This year marks the 50th anniversary of desegregation in the south, the infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” by Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, and the momentous March on Washington–all important events in the Civil Rights Movement in America. In this post, I present the Black Civil Rights Movement in America as a struggle between frames. One frame can be summed up in the words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech:
Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character (emphasis added).
The other frame can perhaps be summed in Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power (1967:34-35), in which they argued that black people in America
. . . must first redefine ourselves. Our basic need is to reclaim our history and our identity. . . . We shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and our relationship to society, and to have those terms recognized. This is the first right of a free people (emphasis added).
A frame, of course, is a mode of interpretation. It refers to the process by which an individual cognizes an issue and relates that issue to himself. Frame alignment—which I will discuss later—refers to that process by which a social movement organization (SMO) cultivates a constituency around a common frame and orients those constituents toward a common goal. In the first frame, which I shall refer to as the Brotherhood frame, race is viewed as an artificial barrier separating rightful brethren. In this frame, the goal of the civil rights movement is to shame a nation to live up to its highest ideals and embrace the brotherhood of all its citizens.
The second frame, which I shall refer to as the Black Power frame, suggests that blacks can never truly be liberated unless they are free to reserve for themselves a group-specific identity. This frame emphasizes the brotherhood of blacks in contradistinction to their white counterparts and the broader culture. I explore the nature and implications of these rival frames for the black civil rights project. I argue that frames which enable social movements to effectively mobilize may prove to be pathologies which impede some movement goals.
In short, the way an issue is framed by social movement activists and participants is important because
the reasons why some show up and others do not, why some stay in contention longer than others, and why some achieve greater and more enduring success, have to do not only with changes in opportunities and the expansion and appropriation of societal resources, but also with whether frame alignment has been successfully effected and sustained (Snow, et al. 1986, 478).
Both the Brotherhood frame and the Black Power frame reflected disillusionment with established institutions and stressed the need for self-reliance within the black community. Where they differ is the depth of their disillusionment and the conclusion each draws from it. These differing conclusions also led to the utilization of differing repertoires of contention, though both were grounded on the principle of direct action, that is, activities directed at society but not mediated through established formal institutions.
The Brotherhood Frame
The Brotherhood frame, exemplified in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, held as its goal the full admission of blacks into every facet of American society and racial harmony as the nation learned to live up to its highest ideals. Groups mobilized under this frame were unified in the belief that there was a core of decency in American society that could be tapped into. One scholar notes that “King seems to localize the problem in ‘the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, or irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.’” (Jones 1983, 231).
This sense that the American conscience required rousing through direct action also indicated the form that action should take. Influenced by non-violent activism of the Indian nationalist movement, SMO’s organized under the Brotherhood frame utilized as their main weapon nonviolent civil disobedience to discriminatory laws. As King reasoned,
The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him….In the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe (King 1964, 85).
In line with Christian principles (and influenced by the Indian Nationalist Movement), members of SMO’s operating under this frame were challenged to shame their oppressor by returning love for hate and responding to violence with nonviolent resistance.
This Brotherhood frame—calling for full social, political, and economic participation, and advanced through nonviolent civil disobedience—shaped the practices of SMO’s such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The success of black nonviolent protest continues to fuel scholarly study and inspire other movements around the globe (Morris 1999).
Through trial-and-error, all kinds of nonviolent tactics were utilized such as sit-ins, freedom rides, mass marches, and mass jailings. Morris notes that “The sit-in tactic was innovative because other tactics spun off of it, including ‘wade ins’ at segregated pools, ‘kneel-ins’ and ‘pray-ins’ at segregated churches, and ‘phone-ins’ at segregated businesses” (Id. at 525). These tactics put American hypocrisy on full display:
The intensity and visibility of demonstrations caused the Kennedy Administration and the Congress to seek measures that would end demonstrations and restore social order. The demonstrations and the repressive measures used against them generated a foreign policy nightmare because they were covered by foreign media in Europe, the Soviet Union and Africa. As a result of national turmoil and international attention, the Jim Crow order was rendered vulnerable (Id. at 526, internal citations omitted).
Some see favorable action by the federal government as the primary spur for movement activity. The record seems to indicate that the black insurgency of the 1950’s and 60’s prompted the federal government to act decisively in favor of civil rights by the time of the Johnson Administration in 1964, not the other way around. Neither does it seem plausible to attribute the mass mobilization beginning in 1955 to court actions. Rather it appears to be the demonstrated inefficacy of the Court that spurred blacks to pursue their own efficacy through extra-institutional means.
