Black Power Pruitt Igoe Mixtape: How Two New Documentaries Make Sense of 1970s Urban America

The end of the Reagan Era, I’m like number twelve
Old enough to understand the shit’ll change forever
They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror
But it really did was let the police terrorize whoever
But mostly black boys, but they would call us “niggers”
And lay us on our belly, while they fingers on they triggers
They boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches
And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches
And they would take our drugs and money, as they pick our pockets
I guess that that’s the privilege of policing for some profit
But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits
Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics
Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison
You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment
Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits
That’s why they giving drug offenders time in double digits

– “Reagan” by Killer Mike, from the album R.A.P. Music

When Killer Mike released his sixth album, R.A.P. Music this year, critics fawned.  Both Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot, the hosts of NPR’s Sound Opinions podcast, selected it as one of the best of the year so far and the best rap album of the new decade. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen gushed declaring R.A.P. Music “unimpeachable.”  Other reviewers followed suit, even straight-laced middle class NPR.

While Killer Mike’s beats and techniques on the new album received recognition, so too has the content. On “Reagan,” Mike takes shots at the late president for his New Right economic and law and order policies.  When he concludes that Reagan was just an “actor, not at all a factor/just an employee of the country’s real masters,” the Atlanta based rapper points to larger systematic problems: “Just like the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama/Just another talking head telling lies on telepromoters.” At least, Killer Mike spreads the criticism around and not just at the presidential level.  As Pitchfork’s Cohen noted when the rapper reflects on his hometown of Atlanta in “Anywhere but Here,” Mike points to a discrepancy, “Even though it’s blacktop from the mayors to the cops/ Black blood still gets spilled.” When on “Untitled,” he tells the listener, “I don’t trust the church or the government, democrat or republican,” he sounds like a man searching.

Between Killer Mike’s political awareness, his cynicism over mainstream politics, and the hardscrabble life of inner city life, it sounds a lot like the kind of complaints harnessed by the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  After all, many of the fundamental issues that Killer Mike repeatedly engages – economic decline, inequality, political corruption and police brutality – are the same problems Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and others attempted to address. However, R.A.P. Music provides more of a view of this period from the vantage point of someone who experienced the late 1970s as a small child. For a window into Urban America circa 1967-1975, two recent documentaries do well to demonstrate the political and economic processes that Killer Mike laments on R.A.P. Music.

Taken together, The Back Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth stand as significant examples of the ways in which modern documentaries appear to be in an apparent golden age.  Though ostensibly about different subjects, the two movies actually provide a clear window into the political and economic struggles of the 1970s urban America.  Pruitt-Igoe symbolizes the economic collapse of heartland cities like St. Louis while the Black Power movement demonstrates the first step of those minority groups unsatisfied with the urban America they’d inherited.

In their own ways, the two movies traverse American culture from 1950 to 1975, demonstrating the errors of the nation’s housing policies, the strength and weaknesses of identity politics, and the power of established narratives. Each movie pushes back against popular perceptions of public housing and black power movements while clearly illustrating the role that urban settings played in these developments.  Conversely, they also provide insights into the backlash against both public housing and identity politics that the New Right cultivated to great success in the 1980s and 1990s.

Exorcising the Typical Narrative

When black people lack a majority, Black Power means proper representation and sharing of control. It means the creation of power bases, of strength, from which black people can press to change local or nation wide patterns of oppression – instead of from weakness.

– Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, 46.

The late great Manning Marable often assigned Stokely Carmichael’s (he was known as Kwame Ture from 1978 on) and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power: The Politics of Liberation to his graduate classes in African American political history.  Few figures embodied the nascent Black Power impetus of the late 1960s like Carmichael. Though some of his peers derisively called him Starmichael, due to his inflated self regard, he blazed new ground with SNCC, serving as a counterweight to the less radical Martin Luther King and emerging a leading light in the movement. However, though a talented speaker whose polemics came to be associated with radicalism (to be fair Carmichael often laced his speeches with words like honky which sound hysterical today but probably offensive then), his political text sounded awfully traditional.   Professor Manning often noted that the ideology of Carmichael’s Black Power seemed far more reformist than revolutionary.  Even though he mocked the concept, Carmichael sounds like a parliamentarian attempting to craft alternative political coalitions to the status quo:  “The ultimate values and goals are not domination or exploitation of other groups, but rather an effective share in the total power of society.” (47)

