It is important to note that South African events do not occur in a vacuum, as we are part of a large continent and a much larger world. Therefore, what happens in the 'North' has a huge impact on what happens here. For this section, it is important to understand the international background, and what the world was like in the 1960s. This will help us contextualise the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa in the 1970s.

Also, it is impossible to understand what happened in South Africa (the 'small picture') unless we understand what happened in international relations (the 'big picture') towards the end of the 1980s.

During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, world politics was dominated by the rivalry between the Soviet Union (Russia) and the United States of America. This rivalry was called the Cold War.

The content of the new history curriculum is structured to help us to understand the interaction between the world, the African continent and South Africa.

Background information and definitions

What is civil society?

Civil society consists of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions. Civil society is separate from the state, and from business institutions. Civil society groups consist of ordinary people who take collective action around shared aims, interests and values.

Examples of these groups include charities, non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.

What are civil rights?

Civil rights are the protections and privileges given to all citizens by law. Civil rights are rights given by nations to their citizens within their territorial boundaries. Human rights, on the other hand, are rights that individuals have from birth.

In countries like South Africa, the United States and Europe, laws which guarantee civil rights are written down.

Examples of civil rights and liberties include:

  • the right to privacy

  • the right of peaceful protest

  • the right to a fair investigation and trial if suspected of a crime

  • the right to vote

  • the right to personal freedom

  • the right to freedom of movement

  • the right to equality before the law

When citizens in civil society find that their civil rights are not being granted, they may form civil rights movements to claim equal protection for all citizens. They may also call for new laws to stop current discrimination.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations Organisation in 1948. It is the basis for human rights protection and promotion around the world.

The UDHR helped motivate and encourage civil rights movements in many different countries. For example, the standards set by the UDHR motivated freedom fighters in South Africa, the Civil Rights Movement in America, the Black Power Movement, and campaigns for nuclear disarmament, student movements, peace movements, and women's movements.

The context

The beginning of the Nuclear Age

America dropped Atomic or Nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. This ended the Second World War. Since then we have been living in an Age that is often called the Nuclear Age or the Atomic Age. The threat of terrifying and devastating nuclear weapons changed the nature of war forever.

The end of the Allied Alliance and the beginning of the Cold War

During the Second World War, the United States was an ally of the Soviet Union, along with Britain and others. They fought against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. The United States only entered the Second World War in December 1941. Although the Soviet Union was an American ally, America did not consult the Soviet Union about the dropping of the Nuclear Bombs in 1945. The tension between the United States, a capitalist democracy, and the Soviet Union, a communist totalitarian state, stemmed from a long history of mutual distrust dating back to 1917.

Both Superpowers wanted to spread their power and influence in the world. The Cold War was therefore an ideological, political, economic, and military conflict between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). This began in the aftermath of World War II, and ended in 1989. From the beginning, the Cold War was linked with the development of the atomic bomb and its use as a military deterrent.

After the dropping of the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was clear to the two Superpowers that it was too dangerous and too destructive to go to war directly with each other in a 'hot war' in which they used nuclear weapons. This is because nuclear weapons could destroy the world if they used them to fight each other. 

Therefore, the USA and Russia fought each other in what became known as a Cold War. Their rivalry was called the Cold War because it was not a war fought on a battlefield. It was a war based on the conflict between two very different ideologies.

How was the Cold War fought?

Communism had become a popular ideology among poor people all over the world. The capitalist governments of America and Western Europe regarded communism as a threat, and eradicated it wherever they could.

The USA was strongly opposed to the Soviet Union expanding its control in Europe and other parts of the world. They wanted to limit Soviet expansion. This policy is known as 'containment'. This has been criticized, as the United States supported any capitalist country even if it had a dictatorial government.

Countries all over the world took sides with either Russia or America. The Cold War had a significant influence on South Africa. The white racist government that came to power in SA in 1948 was very anti-Communist. They called all their enemies 'communists' and justified their ruthlessness in the name of Christianity fighting 'evil communism'. The USSR supported the anti-apartheid struggle.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union avoided direct military confrontation but engaged in combat operations in other countries.

For example, the Soviet Union sent troops to prop up communist rule in:

  • East Germany (1953)

  • Hungary (1956)

  • Czechoslovakia (1968)

  • Afghanistan (1979).

For example, the United States sent troops to prop up capitalist rule in:

  • Guatemala (1954); the Dominican Republic (1965) and Grenada (1983)

  • Supported an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba (1961)

  • Undertook a long (1964-75) and unsuccessful effort to prevent communist North Vietnam from bringing South Vietnam under its rule.

The Cold War also manifested itself in propaganda from both sides. In an Arms Race which included nuclear weapons, both sides spent huge budgets to try to build a mightier defence force than the other. Both America and Russia supplied arms to their allies around the world.

The Space Race was also an aspect of the Cold War, in which each side tried to prove the superiority of their scientific technologies. In the Space Race, the USSR sent the first man into space, and the USA reached the moon first.

The Sixties

The 1960s is the decade from 1960 to 1969.

