations was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which organized hundreds of protests. SNCC was instrumental in drawing attention to racism and discrimination, provoking widespread outrage and pressuring the government to make changes. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, ensuring federal protection of the right to vote. By 1968, black Southerners voted in the same numbers as whites. Though the federal government passed civil rights legislation, Zinn argues that its goal was to “control an explosive situation” without making any “fundamental changes” to American society, and, instead, channeling black anger into the “cooling mechanism of the ballot box.”
As a younger man, Zinn himself was involved in some SNCC demonstrations. As before, Zinn contrasts the relatively moderate policies instituted by the federal government during the 1960s with the radical, even utopian visions of the American people. And, once again, Zinn claims, without any apparent proof, that the federal government’s priority was to pacify black people, not to honor their rights to freedom and equality. Zinn seems to take it for granted that the government is more interested in self-preservation than in morality (not an unreasonable assumption by any means), and that, as with Progressive Era reform, the Voting Rights Act mostly “deferred” the American people’s dream.
One of the defining events of the Civil Rights Movement was the March on Washington in 1963, during which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. But other activists, including Malcolm X, argued that the March on Washington “lost its militancy” because the government endorsed it. Zinn argues that, faced with the possibility of black activists “laying siege to Capitol Hill,” the John F. Kennedy administration tried to neutralize the danger of the Civil Rights Movement by incorporating it into the democratic coalition through cooperating with King, the least violent black leader of the era, and encouraging black people to express their feelings through political institutions. In spite of the Kennedy administration’s attempts to pacify the Civil Rights Movement, black Americans continued to pursue radical forms of protest. Black people rioted throughout the country to protest the murder of women and children by racist whites.
In this passage, Zinn seems to side with Malcolm X against Martin Luther King, though he clearly has enormous respect for both leaders. King, Zinn argues, was too eager to ally himself with the federal government—in effect, making the same mistake that union leaders of the 1930s did when they allied themselves with New Deal politicians. Malcolm X’s argument seems to be that black activism is at its most dangerous, and therefore its most effective, when it shuns alliances with the federal government. A potential rebuttal to this argument would be that, on the contrary, activism is at its most effective when it forms alliances with the federal government and enlists the government’s power on its own behalf.
As the sixties went on, it became increasingly clear that nonviolence, while a useful tactic for appealing to the federal government for help, was not enough to address the problems of systematic poverty in the black community. In the late sixties, riots in black communities became more common as it became clear that the Voting Rights Act hadn’t made life easier for the poorest blacks in America. King was gradually replaced with new heroes, including Malcolm X and Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers. Malcolm X and Newton argued that black people needed to defend themselves against white violence and work together to fight poverty in America. Partly in response to the growing violence in the black community, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This act protected black people against racial violence, but, tellingly, it also included a stipulation that penalized anyone for inciting a riot.
Ultimately, Zinn sees King as having been too eager to join forces with the Johnson administration and enlist the federal government’s help on black people’s behalf. By the end of the 1960s, Zinn argues, it was becoming clear that King’s efforts to protect black rights were simply not enough to help poor, unemployed black people, who were the victims of institutional racism and whose lives were miserable whether they could vote or not. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, like many other progressive reforms in American legislative history, offered some relief to the American people, but also tightened the government’s control over the people (by making it illegal to incite a riot).
Toward the end of his life, King became more concerned with addressing the problem of poverty in America. He argued that the Vietnam War was weakening American society and punishing the poorest Americans. In 1968, King was murdered, and his death set off another wave of riots. Furthermore, in the late sixties and early seventies, it became clear that legislation couldn’t protect blacks against violence: around the country, police officers continued to use excessive force against unarmed blacks. Meanwhile, the FBI spent huge sums on monitoring black activist groups, in part “out of fear that blacks would turn their attention from the controllable field of voting to the more dangerous arena of wealth and poverty—of class conflict.”
Even King began to recognize the necessity of broad, radical changes in American society—not just reforms in the practice of voting. A possible rebuttal to Zinn’s argument about King would be that, contrary to what he claims here, the Voting Rights Act was a radical change in American society for black people—it allowed black people to elect sympathetic leaders at both the local and the national level, protecting their own interests. Zinn also writes about the FBI’s surveillance of black activist groups, suggesting that the government continued to regard black activism as a threat to elites’ power and property.
One strategy that the Establishment used to neutralize the threat of black empowerment was to coax a small number of blacks into the Establishment. Banks and firms invested a lot of money in developing “black capitalism,” and during the seventies more black faces appeared on television and film, “creating an impression of change” and pushing black leaders into the mainstream. The creation of a new black elite and middle class was impressive, but unemployment and crime continued to ravage poor black communities. In this way, the “system” tried to “contain the frightening explosiveness of the black upsurge.”
Zinn interprets the growth of a black middle class as a sign of stratification, fragmentation, and weakness in the black community. One could also argue that the growth of a black middle class signified some important positive changes in the black community. (It also seems very naïve for Zinn to claim that the Establishment “wanted” to create a black middle class and a black elite, since the economic empowerment of black people in the seventies was met with widespread racism.)
In the 1970s, it appeared that “no great black movement was under way,” suggesting that, on some level, the system had neutralized the threat of black empowerment. Meanwhile, in 1978, six million black people were unemployed, their dreams of equality and respect “deferred” yet again. It wasn’t clear if the dream would “dry up” or “explode.”
Zinn looks back at the Civil Rights Movement with pessimism. While he has some limited respect for the achievements of activists like King, he argues that the federal government deferred real equality for the black community. Other historians have argued that it’s important to recognize the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement as the profound, radical changes they were, rather than dismissing them as “mere” reform.