Turning to the past to understand race in America today

“If we talk about the past decade, if we talk about the past century, if we talk about the past two centuries… what we ought to seek in discussing black history are lessons on how to struggle today,” said Dr. Angela Davis during a lecture at Occidental College.

The frequency and impunity with which police use deadly force against people of color shatter any notion that racial inequity ended in the ’60s.

#BlackLivesMatter has sparked a national dialogue similar to that of the Civil Rights era, when Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and countless others combined grassroots activism with the media pulpit to speak out against racial injustice. Their words, despite the intervening decades, describe our own times to eerie effect.

Archival recordings from Pop Up Archive’s public collections speak volumes on race and racism in America and the legacy of black activism:

 The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee talks and sings with Studs Terkel (1961)—WFMT

Students describe how the violence they incur during sit-ins and freedom rides strengthens their resolve in the fight against segregation and voter suppression.

Sometimes when the person next to us was being pulled off the line and being beaten and knocked to the ground, we’d still sing and hold our heads high and walk in unity and strength.” —SNCC member Bernard Lafayette, 1961

 Martin Luther King speaks (1968)—Ethnic Studies Library

This audio recording is a dense archaeological treasure. In addition to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rousing speech to a union calling for racial equity in the labor movement and a jail cell news interview with Black Panther leader Huey Newton, this recording contains a KPFA reporter’s interview with Mr. and Mrs. Smith about the “common experience of many families in the black ghetto.” The Oakland couple describes police hostility aimed at their family and community and how officers’ racially motivated violence is inspiring the rise of armed self-defense groups, like the Black Panthers, in their neighborhood.

After they let me up, they were still beating my son and blood was running every which way and I asked the police department, ‘Please don’t kill him.’
—Oakland resident Luther Smith, 1968


Alabama State troopers attack demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama,
on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

 Dick Gregory talks with Studs Terkel (1961)—WMFT

Comedian and social critic Dick Gregory describes the historical connections between American foreign conflict and racial turmoil, describing how wars exacerbate the “us” vs “them” mentality. After fighting to “liberate” Vietnam, black soldiers returned home to find their own freedoms restricted by increasingly militarized racial boundaries, he explains.

The speeches that black folks are making today are straight out of the pages of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.” —Dick Gregory, 1964

 H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael address the Black Panthers (1968)—Pacifica Archives

Hearing this clip of H. Rap Brown speak at a “Free Huey” Black Panthers rally in Cleveland, there is no question where he got his name. The crowd roars as Rap waxes political with equal parts fire and wit. He and Stokely speak to the rise of black militarism, saying Vietnam has taught black soldiers how to go to war. It’s time, they rally, to fight for their own freedom.

We are the vanguard of the revolution because we are the most dispossessed.”—Black Panther H. Rap Brown, 1968

 Angela Davis at Occidental College (1985)—Pacifica Archives

Speaking at a Black History Month event at Occidental College, Angela Davis describes the prison system as a tool of enslavement, recounting her own imprisonment (on charges of kidnapping and murder, for which she was later acquitted) as an attempt to suppress her political outspokenness.

Each time black people have won victories, this has meant the extension of rights and liberties for the vast majority of the population in America.”
—activist/scholar Angela Davis, 1985

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