U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Intellectuals and the Long, Hot Summers

Ebony magazine’s October 1965 issue featured a long story by Louie Robinson on the Watts riots of August of that year.[1] Robinson, reporting on the riots and their aftermath, expressed surprise that such an event could occur in Los Angeles. “Race relations, measured by the national yardstick, have been among the best,” he wrote. Yet he, and many Americans regardless of race or color, were surprised. “Harlem or Chicago, yes; Birmingham, maybe; but never, never Los Angeles. It was the wrong time and the wrong place. Los Angeles Negroes had—theoretically—everything but a fair housing law,” which Robinson reminded his readers did exist until being eliminated by California voters in 1964.[2] It seemed that the “long, hot summers” that began the previous year in places like Philadelphia had spread to the unlikely West Coast city of Los Angeles. The riots themselves, however, exposed a fault line between the police and young African Americans that people in the Los Angeles area, and especially Watts, were already concerned about. Wrote Robinson:

“The Negro knows that whites earn more, work oftener and live less crowded, and he accepts this with as much grace as he can muster. But the white policeman is something else. Charges of his brutality and harassment are legend. Many, if not most, claims are inaccurate. But enough of them are true to grate on the poor man’s nerves, to harden the already bitter young juvenile, to incite—as it turned out—a riot.”[3]

But it seemed that the riot, despite destroying millions of dollars in property and, worse, resulting in the deaths of 39 people (including 30 African Americans), also had some positive effects on Los Angeles—at least for the short term. Robinson cited “an end to the bitter fight over the administration of some $23 million in anti-poverty funds,” and also the resolution to “three-way struggles—between Mayor (Sam) Yorty, the local United Civil Rights Committee, and Congressman Augustus Hawkins” that were ended by the intervention by the federal government.[4]watts

Today’s post is continuing what I promised to start last week: a look at how African American intellectuals, and how African American “thought”, have changed over the last fifty years to bring us to Ferguson. This won’t, of course, be a “grand history” of African American thought in the last fifty years—more of a series of vignettes. And it’s important to consider not just how African American intellectuals considered this question, but how the African American “public” received the questions of racial progress and how they shaped the debate on their own terms. This snapshot will take a brief look at the early to mid-1960s.

It’s important to consider just where African American intellectuals were by late 1965. “Black Power” as a term hasn’t been coined yet. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act just passed. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Kenneth Clark, among others, were all being taken seriously as intellectuals who wrote seriously about race. But there was still something missing—a sense that the African American freedom struggle was far from over, that some new phase has been entered into.

Was it that the movement had moved beyond the South? Well, no. For the movement was, in every sense, just getting started below the Mason-Dixon Line. Jimmie Lee Jackson would die in Alabama a year later. Stokely Carmichael would coin the phrase “Black Power” in Mississippi a year later. However, these concerns about the direction of not just the Civil Rights Movement, but African American intellectuals in general, manifested itself long before Watts.

E. Franklin Frazier’s 1962 essay in Negro Digest, titled “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual” pointed to problems inherent in the intellectual debates over integration in American society.[5] Frazier argued that the problem was that the debate often viewed integration as an end goal, and not merely one part of a larger shift in American society. “There can be no question at the present time that the Negro must be integrated into the American community. But the integration of the Negro into the economic and social organization of American life is only an initial stage in the solution of some of the problems of the Negro,” wrote Frazier.[6]index

Frazier cut African American intellectuals no slack. He saw them, and the African American middle class, as part of the problem. “As far as I have been able to discover,” Frazier argued, “what Negro intellectuals have had to say concerning integration has been concerned with the superficial aspects of the increasing participation of Negroes in the economic and social and political organization of American society.” In other words, the window dressing became all for black intellectuals. Very little was being done in terms of asking tougher questions about the direction of the United States.

Black intellectuals had a great deal to say about urban unrest, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Power. But the divisions they had over these issues, as I’ve written elsewhere, point to a vibrant time in African American intellectual history. I’ll take a closer look at that next week.

[1] Louie Robinson. “This Never Would Have Happened…If They Hadn’t Kicked That Man,” Ebony, October 1965, p. 114-124.

[2] Robinson, 114.

[3] Robinson, 120.

[4] Robinson, 120-121.

[5] E. Franklin Frazier. “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual,” Negro Digest, February 1962, p. 26-36.

[6] Frazier, 27.

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  1. As a Chicano intellectual, I find your article.to be very interesting. Intellectuals, by and large, want to be left alone, right? For minorities that struggle in life each day, their criticism against their own intellectuals is that their is a sense that they do not contribute in any way to make their lives any better. There is a sense that minority intellectuals really do not engage in seriously addressing the issues of the poor because of a fundamental disconnect.
    Than you for taking the time to read this message..

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