The official textbook version of the Civil Rights Movement goes something like this: Dr. King led a movement of non-violence in the South. This inspired enlightened white politicians to force naughty racists to enforce integration. And we all lived happily ever after.
I have three big problems with this official narrative.
First, it has an unearned spirit of triumphalism. It doesn’t leave room for the question of whether black Americans are truly better off now than in 1965. Today, 1 black man in 3 will serve time in prison during his lifetime. And most black children have never lived with both of their parents.
Second, the official narrative doesn’t leave any room to question whether integration was truly good for the black community. While it is clearly true that black schools in the early 20th Century were not given fair funding, they produced great doctors, towering intellectuals, and future leaders.
In many schools today, black students aren’t treated like young community leaders, chemical engineers, and CEOs. They are treated like potential threats who have to walk through metal detectors
Third, and worst of all, the official narrative gives much of the credit to white people and the government. This attitude is patronizing, paternalistic and preposterous. White America couldn’t empower black people even if it wanted to. And it has never wanted to. Only the black community has ever had the power to do that.
The Black Panthers almost succeeded.
About fifty years ago, a group of guys in Oakland decided that they had enough of police harassment in their neighborhood. They grabbed some guns and hit the streets. They followed police around and simply stood near them – guns drawn.
The first Black Panthers were right. By standing ominously near traffic stops, cops were far less likely to get physical. And they were right that as long as their weapons were not concealed, they were not breaking any laws.
Naturally, the laws had to be changed.
There is an amazing scene in 1967 where a bipartisan team of legislators and Gov. Reagan publicly and proudly passed a gun control bill aimed at the Panthers. Meanwhile, the Panthers themselves were there at the Capitol to stand up for the Second Amendment.
The sight of young black men proudly packing in broad daylight was striking enough to make the nightly news. Overnight, the Black Panthers were a national sensation.
While the guns grabbed headlines, the Black Panthers did a lot more charity work than killing. The organization founded neighborhood-based health clinics and soup kitchens that gave out free breakfasts to schoolkids. The Panthers were bringing black communities together just as the Welfare State and Prison Industrial Complex were beginning to tear them apart.
Apparently, the sight of empowered black men and nourished black schoolchildren infuriated J. Edgar Hoover. He concluded that the Black Panthers were the greatest threat to American order and he conceived of a plan to destroy them.
The FBI coerced vulnerable federal prisoners into joining the Panthers and spying for the government. Government agents raided Panther headquarters in city after city, arresting the rank and file while assassinating leaders.
Hoover and his G-Men stamped out a thriving organization in just a few years. Today, the Black Panthers are known for their signature style but not for their black power philosophy or their tangible accomplishments.
History is written by the winners. And, accordingly, history is sometimes little more than triumphalist propaganda.
The official history of the Civil Rights Movement urges us to rejoice because White America and the government did the right thing. I’m not buying it. Believing that white people and the government teamed up to liberate Black America is like believing that the fox and the farmer teamed up to free the chickens from the Hen House.
I don’t know what it will take to bring equality to the races. But I’m sure it will look less like the Civil Rights Movement and more like the Black Panthers.