In Africa, the 1960s was a period of radical political change as countries gained independence from their European colonial rulers. In South Africa, apartheid laws became more oppressive after the banning of the ANC and PAC. The term 'The Sixties' is used to refer to a period of immense social, cultural and political change which occurred in the West, particularly in the United States, Britain, France and West Germany. Young people wanted change and changes affected education, values, lifestyles, laws, and entertainment. 

The social movements of The Sixties had consequences for Africa and for South Africa.

The following website gives an excellent overview of the Sixties, and we encourage you to refer to it for more detailed information on the decade:

The Civil Rights Movement in the USA

The first movement that became famous under the name Civil Rights Movement was the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which struggled for equal rights for African-Americans. This movement encouraged other civil rights movements in other democracies, and in countries without a fascist or colonial government. Mass movements for democracy, in countries like South Africa, in turn also inspired the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Desmond Tutu says he and many other South Africans took heart from the struggles and achievements of African Americans:

"When I was in a ghetto township, I picked up a tattered copy of Ebony magazine. I don't know where that came from. But, it was one that was describing Jackie Robinson's breaking into major league baseball. Now, I didn't know baseball from ping pong. But what was important for me was, 'Hey, man! Here is a black man who has overcome all kinds of odds, and made it! I will make it too,'"

- Source:


American government structure

The United States of America is a federation of 50 states. Each state can make laws for its own state, but the national (federal) government can make laws that over-ride state laws.  In other words, National law is superior to State Law.

There are three branches of government in both the state and federal governments:

Executive branch

Each state has a Governor who is the head of the executive branch of a state.

The Federal Executive branch is headed by the President. A presidential election is held every four years. The President may serve two 4-year terms, totalling 8 years. The President lives in the White House. The Federal capital city is Washington, D.C.

Presidents whose names and years of service you should try to remember were:

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 - 45)
  • Harry Truman (1945 - 53)
  • Dwight Eisenhower (1953 - 61)
  • John F. Kennedy (1961 - 63)
  • Lyndon B. Johnson (1963 - 69)
  • Richard Nixon (1969 - 74)

Legislative branch

The legislative branch makes laws. The legislative branch is made up of Congress. Congress is divided into two "houses" - the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Judicial branch

You can read more about the structure of the American government on this external link:

The judicial branch interprets what the law means. The judicial branch is made up of the Supreme Court and many lower courts.

The 'race' myth

Throughout the world, the misuse of the term 'race' to classify people has gone hand in hand with disregard for human rights. This has resulted in cruel behaviour towards those regarded as 'inferior'.

Racism is the false idea that certain groups of people are better than others, and racists believe that it is acceptable to exclude or dominate certain of groups on the grounds of their 'race'.

Most people take it for granted that all humankind can be divided into 'races'. But 'human races' is not a scientific concept. Physical features like skin colour, hair texture and facial shape do not relate in any way to how people think or behave.

Melanin is a pigment in the skin that absorbs ultraviolet radiation and limits its penetration into body tissue. Pigmentation probably developed to protect sweat glands from UV radiation damage from the sun. People of dark complexion have more melanin pigment, and so experience the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation to a lesser degree. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between increased pigmentation and increased UV exposure, if the population has lived in the geographic region for at least 10 000 years.

African Americans and the Race Myth

From the 17th century, millions of Africans were captured, packed into ships, and taken to the USA to be sold as slaves. The term 'Negro' was used to refer to dark-skinned people of African origin and was accepted as a normal formal term. Negro means black in Spanish and Portuguese. The word 'coloured' was also used to refer to Americans of African origin. However, these terms today are considered offensive, and black Americans refer to themselves as African Americans.


'Nigger' is a negative, insulting term used in America to refer to Americans of African origin. Hip Hop music and black rappers have caused a great deal of controversy by using the word 'nigga' in a self-referential way, and the word is sometimes used in casual conversation. Read more

African Americans

The majority of slaves lived and worked on large farms or plantations, in what is called the American South.

States in the South include North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

The Northern States wanted to end slavery but the South did not. The Southern States tried to break away from the North. This led to the outbreak of the American Civil War. The North won the war in 1865, and slavery was abolished.

Although slavery ended in 1865, racial segregation did not. African Americans, or black Americans, were denied basic civil rights in the South. African Americans were barred from schools, busses, restaurants, hotels and other public facilities. Black people were also not permitted to vote. These laws were known as the Jim Crow laws.  

The term Jim Crow is a racial slur that comes from a minstrel show song "Jump Jim Crow" written in 1828 and performed by a white New Yorker who blackened his face and danced a ridiculous jig. This stereotypical image of black inferiority was part of the white popular culture of the day - along with 'Sambos' and 'Coons'. Acts of racial discrimination toward black people were often referred to as Jim Crow laws and practices.

White resistance to desegregation was strong and organised. The most well known white racist organisation is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret society with millions of members. Dressed up in white hooded uniforms, the KKK would often drag African Americans out of their homes and hang them by their necks from nearby trees. Such hangings were known as lynching. Many whites that supported the KKK had government jobs in the southern states, and this meant that the perpetrators of racist crimes were not brought to justice.

In 1955, a case that received a lot of public attention was the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was visiting his relatives in Mississippi. On a dare from his friends, Emmett spoke flirtatiously with a white woman, saying "Bye, Baby" as he left a local shop.

