Vietnam Generation Journal
Volume 4, Number 3-4
What Do We Want?
William M. King, Black Studies Program, University of Colorado, Boulder
Thursday, 16 June 1966. It was one of those long hot evenings that presage the beginning of another sultry Mississippi summer. Some eleven days earlier, James Meredith, who had enrolled under federal escort at the University of Mississippi in 1962, was shot and wounded from ambush while attempting to march across the state to prove that black people no longer had anything to fear. As he was recuperating in a Memphis hospital, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), all of whom had been involved in organizing activity and getting black people registered to vote, moved to continue the march he had started.
Although small in numbers when it resumed (perhaps 150 people, writes Cleveland Sellers), the marchers knew that they were headed for SNCC territory and would have little difficulty turning out persons to hear the Reverend King, Floyd McKissick, Willie Ricks (who was responsible for shortening the phrase "Black Power for Black People" to "Black Power" the rallying cry that had been used to gather folks in earlier organizing efforts) or Stokely Carmichael for the nightly mass meetings at the end of a day's trek.
When they reached Greenwood, where Stokely was well known because of his work during the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, they began to put up their tents on the grounds of a local black school as before only to be stopped by the state police who argued that they could not do so without permission of the local school board.
Disobeying the police order, Carmichael walked over put his hand on a tent and was immediately arrested along with two others and taken directly to jail where he was incarcerated for six hours and released only moments before the rally began.
Meanwhile a crowd of perhaps as many as three thousand persons (the New York Times and several other sources estimated the crowd at 600) had begun to assemble in the city park. The dominant feeling exhibited by the gathered throng was one of anger at the arrests--only the latest example of a long train of abuses that had been visited upon the black people of the Delta since their involuntary immigration to the area during slavery times. That feeling was exacerbated by the fiery speeches of McKissick, King and Ricks who preceded Carmichael to the hastily improvised platform, the back of a flatbed truck.
As Stokely moved forward to speak, he was greeted by a huge roar from the crowd which he acknowledged by waving a clenched fist in the air. "This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested," he told them, "and I ain't going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!" The suddenly unified mass shouted back "BLACK POWER!" whereupon Willie Ricks leaped up beside Carmichael and shouted to the crowd: "What do you want?" "BLACK POWER!" "What do you want?" "BLACK POWER!" "What do you want?" "BLACK POWER!! BLACK POWER!!! BLACK POWER!!!!"
The national response was galvanic. Here, at last, was something that both southern Blacks and those in the northern colonial enclaves, who previously had not been able to directly relate to the modern Civil Rights Movement with its focus on de jure segregation and public accommodations discrimination (mitigated somewhat by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), could pursue as a remedy for their problems--viz, the acquisition of power. For what was clear by that time was that the problems of black people whether North or South of the Mason-Dixon were being recognized as increasingly more similar in character. They lacked the power to influence the events which affected their life chances in some very immediate and direct ways.
Well do I remember a special Sunday airing of the NBC news program Meet The Press shortly after Carmichael's pronouncement which featured twelve black leaders seated in two tiers responding to questions from assembled media representatives.
Well, also, do I remember McKissick's response to a question to define this new, potentially explosive term. For as James Foreman was later to write, "Black Power was not defined adequately at the time. If it had been, the government and its Negroes might not have been able to co-opt the term. Here, we in SNCC must assume some blame, for the term received no precise definition from us. We were stunned and overwhelmed by its immediate success. The most radical definition of Black Power that we could give at the time was 'power for black people.' Thus the door was left open for opportunists to define the term in any manner they chose."
What McKissick said, and his remarks may have compounded the confusion evident in the country at large about the meaning of the term given the far-reaching effect of the mass media, was "anyone who has been as far as the sixth grade knows what black is. And anyone who has been as far as the sixth grade knows what power is. The problem arises when the two words are put together meaning we want what others who have gone before us want."
But is this all there is to Black Power? Is there nothing more; something that can carry the meaning of the concept beyond the simplistic we want what others who have gone before us want? These questions are especially crucial in light not only of the historical experiences of black people in the United States but also the prevailing cultural myth that we are somehow a more humane people untainted by an exclusionist, exploitative society in which we have been coercively socialized to espouse a particular value orientation, know our proper place and stay in it, but yet who would run the world differently if only we were in charge.
Power, as I have defined the term for my students over the years, is the ability to shape reality. It is something we all possess irrespective of the energy and effort we put into denying that we are powerless. Implicit in this definition, moreover, is the notion that resistance to the exertion of that power can be overcome, bypassed or redirected contingent upon the manner of presentation and the patience one exhibits in pursuit of the correct timing for the realization of one's desires, all other things being equal.
