No Love for the Black Power Movement, Misrepresenting the Civil Rights Movement

No Love for the Black Power Movement, Misrepresenting the Civil Rights Movement

Todd Heisler/The New York Times. See: "Following King’s Path, and Trying to Galvanize a New Generation," New York Times, August 24, 2013.
Todd Heisler/The New York Times. See: "Following King’s Path, and Trying to Galvanize a New Generation," New York Times, August 24, 2013.

I open by offering a poem I wrote called “Five-O”:

50 years…

March on Washington
Medgar Evers/Trayvon Martin
Dr. King/President Obama
Four little girls in a baptist church
Voting Rights Act invalidated
Vietnam/Afghanistan
Kill that nigger!/Stand Your Ground!

How far have we really come?

As we sit on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the magnificent March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (MOW), I am struck by a peculiar phenomenon: the Black Power phase of the African American struggle for liberation gets no love. Most of our remembrance and recognition of the MOW derives from the landmark Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights (1965) Acts that were passed in its wake. With the Supreme Court a few weeks ago invalidating key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, we are reminded of the brave sacrifices of those select civil rights soldiers who marched, sat, and confronted Jim Crow for critical rights.

But just like Americans tend to truncate the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after his “I Have a Dream” speech, our recollection of the history of the struggle against America’s myriad forms of oppression against black folk also seems to stop at that critical point. Even when we do remember the period following 1963, we do so derisively. Case in point is the recently released movie "Lee Daniel’s The Butler," which depicts the Black Power phase of the African American struggle for liberation in a cartoonish and nearly derogatory manner.

One area that represents a clear superficial reading and novice understanding of both movements is the fact that both Dr. King and Huey P. Newton (founder of the Black Panther Party) assailed the merits of capitalism. As we continue the push for jobs and seek to close employment gap by race, most mainstream current civil rights activists have all but lost sight of King’s and Newton’s laser-sharp critique of capitalism. In his book Strength to Love, Dr. King argued:

[W]e must admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that…they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.

In his autobiography Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton proclaimed:

I have no doubt that the revolution will triumph. The people of the world will prevail, seize power, seize the means of production, wipe out racism, capitalism, reactionary intercommunalism—reactionary suicide. The people will win a new world…. If the world does not change, all its people will be threatened by the greed, exploitation, and violence of the power structure in the American empire. The handwriting is on the wall. The United States is jeopardizing its own existence and the existence of all humanity.

While both King and Newton decried capitalism’s overall ability to create sustainable, healthy, and prosperous economic conditions, most of the mainstream civil rights leaders participating in the anniversary marches this week embrace capitalism and offer no serious challenge to the corrosive and cancerous nature of America’s economic system. American capitalism—which is rooted in Wall Street oligarchy and corporate plutocracy—threatens the economic well-being of all Americans, not just black folk. But when American capitalism combines and intertwines with structural racism, it creates the dastardly racial disparities in not only employment, but in wealth, which is the most important indicator of economic health.

By April 4, 1967, Dr. King had connected the dots between civil rights and human rights. He had made the leap between domestic policy and foreign policy. He would traverse the philosophical chasm the artificially separated the Civil Rights and Black Power movements when he preached in his sermon "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence":

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Exactly a year later, Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis. A coincidence? I think not. Dr. King had joined the rising chorus of a radicalized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party in bearing witness to the dangers of America as empire, not merely as a nation. America as empire threatened the whole world and all human life. America as empire extracted wealth from “Third World” nations, propping up brutal dictators, causing nations to be underdeveloped, and hundreds of millions to starve. Most of the mainstream leaders today offer no sustained ethical critique on the level of King and Newton.

There is another sense by which we oversimplify the narrative of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements: the myth of nonviolence as a winning strategy. Author Lance Hill lays this myth to rest in his spectacular book The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. What defeated the terror organization known as the Ku Klux Klan in the South was not nonviolence! It was a band of organized black men known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice. When black men began to arm themselves and show their willingness to defend themselves against Klan- and police- inflicted terrorism, that is the point when the federal government stepped into prevent massive bloodshed and crushed the Klan.

Most people also don’t recall the level of racial terrorism endured by black folks during the time of the Civil Rights movement. Less than a month after the March on Washington, four little girls (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise Miller) were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Less than three months before the March on Washington, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway by a member of the White Citizens’ Council, Byron De La Beckwith. This is the type of naked terrorism that the Deacons for Defense were able to confront and defeat in the South, although many Black Panthers were killed in other areas of the country by the FBI’s anti-black domestic terroristic operation known as COINTELPRO. Thus, we often forget the way in which the federal government functioned as both a saint and sinner with regards to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Another way in which we oversimplify the struggle for Civil Rights and Black Power is that we neglect to give due credit to their precursors. Such folks who don’t usually get any limelight in the mainstream roll call during these moments of remembrance and celebration include:

  • Fannie Lou Hamer—organizer and co-founder of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party.

  • Ella Baker—supreme organizer, strategist, and mentor for many leaders in the Civil Rights movement.

  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett—anti-lynching activist, author, and lecturer in the early 20th century.

  • Robert F. Williams—advocate and practitioner of armed self-defense in Monroe County, North Carolina in 1959; his actions would inspire and inform Malcolm X and the Deacons for Defense.

  • Asa Philip Randolph—labor leader who led the original March on Washington Movement from 1941-1945 to desegregate the armed forces and provide equitable job opportunities for African Americans; he was the head of the 1963 March on Washington.

  • W.E.B. Du Bois—scholar and activist; wrote groundbreaking works calling attention to racism/white supremacy, sexism, capitalism, etc.; he died the day before the August 28 March on Washington.

The Civil Rights and Black Power movements did not spring up out of thin air. There were many others I could have named and still many more who were unnamed foot soldiers in the struggle for justice and liberation. We have a tendency to view the history of the Civil Rights movement through a messianic lens, as if Christ came in the form of a King and paid the price for us. But the reality is that there is a price we must each pay today because the work is not yet done.

As I close this essay, we stand at a moment summed up powerfully by the master R&B artist and prophet Stevie Wonder when he sang: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.” If we are to truly overcome and secure social justice and racial equity, if we are to triumph over the triple evils of racism, materialism, and militarism, if we are to seize power over the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats, then we must set aside the dominant yet dangerous superficial and superstitious reading and understanding of the struggle for African American liberation.

When we take stock of the deeper lessons both movements have passed on to us, it means we fight not only for jobs, but also for wealth restoration, for land possession, and for the end of America’s wars without end. It means that we need more than nonviolence if we are to protect not only our Emmitt Tills and Trayvon Martins from police brutality and vigilante justice, but to also confront the tremendous exposure violence in the media, music, and in neglected neighborhoods and places. We need a new mindset, a new manhood, and a new masculinity to train our boys to respect women and cherish each other, especially in disinvested urban environments. Finally, we must recognize that everyone plays a role, not just those whose names make the history books.

When we do these things and when we understand the successes and failures of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, we can create the movements and structures that will allow us to achieve equity and liberation for black folks…and secure justice for all.

Lawrence Brown

Lawrence Brown is a political activist, public health consultant, and history aficionado. He has partnered with community groups in East Baltimore to devise strategies to assist residents who were displaced from their community by EBDI and Johns Hopkins University. Lawrence has collaborated with the labor advocacy group Community Churches United and testified at Baltimore council hearings regarding displacement, development, and local hiring practices. He is also an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University.