Several nights later the woman's husband and her brother forced Emmett into their car and drove away. Emmett's body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River. There was overwhelming evidence of guilt, but an all-white, all-male jury found the husband and his brother "not guilty".

This incident led to demonstrations in several northern cities about the way African Americans were being treated in the Deep South. The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960s and helped bring about change.

To help you to get a sense of the chronology, here are some of the key events in the American Civil rights history. It is adapted from:

  • 1861: The Southern states break away and form the Confederate States of America. The Civil War begins.

  • 1863: President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation that frees "all slaves in areas still in rebellion."

  • 1865: The Civil War ends. The 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, is passed as law. 1868 The 14th Amendment, which requires equal protection under the law to all persons, is passed as law.

  • 1909: The National Negro Committee convenes. This leads to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

  • 1925: In its first national demonstration, the Ku Klux Klan marches on Washington, D.C.

  • 1954: The Supreme Court declares school segregation unconstitutional in its ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

  • 1955: Rosa Parks is jailed for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A boycott follows, and bus segregation is declared unconstitutional.

  • 1957: Arkansas Governor uses the National Guard to block nine black students from attending Little Rock High School. Following a court order, President Eisenhower sends in federal troops to allow the black students to enter the school.

  • 1960: Four black college students began sit-ins at the lunch counter of a restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, where black patrons are not served.

  • 1961: Freedom Rides begin from Washington, D.C. into Southern states. Student volunteers are bussed in to test new laws prohibiting segregation.

  • 1962: President Kennedy sends federal troops to the University of Mississippi to end riots so that James Meredith, the school's first black student, can attend.

  • 1963: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech to hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington, D.C. A church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, leaves four young black girls dead.

  • 1964: Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, which declares discrimination based on race illegal. The 24th Amendment abolishes the poll tax, which originally had been established in the South to make it difficult for poor black people to vote. Three civil rights workers, two white and one black man, disappear in Mississippi. They are found buried six weeks later.

  • 1965: A march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, is organized to demand protection for voting rights. Malcolm X is assassinated. A long-time minister of the Nation of Islam, he had rejected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s policies of non-violence. He preached black pride and economic self-reliance for black people. A new Voting Rights Act, which made it illegal to force would-be voters to pass literacy tests in order to vote, is signed.

  • 1967 Thurgood Marshall becomes the first black person to be named to the Supreme Court.

  • 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray pleads guilty to the crime in March 1969, and is sentenced to 99 years in prison. President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.

  • 1976: Negro History Week becomes known as Black History Month.

  • 1983: The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national public holiday is established.

  • 2005: Edgar Ray Killen, the leader of the Mississippi murders (1964), is convicted of manslaughter on the 41st anniversary of the crimes. Rosa Parks dies at the age of 92.

  • 2006: Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., dies at the age of 78, after suffering a stroke. Mrs. King had moved into the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement after the death of her husband in 1968.

Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King was a civil rights activist and a Christian Baptist minister. While studying for the ministry, King was influenced by the passive resistance ideas of M.K Gandhi, and became convinced that the same methods could be used by African Americans to obtain their civil rights. He was particularly struck by Gandhi's words: "Through our pain we will make them see their injustice".

Non-violence or passive resistance is a method of social change that uses strategies such as strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, marches and civil disobedience. It is seen as morally justifiable to peacefully resist unjust laws. Martin Luther King believed that direct, non-violent protest action would force whites to confront segregation laws. He made it widely acceptable that people use peaceful protest to force changes to the law. Many white people supported him, and joined the protests.

Protests were often met with police and public violence. Many people died, but Dr. King did not support using violence as a form of resistance.

Montgomery, Alabama

After his marriage to Coretta Scott, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King was already a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). The NAACP (as it is referred to today) was the oldest and largest Civil Rights Organisation in the United States.

In Montgomery, like most other towns in the Deep South, buses were segregated. One day in 1955, a black 42 year old woman called Rosa Parks got on a bus to return home from work. She sat down near the front of the bus. Some white people got onto the bus, and she was expected to give up her seat. She decided not to move. The police were called, and she was arrested. 

The following night, King and fifty leaders of the African American community met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to discuss what had happened to Rosa Parks. They organised a Bus Boycott to protest against bus segregation.

It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King and others involved in the Bus Boycott were harassed and intimidated by the authorities, but the protest continued.

For thirteen months the black people in Montgomery walked to work or got lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city.  The bus company lost of 65% of its income, and finally the US Supreme Court said that segregation on busses was against the law, and the bus boycott came to an end.

The movement spreads

In 1957, King joined with the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and Bayard Rustin to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organisation was committed to non-violence in the struggle for civil rights. The SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."

To read more about these sit- ins, the people involved and related Civil Rights Movement developments, visit:

In 1958, King wrote a book called 'Stride toward Freedom' which detailed the success of the Montgomery bus boycott and explained King's views on non-violence. 'Stride toward Freedom' was widely read and had a lot of influence on the civil rights movement. King was not only a good writer; he was also an excellent public speaker. To inspire people to become involved in the civil rights movement King travelled to many places in the country making speeches.

