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From civil rights to Black Power

By Richard Brenner

On 1 February 1960, an impulsive and practically unplanned act of bravery by four black college students sparked the great civil rights’ revolt in the USA. The students went into a Woolworths store in Greensboro, North Carolina and then sat down at a lunch counter that was reserved for whites.

A waitress asked them to leave and they courteously, but firmly, refused. Despite the fact that their actions were a direct challenge to the system of segregation, they encountered no force, no repression and no arrests. One of the students, Franklin McCain later recalled:

“Now it came to me all of a sudden. Maybe they can’t do anything to us. Maybe we can keep it up.”

They stayed put until the store closed, then went back to the college and began to organise. The next day they built a bigger protest, the day after a bigger one still. By 4 February, hundreds of students had been drawn into the protest.

Sit-ins

The sit-ins spread throughout North Carolina and beyond. By mid-April, every state in the South was affected by the movement, which had drawn in 50,000 participants. The demonstrations and sit-ins were marked by dignity in the face of mounting repression, and by a pervasive attitude of restraint and refusal to be provoked.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced ‘Snick’) was created as the first attempt to give an organisational structure to the spontaneous revolt of black youth against segregation. In the years after its founding meeting in Raleigh on 16 April 1960, it was to become one of the most radical organisations in America.

The extreme dedication and bravery of the young militants was linked to the notion, derived from Martin Luther King, that white America could be shamed into granting equal rights by demonstrations of the “capacity of black people to suffer”. Under the influence of a large delegation of Nashville students committed to Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and to Christian pacifist ideals, SNCC adopted a code of conduct that included:

“Don’t strike back or curse if abused… Show yourself courteous and friendly at all times… Report all serious incidents to your leader in a polite manner. Remember love and nonviolence.”

It was the Freedom Rides campaign that really brought SNCC to the centre of the revolt. In early 1961, SNCC, together with the Congress of Racial Equality, organised bus journeys across the South in which groups of black militants would attempt to use segregated eating facilities at bus terminals.

As the rides went on, the activists suffered increasingly violent attacks from white racists, local authorities and police who were often linked with the Ku Klux Klan. In Armiston, Alabama, racists burnt out a bus and activists were beaten up by a vicious mob. By 21 May, disorder had reached such a pitch that martial law was declared in Montgomery.

The extent of repression meted out to the black protesters exposed the weaknesses of pacifism in the movement. The freedom riders were not “left alone” they were hounded and beaten to within an inch of their lives.

Activists were soon beginning to question the innocent ideals of pacifism. As the struggle assumed truly mass proportions, more radical youth were drawn in. They were less inclined to be courteous to gun and club-wielding racist mobs or deferential to Democrat politicians who sat on their hands while the thugs ran riot.

Many activists started to realise that self-defence was vital in the face of police and Klan brutality. But the leaders were still relying on protection from the Kennedy/Johnson wing of the Democrats.

The Democratic Party could see the value of additional votes from Southern blacks. But their aim was to “support” the movement in such a way as to divert it away from struggle. Kennedy suggested that SNCC should turn its attention to a drive to register black voters.

Although black people were time and again promised the vote – in solemn amendments to the Constitution, in decisions of the Supreme Court, in laws passed by Congress, “Jim Crow”, the name for the southern states’ disenfranchisement of their black citizens, was still dominant in the South. All manner of obstacles were put in the way of voters wanting to register, including intimidation and brutal violence from white authorities when they tried to so.

This early period of the movement climaxed with the famous march on Washington, led by Martin Luther King, in August 1963. Millions have heard and been moved by his “I have a dream” speech, which envisaged a society free from racism, but few know that SNCC’s John Lewis drafted a rather different speech which rejected Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill as utterly inadequate and failing to protect people who were fighting for their rights in the South.

Lewis planned to tell the 250,000 people at the Washington rally:

“I want to know, which side is the federal government on?”

He intended to declare:

“…the revolution is at hand and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.”

Though Lewis remained committed to non-violence, he wrote:

“We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us of victory.”

His mistake was to show this speech to other civil rights leaders first. They forced him to change it because, otherwise, the Archbishop of Washington would not appear on the platform. On the day, however, he still launched into a bitter attack on the Democrats and the Republicans.

