Years of Southern civil rights activism had increased black pride and militancy throughout the nation. The achievement of legislation for integration and voting rights focused attention on the remaining barriers to black freedom and opportunity—economic deprivation and continuing white resistance. Under the strain of constant attacks, black leaders such as SNCC chairperson Stokely Carmichael began to question the commitment to nonviolence and to argue for all-black leadership.
They were impressed by Malcolm X, the Northern leader of the Black Muslim organization who advocated black pride and armed self-defense. In 1966, the year after Malcolm’s assassination, Carmichael raised the cry for black power. Many traditional civil rights leaders were appalled by the slogan. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the slogan’s appeal but feared its explosive potential and tried to emphasize black power’s connotations for black pride and self-esteem. The slogan, however, resonated in the Northern inner cities. There housing discrimination restricted blacks’ choices, and judging from poverty and unemployment rates, African Americans had never recovered from the Great Depression.
In August 1965 racial violence erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in response to the lack of economic progress and conflicts with white police. In the summer and fall of 1966, 43 cities experienced racial violence. That October, two black college students, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, organized the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California to promote community service and armed self-defense for inner-city residents. One of its first actions was to establish patrols in black communities to monitor police activities and protect residents from police brutality.
The Black Panthers enjoyed wide appeal among young men in the Northern cities. The party quickly became a target for repression that included undercover informants and surveillance by the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As Martin Luther King, Jr., began to speak out against American involvement in the Vietnam War (1959-1975) and to emphasize the need for economic changes, he too became a target for government surveillance and harassment. In the summer of 1967, major race riots erupted in Newark, Detroit, and other American cities. Often this violence was attributed to tensions between black residents and white police accused of brutality. In February 1968 the presidentially appointed Kerner Commission reported that America was becoming ‘two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal.’ In April, King was assassinated in Memphis, and the wave of racial violence that followed seemed to confirm those conclusions.
While black leaders were debating the effectiveness of nonviolent strategies, the nation was becoming more involved in the Vietnam War. The war led to divisive national debates. In 1965, when President Johnson ordered air raids over North Vietnam, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party denounced the war and declared that black men should not submit to a war for freedom abroad when they did not have freedom at home. Many older civil rights leaders warned against alienating the Johnson administration by opposing the war, since Johnson had supported civil rights. Younger, more militant blacks were more likely to oppose the war; they joined the public demonstrations that became more frequent as troop levels in Vietnam escalated and as the number of black soldiers and casualties became proportionately higher than for whites.