In early 1960, motivated and inspired by King, a small group of black students in Greensboro, North Carolina decided to take action. They began a student sit-in at the restaurant of a local store that had a policy of not serving black people. They took their seats and ordered coffee, but were refused service. In just two months the sit-in movement spread to 54 cities in 9 states. The students were often physically assaulted, but they followed King's strategy and did not fight back.

All over the Deep South, black students began to follow King's non-violent strategy. There were successful campaigns against segregated transport, restaurants, swimming pools, theatres, libraries, beaches and public parks.

The campaign to end segregation at lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, was less successful. In the spring of 1963, police turned dogs and water hoses on the demonstrators. King and a large number of his supporters, including schoolchildren, were arrested and jailed.

King always stressed the importance of the vote. Although they were a minority, once the vote was organized, African Americans could determine the result of presidential and state elections. This was illustrated by the African American support for John F. Kennedy that helped give him a narrow victory in the 1960 election.

The Civil Rights Act 1964

Kennedy took a long time to put forward legislation to give African Americans their rights. The Civil Rights bill was only brought before Congress in 1963.

In an attempt to persuade Congress to pass Kennedy's proposed legislation, King and other civil rights leaders organized the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 28 August 1963, was a great success. A newspaper reporter wrote, "no one could ever remember an invading army quite as gentle as the two hundred thousand civil rights marchers who occupied Washington."

King was the final speaker and gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed... that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression; will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children one day will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character". - Source:

Kennedy's Civil Rights Bill was still being debated by Congress when he was assassinated in November, 1963. The new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was able to get the legislation passed.

The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. African Americans could no longer be excluded from restaurants, hotels and other public facilities.

King wins the Nobel Peace Prize

In 1964, at the age of 35, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Peace Prize is awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to further the civil rights movement.

The Voting Rights Act 1965

King now turned his attention to achieving a voting-rights law. This legislation proposed to remove the right States had to impose restrictions on who could vote in elections. Literacy tests and extra taxes would no longer be allowed to prevent African Americans from voting.

In March 1965, a protest march took place from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama. State trooper's attacked the marchers. King was not with the marchers when they were attacked. After the attacks on King's supporters at Selma, President Johnson attempted to persuade Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. It gave the national government power to register those whom the southern states refused to put on the voting list. It is interesting to note how the number of African Americans registered to vote increased as a result of this legislation:

Date African-Americans registered to vote State


22 000



175 000



66 000



250 000



58 000

South Carolina


191 000

South Carolina

King, poverty and the Vietnam War

After the passing of these two important pieces of legislation, King concentrated on helping those suffering from poverty. He also voiced his strong opposition to the Vietnam War.

King linked poverty to the War - he argued that the money being spent on the war could be better spent on improving America's welfare system. This upset FBI Director, John Edgar Hoover. The FBI is the principal investigative arm of the United States Department of Justice.

The mission of the FBI is to uphold the law through the investigation of violations of federal criminal law; to protect the United States from foreign intelligence and terrorist activities. The FBI should not be confused with The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which is an independent US Government agency responsible for providing national security intelligence to senior US policymakers.

Hoover led the FBI from 1924 to 1972 (48 years). Hoover is a very controversial figure in American history. The FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. is named after Hoover, but because of the controversial nature of Hoover's legacy, there have been periodic proposals to rename it.

Hoover was obsessed with the threat of Communism. Rumours were spread to discredit King. King was made out to be an instrument of the Communist Party who had a relationship with the Soviet Bloc.This posed a serious threat to the security of the USA. Remember that the USA and the USSR were engaged in the Cold War.

Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike

In February 1968, the Memphis Sanitation Workers began a long and bitter strike, which was endorsed by the NAACP. The city government stubbornly refused to recognize the Sanitations Workers' Union or to meet workers' demands. However, the strike served to unite the African American community of Memphis.

On 28th March, 1968, King led a march from Clayborn Temple to the Memphis City Hall.

' Marchers began to assemble outside Clayborn Temple as early as 8 a.m. on Thursday, March 28, buoyed by a massive leafleting and word-of-mouth campaign. The temperature was 61 degrees and climbing. Downtown would soon be stifling. Yet, as strikers and their families and supporters gathered, expecting King at 10 a.m., their mood was festive. This was the day they would show Mayor Henry Loeb the power of a united black community allied with unions, students and people of goodwill, white and black. Hundreds of workers carried placards reading "I Am A Man."No one expected trouble. It would be a grand march'. - King's Last Crusade by Michael Honey, Professor of African-American, Ethnic and Labor Studies and American History at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Source:

However, the deepening divide in the civil rights movement was growing.One author describes the tensions within the Civil Rights Movement at the Memphis march as follows:

"A gulf had emerged between the careful planning of the adult leaders and organizers and the youth and street people. Thus far, black sanitation workers had been the core of most marches, and their non-violent discipline remained rock solid. Not so with many of the new participants in the movement. "There was an element in the crowd that we couldn't get rid of at that time. Nobody could do anything with them," said the black City Councilman Fred Davis. - King's Last Crusade by Michael Honey, Professor of African-American, Ethnic and Labor Studies and American History at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Source:

Marchers were ordered to refrain from any acts of violence. However, the march turned sour when a group of students used the signs they were carrying to break shop windows, and loot their wares. Police moved into the crowds with sticks, mace, tear gas and gunfire. King was escorted from the scene. Sixty people were injured, and a sixteen-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot dead by the police who claimed he was a looter. An eyewitness said that Payne had his hands up when shot.
These events were regarded as a turning point in the Civil Rights Struggle.

