Black Radicalism in the Tumultuous 1960s

This post is part of our online roundtable on Chris Tinson’s Radical Intellect

Black Community Survival Conference in Oakland, California, March 30th, 1972 (Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries).

In Radical Intellect, Christopher M. Tinson writes “a political and cultural history” of Liberator magazine, which he considers “one of the lesser acknowledged, but widely influential, periodicals of the 1960s and early 1970s” (1). By paying close attention to the personalities and politics that defined the magazine, as well as to the community of activists, artists, and intellectuals who supported it, Tinson succeeds in expanding the discussion of radical Black political journals.

Tinson informs us that Liberator played two roles. First, it served as a platform for Black radical thinkers to exchange ideas. “At its height of influence,” he writes, “the Liberator provided an indispensible forum where many of the national and international concerns facing black people could be discussed” (4).  Second, the magazine molded the contours of Black politics. “Liberator’s role shaping black radical thought left an imprint on a range of activist-intellectual activities,” explains Tinson (184).  Throughout Radical Intellect, Tinson explores Liberator’s dual roles, deftly explicating the expressions of Black radicalism captured in its pages and skillfully exploring the impact that it had on those who embraced this political tradition.

Tinson makes clear that Liberator’s willingness to take sides was the key to its popularity as an outlet for expressions of Black radicalism and to its influence on Black radical thinkers. Liberator came out strong against the 1963 March on Washington, for example, castigating its organizers for putting symbolism ahead of substance. Indeed, Tinson shows that for the entirety of Liberator’s run, it was an unapologetic promoter of Black radicalism. “Liberator,” he writes, “knew which side it was on and directed its bully pulpit to shape alliances among radical Black Nationalist individuals and groups” (143). Liberator, therefore, did much more than document Black radicalism; it advocated vociferously for it. In fact, it was one of its leading voices. Accordingly, Tinson uses Black radicalism as the primary lens through which to view the magazine.

Tinson’s focus on Liberator’s articulations of Black radicalism and its engagement with Black radical thinkers is rich and revealing. In fact, it dramatically changes the normative narrative of Black radicalism in the 1960s. Foremost, it shows that Black radicalism was not simply a product of the political ferment of that turbulent decade, but rather had deep historical roots.

Tinson establishes early on that the expressions of Black radicalism found in Liberator grew out of a tradition of radical thought that stretched back to the turn of the twentieth century. He does so by delving into the political genealogies of the people behind the production. “Far from appearing out of the clear blue, Liberator staffers came to the periodical already deeply invested in the political fate and economic fortunes of black communities around the globe,” he explains (32). This approach also shows that Black radicalism was intergenerational. It did not just resurface over time, it was connected over time, linked by activists and organizations that shared a common vision of Black liberation and a similar view of how to achieve it. Liberator staffers were torchbearers rather than fire starters.

At the same time, Tinson points out that the Black radicalism captured between the covers of Liberator reflected the moment. He writes that it was a response to “the intransigence of mounting violence directed at civil rights workers and organizations, failure of liberalism, and a gradualist pace in securing social, political, and economic enhancement” (3). After experimenting with something new (nonviolent direct action) and bumping up against its perceived limits, African Americans turned toward familiar forms of Black radicalism, most notably those with a firm footing in Black Nationalism.

With Liberator as his canvas, Tinson paints a picture of Black radicalism that makes its unique characteristics plain to see. He illuminates Black radicalism’s structural critique of racism, which distinguished it from conventional civil rights analyses of the problems facing African Americans, analyses that tended to focus on personal prejudice. He develops the idea throughout that the radical thread in Black radicalism was the “perspective that the political and economic structure of the United States had to change to allow African Americans the opportunity to control their own destinies, and for equity and social justice to be achieved” (3).

Tinson also demonstrates that African American women were equal partners in the discourse on Black radicalism. In Liberator, they voiced understandings of the problems plaguing African Americans that mirrored that of their male counterparts. At the same time, they offered critiques of Black masculinity, and although these analyses received limited coverage in the magazine, they anticipated and influenced the writings of African American Womanists long after the publication ceased to exist.