The amount of power one possesses, however, is relative. That is it is a function of the position (the most important variable in the game of power) one holds in a group, organization, society, whatever, to which one belongs and from which one secures identity and a sense of what is possible.
Power is comprised of material things like money and property, and immaterial items like knowledge and prestige which are parceled out in a manner that seeks to preserve the differential distribution of opportunity so as to sustain the position and privileges of those who established the initial hierarchical ordering from which they directly benefit (how effectively this is the case is debatable given the normalcy of change in life and certain social institutions created to effect the illusion of certainty in an otherwise ambiguous world). This differential distribution is reinforced by the presence of lexan doors and glass ceilings keyed to certain ascriptive characteristics (e.g. race, gender) over which the petitioners have little, if any, influence. One may look through both to the other side but we can transit these barriers only after we have been reconstructed in accordance with the criteria of those who guard the portals of admittance to the kingdom. That is only after we have been properly vetted to insure that we are not a threat to the status quo. Clearly the objective here is one of preventing the present from becoming the past.
And finally, power differs from authority in that the latter is a socially legitimized, purposeful expression of control whose continuance is based on carefully cultivating the faith of the governed to believe that those they have "elected to represent" them have their best interests in mind as they exercise their granted powers. For as Kenneth Clark observed in 1969, "those in power seldom give up more than is necessary to maintain control; for control is requisite to the orderly exercise of authority."
Accordingly, in the days after Greenwood, numerous efforts were mounted to discredit, transform or destroy the newly enunciated concept (which in actuality had a long history of usage in the black community having been employed in years past by politicians and writers alike) and those who advocated Black Power "by associating it with violence and by making the use of violence illegitimate and contrary to the 'American way,'" irrespective of H. Rap Brown's prescient observation that "Violence is as American as cherry pie!"
There was a series of "Black Power Conferences" wherein the admitted and easily evident revolutionary (writes Foreman, the "government [knew] that whites [had] power and blacks [did] not" thus, the "idea of poor black people united for power represented a major threat to white America") thrust was muted or redirected. Captive black politicians were trotted out before the public who contended that only by electing more Negroes to extant political institutions could Black Power be realized. Even Richard Nixon, after his election, embraced Black Power provided it was redefined as black capitalism, the ultimate co-optation, to which many of us responded with the question--"In what way are we benefitted if all that is done is change the color of the capitalists who exploit us?" Clearly, and painfully, what we learned from all of this was the efficacy with which incumbency usurps.
And now, some 26 years later, where are we? Granted, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts have increased the number of black publicly elected officials. Granted also is the fact that there are now more middle class African Americans embracing the consumerist mentality than was the case before. But the real truth of the matter is that there are now more poor black people, more despair, more hunger, more imprisonment, more alienation abroad in this land of the free and home of the brave than before as well. The structures that oppress us, the mechanisms that limit our opportunities are still very much in place. America is still very much confounded and befuddled with the problem of race even as it seeks ever more futilely to integrate (a euphemism for the continuance of white supremacy) among its huddled masses the dispossessed of Southeast Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, all of whom want what others before them want.
And so we are left with the question of where do we go from here. What do we do now?
In a sense, what I believe we must do is return to some of those issues we raised along Highway 51 in Mississippi, in Harlem, Chicago, Watts and elsewhere. These were the issues of value and consciousness, vectors of the psychological realm which we but briefly explored and set aside for the moment because we could see at the time that they were complex and could not be reconciled overnight. We have to go back to the realization I noted above that all of us have power and that we must willfully assume this power before we can renew the quest of shaping our own destinies.
First, we must identify the ways in which we resist change in ourselves and the institutions we embrace. Second, we must more effectively articulate our needs as we see them not as they are seen for us by others. Third, we must return to the building of independent institutions in much the same fashion we did in the 60s but with the benefit, this time, of what we have learned from our failures of the past. For if we have learned nothing else it is that for all of its so-called democratic rhetoric, the United States is a society that fears and loathes difference. All too often difference is transformed into deviance which is then isolated, corralled and contained lest it contaminate the status quo. This is the hallmark of a loss-prevention oriented society not a progressive organization addressing itself to the developmental potential of its citizens. And finally, in concert with others, we must take up the challenge of effecting a more viable economic democracy in America. Not only is the present system incapable of creating enough jobs for all of those who want to work (to say nothing of desirable employment which is a wholly different issue altogether) the continued emphasis on material development at the expense of human resource development is both short-sighted and laden with revolutionary implications. For in the words of the old-time religion--Does not the devil find work for idle fingers?
What do you think?
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