King's assassination

King was convinced that the Memphis march violence had been caused by FBI provocateurs. A few days later, King made a speech at the Clayborn Temple in support of thestriking sanitation workersreferred to as the I've Been to the Mountaintop speech. It ended with the following words:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life - longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
- Source:

After the meeting, King and his party were taken to the Lorraine Motel. The following day, 4 April 1968, King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the motel. His death was followed by rioting in 125 cities and resulted in forty-six people being killed.

Two months later, James Earl Ray, a career criminal and open racist, was arrested in London and extradited to the United States. He pleaded guilty to King's murder and was sent to jail for ninety-nine years. He spent the remainder of his life attempting (unsuccessfully) to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the trial he never had. People close to King were convinced that the government was behind the assassination.  

You can read more about his assassination on this external link:

You can read more about the conspiracy theories surrounding King's assassination on this external link

Extra information on well-known events in the Civil Rights Movement

The Freedom Riders

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected American president. Many African Americans had voted for him as they believed he was sympathetic to the civil rights movement. However, Kennedy made promises in his campaign that he was slow to keep once he was in office.

An organisation called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was committed to civil rights for all. CORE decided to put pressure on Kennedy's administration and started the Freedom Ride. An interracial group got onto buses and left Washington DC in May 1961, heading for the Deep South. Their plan was to defy Jim Crow laws and to challenge the public's non-compliance with a US Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities. This prohibition had been declared 3 years prior to the Riders arrival in the South. The Riders were trained in the discipline of non-violence.

Blacks and whites were seated together on the bus; an act already considered a crime in most segregated states in the South. At stops along the way, the Freedom Riders whites went into blacks-only areas and blacks went into whites-only facilities. They were not disobeying the law, as the Supreme Court had already declared segregation illegal. But, as expected, the Freedom Riders met with resistance from racists in the South. This was a test for Kennedy's government to step in and enforce the law.

Along the way, Freedom Rider buses were stoned and firebombed, tires were slashed and the Riders were beaten up by white mobs. Hundreds of Freedom Riders were arrested for 'breach of peace' violations. Rather than posting bail immediately however, the Freedom Riders chose to remain in jail for forty days, the maximum amount of time one could remain in jail before losing their right of appeal.

On one occasion, as the Riders entered the Montgomery bus terminal, they were met by a vicious white mob that beat up many of the riders as they got off the bus. When news of the Montgomery attack reached Washington, Robert Kennedy sent federal marshals to the city. (Robert Kennedy was John Kennedy's brother and the Attorney General).

Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Montgomery and held a mass meeting, surrounded by federal marshals, in support of the Freedom Riders. As night fell, a mob of several thousand whites surrounded the church. Martial law was declared and state police and the National Guard were sent in. The mob dispersed and those inside the church left safely.

The Freedom Riders forced the Kennedy administration to take a stand on civil rights, which was their intent in the first place. In addition, at the request of Robert Kennedy, the Interstate Commerce

You can read extracts from Raymond Arsenault's book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice and listen to him speak on the external link:

Commission outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel that took effect in September, 1961. The ruling was more specific than the original Supreme Court mandate. The Freedom Riders therefore made an important and lasting contribution to the civil rights movement.

Five months after the first Freedom Rides left on their historic ride, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in conjunction with the US Attorney General Robert Kennedy issued a tough new Federal order banning segregation at all interstate public facilities based on "race, colour or creed." The law became effective on November 1st, 1961.

Bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Birmingham was probably the most segregated city in the US, and had one of the South's most violent Ku Klux Klan groups.  Dozens of unsolved bombings and police killings had terrorised the black community for many years.

In 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a centre of civil rights activity in Birmingham, Alabama. The bombing came without warning.  Four little girls, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins, aged 11 to 14 were killed while preparing for the 11am service. By the end of the day, riots and fires had broken out throughout Birmingham and another 2 teenagers were killed.

Grief was not only felt in the African American community, but white strangers expressed their sympathy to the families of the four girls. At the funeral of three of the girls, Martin Luther King gave the eulogy, which was witnessed by 8,000 mourners, both white and black.

The FBI led the initial investigation into the bombing. The suspects were Robert Chambliss, Bobby Cherry, Herman Cash, and Thomas Blanton. The Birmingham FBI office recommended prosecuting the suspects. Hoover, however, blocked their prosecution and by 1968, charges had not been filed, and the FBI closed the case.

The case was reopened in 1971. In 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case was again reopened in 1988. Herman Cash died before a case could be brought against him. In 2000, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were charged with the murder of the four girls. Both men were tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

Mississippi Burning

Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were part of the Mississippi Summer Project, a group of hundreds of young volunteers who were helping to register black voters. In 1964, these three civil rights workers, two white and one black man, disappeared in Mississippi. The FBI was called in to investigate the crime, and it took decades to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Activity: If you can, try to watch the movie based on this case, called 'Mississippi Burning'.

