In 1966, “Black Power” was the battle cry of young Blacks in America who were fed up with second class status in relation to other Americans, especially, white Americans. The phrase Black Power was as misunderstood as “Black Lives Matter,” its counterpart in 21st century America, is misunderstood today.
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, the conditions that led to the formation of the “Black Power” battle cry are the same conditions, systemic overt and covert racism, that led to its reincarnation in 2012 as the cry, “Black Lives Matter,” or that in any event they should matter to white Americans.
Black Power as a political strategy was first uttered on a dusty Mississippi road in Greenwood, Mississippi, June 16, 1966, during the “March against Fear,” which was began as a solo march by James Meredith to prove that he was not afraid to be Black in Mississippi. Meredith, the first Black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in 1962 was shot by a sniper at the early stages of the march.
The Mississippi sniper prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Mississippi to complete the march started by Meredith. As was his habit, King sent in the student arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They were tasked with whipping up support from Black Mississippians to overcome their fear of the white power structure and join Dr. King in the march.
Weeks before Meredith was struck by a shotgun blast, Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Toure, was elected chairman of SNCC, replacing John Lewis. In 1964, Carmichael had worked in Mississippi as a field organizer, primarily on the Greenwood voter rights project.
During the “March against Fear,” Carmichael was arrested along with other marchers. After he was released from jail on bond, Carmichael rejoined the march. He was fed up with the police interrupting their peaceful protests for justice and equality and decided that he was going to force Dr. King to take a stronger stand against racial discrimination.
While the SCLC contingent in the march sanged freedom songs, Carmichael asked the young SNCC recruits in the March: “What do you want?”
They shouted, “Black Power!”
Suddenly, there was a seismic shift in the political revolution begun with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. No longer were young Black activists willing to play by the rules of the game;that is, hold a demonstration for freedom, get beaten by the police, go to jail, get bonded out and go back to the protest line.
Carmichael had had enough.
White America was alarmed.
During the period of enslavement, whites could easily control Blacks who sought their freedom through the exercise of force. Such rebellions were quickly put down with brave Black men left hanging from a tree. Never, had Black Americans, under the protection of the 15th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, asserted “Black Power” to achieve equal treatment under the law.
“Black Power” as a political objective was dismissed by whites as being anti-white and a form of reverse racism. Black leaders denounced it as lacking a clear political goal or objective. The debate raged and a year later Carmichael teamed up with Political Scientist Charles V. Hamilton and wrote the definitive book on “Black Power.”
Carmichael and Hamilton defined “Black Power” as: “A call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.”
The reason that “Black Power” was needed as a political strategy in 1966 is that Blacks had never had any political power in the American system of governance; albeit, during Reconstruction, Blacks were in the stream of political patronage, but seldom at the power center to determine who got what, how much of it and when they got it.
Fast forward to 2012, four years ago yesterday, when a Florida Jury failed to convict George Zimmerman for killing, Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was walking home from the local Seven-Eleven. The jury decided that Zimmerman, a Latino, who identifies as white, had a right to stand his ground and defend himself, even though it is a strong likelihood that Zimmerman initiated the fight. Clearly, the life of the Black teenager did not matter to the five white women and one Latino woman on the jury.
“Black Lives Matter,” as a political strategy was born.
It was met with much of the same indifference as was the “Black Power” movement 50 years ago. Whites immediately wanted to flip the script and proclaim that “white lives matter” too.
This is not the point! It is clear on its face that white lives matter more than Black lives!
White lives have always mattered in America to the exclusion of Black lives as evident by the wholesale murder of black men and women by police officers, without, in many case, any charges being brought and when charges are pursued, the police officer is found to have been justified in killing the Black citizen.
Older Black leaders today as in 1966, decry “Black Lives Matter” as a political movement. Many of those who do were members of the Dr. King faction of the civil rights movement or have been mentored by persons who fought against Carmichael changing the narrative from seeking benevolent concessions from the white man to flexing Black Power in order to gain respect and dignity inherently and explicitly engrained in the DNA of every living human.
Recently, Andrew Young, a high ranking confident of Dr. King, called Atlanta Black Lives Matter protesters, “spoiled brats.”
Black Power they yelled yesterday. It is the same song today: What do we want; and the young voices yell, “we want Black lives to matter too!
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.