Anger

SNCC workers started to discuss organised self-defence of black communities, as well as openly investigating pan-Africanist and socialist ideas. A number of members of the SNCC staff were also members of Students for a Democratic Society, which was to become one of the main “New Left” organisations that flourished during the radicalisation of youth at the time of the Vietnam War.

By 1964, Stokely Carmichael was emerging as a leader of the radical wing of the movement. Born in the West Indies, Carmichael had family and personal connections with black members of the Communist Party of the USA. When he joined the Nonviolent Action Group and then the full time SNCC staff in 1964, he brought with him an emphasis on economic and social issues, such as demanding the nationalisation of the top corporations and the breaking up of large landed estates.

He wanted to see “more than 100 people control over 60 per cent of the industry”. At the same time, he began encouraging SNCC staff to “stop taking a defensive stand on communism.” SNCC leaders began an African tour where they met, among others, Malcolm X and discussed collaboration with his newly formed Organisation of Afro-American Unity.

In early 1965, events took a sharper turn. Attempts to organise a mass march from Selma to Montgomery met with sustained police attack and barricades. On 10 March, Martin Luther King, at the head of a demonstration, angered local residents and SNCC staff by unilaterally deciding to call off the march, turn around and go back. SNCC, under the leadership of the militant activist Jim Forman, seized the opportunity to challenge King’s leadership. He argued firmly for not flinching from a confrontation with the police, saying, “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the fucking legs off.”

Out of the work around the Selma marches the next year, Carmichael fronted a campaign to build an independent political organisation in the rural area between Selma and Montgomery, the Lowndes County Freedom Organisation. It adopted the emblem of a snarling black panther, and soon changed its name to the Black Panther Party. According to one historian of the movement, Clayborne Carson, it was not at first intended to be an exclusively black organisation, but became so because no whites wanted to join it. It provided the model for the future organisation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defence of Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton.

By 1966, Carmichael was becoming heavily influenced by ideas of black consciousness, of pride in blackness, the positive promotion of black culture and the construction of black institutions. He insisted, in response to attacks from liberals against this approach, that his position was “… not anti-white. When you build your own house, it doesn’t mean you tear down the house across the street.”

But it was not until the events surrounding the Mississippi march of 1966 that this orientation began to take shape and the new slogan of Black Power was to sweep the USA.

In June 1966, James Meredith began a solo walk across Mississippi as a demonstration of the right of black people to live without threats and fear of violence. He was shot three times and hospitalised.

Martin Luther King, Congress of Racial Equality leader Floyd McKissick and Stokely Carmichael joined forces to lead a protest march that would also boost local voter registration efforts. King viewed the march in much the same way he viewed the whole campaign, a strictly peaceful protest. But SNCC was adopting a more militant stance than before.

Sick of years of beatings, shootings and arrests, Carmichael argued that an organisation called the Deacons of Defence provide armed protection for the march. At mass rallies across Mississippi, Carmichael spoke against the nonviolence line being pursued by King, and condemned the federal government for failing to provide any real protection against racist terror. In Leflore County, Carmichael told a meeting of hundreds after he had been detained in jail:

“This is the 27th time I have been arrested. I ain’t going to jail no more … What we gonna start saying now is ‘black power’.”

What did Black Power mean? To many SNCC workers, to poor blacks from Mississippi to the ghettos of the big cities, it meant an end to compromise, to nonviolence, to reliance on white liberals. These liberals expected a political pay-off for their support: the renunciation of the right to self-defence (something no liberal ever demanded of whites) the censoring of Lewis’ speech to the Washington rally in 1963 and King’s attempt to get SNCC to call off a demonstration against the Vietnam War in August 1966. SNCC’s refusal to tie the movement’s hands in return for the illusory support of fair-weather bourgeois allies was a real political step forward.

But the idea of Black Power, as Carmichael came to theorise it in his book of that name, co-authored with Charles V Hamilton, also contained serious ambiguities. When Carmichael wrote of the need for black consciousness and self-identification as a vital first step, that “only when black people fully develop this sense of community, of themselves, can they begin to deal effectively with the problems of racism in this country”, he was not just speaking of the justified need to develop pride and confidence in black culture. He was advancing the principle of black unity, irrespective of class divisions. Unity of all black people; workers, poor farmers and the urban poor, as well as middle class and even the few rich, became for him a precondition for an effective fight against racism. This is what he meant by his famous statement that:

“Before a group can enter open society, it must first close ranks.”