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967 – 1975 (BPM) begins with this subdued, more conservative Carmichael, tracing the arc of the Black Power Movement from the perspective of Swedish journalists at the time.  Along the way, BPM exudes a sort of elegiac otherworldliness toward its subject; while not providing a comprehensive study of Black Power, filmmaker Goran Hugo Olsson effectively communicates the subversive, magnetic qualities of the movement, but also highlights its often ignored more traditional and mundane, but critical achievements. J. Edgar Hoover may have viewed the free breakfast programs created by Black Panther locals around the nation as a threat to democracy, but for struggling urban communities Panther health clinics and breakfasts supplemented the resources of minority neighborhoods. Moreover, as evidenced by the numerous positions taken by various figures captured in the documentary, Black Power meant several things to many people. USC Professor Robin DG Kelley outlines its various paths best, pointing out that for some it meant building black institutions and businesses but not fully trusting society. Others, best exemplified by Malcolm X, believed it to be an identity based cultural or black nationalism.  Marxist members rejected the free market approach; Bobby Seale demonstrates this position when he turns to the camera crew and pronounces: “Nixon’s Black capitalism is not the answer.”  Finally, Black Power’s influence created an amoeba-like political radicalism that helped to shape Chicano and Feminist movements.  In addition, Kelley suggests rappers like Dead Prez or in some ways, the aforementioned Killer Mike (see the track “Ghetto Gospel” – “this must be how Huey felt when the Revolution failed”), carry the torch for their Black Power forebears.  In 2011’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest  (a group noted for a goofy, lovable Afrocentrism but not political radicalism), Q-Tip celebrates the interracial nature of a Seattle area 2009 Rocks the Bells audience.  The Tribe Called Quest leader then encourages everyone to raise a fist ala the 1968 Summer Olympic games and declares the ubiquitous Black Power cry, “Power to the people.”  The point here is that the violence of imagery and rhetoric that symbolized, and maybe even dominated the movement for some, shrouded its more nuanced and important aspects and legacies that have reverberated through the early decades of the new millennium.  Yes, there was sexism and unfortunately at times, strains of anti-Semitism, but there was also much more.

Undoubtedly, as frustration over urban economic decline and government surveillance of Black Power participants (Prime example #1 – COINTELPRO) became homicidal, tensions increased.  Somewhere between half and three quarters through BPM Olsson delivers archival footage of Angela Davis’ first interview after having been incarcerated for 18 months following gun charges.  L.A. Times writer Kenneth Turan noted that despite her bright red dress, Davis appeared “worn and tired .. [but also] … articulate and furious.”  In a tense two to three minute segment, Davis recounts her life experiences: childhood in Birmingham, Alabama where she witnessed racially motivated church bombings, adulthood in Los Angeles where she lived under constant surveillance, and the general violent history of African American existence under slavery and Jim Crow. Responding to a journalist’s question about the efficacy of violence in Black Power protest, Davis seethed, “When someone asks me about violence, I find it incredible,” she says. “A person asking that can have no idea about what black people have gone through in this country.” In 1969, Black Panther centers in Cleveland and Watts were bombed, Fred Hampton assassinated, and Huey Newton prosecuted. To paraphrase an old adage, is it paranoia if someone really is out to get you?

At the time, the “radical left” hardly monopolized violence. As Rick Perlstein noted in Nixonland, media accounts of left wing violence trumped the numerous examples from right wing groups of the same period, while also removing any contextual explanation for movements like the Black Panthers and others. Sure, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act mattered, but they didn’t alter revenue streams benefiting suburbs at the expense of cities and that often through FHA policies and private banking mortgage structures excluded minorities. Cities became racially darker and financially paralyzed. In these instances, people organized politically, and if they seemed a bit angry, well maybe there was a reason.

Relative Context

If you want to find us this is where we are, in every tribe, commune, dormitory, commune, barrack, and townhouse, where kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns.