The FBI investigation, called MIBURN (for "Mississippi Burning") brought in busloads of sailors to search the swamps and woods for the missing men. Their bodies were found buried six weeks later.  The three civil rights workers had been shot at point blank range, and their bodies were buried on a dam site at the Old Jolly Farm.  The farm was owned by a Klan member.

Local residents were tight-lipped.  Finally informants from within the Klan (or KKK) became the government's key witnesses to the crime. Nineteen men were arrested and the trial began in 1967 in the courtroom of Judge William Cox, a racist judge who had previously referred to a group of African Americans as 'a bunch of chimpanzees.'

A jury of seven white men and five white women convicted some but not others. The convictions in the case represented the first ever convictions in Mississippi for the killing of a civil rights worker.  A former Klan preacher, Edgar Ray Killen who was prosecuted, escaped conviction in 1967.

Many civil rights activists struggled tirelessly to get the case re-opened so that Killen, who had walked free, could be punished.

In 1999, the state reopened the investigation.  In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, by now aged 79, was sentenced to serve three 20-year terms, one for each conviction of manslaughter in connection with the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964. 

The Civil Rights Movement and Apartheid in South Africa

During King's career, South Africa was in the grip of apartheid. King saw the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in its broader context. On many occasions he spoke out against racism beyond United States borders.

Dr. King sought to build 'an international alliance of peoples of all nations against racism' and to promote non-violent action to quarantine the racist South African regime with its capital in Pretoria.
Non-violent resistance was first introduced by M.K Gandhi during his time in South Africa. Dr. King wrote in his last major work; Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community:

"The classic example of organised and institutionalised racism is the Union of South Africa. Its national policy and practice are the incarnation of the doctrine of white supremacy in the midst of a population which is overwhelmingly Black. But the tragedy of South Africa is virtually made possible by the economic policies of the United States and Great Britain, two countries which profess to be the moral bastions of our Western world."

In a speech in London in December 1964, Dr King said:

"I understand that there are South Africans here tonight - some of whom have been involved in the long struggle for freedom there. In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States, which has also been so long and arduous, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by non-violent methods. We have honoured Chief Luthuli for his leadership, and we know how this non-violence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression, culminating in the shootings of Sharpeville and all that has happened since.

Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organise to register Negro voters, we can speak to the press, we can in short organise the people in non-violent action. But in South Africa even the mildest form of non-violent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.

Today great leaders - Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe - are among many hundreds wasting away in Robben Island prison. Against the massively armed and ruthless state, which uses torture and sadistic forms of interrogation to crush human beings - even driving some to suicide - the militant opposition inside South Africa seems for the moment to be silenced: the mass of the people seems to be contained, seems for the moment unable to break from oppression. I emphasise the word "seems" because we can imagine what emotions and plans must be seething below the calm surface of that prosperous police state". - Source:

The struggles of the Civil Rights Movement continued to inspire the anti-apartheid movement around the world.

In an email exchange with South African political anti-apartheid activist, Albie Sachs, was asked:

  • Did the civil rights movement in America give you hope for a freer South Africa in the future?

  • During your years involved in politics, what degree of awareness did you have about the occurrences in the U.S. and the American civil rights movement?

He answered:

"At a later stage the civil rights movement made a major impact on us. I had actually gone to jail in the early 1950s as part of a civil rights campaign against segregation in South Africa -- I sat on a seat marked "non-whites only"! So when the sit-ins started in the USA, I felt I was there. We read the news eagerly and identified unconditionally with those who were demanding their basic rights. It seems to me that great gains have been made in the USA since then but that, unfortunately, huge difficulties still remain. In a way, I feel more optimism about overcoming racism in South Africa than I do about the USA. Maybe an African majority, with wise leadership and drawing on its cultural strength and experience of struggle, will turn out to be more generous and accepting of a white minority than the white majority in this country. What gives me great pleasure is to welcome people from the USA to South Africa, to what we are doing, and to share experiences with us. In particular, I enjoy the opportunity to thank Americans for the very strong support they gave us in overcoming apartheid, especially in the late 1980s. I think it was threat of intensified sanctions from the USA that finally persuaded the then South African government that apartheid was doomed. So, thank you." Source:

Hundreds of thousands of Americans mobilized to oppose apartheid in the 1980s, and built successful behind-the-scenes links between African liberation movements and American activists, both black and white.

In the USA, black and white Americans used the passive resistance philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest for freedom and justice for African Americans. Finally, in 1964, the U.S. Congress passed a Civil Rights Actand in 1965, a Voting Rights Act.

The Civil Rights Movement, and the new laws that were passed as a result, led to progress in gaining equality for black Americans. But not all African Americans were impressed with the Civil Rights Movement. In reality, prejudice still existed. African Americans still experienced racial discrimination, lower wages than whites and higher crime rates in their inner city neighbourhoods.

