Key Moments in the Fight for Civil Rights

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1965 – Malcolm X and the Rise of Black Power

Malcolm X speaks at a news conference in the Hotel Theresa on 125th St. and Seventh Ave., in New York City, May 21, 1964. (AP Photo)

The Nation of Islam, a religious organization, provokes controversy while promoting black pride and self-reliance. The group establishes local temples, teaches Muslim beliefs, creates black businesses and schools, and rehabilitates many convicts and former drug addicts. In 1963, Malcolm X becomes the group’s national spokesman. His message of black pride, self-sufficiency and self-defense stands in stark contrast to the Civil Rights Movement’s non-violence. It also threatens whites. As Malcolm X becomes nationally known, his words inspire many blacks, but as he gains power, his relationship with the Nation of Islam deteriorates. In February 1965, members of the Nation of Islam assassinate him in Harlem.

Malcolm X’s philosophy survives, especially among younger civil rights workers. In 1965, Stokely Carmichael and SNCC mount a voter registration drive in Lowndes County, Alabama. In the 80 percent black county there are no black public officials, and blacks have been denied the vote. The group forms a new party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and takes as its symbol a black panther. On May 3, 1966, the county’s black residents vote for the first time since Reconstruction. Soon afterward, Stokely Carmichael takes over from John Lewis as SNCC’s national chairman.

The following month, James Meredith, who made plenty of enemies when he integrated the University of Mississippi in 1963, begins a solo March Against Fear through Tennessee and Mississippi. On the second day, he is shot and wounded. Civil rights leaders take up the march, and conflict emerges between Martin Luther King, who intends to proceed peacefully, and Stokely Carmichael, who would prefer to resist hostile state troopers. Partway through the march, to King’s and many others’ dismay, SNCC rallies crowds with a new slogan that will quickly take center stage: “Black Power!”

Much of this text is excerpted, with permission, from the website for the American Experience series Eyes on the Prize. Read more about these events and others on that site.

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