Declaration of State of War, The Weather Underground

Once Richard Nixon was elected president and inaugurated in January 1969, we were targeted, bam, bam, bam, by a very sophisticated, advanced, counterintelligence program; at the same time, by very crude and violent police.

— Kathleen Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, in The Weather Underground

The emergence of the Weather Underground in 1969 serves as a useful juxtaposition. Enraged by US foreign policy in Vietnam and inspired by revolutions throughout the third world, the militant faction of SDS sought to align itself with other revolutionary organizations, the Black Panthers being the most prominent.  Middle class and decidedly white, the Weather Underground argued that doing nothing about American racism and imperialism, notably the Vietnam War, made one part of the problem.  “If you sit in your house, live your white life and go to your white job, and allow the country that you live in to murder people and to commit genocide, and you sit there and you don’t do anything about it, that’s violence,” former Weather Underground Naomi Jeffrie told filmmakers in 2002’s The Weather Underground. When an early iteration of the underground engaged in a violent rampage through Chicago for the infamous Days of Rage, even the Black Panthers denounced such actions, arguing that leading followers through useless acts of vandalism would ultimately bring participants harm and hardly counted as revolution.  Yet, if middle class kids felt enraged in this period, it would seem militants of all races and ethnicities felt similarly to varying degrees.  The more radical efforts of the Weather Underground soon ricocheted, punishing the Black Panthers and others for the sins of these middle class white revolutionaries.  As one member of the Weather Underground notes, they may have endured high levels of COINTELPRO surveillance that made life difficult, but elsewhere in Chicago, the police and FBI combined to assassinate Black Panthers.

With this in mind, was the Black Power movement really more violent?  When one considers the life and death nature of the integrationist civil rights movement, the assassinations of political leaders like RFK, JFK, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Hampton, and others, the Vietnam War, and the FBI’s long hostility to civil rights (Mississippi Burning is not an accurate portrayal of things), the late 1960s and early 1970s seem awash in blood.  Consider how Americans might react today to assassinations of elected and public figures. With the media’s throbbing, meat eating, sensationalistic 24 hour news cycle, one can imagine the hysteria a similar situation might induce.   This context goes further to explain where the Black Power movement came from and where it intended to go.

Ultimately, context matters.  To fully understand rights movements and urban America at this time, one needs to account for the swirling economic morass that plagued cities.  Quality housing (or the lack thereof) serves as a key window into these conditions and as a symbol of economic development first and urban decay later, public housing occupies a key position in this debate.

Has any public housing project represented the hopes and failures of these efforts more than St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe?  Built in 1952, the infamous public housing project stood as a shining symbol of St. Louis post-war hopes and dreams. A growing city, planners argued, needed public housing to shelter its growing work force. Unfortunately, in the ensuing two decades, St. Louis’s white population streamed from the city, deindustrialization robbed it of employment and tax bases as suburbanites recoiled from their urban origins.  If in its early years, Pruitt-Igoe functioned well, delivering on its promise of decent housing, by the late 1960s and early 1970s things changed.

Like BPM, in The Pruitt Igoe Myth, documentarian Chad Fredrichs looks to deconstruct long standing narratives about Pruitt Igoe and public housing. If Black Power meant many things to different people, interviewees demonstrate the varied meanings that the housing project had to tenants.  For some, it represented all that failed in public housing, violent and poorly maintained, while others found community in the everyday ebb and flow of life in the project.  As one former resident confides, “I know a lot of bad things came out of Pruitt Igoe but I don’t think they outweigh the good.”

Fredrichs avoids sentimentality and addresses one of the project’s clear problems: crime and violence. One resident describes how an atmosphere of fear and the defensive aggression such pressures promoted changed people. “It creates a group of individuals who feel they have nothing to lose,” he argued.   His brother’s childhood murder served as only one example. Much like the Robert Taylor Homes in 1980/1990s Chicago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s police officers refused to enter Pruitt Igoe. However this was not solely due to corruption or racism; as Washington Post critic Stephanie Merry pointed out, “Pruitt-Igoe residents weren’t doing themselves any favors by throwing bottles and other debris at police officers and firefighters who came to the housing complex. Eventually officers stopped showing up.”