Many young African Americans in particular wanted to speed up real social change. They saw the Civil Rights Movement as too mainstream, and unable to give blacks the same opportunities as whites - socially, economically and politically. They felt that the Civil Rights Movement was based more on white perceptions of civil rights than black perceptions.

By the mid-1960s, dissatisfaction with the pace of change was growing, and the Black Power Movement arose out of this dissatisfaction. The Black Power Movement argued that that in order to achieve genuine integration, blacks first had to unite in solidarity and become self-reliant.

Stokely Carmichael popularized the term "Black PowerÁƒÂ¢Á¢Â‚¬, and by the late 1960s the Black Power Movement had made a definite mark on American culture and society.

The Black Power Movement was very broad, (and should perhaps be more accurately described as the Black Power Movements) and aimed to express a new racial consciousness among black people in the United States. The Movement had various meanings and interpretations. Significant aspects included the following:

  • Racial dignity and self-reliance. This meant freedom from white authority in both economics and politics.

  • An emphasis on cultural heritage, history and black identity. This was referred to as Black Consciousness. Musicians sang phrases like James Brown's "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud".

  • The recognition that standards of beauty and self-esteem were part of power relations.

  • The necessity for black people to define the world in their own terms. At times this included a call for a revolutionary political struggle to reject racism and imperialism in the United States.

Stokely Carmichael summed up the Black Power philosophy with these words:

"I'm not going to beg the white man for anything I deserve - I'm going to take it. We want black power.ÁƒÂ¢Á¢Â‚¬ Source:

Carmichael also said:

"Black Power "is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations."

Carmichael was initially active in the Civil Rights Movement, and participated in the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He was frequently arrested, and spent time in jail. He became increasingly influenced by the ideologies of Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah.

In 1969, Carmichael and his then-wife, the South African singer Miriam Makeba, moved to Guinea-Conakry where he became an aide to Guinean Prime Minister Ahmed SÁƒÂƒ©kou TourÁƒÂƒ© and the student of exiled Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.

Guinea is a nation in West Africa. Guinea is sometimes called Guinea-Conakry (Conakry being its capital,) to differentiate it from the neighbouring Guinea-Bissau (Bissau being its capital).

In 2007, the publication of previously-secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents revealed that Carmichael had been tracked by the CIA as part of their surveillance of black activists abroad.

Los Angeles Watts Rebellion of 1965

Watts is a residential district in southern Los Angeles, California. The term Watts Rebellion refers to a large-scale rebellion which lasted six days in the Watts neighbourhood in August 1965. It was the first major racially-fuelled rebellion of the 1960s, an event that foreshadowed the widespread urban violence of the latter half of the decade.

In Watts, as in other American inner cities, there were feelings of injustice, anti-police sentiment, racial tension, overcrowding, unemployment and inferior schools. In 1965, Watts was experiencing a summer heat wave which added to the simmering tension in the neighbourhood. A seemingly small incident sparked massive racial violence.

The 'small incident' occurred on 11 August 1965. A Los Angeles police officer (Lee Minikus) flagged down motorist Marquette Frye, a 21 year old African American, whom he suspected of being drunk. Marquette was with his brother, Ronald. While police questioned Marquette and Ronald, a group of people began to gather. When the onlookers began to taunt the policeman, a second officer was called in.

A struggle ensued shortly after Frye's mother, Rena, arrived on the scene. All three family members were arrested. According to eyewitness accounts, the second officer hit members of the crowd with his baton. The news of this act of racist police brutality soon spread throughout the neighbourhood.  The incident sparked off the riots, which lasted six days.

Residents looted and burned shops. More than 34 people died, at least 1000 were wounded, and an estimated $100 million in property was destroyed.

The rebellion shocked America and set off other such responses to oppression. By 1967, there had been more than 100 major black, urban rebellions in cities across the country. These rebellions helped define several political camps:

  • Militant African Americans in the Black Power Movement applauded the uprising

  • Moderates viewed the rebellion as a senseless and self-destructive riot

  • Conservative whites viewed the uprising as a riot brought about by civil rights legislation that they said the South was not ready for.

Malcolm X: A short biography

Malcolm X was a civil rights activist in the Black Power Movement, and a very controversial man. Those who supported him have called him "a prince - our own black shining prince" and those that hated him say he was "a demon, a monster, a fanatic, a menace and a racist".

Malcolm X felt that racial self-determination was a critical and neglected element of true equality. He is a very nuanced and complex character who underwent many changes in his lifetime. If you read more widely about him, you will see that there are diverse biases and interpretations of his legacy.

He believed it was important to establish a connection between African Americans and Africans. Malcolm X visited Africa on three separate occasions, once in 1959 and twice in 1964. In 1964, he addressed the Organization of African Unity's assembly of heads of state and governments in Cairo. He regarded a "United States of Africa" in the form of the OAU as an inspiration for African Americans.

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. When he became religious, he first joined the Nation of Islam (NOI), led by Elijah Muhammad. Mainstream Islam teaches that Muhammad (PBUH) was the last of Allah's messengers, and there would be no more messengers. However, the NOI believes that Elijah Muhammad was also a messenger and was taught by God Himself. Some regard the NOI as a religion separate from Islam.

