A Black Consciousness

Rosa Parks

“Well, in the first place, I had been working all day on the job. I was quite tired after spending a full day working. I handle and work on clothing that white people wear. That didn’t come in my mind but this is what I wanted to know: when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings? … It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn’t feel like obeying his demand. He called a policeman and I was arrested and placed in jail….” – Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks questioned if black people would ever receive the equality that they were waiting for. Her simple act of disobedience caused a wave of boycotts and violent uproars in Montgomery, Alabama. These persistent boycotts were successful as the segregation on local bus lines was outlawed. These boycotts led to a bigger protest movement in the South. Zinn speaks of a “new black consciousness being born” towards the end of the chapter. This black consciousness was the realization that they could speak out and revolt. They had the right to protest against their discrimination.  The outlaw of segregation was not enough. New uprisings were taking place and being led by activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The heart of the civil rights history


 “. . . This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it… became part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. . .”  – Malcolm X

During the years 1950’s and 1960’s, black Americans arose as one “big family” led by racial equality and unfair civil rights. The movement was characterized by major campaigns of civilresistance. Between 1955 and 1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civildisobedience produced crisis situations between activists and government authorities.For almost 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans in Southern states still experienced “unequalness,” disenfranchisement, segregation and great volume oppressions towards blacks. In the following, civil rights activists extensively continued to protest for their freedom and whites, on the other hand, were fierce because the whole community of blacks marched boycotting on the streets in a either violence or nonviolence way depending on a leader. Many leaders from within the African American community and beyond rose to prominence during the Civil Rights era, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman and etc.   Two arising leader powers such as Malcolm X who was a black male activist leader fighting for blacks’s present and past where as Martin Luther King who also was a black male who fought the idea of “peacefulness” and solving any conflict with love and care. Even thought they had totally different approach towards civil rights movement, white privilege and racial inequality, they both centered the question to where is respect for humanity disappear. A key factor in the success of the civil rights movement was the choice that radicalized African-American organizations offered to cautiously slow-moving governmental policy-makers: the rhetoric of “Black Power” or the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. Policy makers chose the leader representing peaceful change.


You better not X with the X

“You’ll get freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom; then you’ll get it. It’s the only way you’ll get it. When you get that kind of attitude , they’ll label you as a “crazy Negro,” or they’ll call you a”crazy nigger”-they don’t say Negro. Or they’ll call you an extremist or a subversive, or seditious, or a red or a radical. But when you stay radical long neigh and get enough people to be like you, you’ll get your freedom.” (461)

Malcolm X believed in a different way of attaining equality. Passive resistance was a pipe dream that the white man would not respect. The Black Panthers showed intimidation with their guns and call for self-defense. The March on Washington was artificially made by whites. Government leaders were scared of the march and endorsed the march. “They controlled it so tight, they told those Negroes what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make, and then told them to get of town by sundown…”Post March on Washington,  there was a continuation of bombings and lack of civil rights improvements. An alternative action and route must’ve been taken. When a black church is bombed, African Americans are not thinking of showing passive resistance but are filled up with rage they wish to release. Howard Zinn is puts emphasis on the different forms of protesting and shows the response it received. Zinn understands the rough edginess of Malcolm X being that passive resistance wasn’t very impactful.

“…we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.“

“If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight, we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.“

– Martin Luther King Jr.


Martin Luther King was a preacher. He fought with words, motivation and respect. This angered some of the black community, as “respect” didn’t satisfy their desires. Zinn explains that many blacks thought Kings’ methods were “naïve”, which made sense in regards to how the white community was treating the blacks. King however was able to convey his message to the majority of the black community, which was monumental.  He conveyed to his followers the principles of civil disobedience and the importance of respecting the hate that was shown against them. By constantly doing so King was able to motivate his people by emphasizing that change was coming, for example like stated above; “we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” His speeches were full of powerful messages and intellectual statements that were used to rally up supporters. Zinn explains that Martin Luther King acted as a catalyst in motivating blacks into standing up for their rights, however further argues that people like Malcolm X and other radical black leaders were what caused people into using violence as opposed to methods of civil disobedience.

Negligence and Consequences

“… it’s inevitable that we’ve got to bring out the question of the tragic mix-up in priorities. We are spending all of this money for death and destruction, and not nearly enough money for life and constructive development… when the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.” – Dr. Martin Luther King

During the era of the Civil Rights movement, another troubling issue was at hand that wasn’t just equality for Americans. The Vietnam War also occupied much of America’s mind. These two significant issues, however, were not being dealt properly by the United State’s government. Part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 included that the government was able to put anyone in prison for up to five years if they are related in some way to a riot (which was defined as “three or more people involving threats of violence”). This shows the government’s feeble attempt to quell civilian unrest while still not directly dealing with it. Much of the focus was instead shifted towards the war. With King’s quote, it demonstrates how much the domestic problems that were not being prioritized were affecting the people. Zinn talks about this because of how much inner turmoil the country was going through and how little it was being focused upon by the government. In a way, it links to the title of the whole chapter, “Or Does it Explode?” There’s only so much something can put pushed to the backseat, or suppress an issue without really focusing on it, before it bursts. With this, Zinn shows the government’s neglect on the matter and its consequences.

“Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all…”

“It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all. . .”

“…they told those Negroes what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn’t make, and then told them to get out of town by sundown….”

