One of the tragedies of the struggle against racism is that
up to now there has been no national organization which could speak to
the growing militancy of young black people in the urban ghetto. There
has been only a civil rights movement, whose tone of voice was adapted
to an audience of liberal whites. It served as a sort of buffer zone
between them and angry young blacks.
None of its so-called leaders could
go into a rioting community and be listened to. In a sense, I blame
ourselves—together with the mass media—for what has happened in Watts,
Harlem, Chicago, Cleveland, Omaha. Each time the people in those cities
saw Martin Luther King get slapped, they became angry; when they saw
four little black girls bombed to death, they were angrier; and when
nothing happened, they were steaming.
We had nothing to offer that they
could see, except to go out and be beaten again. We helped to build
For too many years, black Americans marched and
had their heads broken and got shot. They were saying to the country,
“Look, you guys are supposed to be nice guys and we are only going to do
what we are supposed to do—why do you beat us up, why don’t you give us
what we ask, why don’t you straighten yourselves out?” After years of
this, we are at almost the same point—because we demonstrated from a
position of weakness. We cannot be expected any longer to march and have
our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys.
For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.
which claims to speak for the needs of a community—as does the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—must speak in the tone of that
community, not as somebody else’s buffer zone. This is the significance
of black power as a slogan. For once, black people are going to use the
words they want to use—not just the words whites want to hear. And they
will do this no matter how often the press tries to stop the use of the
slogan by equating it with racism or separatism.
which claims to be working for the needs of a community—as SNCC
does—must work to provide that community with a position of strength
from which to make its voice heard. This is the significance of black
power beyond the slogan.
BLACK POWER can be
clearly defined for those who do not attach the fears of white America
to their questions about it. We should begin with the basic fact that
black Americans have two problems: they are poor and they are black. All
other problems arise from this two-sided reality: lack of education,
the so-called apathy of black men. Any program to end racism must
address itself to that double reality.
Almost from its beginning,
SNCC sought to address itself to both conditions with a program aimed at
winning political power for impoverished Southern blacks. We had to
begin with politics because black Americans are a propertyless people in
a country where property is valued above all. We had to work for power,
because this country does not function by morality, love, and
nonviolence, but by power. Thus we determined to win political power,
with the idea of moving on from there into activity that would have
economic effects. With power, the masses could make or participate in making the decisions which govern their destinies, and thus create basic change in their day-to-day lives.
if political power seemed to be the key to self-determination, it was
also obvious that the key had been thrown down a deep well many years
earlier. Disenfranchisement, maintained by racist terror, makes it
impossible to talk about organizing for political power in 1960. The
right to vote had to be won, and SNCC workers devoted their energies to
this from 1961 to 1965. They set up voter registration drives in the
Deep South. They created pressure for the vote by holding mock elections
in Mississippi in 1963 and by helping to establish the Mississippi
Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964. That struggle was eased, though
not won, with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. SNCC workers
could then address themselves to the question: “Who can we vote for, to
have our needs met—how do we make our vote meaningful?”
already gone to Atlantic City for recognition of the Mississippi Freedom
Democratic Party by the Democratic convention and been rejected; it had
gone with the MFDP to Washington for recognition by Congress and been
rejected. In Arkansas, SNCC helped thirty Negroes to run for School
Board elections; all but one were defeated, and there was evidence of
fraud and intimidation sufficient to cause their defeat. In Atlanta,
Julian Bond ran for the state legislature and was elected—twice—and
unseated—twice. In several states, black farmers ran in elections for
agricultural committees which make crucial decisions concerning land
use, loans, etc. Although they won places on a number of committees,
they never gained the majorities needed to control them.
OF THE EFFORTS were attempts to win black power. Then, in Alabama, the
opportunity came to see how blacks could be organized on an independent
party basis. An unusual Alabama law provides that any group of citizens
can nominate candidates for county office and, if they win 20 per cent
of the vote, may be recognized as a county political party. The same
then applies on a state level. SNCC went to organize in several counties
such as Lowndes, where black people—who form 80 per cent of the
population and have an average annual income of $943—felt they could
accomplish nothing within the framework of the Alabama Democratic Party
because of its racism and because the qualifying fee for this year’s
elections was raised from $50 to $500 in order to prevent most Negroes
from becoming candidates. On May 3, five new county “freedom
organizations” convened and nominated candidates for the offices of
sheriff, tax assessor, members of the school boards.
These men and women
are up for election in November—if they live until then.
symbol is the black panther: a bold, beautiful animal, representing the
strength and dignity of black demands today. A man needs a black panther
on his side when he and his family must endure—as hundreds of
Alabamians have endured—loss of job, eviction, starvation, and sometimes
death, for political activity. He may also need a gun and SNCC
reaffirms the right of black men everywhere to defend themselves when
threatened or attacked.
