The Movement Context
Just as research on the psychology of prejudice and racial identity had been spurred on by the direction of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, so the work of the Kerner Commission took place in the context of that movement's turn toward black
nationalism, a transition that made psychology, if anything, more prominent in the demands of activists, and certainly in analyses of them. Black power was understood, by critics and supporters alike, as a bid for self-worth and psychological independence. Alarmed observers like Erik Erikson called the departure from integrationist goals proof that black activists were moving in the direction of psychological despair, away from the "essential wholeness of experience" and toward a rigid and intolerant "totalistic world view." Supporters of black nationalism expressed themselves in equally psychological terms, pointing to the analogy between black power and adolescent rebellion against "bad parents" or suggesting that long-suppressed black rage required constructive expression—in separatist forms—if the tragedy of black self-hatred and identity crisis were ever to be overcome. Alvin Poussaint, for example, restated the salience of personality damage to black rage in a New York Times Magazine article, "A Negro Psychiatrist Explains the Negro Psyche," published just as the Kerner Commission was getting under way.
Psychological analysis of this sort was not simply imposed by hostile outsiders. Civil rights activists, nationalists and integrationists alike, adopted the language and tactics of psychology as their own. A concern with black Americans' "degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'" had long been apparent in the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose appeals to conscience described the terrible anguish of witnessing "ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form" in the "little mental sky" of black children, and seeing them "begin to distort [the] personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people."
As they turned toward black nationalism in the mid-1960s, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee also advanced a sharply psychological understanding that the U.S. system of race relations was permeated by inescapable, subconscious images linking blackness with evil and savagery. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther party's minister of information, later used the vocabulary of humanistic psychology when he titled an important essay on his personal and political development, "On Becoming." And Price Cobbs, a black psychiatrist, conducted interracial encounter groups, called "Racial Confrontation as a Transcendental Experience," out of the San Francisco office of Esalen (a countercultural hub) for two years, until the effort disintegrated in a cloud of angry recriminations in 1969.
Civil fights activists also tried to make psychology's insights serve their explanations of rioting and what to do about it. Black nationalist
Reverend Albert Cleage, of Detroit's Central United Church, pointed to the devastation of rioting in order to counter Moynihan's condemnation of black psychology: "His study tries to show that the black community is sick; but the black community is not as sick as the white community." And a young Jesse Jackson, lieutenant to Martin Luther King and director of Chicago's Operation Breadbasket, wrote the following to Mayor Richard Daley in August 1967:
Riots are illegal, but make no mistake about it, they are not illegitimate. . . . For the victims of slum life, military suppression redirects their frustration and sets akindle a flame of passion and hate. This bottled up fear and stifled search for justice drives men to spontaneously combust and come up screaming irrationally. . . . The debate is not over the pursuit [of liberty] but over the right to be a man.