-Malcolm X


Zinn uses these quotes to show how different Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideologies were. King thought the march was still a success, or at least a step in the right direction, even when he had to follow rules set by white people. Which Malcolm X completely shuts down, saying that this was just another example of black submission to white government. Malcolm believed a fight like this had to be fought hard and with passion, and emotion, and most importantly, without submission. Without passion, and anger, the march was a joke, completely pointless. Malcolm believed King completely gave up the fight by obliging by the rules of the people responsible for segregation. Zinn’s use of direct quotes helps him paint the picture of the different characters of both men. King, was very calm and patient; while Malcolm X was very angry, opinionated, and passionate.

Radical Rationalizing

“A new mood has sprung up among Negroes, particularly the young, in which self esteem and enhanced racial pride are replacing apathy and submission to the ‘system'” (460)

1967 was the time of the greatest riots in American History.  This quote, taken from a Commission Report blamed white racist as the cause of such explosive radical behavior. The initial purpose of the  commission report was to get people to face the rebellion and hopefully alleviate some of the tension; however, in Howard Zinn’s eyes, this wasn’t entirely achieved.  “Black Power” became the new slogan of radical blacks and black activists. Among these were Malcolm X; who Zinn regards as “the most eloquent spokesman for (Black Power).” X was a vital component in the radical movement and extremely influential throughout the black youth.  His speeches,encouraging self defense and somewhat subversive acts, were heard all through out the country. To some , the black revolts came as a  surprise; but not to Zinn. He argues that the memory of the terrible acts of hatred were too much for blacks to suppress.

In response to the radical rioters the Civil Rights Act of 1969 was passed, which prohibited violence against blacks. Blacks were now allowed to go to fancy restaurants and hotels. They were allowed to attend universities as well as medical and law schools…if and only if, they could afford it.

Malcolm X: An Inspiration

“You’ll get freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom; then you’ll get it. It’s the only way you’ll get it. When you get that kind of attitude, they’ll label you as a “crazy Negro,” or they’ll call you a “crazy nigger” — they don’t say Negro. Or they’ll call you and extremist, or a subversive, or seditious, or a red or a radical. But when you stay radical long enough and get enough people to be like you, you’ll get your freedom” (Malcolm X 461).

Malcolm X, a prominently important figure in the Civil Rights Era, is truly an inspiration and a hero. His statement strongly emphasizes the attitude blacks needed to have in order to get their freedom. In addition, his extremely radical behavior is what captures the imagination of young black people and encourages them to stand firmly against racism and racist white people. Many blacks believed that Malcolm X’s passionate rage and anger truly captured the idea of fighting for their rights and freedom more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s attitude did. This is because Malcolm X advocated for violence when it comes to self-defense and the establishment of a separate black community while Martin Luther King was more passive and peaceful. Malcolm X’s messages and speeches were the driving force behind young blacks wanting to fight back against racists. If I were a black student in 1964 listening to Malcolm X’s powerful speech, I would be entirely persuaded to support him and endure the extremities in order to get my freedom. Overall, his compelling pride and influential passion gave blacks the motivation and inspiration to fight for their freedom once and for all.

When Will It Explode?

“No, it was a sellout. It was a takeover . . . They controlled it so tight, they told those Negros what time to hit town, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make and what speech they couldn’t make, and then told them to get outta town by sundown . . . ”-Malcolm X (458)


The 1950s and 1960s were a very turbulent two decades for a number of reasons, however Zinn asks “-or does it explode” referring to the second civil war that took place across the country. The diversity of perspectives is a motif that Howard Zinn presents in every paragraph. Here, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech during the “March on Washington” is experienced from a different angle. Malcolm X expresses the plight of an honest and uncompromising African-American population, following the anti-climatic culmination of their efforts. Zinn includes this testimony to legitimize the claim that: there is more truth to be told. A militant, educated and very angry African consciousness has been omitted from the conversation. Contrary to the broadcasted opinion the “March on Washington” was not unanimously received as a success, but rather the organized circumvention and obstruction of a battle against oppression.

Government for some

”I feel that the federal government have proven that it don’t care about poor people.  Everything that we have asked for through these years had been handed down on paper.  It’s never been a reality.  We the poor people of Mississippi is tired.  we’re tired 0f it so we’re going to build for ourselves, because we don’t have a government that represents us.”

These are the words of Mrs. Unita Blackwell, A local woman.  After seen and witnessing the reluctance of  Congress to passed  laws against civil rights time after time.  However, after war world 2, racism was denounced but segregation was still present in the military between blacks and white service men.  President Harry Truman either by necessity or expediency  in 1946 appointed a committee on civil Rights, which recommended that laws to be passed against lynching, and to end voting  discrimination  and racial discrimination in jobs. Even in the present of convincing argument that passing civil Rights laws wasn’t just for moral reasons but for economic reasons as well, congress did nothing to enact the legislations proposed by the committee. With these kinds of inaction, congress became a stumbling block against civil right in that era of the struggle.

More so, Blackwell’s words could have been as a result of witnessing the  no enforcement position taken by the FBI or the police in the present of violent against black during the civil Right era.  Is it not the duty of the FBI or Police to protect all against the commission of crime? or were members of some group excluded from that protection  in the constitution?  Furthermore, with the kind vehement and aggression the FBI went against the civil Right activists, especially Dr. Martin Luther King, one is left with no other theory but to conclude that there was a hidden motive by the government to undermine the effort of the civil Right advocates.  Is the government turning to murder and terror because all else has failed to suppress the voices of the suppressed?

Zinn in this chapter shows among other things how the laws against segregation, Lynching was not enforced by the branch of government that is charged to do so.  And that if Congress had acted sooner, much killing would have been avoided, especially that of the three civil rights workers James Chaney, a young black Mississippian, and two white volunteers, Andrew Good and Michael Schwerner.  That killing would have been prevented if the a law that barred discrimination in interstate transportation in 1887 was enforced.