As for initiating the use of violence, we hope
that such programs as ours will make that unnecessary; but it is not for
us to tell black communities whether they can or cannot use any
particular form of action to resolve their problems. Responsibility for
the use of violence by black men, whether in self defense or initiated
by them, lies with the white community.
|Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture) in 1966|
This is the specific
historical experience from which SNCC’s call for “black power” emerged
on the Mississippi march last July. But the concept of “black power” is
not a recent or isolated phenomenon: It has grown out of the ferment of
agitation and activity by different people and organizations in many
black communities over the years. Our last year of work in Alabama added
a new concrete possibility. In Lowndes county, for example, black power
will mean that if a Negro is elected sheriff, he can end police
brutality. If a black man is elected tax assessor, he can collect and
channel funds for the building of better roads and schools serving black
people—thus advancing the move from political power into the economic
arena. In such areas as Lowndes, where black men have a majority, they
will attempt to use it to exercise control.
This is what they seek:
Where Negroes lack a majority, black power means proper
representation and sharing of control. It means the creation of power
bases from which black people can work to change statewide or nationwide
patterns of oppression through pressure from strength—instead of
Politically, black power means what it has always meant to
SNCC: the coming-together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs.
It does not mean merely putting black faces into office. A man or woman
who is black and from the slums cannot be automatically expected to
speak to the needs of black people. Most of the black politicians we see
around the country today are not what SNCC means by black power. The
power must be that of a community, and emanate from there.
today is working in both North and South on programs of voter
registration and independent political organizing. In some places, such
as Alabama, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and New Jersey,
independent organizing under the black panther symbol is in progress.
The creation of a national “black panther party” must come about; it
will take time to build, and it is much too early to predict its
success. We have no infallible master plan and we make no claim to
exclusive knowledge of how to end racism; different groups will work in
their own different ways. SNCC cannot spell out the full logistics of
self-determination but it can address itself to the problem by helping
black communities define their needs, realize their strength, and go
into action along a variety of lines which they must choose for
Without knowing all the answers, it can address itself to
the basic problem of poverty; to the fact that in Lowndes County, 86
white families own 90 per cent of the land. What are black people in
that county going to do for jobs, where are they going to get money?
There must be reallocation of land, of money.
the economic foundations of this country must be shaken if black people
are to control their lives. The colonies of the United States—and this
includes the black ghettoes within its borders, north and south—must be
liberated. For a century, this nation has been like an octopus of
exploitation, its tentacles stretching from Mississippi and Harlem to
South America, the Middle East, southern Africa, and Vietnam; the form
of exploitation varies from area to area but the essential result has
been the same—a powerful few have been maintained and enriched at the
expense of the poor and voiceless colored masses. This pattern must be
broken. As its grip loosens here and there around the world, the hopes
of black Americans become more realistic. For racism to die, a totally
different America must be born.
This is what the white society
does not wish to face; this is why that society prefers to talk about
integration. But integration speaks not at all to the problem of
poverty, only to the problem of blackness. Integration today means the
man who “makes it,” leaving his black brothers behind in the ghetto as
fast as his new sports car will take him. It has no relevance to the
Harlem wino or to the cotton-picker making three dollars a day. As a
lady I know in Alabama once said, “the food that Ralph Bunche eats
doesn’t fill my stomach.”
Integration, moreover, speaks to the
problem of blackness in a despicable way. As a goal, it has been based
on complete acceptance of the fact that in order to have a decent
house or education, blacks must move into a white neighborhood or send
their children to a white school. This reinforces, among both black and
white, the idea that “white” is automatically better and “black” is by
definition inferior. This is why integration is a subterfuge for the
maintenance of white supremacy. It allows the nation to focus on a
handful of Southern children who get into white schools, at great price,
and to ignore the 94 per cent who are left behind in unimproved
Such situations will not change until black people
have power—to control their own school boards, in this case.
