Black History: The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969

Written by Michele Wheat

On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to enslaved people in the United States. But while this act granted black people freedom, it did not provide equality. In the ensuing century, black people fought for equal treatment in everyday life. This movement came to nationwide prominence in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or nation of origin. Throughout this decade, the struggle for equality made headlines, from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that deemed school segregation unconstitutional to the tumultuous summer of 1969.

Black Empowerment and Black Pride

While the Civil Rights Act was an important step in ensuring that all citizens be treated equally, the civil rights movement was met with resistance, which was sometimes violent. Black activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar EversMalcolm X, Whitney Young, and John Lewis refused to back down, advocating for and leading acts of nonviolent protest to bring about change. Black people and black culture stepped into the spotlight, with displays of black pride becoming more visible. Amid this atmosphere, the Harlem Cultural Festival emerged. This celebration of black music and culture was held in New York City in 1967 and 1968, but the largest and most well-known of these events was held in 1969. However, in white culture, it would be overshadowed by the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, held the same summer. The Harlem festival slipped into obscurity until the documentary Summer of Soul was released in 2021.

Major Events Leading Up to the Festival

  • April 4, 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent names in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He organized protests including the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, at which he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray.
  • April 4-5, 1968: King's assassination led to unrest across the country, with riots breaking out in some cities. In Harlem, the death of Dr. King was expected to spark massive riots, but Mayor John Lindsay managed to defuse tensions by going to Harlem and speaking with the people who had gathered in the streets. While some looting and destruction of property occurred, Lindsay's quick action averted rioting.
  • Sept. 9, 1968: When the board of a newly created, majority-black school district in one Brooklyn neighborhood dismissed a large number of white teachers and administrators, the teachers' union protested, leading to a citywide strike. Schools were shut down for more than a month, keeping more than a million students out of school.
  • Sept. 24, 1968: The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded to shine a spotlight on black culture and support black artists.
  • Oct. 16, 1968: During the medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the American athletes who finished first and third, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, donned black gloves on one hand and raised their fists during the national anthem as a show of black power. This act of protest was reported around the world and is one of most iconic images of the era.
  • Jan. 21, 1969: Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman in Congress. She helped to found the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 and the Congressional Women's Caucus in 1977, and she was also the first black major-party candidate for president, seeking the Democratic nomination in 1972.

The Summer of Soul

Amid this backdrop, the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 was held. The festival ran for six Sundays, from June 29 to August 24. It featured exhibits of black culture and a variety of musical acts. Notable performers included Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Herbie Mann, and B.B. King. The event, which would later be called "Black Woodstock," was held at Mount Morris Park in Harlem and drew an estimated 300,000 people, but it went largely unnoticed by mainstream America. It wasn't until the 2021 release of the documentary Summer of Soul that this event was brought into the national spotlight. The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar and a Grammy.