Did you know? The famous boxer Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the NOI in 1964. He subsequently converted to Islam in 1975.

Malcolm Little's Muslim name became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabaaz, but he was popularly known as Malcolm X. "XÁƒÂ¢Á¢Â‚¬ was a common surname adopted by members of the NOI as it symbolized the rejection of slave names and the absence of an inherited African name to take its place. The "X" is also the brand that many slaves received on their upper arm.

Malcolm X publicly broke away from the Nation of Islam in 1964, and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. After Malcolm resigned his position in the Nation of Islam and renounced Elijah Muhammad, relations between the two became increasingly tense. FBI informants working undercover in the NOI warned officials that Malcolm had been marked for assassination. In 1965, while giving a speech in Manhattan, he was shot in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of killing Malcolm X.

Due to secret government infiltration into civil rights movements, conspiracy theorists blame the FBI and the CIA.

After Malcolm's death, Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Betty Shabazz, his wife, expressing his sadness as follows:

"While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race". Source:

Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said: "Malcolm X got just what he preached."
A Nigerian newspaper said:

"Like all mortals, Malcolm X was not without his faults ... but that he was a dedicated and consistent disciple of the movement for the emancipation of his brethren no one can doubt. ... Malcolm X has fought and died for what he believed to be right. He will have a place in the palace of martyrsÁƒÂ¢Á¢Â‚¬.

Malcolm X inspired the Black Power movements even more after his assassination in 1965.  

Words of Malcolm X

Here are some of the things Malcolm X said about the use of violence:

  • "We have never been involved in any kind of violence whatsoever. We have never initiated any violence against anyone, but we do believe that when violence is practiced against us we should be able to defend ourselves. We don't believe in turning the other cheek."

  • "We are non-violent with people who are non-violent with us."

  • "Concerning non-violence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks."

Here are some of the things Malcolm X said about racism:

  • "Whites can't join us. Everything that whites join that Negroes have they end up out-joining the Negroes. The whites control all Negro organizations that they can join-they end up in control of those organizations ... we will never let them join us."

  • "I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their colour."

Here are some of the things he Malcolm X said about education:

  • "My teacher was books, a good library... I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity."

  • "Without education, you're not going anywhere in this world."

  • "A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything."

There are many websites about Malcolm X. If you Google his name, you can be kept reading for several hours! An interesting external link to start with is: ( the majority of the quotes above are from this source.

OR for a detailed biography of Malcolm X please visit (this link includes details on Malcolm's childhood and education, his served jail-time, the reasons that he broke away from the NOI and the changes in his philosophy).

Malcolm X and Black Pride

African American men wore a popular hairstyle before the 1960s called a 'conk'. A man with naturally "kinky" hair had it chemically straightened by using a relaxer. The relaxed hair could be styled to resemble white hairstyles. Other black men chose to simply slick back their straightened hair, and allow it to lie flat on their heads. Conks took a lot of effort and money to maintain, and required the repeated application of relaxers.

The modern afro hair style became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Jimi Hendrix was one of the first popular entertainers to have a large afro. The afro also had political connotations. Malcolm X called conked hair "a step towards self-degradation".

The afro style was a rejection of the use of chemical hair straighteners. The afro gained popularity with the growth of the Black Pride and Black Power political movements. Afros were considered a proclamation of "Black is BeautifulÁƒÂ¢Á¢Â‚¬, a popular slogan of the time. Afros signalled black pride and militancy.

Black Pride meant that the conk came to be seen as an emblem of black self-denial. At one stage in his life, Malcolm X realized how much mental energy he had been wasting on trying to conform to an impossible image of white good looks. Malcolm X criticized American blacks for trying to change their African features. He said the conk was a counterproductive imitation of white culture.

Did you know that today Koreans control virtually every aspect of the multi-billion dollar black hair care industry in the USA today? You can read more by visiting

Hair as a symbol of identity still plays a large in black culture today - just for fun you can look at these entertaining videos on You Tube on this link

The Black Panther Party

Late in 1966, two young men, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence (BPP). The party was formed in the wake of the assassination of black leader Malcolm X, the massive black, urban uprising in Watts, California and at the height of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The BPP was armed and promoted a revolutionary agenda. The Black Panther was used as their symbol, because the animal represents power.

Originally it was named, the 'Black Panther Party for Self Defence'. The term "self defence" distinguished the Party's philosophy from the dominant non-violent aims of the Civil Rights Movement. The BPP rejected non-violence and was at first established to protect local communities from police brutality and racism. It developed into a Maoist revolutionary group, based on the teachings of the Chinese communist leader. The Black Panthers also ran medical clinics and provided free food to school children.

FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover regarded the BPP as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States."

In 1965, the same year as the Watts Rebellion, the Vietnam War erupted. Newspaper and television reports showed the brutal realities of the war. Young American soldiers were killing Vietnamese civilians, and America's white and black youth became openly hostile and rallied against the war.

At the same time, the Black Panther Party stated that black people in America and the Vietnamese people were waging a common struggle against a common enemy: the U.S. government.

Towards the end of the 1970s, a combination of the continued activities of the FBI and internal conflict eroded the Black Panther Party, and it came to an end.

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