In January, many of us make efforts to remember a visionary and his dream. If only briefly, we try to imagine the utopian society Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described instead of facing the lives we actually lead. King spent his life trying to unify a race of people in order to improve the lot of a nation, even as different philosophies increasingly segmented the black community until divergent ideologies split the movement.
"I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation," Dr. King wrote in his "Letter from A Birmingham Jail." "One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer."
I was a junior at Tougaloo when I first encountered this letter, perhaps the most beautiful piece of writing I had ever read. King was greatly admired in my community. But after I read this letter, written with such care and sophistication, Dr. King became a personal hero of mine. This man used words to disarm his enemies. I found that fascinating.
It is ironic that he mentions James Meredith, whose 1966 march actually marked the beginning of the end for the "movement" with King and his Gandhian nonviolent philosophy at its core.
Meredith, the first black man to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, decided to start a solo demonstration—his "March Against Fear"—by walking 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson. He hoped to inspire blacks in Mississippi to push fear aside and register to vote. Meredith was shot near Hernando and had to be transported back to Memphis. He later re-joined the march.
After Meredith was shot, Dr. King and other black leaders including Stokeley Carmichael of the Student National Coordinating Committee, and Floyd McKissick and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, among others, joined the march. The marchers faced many trials and obstacles, with facilities along the route closed to them. Then, while passing through Canton, policemen tear-gassed and beat them.
One of the earliest uses of the slogan "Black Power" came during this march. Pat Watters' book, "Down to Now: Reflections on the Southern Civil Rights Movement," takes a deeper look into the beginning of the Black Power Movement. Watters reports that some believed King was used to bring attention to the Meredith march in order to promote the radical Black Power philosophy.
As the march continued, so did the internal struggle among leaders of the different movements. Dissension spread even to the youngest marchers. When the group finally reached Jackson on the last day, the unbearable heat and the recent attack in Canton stung the flesh of the demonstrators. The crowd's chanting was perhaps what pushed them through the humidity. But now there were two different battle cries: Some people shouted "Freedom Now," the anthem of Dr. King's nonviolent movement, while others screamed "Black Power," the newly created phrase of the more radical philosophy.
Watters reports an incident that epitomized the conflict between the two groups. As the marchers crossed a set of railroad tracks in Jackson, a white trucker drove his diesel toward the marchers as if to run over them. A dozen of the young people ran up to the truck in an effort to fight back, determined not to be victimized any longer. Before anything violent happened, however, Bob Greene of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and James Lawson of the nonviolent Nashville movement stepped in to separate the angry young marchers and their white agitator using nothing but quick wit.
On the way to the capitol, marchers made a stop at Tougaloo. The school, dubbed the "cradle of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement," had played an integral role in arousing interest in political change in the state. Already, in 1961, the Tougaloo Nine had attempted to integrate Jackson libraries with read-ins in "white" libraries. Now, the campus was full of students and others waiting to be inspired by the words of King and other civil-rights leaders.
Though King led the march from Tougaloo, it was Carmichael who rallied the crowd at the capitol, giving a louder voice to "Black Power" over "Freedom Now." Change was in the air.
On NBC's Today Show, each of the major players of the Meredith March explained their view of what the words "Black Power" meant. Dr. King said this:
"Well, I think I should say first that I've made it clear over and over again that I think the term 'Black Power' is an unfortunate one, not because of its denotative meaning, but because of certain connotations that have been connected with it. And I think the advocates of 'Black Power' are saying something very basic in substance, and that is that the Negro must have political and economic power if he is to move meaningfully and creatively toward the goals of the good life and into the mainstream of American life. He must be able to determine his destiny, and I think it's also saying that there must be a sense of racial pride."
King was asked if he and Carmichael had the same thoughts on what "power" meant, and he responded, "I don't know about that."
This marks the first of an occasional series of historical essays written by Ayana Taylor, a former reporter for the Jackson Free Press, and now a contributing editor.
Good article. I always thought Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture had gotten a bad rap; he wrote an entire book, Black Power, on what he meant by the term, and it was very clear to me as a reader that he meant social, political, and economic power. Black Power means buy from black-owned businesses. Black Power means invest in black enterprises. Black Power means attend black colleges. Black Power simply means supporting the community so that it can achieve parity. I don't think that's always the best way to look at things, especially when it conflicts with integration, but it isn't racist. It's anti-racist; it's an attempt to correct for racism.
And this is what the White Power = Black Power crowd doesn't get. Here's the difference: Both begin with an acknowledgment of power disparity. Whites are disproportionately rich and influential, blacks disproportionately poor and disenfranchised. Black Power says okay, this disparity is a problem, and here's how we can address it to get everybody on equal footing because people are fundamentally equal. That's not racist; it's basically a form of affirmative action. White Power says okay, this disparity is FANTASTIC, and here's how we can expand it further because the people on the bottom deserve to be on the bottom. That's a fundamentally racist idea; it's basically indistinguishable from the objectives of Jim Crow.
So I'm an integrationist first and foremost, but I also believe in Black Power. And everyone else who believes in eliminating the gross income and power disparities between blacks and whites also believes in Black Power, whether they know it or not.
- Tom Head
Great comment Tom. Thanks for the article, Ayana. Quite timely and well done. Tell your mother I said hello.
I too have always liked Stokely. I saw him walking around Tougaloo's campus many times while I was a student. Also listened to him speak several times. I regret I didn't get to meet Dr. King. I did pledge the fraternity he belonged to, and have many books he wrote. Hopefully, we will soon come up with the other 30 million we need to complete the monument on the national mall recognizing his contributions.
- Ray Carter