Negroes become equal in a way that means something, and integration
ceases to be a one-way street. Then integration doesn’t mean draining
skills and energies from the ghetto into white neighborhoods; then it
can mean white people moving from Beverly Hills into Watts, white people
joining the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Then integration
Last April, before the furor over black power, Christopher Jencks wrote in a New Republic article on white Mississippi’s manipulation of the anti-poverty program:
The war on poverty has been predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as a community
which can be defined geographically and mobilized for a collective
effort to help the poor. This theory has no relationship to reality in
the Deep South. In every Mississippi county there are two
communities. Despite all the pious platitudes of the moderates on both
sides, these two communities habitually see their interests in terms of
conflict rather than cooperation. Only when the Negro community can
muster enough political, economic and professional strength to compete
on somewhat equal terms, will Negroes believe in the possibility of true
cooperation and whites accept its necessity. En route to integration,
the Negro community needs to develop greater independence—a chance to
run its own affairs and not cave in whenever “the man” barks…Or so it
seems to me, and to most of the knowledgeable people with whom I talked
in Mississippi. To OEO, this judgment may sound like black nationalism…
JENCKS, a white reporter, perceived the reason why America’s
anti-poverty program has been a sick farce in both North and South. In
the South, it is clearly racism which prevents the poor from running
their own programs; in the North, it more often seems to be politicking
and bureaucracy. But the results are not so different: In the North,
non-whites make up 42 per cent of all families in metropolitan “poverty
areas” and only 6 per cent of families in areas classified as not poor.
SNCC has been working with local residents in Arkansas, Alabama, and
Mississippi to achieve control by the poor of the program and its funds;
it has also been working with groups in the North, and the struggle is
no less difficult. Behind it all is a federal government which cares far
more about winning the war on the Vietnamese than the war on poverty;
which has put the poverty program in the hands of self-serving
politicians and bureaucrats rather than the poor themselves; which is
unwilling to curb the misuse of white power but quick to condemn black
To most whites, black power seems to mean that the Mau Mau
are coming to the suburbs at night. The Mau Mau are coming, and whites
must stop them. Articles appear about plots to “get Whitey,” creating an
atmosphere in which “law and order must be maintained.” Once again,
responsibility is shifted from the oppressor to the oppressed. Other
whites chide, “Don’t forget—you’re only 10 per cent of the population;
if you get too smart, we’ll wipe you out.” If they are liberals, they
complain, “what about me?—don’t you want my help any more?”
people supposedly concerned about black Americans, but today they think
first of themselves, of their feelings of rejection. Or they admonish,
“you can’t get anywhere without coalitions,” when there is in fact no
group at present with whom to form a coalition in which blacks will not
be absorbed and betrayed. Or they accuse us of “polarizing the races” by
our calls for black unity, when the true responsibility for
polarization lies with whites who will not accept their responsibility
as the majority power for making the democratic process work.
America will not face the problem of color, the reality of it. The
well-intended say: “We’re all human, everybody is really decent, we must
forget color.” But color cannot be “forgotten” until its weight is
recognized and dealt with. White America will not acknowledge that the
ways in which this country sees itself are contradicted by being
black—and always have been. Whereas most of the people who settled this
country came here for freedom or for economic opportunity, blacks were
brought here to be slaves.
When the Lowndes County Freedom Organization
chose the black panther as its symbol, it was christened by the press
“the Black Panther Party”—but the Alabama Democratic Party, whose symbol
is a rooster, has never been called the White Cock Party. No one ever
talked about “white power” because power in this country is
white. All this adds up to more than merely identifying a group
phenomenon by some catchy name or adjective. The furor over that black
panther reveals the problems that white America has with color and sex;
the furor over “black power” reveals how deep racism runs and the great
fear which is attached to it.
WHITES WILL NOT SEE
that I, for example, as a person oppressed because of my blackness, have
common cause with other blacks who are oppressed because of blackness.
This is not to say that there are no white people who see things as I
do, but that it is black people I must speak to first. It must be the
oppressed to whom SNCC addresses itself primarily, not to friends from
the oppressing group.
From birth, black people are told a set of
lies about themselves. We are told that we are lazy—yet I drive through
the Delta area of Mississippi and watch black people picking cotton in
the hot sun for fourteen hours. We are told, “If you work hard, you’ll
succeed”—but if that were true, black people would own this country. We
are oppressed because we are black—not because we are ignorant, not
because we are lazy, not because we’re stupid (and got good rhythm), but
because we’re black.
I remember that when I was a boy, I used to
go to see Tarzan movies on Saturday. White Tarzan used to beat up the
black natives. I would sit there yelling, “Kill the beasts, kill the
savages, kill ’em!” I was saying: Kill me. It was as if a Jewish
boy watched Nazis taking Jews off to concentration camps and cheered
them on. Today, I want the chief to beat hell out of Tarzan and send him
back to Europe. But it takes time to become free of the lies and their
shaming effect on black minds. It takes time to reject the most
important lie: that black people inherently can’t do to same things
white people can do, unless white people help them.
The need for
psychological equality is the reason why SNCC today believes that blacks
must organize in the black community. Only black people can convey the
revolutionary idea that black people are able to do things themselves.
Only they can help create in the community an aroused and continuing
black consciousness that will provide the basis for political strength.
