Did the Black Power Movement Negatively Influence the Civil Rights Movement: Argumentative Essay

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The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and the Black Power Movement (BPM) were key movements in American history. In order to understand the relationship between the two and to most precisely investigate the effect of the BPM on the CRM one first has to be able to define the two movements and their different characteristics. This is a more challenging task than one may think, as both movements were largely divided, with different groups having prominence in different periods; however, there are certain general characteristics and points of rhetoric that stay fairly consistent throughout each movement. Firstly, the Anti-Defamation League defines the CRM as a “huge surge of activism […] to reverse discrimination and injustice [against African Americans, using] nonviolent protests and specific acts of targeted civil disobedience”. Secondly, the BPM is described by the National Archives as “a revolutionary movement [that] emphasized racial pride, economic empowerment, and the creation of political and cultural institutions”. A key difference between the two movements is usually cited as the CRM being focused on nonviolent protest and gaining the support of whites, while the BPM emphasized the importance of black involvement and fighting for their rights by any means necessary. As well as this, they had slightly different periods, with the CRM most prominent in the 1950s and 60s, while the BPM was stronger in the 60s and 70s. Therefore, this essay will be focused on the 1960s, since that era is the primary overlapping period of the two movements.

This essay will focus specifically on the relationship between the CRM and the BPM in terms of the overlap where the CRM fell as the BPM rose in prominence. This overlap has led some historians to pose the question of whether the rise of the BPM could be seen as an influencing factor in undermining the CRM, leading it to its end. On the one hand, one may argue that the splintering of the CRM’s leadership, as some became disillusioned and joined the BPM, caused the aforementioned movement to lose its momentum and popularity with the people. As well as this, it could be argued that the BPM’s radical nature made the white leadership and population in the USA feel less inclined to support any pro-African American movements, even the comparatively peaceful CRM. However, on the other hand, one could argue that the CRM had already come to its natural end after key legislation was passed in the mid-to-late 60s, fulfilling the movement’s original goals. From there, its downfall was only natural, with the rise of the BPM happening due to this end, rather than causing the end.

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In this essay, I will argue for the secondary thesis presented. After key legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the CRM had fulfilled its original goals as a movement– that being for Black Americans to gain equal rights under the law in the United States. After that had been achieved, the CRM was effectively complete, and those who wished for further societal change proceeded to join the BPM instead, which had a more social rather than legal focus.

One key line of argument regarding the relationship between these two movements is the idea that the BPM significantly undermined the CRM, leading to the CRM’s effective end in the late 1960s, around the same time that the BPM’s influence grew more and more prominent. The first piece of evidence supporting this hypothesis is the change in allegiance of Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was the most prominent youth civil rights organization, but by 1966 it had been greatly radicalized to the point of attempting a merger with the Black Panther Party in 1968 (the Black Panthers being a radical Black Power political organization). Secondly, black urban youth at the time was becoming increasingly radicalized and militarised, drawn to extremist BPM groups rather than the comparatively peaceful CRM. This led to certain cities becoming more and more hostile to CRM groups, as seen for example with King’s failed efforts in Chicago in 1966. Arguably, this serves as evidence that the BPM hindered the CRM’s progress and made it steadily more unlikeable to blacks and whites alike. Hamilton presents this point of view in his 1992 afterword, reflecting on how Black Power was “perceived by many as […] eschewing coalitions with whites” and being “more of an aggravation of the problems than […] a solution”. Thirdly, Malcolm X’s speeches similarly reflect the idea that the BPM’s rise influenced the CRM’s downfall, as he describes how widespread BPM rhetoric was starting to become in the mid-to-late 1960s. In his 1964 speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’, he claims that “the political philosophy of black nationalism is being taught in the Chris­tian church, […] in the NAACP, […] in CORE meetings, […] in SNCC meetings”. Here he expresses the radicalization of CRM supporters, drawing them more towards the BPM until the CRM eventually collapsed.

However, there is also a strong argument that the BPM wasn’t a key influence in the downfall of the CRM and that it was rather a natural turn of events for the CRM to decline in this period. The goal of the CRM was for Black Americans to gain equal rights under the law in the United States – arguably, by the mid-to-late 1960s this had been achieved. At this point, key legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts (CRA) of 1957 and 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968, had been effectively implemented and was changing the lives of African Americans across the country. For example, as a direct effect of the VRA, voter turnout among Black people increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969 in Mississippi alone. As well as this, a study of six Floridian cities by James Button shows black municipal employment between 1960 and 2000 quadrupled, which can be directly traced back as an effect of the CRA 1964. Keeping this in mind, one can infer that the goal of the CRM had been fulfilled, which would naturally lead to its decline in favor of a new movement with new goals. Hamilton’s 1992 afterword clearly outlines this exact point, arguing that “the traditional civil rights movement was […] calling for more effective national governmental action” and that “such action had reached its limits” when “the national government removed the legal barriers to advancement”.

In conclusion, I find the argument that the CRM was not directly undermined by the BPM to be more convincing. Though it can be argued that the BPM hurt the CRM’s reputation to some extent, there doesn’t seem to be enough conclusive evidence to suggest that the former caused the latter’s downfall. Rather, it seems more logical to infer from statistics that the CRM had simply enacted enough effective policies that its original goal had been met, and it declined naturally from there. The remaining problems facing African Americans were primarily social and economic, which were outside of the CRM’s legal scope – and still remain problems to this day.

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Did the Black Power Movement Negatively Influence the Civil Rights Movement: Argumentative Essay. (2023, December 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 25, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/did-the-black-power-movement-negatively-influence-the-civil-rights-movement-argumentative-essay/
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