Fighting for the ‘Cause’

Kids in a Brooklyn neighborhood, 1969
Magnum Photos
Brooklyn, 1969; photograph by Richard Kalvar

In a 1980 interview, James Baldwin lamented the plight of Harlem: “Nothing is taken care of in Harlem. The City has no responsibility for the ghetto…. So houses are boarded up…bulldozers move in, move the niggers out.” Baldwin subscribed to the notion that hard drugs had been introduced cynically into inner-city neighborhoods decades earlier to speed up that displacement and as a means of social control: “I can’t prove it, so time will prove it. It is between the Mafia and the government. It is an open secret; anything will do to keep the niggers asleep.”

Such a view was not uncommon in the 1960s, when heroin use devastated black ghettos. An alleged conspiracy to induce lethargy among them was just one more facet, many African-Americans believed, of a covert race war that had unleashed an indiscriminate assault on the country’s black leadership. It didn’t matter if you were affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Nation of Islam; if you were Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, or Martin Luther King Jr.: there was a bull’s-eye on your back. The next generation of black leaders, whose influence on disaffected youth and gang members stretched beyond the reach of their elders, was also assumed to be targeted; in the year after King’s assassination the young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was killed when police stormed his Chicago apartment.

African-Americans had been anything but docile in the preceding decade. In the 2011 documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, Abiodun Oyewole (a founding member in 1968 of the group known as the Last Poets) mused on the energy, excitement, and danger that emerged at the height of what became an intergenerational civil rights movement:

A litany of things…took place in ’68, like, that was the [metaphorical] moving [of] the stone from in front of the cave in ’68. I mean, it really was a special beginning and opening, and unfortunately any time you have a thing that’s opening, death accompanies those things.

By 1969 the rock had been hauled back in front of the cave. Previously, during sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and on freedom marches, young people had been embraced by the movement, had linked arms and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their elders; now, at least in the projects, they were being targeted by drug dealers to sell and consume heroin.

In low-income black neighborhoods there was distress and despair; 1969 may have been the year Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, but there was little cause for optimism among African-Americans that they would be beneficiaries of the country’s grand ambitions and technological advances. Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Whitey on the Moon,” released just months later, gave an alternative perspective:

A rat done bit my sister Nell


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