The question of class

The first and most fundamental problem with this approach is that it downplays the central fact of class. To set the goal as the unity of all black people, as blacks, blurred the real conflicts between blacks of different classes. It blurred the differences between those who advocated reliance on the Democrats, and those who fought for militant action. It was a “unity” that contained the real possibility of holding back the black struggle.

At the same time, it cut off, in advance, the possibility of building fighting unity between black and white workers against the common enemy. Certainly, in many cases, the white working class and their unions had proved themselves to be racist. Insofar as Black Power meant not holding back the struggles of black people until white workers became anti-racist it was right and justified. But, for Carmichael, it was not simply this.

He went on to ignore the real material difference between white workers and their white bosses, and the potential for anti-racism to be built within the white working class because of this difference. As he told a meeting in Watts, Los Angeles, “the only reason [whites] suppress us is because we are black”. In this analysis, white society was conceived simply as a monolith, with no fundamental contradictions between the interests of its respective classes.

Carmichael all but wrote off the trade unions, as “coalitions between the economically secure and the insecure”. Racism in unions had to be recognised and fought. But Carmichael threw out the baby with the bath water, downgrading the rich experience of black workers, indeed black women such as Dora Jones of the Domestic Workers’ Union, Floretta Andres of the New York Teachers’ Union and Miranda Smith and Velma Hopkins of the Food, Tobacco, Agriculture and Allied Workers’ Union, who played leading roles in the rise of industrial unionism and the CIO union federation.

These experiences proved that it was both necessary and possible to challenge racism within the working class and build unity in struggle. For a minority in the movement, such as Julius Lester, Black Power meant an increasingly hard-line separatist stance, involving rejection on principle of collaboration with whites. Lester gave one of his pamphlets the title Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! Although Carmichael did not rule out coalitions with whites, he did argue they could arise only after black people had first united.

However, others within SNCC did try to get to grips with the political and class differentiation within their community. As Jim Forman acutely observed:

“Are the problems we face only ones of colour? … What is upper, lower, middle class? Do they exist among blacks? Why is there a black banker in one town and a starving Negro in the same? … Do the problems of a black welfare mother only arise from her blackness? If not, then what are the other causes?”

Whilst for SNCC workers and poor blacks the Black Power slogan was one of militancy, for other more moderate and conservative blacks it meant promoting black businesses, a black middle class and even bourgeoisie, rising not with their class but out of their class.

Thus, Black Power was to become the rallying call not only of the most exploited and oppressed blacks, but also of the most conservative and bourgeois forces within the community. That is why one Black Power conference was sponsored by black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who was trying to subordinate the movement to the Democrats and who, as Carmichael admitted, was “talking about stopping the throwing of Molotov cocktails and not stopping the causes that bring about the throwing of the cocktails”.

A new layer of moderate community leaders was able to consolidate around the Black Power slogan, holding conferences sponsored by, among others, the white owned corporation Clairol. This was in line with the attempts of US capitalism to co-opt a privileged layer of blacks as its answer to the urban uprisings and mass struggles of the 1960s. How easily this could be co-opted can be seen from the words of Republican President Richard Nixon:

“What most of the militants are asking is not separation but to be included in, not as supplicants, but as owners, as entrepreneurs, to have a share of the wealth and a piece of the action. And this is precisely what the federal central target of the new approach ought to be. It ought to be oriented toward more black ownership … black pride, black jobs, black opportunity and yes, Black Power …”

Power

In the end, the Black Power slogan and the approach it represented proved not only ambiguous and capable of being adopted by conservative forces, but also disorienting for some of the most militant civil rights fighters. As SNCC declined under the twin blows of external repression and internal ideological incoherence, Carmichael himself turned to the pan-African nationalist “socialism” of Nkrumah and Sekou Touré, President of the bourgeois republic of Guinea. Carmichael ended up accepting Touré’s offer of moving to Guinea and acting as his personal secretary in 1968, taking the name of Kwame Ture and joining the leadership of Guinea’s ruling party in 1972.

The notion of uniting black people of all classes before, and as a precondition for, fundamental social change led him to support a government which, despite its radical rhetoric, upheld the capitalist system, which is the soil out of which racism grew and still grows.

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