The Black Revolution and the White Backlash – 1964?

An excerpt from the late Harold Cruse’s classic “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual”:

“During the month of June, 1964, members of the Association of Artists for Freedom debated some leading white libersals at New York’s Town Hall on the theme: “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash.” This debate revealed that the Artists for Freedom, as a representative group of Negro intellectuals, were agreed among themselves on only one cogent idea – an almost unanimous derogation of white liberals. Of course many Negroes had, long before then, been severely critical of white liberals. Indeed, James Baldwin, the leading literary spokesman, had previously complained that they were “our affliction.”

Question from Charles Silberman to James Baldwin: “Mr. Baldwin, since you said that there is no role for the liberal, could I ask you how this radical reconstruction of American society that you insist is necessary can take place? Are the white conservatives going to do it?”

Baldwin failed to answer the question at all. He could not because in order to do so one must indulge in precisely that “sociology and economics jazz” that Baldwin eschews. This failure to discuss the racial conflicts either in terms of possible practical solutions, or in terms of American economic and sociological realities, made Baldwin’s assault on white liberals a futile rhetorical exercise; it was further weakened by the intellectual inconsistencies, incoherence and emotionalism of his line of argument.”

James Baldwin was not alone in his inability to propose solutions for the complex problems afflicting Africans in America. Indeed, the challenge of positing, envisioning and proposing a future has not been met by an entire generation of black folk since arguably the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Power Movement, for all of its energy and vision, lacked the institutional and organizational power to replicate itself over time and space. Neither the 1980’s or 1990’s gave birth to new national political movements by Africans. Perhaps the strongest engagement had been around the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Nonetheless, there is a vacuum…not merely of charismatic individuals, but of organizations centered around coherent strategic approaches to difficult issues.

The Black Revolution never came. The White Backlash to a nascent form of rebellion certainly did arrive. Today, 40 years later, I am looking back and considering what might have been if those persons at the head of the chorus were able to answer these critical questions.  The task for me and my generation is to answer those questions with a legacy of work, community and commitment that is replicable and sustainable over time and space.  That is the direction of this blog for 2007.


  1. Very interesting. I hadn’t read of that exchange before.

    The pragmatism vs. uncompromising purism question was one that could have been asked in many historical scenarios.

  2. That’s true. Cruse’s book doesn’t center on this question, but I found the excerpt provocative because of Baldwin’s role. It’s similar to that of many talking heads with broad platforms and little grounding in the disciplines required to hold up their end of the conversation on behalf of black folk.

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