April 26, 2021


The Birth of Black PowerStokely Carmichael and the speech that changed the course of the civil rights movement (Sally Greene, April 26, 2021, American Scholar)

Carmichael had returned to Greenwood that night in June 1966 to help activist James Meredith send a message about fear in Mississippi. Two years had elapsed since passage of the Civil Rights Act, one year since the Voting Rights Act, and little had changed in the state. On June 5, Meredith had set out on foot from Memphis toward Jackson, with the goal of inspiring Blacks to register to vote and to transform their fears into positive action. When, on June 6, he was ambushed and wounded by shotgun fire, everything changed. Meredith's single-minded "March Against Fear" became a rallying point for the movement. The leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Martin Luther King Jr.), SNCC (Carmichael), and the Congress of Racial Equality (Floyd McKissick) pledged to keep the march alive as Meredith recovered in a hospital.

The marchers arrived in Greenwood on June 16. Carmichael's fiery invocation of Black Power that night was born of frustrations, immediate and long-term. The immediate problem was that local white officials had denied the marchers permission to set up camp on the lawn of a Black elementary school--contradicting the word of local Black leaders. Arrested and jailed for trespassing, Carmichael posted bail just in time to make the rally that evening.

The longer-term, more fundamental concern for Carmichael was that the movement's strategies of nonviolence seemed to have reached some kind of limit. During the previous summer, less than a week after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted. The conflict in Vietnam had divided the nation since the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which resulted in the dramatic escalation of a war that would claim proportionally more Black American lives than white.

A legislative battle was unfolding over equal access to housing--a prospect that threatened the integrity of white neighborhoods and challenged white wealth. This and other demands for reform in such areas as criminal justice and labor were structural, beyond easy concessions like access to lunch counters and even to voting booths. "White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation," King wrote in what turned out to be his last book, Where Do We Go From Here  (1967), "but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination." As this next phase of the civil rights revolution unfolded, nonviolent direct action seemed to belong to a vanishing era.

Far from a spontaneous outburst, Carmichael's speech reflected a shift developing in SNCC's strategic orientation, the merits of which were debated even while the marchers pushed forward. King's reaction to the thunderous reception of Black Power that night in Greenwood was mixed. He conceded its "ready appeal" among "people who had been crushed so long by white power." But he saw that the concept could widen an existing split in the ranks over whether to abandon the commitment to nonviolent direct action. Moreover, as he asserted during five hours of intense discussion the next day, the connotations of Black Power were all wrong. "I mentioned the implications of violence that the press had already attached to the phrase," he recalled. "And I went on to say that some of the rash statements on the part of a few marchers only reinforced this impression."

His worries were not misplaced. After Greenwood, mainstream journalists did sensationalize Black Power, aligning it with militant separatism. Whereas for Black audiences the term was a "righteous exhortation," writes Carmichael's biographer Peniel Joseph, for whites it carried a "violent foreboding," possibly a forecast of "antiwhite violence and reverse racism." Juxtaposed against television images of cities in flames, the term was certain to alarm even liberal whites.

And yet, the constructive elements of Black Power were understood within the circle of activists engaged in the march. Central concepts included self-determination and equitable access to the established levers of power, with the realistic ability to create social, political, and economic change. Whatever his level of discomfort with the phrase itself, King sympathized with Carmichael's motivation in using it. Black Power, he writes,

is a response to the feeling that a real solution is hopelessly distant because of the inconsistencies, resistance, and faintheartedness of those in power. If Stokely Carmichael now says that nonviolence is irrelevant, it is because he, as a dedicated veteran of many battles, has seen with his own eyes the most brutal white violence against Negroes and white civil rights workers, and he has seen it go unpunished.

King locates the roots of Black Power in the elemental workings of slavery. The master's physical power over the Black body was ultimately all--and everything--that slavery depended on, and this singularly white power lingered long after the legal fact of slavery was abolished.

Citing Kenneth Stampp's landmark study The Peculiar Institution (1956), which laid to rest the myth that slavery's foundations were benign, King quotes instruction manuals that circulated among enslavers. "Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed," wrote a white Virginian. In South Carolina, a slaveowner wrote that "the slave must know that his master is to govern absolutely and he is to obey implicitly, that he is never, for a moment, to exercise either his will or judgment in opposition to a positive order."

This is what Black Power is responding to, King says. The call for Blacks to "cut themselves off from every level of dependence upon whites" is a "react[ion] against the slave pattern of 'perfect dependence' upon the masters." Black Power, King concludes, "is a psychological reaction to the psychological indoctrination that led to the creation of the perfect slave."

The genius of non-violence is also its main problem: in demanding that the majority simply live up to its own ideals it cedes agency to the oppressor.  So we have been able to congratulate ourselves and make the white majority the heroes of the civil rights struggle because we changed our laws and enforcement without violence being required. Ultimately, a resort to violence by black Americans might have forced a greater reckoning on our part and a greater sense of empowerment on theirs. 

Posted by at April 26, 2021 12:00 AM