Re: Re: Civil Rights Movement

m.bibby (
Thu, 11 Apr 1996 14:46:48 -0400

David's argument about the civil rights movement as the distinctive
source of "the 60s" presents a narrative trope that I feel bedevils 60s
studies--it's a trope that divided the left during the period and
continues to divide them today. This trope presents the
historical struggles against racism which became concretized as
civil rights from the mid-50s on as foundational to all subsequent
struggles--and antiwar, feminist, gay, countercultural struggles as
derivations, deviations, and often deformations of some inherently
essential political movement. Most often antiwar activism is posed as a
middle-class, white struggle that sapped energy away from the more
righteous anti-racist struggles of the civil rights movement. My
research into civil rights histories has found this trope repeatedly--and
it tends to reiterate implicitly the moderate CR movement's condemnation
of Martin Luther King and other black leaders who spoke out against the
war and an inherently conservative black cultural nationalist view that
the war was merely a "white man's war." This logic often fractured
coalitions on the left and continues to produce a strangely schizoid
representation in 60s studies. If you do anti-racist research,
inevitably it's expected that the war won't figure prominently--or (as
has often happend in CR histories) it will figure negatively--where
antiwar struggle is seen to coopt CR struggle. If you do antiwar
research, on the other hand, it's expected that race will play little
role--and indeed the war *does* become something of a "white man's war."

My research suggests, however, that the war was of vital concern to
African Americans throughout the 60s, and that the articulations of
"black power" and "black liberation" must be thought of in relation to an
overall global context of decolonization, national liberation struggle,
and the Vietnam War. While it's true that SDS protested apartheid before
it protested the war, it's also true that Malcolm X was linking the war
to racism in the US and that many black troops had already begun to
rethink their allegiances in the military by 1964. While many moderates in
the CR movement felt that speaking out against the war would dilute their
efforts and threaten alliances with the Johnson administration, many
radical black activists wanted to "bring the war home."

My point here is not to claim some priority for the war--or for
the CR struggle. Although I wholeheartedly agree with
David and others who've recently posted concern about the absence of any
engagement with racial struggles on this list--I am often puzzled by
the emphasis on the Vietnam War to the absolute exclusion of all else--and I
agree that civil rights were critical to the articulation of social,
political, left activisms of the period, I disagree that it was *solely* or
even *primarily* constitutive of oppositional cultures--just as I would
disagree with Anderson's thesis that the war was in any final sense
foundational. It seems vital that we avoid the sort of dichotomous
thinking that seeks to claim such priorities in the struggles that shaped
the period. The overlaps and confluences are actually much more interesting
and strategic, I think. In fact, what seems missing in our discussions
of the 60s--and David's comment addresses this--is any sense of
historicity. Clearly the CR struggle carried on a tradition of
anti-racism that dates back at least over a century--but then
again, so does the antiwar struggle--and the roots of pacifism,
anti-militarism, anti-racism, and social justice are intricately
entangled. Rather than dehistoricize these struggles--and I think David
implies this by casting CR struggle as "more historical" than the antiwar
struggle--I believe that reading race in 60s antiwar studies and
antiwarism in 60s CR studies will more productively account for the
diversity and multiplicity of 60s political struggles. So I disagree
with the entire thought behind David's last point: it makes no sense to
posit whether the 60s is possible with or without the war or CR--these
and so much else *are* inextricably the 60s.

Michael Bibby
Dept. of English
Shippensburg University

On Wed, 10 Apr 1996, dh111 wrote:

> I agree that the civil rights movement was the central social movement of the
> sixities; it clearly shaped and influenced all that came after it, as well
> as giving a focus to the white backlash that had begun in the north when
> white neighborhoods resisted integration.
> I am working on a dissertation about the anit-apartheid movement in the 50s,
> 60s, and 70s. The early outcry against apartheid came from civil rights
> activists involved with CORE and liberals interested in Africa. SDS
> protested Chase Manhattan's loans to South Africa before they protested
> against Vietnam.
> Terry Anderson posits in his recent book "The Movement and The Sixties" that
> the sixties wouldn't have been the sixties without Vietnam - that it would
> have been another era of liberal-progressive reform. I think that's wrong:
> the civil rights movement challenged the structure of American society at
> its core. Vietnam, an inevitable outcome of cold war policy in my opinion,
> attracted much of the political energies unleashed by the civil rights
> movement. While positive changes and movments continued beyond the era of
> the anti-war movment, that fundemental divide - were you for or against the
> war? - "rends us still" as George Bush, in one of his few true and coherent
> statements, put it in his inaugeral address. But the racism that was
> embedded in the Constituion when the nation was founded also divides us:
> thus the legacies of the sixties continue and we are far from MLK's mountain
> top.
> Anderson asks the wrong question. The sixites would have been the sixties
> without Vietnam, but not without the civil rights movement. Thus the
> important question to ponder is: Would there have been an anti-war movement
> without the civil rights movement?
> <>