Along with the dangers of established drug havens in emptied out sections of Pruitt Igoe, police viewed the project as lawless and ungovernable.  Rightly or wrongly, observers looking in often portrayed the problems of Pruitt-Igoe and other housing projects as a result of tenant moral deficiency and architectural obtuseness.  According to such a thesis, the combination of the culture of poverty and a remote brutal modernist design undermined Pruitt-Igoe’s larger intentions. Much like the Black Power example, this view fails to consider context.  Pruitt-Igoe didn’t fail because residents exerted a moral lassitude but rather because city planners vastly misread St. Louis’ economic future.  When the city declined, so too did its housing.  The original idea that housing alone could solve all of the urban ills proved a millstone around Pruitt-Igoe’s figurative neck.  As sociologist and Pruitt Igoe expert Joyce Ladner remarked, “poverty never created immorality, poverty created want.”

Of the two films, The Pruitt Igoe Myth provides a more comprehensive study.  Focusing on the housing project’s twenty year existence, Freidrichs glimpses into the sense of community that existed no matter the levels of strife.  Violence was very real, but as one resident recalled, Pruitt Igoe also improved the living conditions of many Black tenants.  When combined with the exclusionary nature of the housing market, quality homes remained in very short supply.  Pruitt Igoe housed families that the market had forced into overcrowded spaces; for some, this was its lasting contribution, providing the city’s working class a “poor person’s penthouse.”

Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes

The Pruitt Igoe Myth capitalizes on the new historiography of public housing that has emerged over the past two decades.  Perhaps Sudhir Venkatesh and his book American Project represent this shift best.  For Venkatesh, Chicago’s Robert Taylor homes proved more than a wasteland of urban struggles.  Much like Pruitt Igoe, it represented the best hopes and dreams of many. “From its inception, the Robert Taylor Homes was more than a residential complex,” writes Venkatesh. “For the nation’s disenfranchised the housing development would serve as a stop on the way to property ownership, Thomas Jefferson’s cradle of democracy, as well as to an awareness of the rights that entailed.” (Venkatesh, American Project, 13) In both St. Louis and Chicago, this new public housing gave working families an opportunity.  “[M]ore than half of Robert Taylor’s initial occupants were employed families who could not find decent affordable housing elsewhere in the city owing to racial segregation or prohibitive housing prices,” reflects Venkatesh. (Venkatesh, 13)

Politics, civil rights and Black Power alike, occupied a central place in public housing by the late 1960s.  In Pruitt Igoe, the consistent decline of the physical state of the complex — unattended broken windows, rotting food next to incinerators – led to tenant rent strikes that briefly gave voice to resident’s frustrations.   Though one participant acknowledged that no one heaped praise on tenants for their actions, many in Pruitt Igoe began to voice their concerns. One imagines the presence of a militant Black Power movement in the public sphere contributed to this new agency. Venkatesh notes similar developments in the 1970s in Chicago, even if observers often categorized the means by which residents secured power as somehow less than acceptable. According to Venkatesh, leaders of Local Advisory Councils (LAC) did their best to organize tenants and find ways to deliver material gains. Sometimes the actions of LAC leaders veered into patronage and self enrichment, but how would this be different from the world outside, especially in Chicago? “The LAC leaders were mimicking their counterparts outside the community with their creative and sometimes questionable tactics to help themselves and their constituents, and many were seeking to emulate the rising fortunes of their middle and upper class counterparts, albeit in unstable and dangerous underground economies.” (108-109).  If anything, the Columbia sociologist notes, residents were trying to live up to the “ideals of America” engaging in the only means by which they could “recover democratic representation in the face of poverty and inequality.” (108)

As demonstrated by Carmichael’s work, often Black Power advocates simply hoped to secure greater representational influence.  The methods sometimes shocked, but one could argue the media’s tendency to highlight the most radical aspects of movements, its ignorance of state sponsored violence against “radical” Blacks and minorities (not to mention during the civil rights movement itself), and the spectre of Vietnam served as their political counterweights.  White Americans never stared down a lynch mob.  While urban communities did struggle mightily with crime, as the aforementioned Perlstein argues, those most vocal and hysterical about inner city violence, white suburbanites, often lived furthest from it. Economically, tax deductions for suburban homeownership and the FHA policies that created segregated metropolitan regions came to be seen as “natural” by many whites. Despite the fact, 1970s suburbs locked themselves away from neighboring cities via economic and social policies that created an unequal housing market, many white Americans continued to bang on about equal opportunity and hard work without any self awareness of their own advantages.