Similarly, Tinson highlights the aesthetics of Black radicalism. By charting the evolution of Liberator from a journal that focused almost exclusively on Black politics to one that devoted significant coverage to Black art, Tinson brings to light the most meaningful cultural debates of the era. These debates, which centered on such topics as the need for African American controlled art, breathed life into the Black Arts Movement.

Tinson makes African Americans’ abiding interest in Africa equally plain to see. This is especially important because Africa figured prominently in the Black radical imagination. Attentiveness to Africa was not new, but it gained new energy in 1960–the Year of Africa–when sixteen African nations gained their independence. Tinson explains that a common concern for African liberation led Black radical activists to launch Liberator. They recognized a need to correct and counter mainstream press coverage, which often disparaged African liberation efforts. To promote decolonization, they featured President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana prominently in Liberator. And to expose the involvement of the United States in plots to destabilize the new nations, they covered the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, extensively. Tinson notes that at one point Liberator published a five-page analysis of U.S. complicity in Lumumba’s death.

Black radicals’ commitment to African independence was more than simple altruism. Tinson’s work shows that Black radicals viewed African liberation as inexorably linked to the African American freedom movement. These activists saw U.S. actions that subverted democracy at home and abroad as binding these two struggles together. Tinson’s deep dive into Liberator’s coverage of African liberation also demonstrates the breadth of Black radical politics. A wide range of African American organizations supported African independence movements, from ultra-nationalist groups to anti-nationalist ones. But the anti-colonial, Black radical activists who wrote for Liberator roundly criticized groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for calling for African liberation while falling in line with American foreign policy. Their opinions reflected the absence of a consensus on strategy and tactics, an important, albeit somewhat obvious point. No political movement has unanimity of thought. Black politics, however, is too often treated as though it should. Tinson’s exploration of Black radicals’ take on African liberation reminds us that Black radicalism was no exception when it came to internal ideological conflict and consensus.

Tinson observes that Liberator’s coverage of Africa began to wane in the mid-1960s, a decline born of the realization that African liberation failed to liberate the continent. “Liberator included an ‘African scorecard,’” he writes, “which listed the country, date, and name of each of the governments that had been undemocratically and violently overthrown” (66).  Ironically, this shift occurred at the exact moment when Black Power gained currency among African Americans, seeming to put Liberator out of step with many in the Black community. But Tinson provides an explanation. As the number of Liberator articles on African liberation decreased, its coverage of Black radical aesthetics increased. In this way, Liberator remained relevant, introducing a new generation of activists to Black radicalism.

Just as Tinson’s exploration of Liberator provides fresh insights into the intersection of African liberation and Black radicalism, so too does it offer new views on African American activism during the height of the civil rights era. Although the civil rights movement occurred in every corner of the country, the South retains a privileged status in the minds of many. Tinson’s work provides regional balance by focusing on New York City where Liberator was published. “New York City was a cornerstone of Black Nationalist political and literary activity in the 1960s,” writes Tinson. “Liberator’s presence on the scene brings into clear focus New York City as a fertile urban landscape for black radical activity” (32). Liberator’s extensive coverage of the 1964 Harlem uprising, the first major northern rebellion of the 1960s, serves as an excellent prism through which to examine the ways Black radicals and everyday people made sense of these racial clashes.  Similarly, Liberator’s reporting on Malcolm X, which began in 1962 following a raid on the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 27 in Los Angeles, California and continued beyond his death three years later, helps locate the Black Nationalist leader on the continuum of Black radicalism. Malcolm’s embrace by Liberators writers allows for close scrutiny of Malcolm on his own terms, as a northern, an urbanite, a Black Nationalist, a Pan-Africanist, a devotee of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and a Muslim, rather than as merely a foil for America’s prophet of nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Liberator was an eyewitness to the Black radicalism of the tumultuous 1960s. Its pages document this brand of Black politics whose currents run deep and strong in the African American community. Tinson’s treatment of the journal makes this abundantly clear. But his work does more. It also shows that Liberator played an active role in shaping how Black radicalism was articulated and understood. In today’s parlance, Liberator was an influencer. As such, it is, as Tinson concludes, “of indispensable importance when evaluating this period.” Scholars of the 1960s would do well to take note.

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Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Hasan Kwame Jeffries is Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University where he teaches graduate and undergraduate seminars on the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement, and surveys in African American and American history. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (NYU Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @ProfJeffries.