The Black Power Frame
The Black Power frame, though it had manifested itself in inchoate forms throughout the twentieth century, fully emerged in the latter stages of the modern Civil Rights Movement. It also was born of disillusionment, but its disillusionment ran deeper and led to different conclusions about the appropriate means of contention. As Painter recounts:
The justice of the demands for civil rights and white supremacists’ tenacity produced both success and frustration. On the one hand, the federal legislation of the mid-1960’s dismantled the legal basis of segregation and exclusion. On the other hand, federal laws were spottily enforced, and new forms of discrimination were appearing. Continuing anti-black violence led many African-Americans to question the logic of nonviolent protest. And Malcolm X’s steady criticism of nonviolence in the face of racist assault had supplied a counternarrative since the late 1950’s (Painter 2006, 292).
Following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, the subsequent publication of Message to the Grass Roots (1966) increased the diffusion of his ideas.
Painter tells us that it was also in 1966 when young Stokely Carmichael gained prominence and popularized the term “Black Power” on the occasion of James Meredith’s Mississippi “Walk Against Fear.” An assailant shot Meredith on the first day of his march. Carmichael and fellow SNCC volunteer Willie Ricks hurried to Meredith’s side, addressing a rally in his support. Rather than voice the usual call for “Freedom,” Ricks and Carmichael demanded “Black Power,” to thunderous applause (Id. at 293).
The shift in tactics from nonviolent protest to many of the armed clashes that characterize the late 1960’s and early 70’s reflected a deeper sense of alienation from American society than the Brotherhood frame. Inclusion into mainstream American society was no longer considered a viable or desirable goal. To long for acceptance into such a hostile culture was considered demeaning to the dignity of a free people. Leaders and organizations that emerged under this frame, such as Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton and their California-based Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), stressed not only armed defense but recast the struggle for civil rights as an anti-colonial movement wherein blacks constituted a nation within a nation. As a separate nation, blacks were encouraged to pursue a distinct culture and shun anything that too closely resembled the trappings of American middle class society as indicative of the central aspirations of white Americans. Blacks were to show their solidarity with the group by taking distinct names, dress, and cultural traditions. “In Los Angeles Maulana Karenga formed the US Organization (Us as opposed to them) in 1966” says Painter. “Karenga wanted black people to see themselves as Africans in the United States, not second-class Americans” (Id. at 299). It was with this mind that Karenga mandated the study of Swahili and created and first celebrated the Kwanzaa holiday in 1966-67.
The Black Power frame, like the Brotherhood frame, helped to mobilize large groups of black activists, especially following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. SMO’s organized under this frame were responsible for many self-help initiatives of the latter part of the movement—from the Deacons for Defense and Justice providing armed security for nonviolent protesters in the South (Wendt 2006), to BPP’s monitoring police for abuse and establishing a successful community school and lunch program in Oakland (Painter 2006). This realignment of movement goals and practices no doubt saved lives and provided benefits to black communities, but it has also proven to be a two-edged sword.
While it motivated demoralized participants after a long and brutal struggle and in the wake of the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, it also deviated from the original goal of the Civil Rights Movement just when it was beginning to bear fruit. Indeed, the alienation experienced by many black Americans today may be traceable not to direct discrimination within an inhospitable mainstream culture but to the adoption of countercultural practices as a means of achieving group solidarity and at the expense of the now-despised goal of assimilation. Disheartening social statistics regarding black Americans are often cited as evidence of the effects of ongoing discrimination. While discrimination certainly still exists, it may not tell the complete story. Persistent identification with a counterculture may also be a significant impediment to the full realization of the Dream.
Self-alienation from mainstream American culture is an understandable reaction to repeated rejection by that culture. However, the effects of internalizing that alienation may prove as pernicious as it is understandable. Americans—black, white, or otherwise—who long for full realization of the Dream where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood” must reject the notion that black empowerment can only be achieved through reifying a constructed otherness. Eliminating black otherness in American society was the original goal of the movement. Unfortunately, many Americans have since come to embrace that otherness.
 In 2008, a Houston Chronicle article reported Yao Ming’s apprehension about the addition of Ron Artest to the Houston Rockets basketball team because of Artest’s history of violence on the court. It also recorded Artest’s response to Yao’s comments:
“This is Tracy (McGrady) and Yao’s team, you know,” Artest said. “I’m not going to take it personal. I understand what Yao said, but I’m still ghetto. That’s not going to change. I’m never going to change my culture. Yao has played with a lot of black players, but I don’t think he’s ever played with a black player that really represents his culture as much as I represent my culture.”
Apparently, for Artest (who now goes by Metta World Peace), his history of violence was consistent with his conception of authentic black culture. Identifying a lack of self-restraint and anti-social behavior with essential “blackness” has had serious consequences for Artest, diminishing the market value of this highly talented player.
In the video below, comedians Key & Peele comically portray one aspect of this phenomenon. They equate “talking black” with intimidating whites and joke about the importance to blacks of conforming to stereotypic blackspeak in the presence of other blacks. The bi-racial comedians assume the audience knows exactly what they are talking about, an assumption confirmed by the audience response. A Youtube commenter responded: “I am one of 5 black girls in my grade and this video pretty much sums up what we go through.”