In regards to the Black Power movement, BPM gets two other critical aspects right.  First, Olsson highlights the contributions of women to the Black Panthers and Black Power movement. Though Angela Davis occupied a prominent place, too often images and memories of the movement focused on male figures like Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, and Carmichael (Carmichael was once quoted as describing women’s position in the Black Power movement as “prone”). Women, as in the Chicano Movement, SDS and elsewhere, provided critical labor and organization even when treated inequitably by their male counterparts. Second, the transnational nature of 1970s rights movement receives appropriate attention.  Carmichael gives speeches in Stockholm and Paris while Eldridge Cleaver hides out in Algiers.  Leaders of the Chicano and Black Power movements frequently compared the situation of minorities in America with that of colonized people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.  Urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s replaced working class and non-white communities with expressways and business districts, relocating families into isolated public housing projects in cities like Chicago and St. Louis.  Often electorally represented by white machine politicians or elite black elected leaders who aligned more with white business and political interests,  one can see how conditions resembled apartheid occupation.  When Blacks and others voiced opposition to policies, many found themselves under the thumb of the state violence.  Accordingly, for many rights movements’ participants, solidarity lay with the Vietnamese, not the imperial American aggressors.

Things Fall Apart

Unsurprisingly, many of the same forces that helped to dissolve the Black Power movement contributed to downfall of Pruitt Igoe.  Service sector employment slowly replaced the better paying industrial jobs that enabled so many working class white ethnics to move into the middle class.  Drugs, notably heroin, decimated entire buildings in Pruitt Igoe.  Some towers became veritable fortresses, allowing armed drug dealers and users to menacingly claim entire swaths of the housing project.  The lack of economic support and drug use within its ranks undermined Black Power activists and urban populations more generally, sapping both of the energy and passion required of an effective social movement. However, in contrast, crime and drugs in Pruitt Igoe proliferated partially as result of the inability or unwillingness of St. Louis law enforcement to police the project.  Had the FBI and local law enforcement focused their resources on places like Pruitt Igoe rather than Fred Hampton and others, the story of the St. Louis housing project might have been different.

Throughout BPM, the disembodied voices of Talib Kweli, John Forte, Erykah Badu, Sonia Sanchez, Robin Kelley and others provide commentary and reflections on the meanings of the movement. For all their enthusiasm and gravitas, the New York Times A.O. Scott commented on the effect of this technique in a way that could be extended to both documentaries. “Their words sometimes deepen the viewer’s appreciation of what is on screen, though at other times the nuances and contradictions of the past outstrip the didacticism of the commentary,” reflected Scott. “But the fact that the speakers’ faces are never seen produces a feeling of estrangement that is crucial to the film’s effectiveness. You become acutely aware of gaps and discontinuities: between slogans and realities, between political ideals and stubborn social problems, between then and now.”  Residents of Pruitt Igoe never saw the idyllic promises of public housing come to fruition, but for all its tragedy, many former tenants reminded filmmakers that they enjoyed plenty of good times.  Likewise, Black Power activists probably never witnessed the revolution or social reform for which they hoped,  yet they have undoubtedly exerted an influence.

Often, public housing critics marshal Pruitt Igoe as evidence of the futility of government owned projects. Yet, the national history of public housing remains a mixed bag.  In some places like Seattle and New York, public housing for the most part has worked. Making Pruitt Igoe the poster child for failure misses the mark.  Similarly, by focusing on the most radical aspects of the Black Power movement, we obscure its contributions to modern political discourse and the arc of African American political life. “How did we get from the America of Stokely Carmichael to the America of Barack Obama, who represents a very different kind of black power,” asked Scott. “To what extent is it the same America?” The Myth of Pruitt Igoe and Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 do a great deal to answer this inquiry while asking new, vexing questions of what the issues at the heart of each mean to us today.