In the past, white allies have furthered white supremacy without the
whites involved realizing it—or wanting it, I think. Black people must
do things for themselves; they must get poverty money they will control
and spend themselves, they must conduct tutorial programs themselves so
that black children can identify with black people. This is one reason
Africa has such importance: The reality of black men ruling their own
natives gives blacks elsewhere a sense of possibility, of power, which
they do not now have.
This does not mean we don’t welcome help, or
friends. But we want the right to decide whether anyone is, in fact,
our friend. In the past, black Americans have been almost the only
people whom everybody and his momma could jump up and call their
friends. We have been tokens, symbols, objects—as I was in high school
to many young whites, who liked having “a Negro friend.” We want to
decide who is our friend, and we will not accept someone who comes to us
and says: “If you do X, Y, and Z, then I’ll help you.” We will not be
told whom we should choose as allies. We will not be isolated from any
group or nation except by our own choice. We cannot have the oppressors
telling the oppressed how to rid themselves of the oppressor.
HAVE SAID that most liberal whites react to “black power” with the
question, What about me?, rather than saying: Tell me what you want me
to do and I’ll see if I can do it. There are answers to the right
question. One of the most disturbing things about almost all white
supporters of the movement has been that they are afraid to go into
their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get
rid of it. They want to run from Berkeley to tell, us what to do in
Mississippi; let them look instead at Berkeley. They admonish blacks to
be nonviolent; let them preach non-violence in the white community. They
come to teach me Negro history; let them go to the suburbs and open up
freedom schools for whites. Let them work to stop America’s racist
foreign policy; let them press this government to cease supporting the
economy of South Africa.
There is a vital job to be done among
poor whites. We hope to see, eventually, a coalition between poor blacks
and poor whites. That is the only coalition which seems acceptable to
us, and we see such a coalition as the major internal instrument of
change in American society. SNCC has tried several times to organize
poor whites; we are trying again now, with an initial training program
in Tennessee. It is purely academic today to talk about bringing poor
blacks and whites together, but the job of creating a poor-white power
bloc must be attempted. The main responsibility for it falls upon
whites. Black and white can work together in the white community where
possible; it is not possible, however, to go into a poor Southern town
and talk about integration. Poor whites everywhere are becoming more
hostile—not less—partly because they see the nation’s attention focussed
on black poverty and nobody coming to them. Too many young middle-class
Americans, like some sort of Pepsi generation, have wanted to come
alive through the black community; they’ve wanted to be where the action
is—and the action has been in the black community.
do not want to “take over” this country. They don’t want to “get
whitey”; they just want to get him off their backs, as the saying goes.
It was for example the exploitation by Jewish landlords and merchants
which first created black resentment toward Jews—not Judaism. The white
man is irrelevant to blacks, except as an oppressive force. Blacks want
to be in his place, yes, but not in order to terrorize and lynch and
starve him. They want to be in his place because that is where a decent
life can be had.
But our vision is not merely of a society in
which all black men have enough to buy the good things of life. When we
urge that black money go into black pockets, we mean the communal
pocket. We want to see money go back into the community and used to
benefit it. We want to see the cooperative concept applied in business
and banking. We want to see black ghetto residents demand that an
exploiting store keeper sell them, at minimal cost, a building or a shop
that they will own and improve cooperatively; they can back their
demand with a rent strike, or a boycott, and a community so unified
behind them that no one else will move into the building or buy at the
The society we seek to build among black people, then, is not a
capitalist one. It is a society in which the spirit of community and
humanistic love prevail.
The word love is suspect; black expectations of
what it might produce have been betrayed too often. But those were
expectations of a response from the white community, which failed us.
The love we seek to encourage is within the black community, the only
American community where men call each other “brother” when they meet.
We can build a community of love only where we have the ability and
power to do so: among blacks.
AS FOR WHITE
AMERICA, perhaps it can stop crying out against “black supremacy,”
“black nationalism,” “racism in reverse,” and begin facing reality. The
reality is that this nation, from top to bottom, is racist; that racism
is not primarily a problem of “human relations” but of an exploitation
maintained—either actively or through silence—by the society as a whole.
Camus and Sartre have asked, can a man condemn himself? Can whites,
particularly liberal whites, condemn themselves? Can they stop blaming
us, and blame their own system? Are they capable of the shame which
might become a revolutionary emotion?
We have found that they
usually cannot condemn themselves, and so we have done it. But the
rebuilding of this society, if at all possible, is basically the
responsibility of whites—not blacks.
We won’t fight to save the present
society, in Vietnam or anywhere else. We are just going to work, in the
way we see fit, and on goals we define, not for civil rights but for all our human rights.
Black Power December 1, 1966