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Memoirs of a Revolutionist | The Nation

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Memoirs of a Revolutionist

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Nothing, however, produced greater ire toward liberals for the young activist than the cynical machinations of the Kennedy/Johnson Administration. Kennedy owed his narrow victory to the support of black voters, whom he had wooed during his campaign by calling Coretta King to express his concern over her husband's incarceration at a famously brutal Georgia prison. Yet President Kennedy and his Attorney General brother often treated the civil rights activists as if they were the violent racist segregationists depriving people of their rights. Carmichael took especial umbrage at Robert Kennedy's remark equating the freedom riders with the racists who attacked them as "extremists on both sides."

About the Author

Norman Kelley
Norman Kelley's latest book is A Phat Death (Akashic), a novel. His next nonfiction book, The Head Negro in Charge...

The Administration wanted the debacle of the Freedom Rides off the front page and into less confrontational, decisively back-page activities: voter registration. Carmichael argues that the "South's 4 million disenfranchised blacks might help offset" the loss of white Democratic votes. However, as a tactic and strategy for organizing black people, he felt that SNCC couldn't refuse the offer.

This tactic and strategy was largely successful and marked the beginning of the rise of post-civil rights black elected officials; but it also led to the unquestioning absorption of the black vote into the Democratic Party. And Carmichael was also front and center at the further manipulation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party by the Democratic Party. The roots of SNCC's radical change were grounded in its constant dealings with cautious white liberals, the opportunism of the Democratic Party and the fanatically entrenched racism of white Southerners (who mostly became Republicans later). Even Malcolm X, in his classic attack on the "farce on Washington," saw how the Kennedy Administration was trying to blunt the radical thrust of the "Negro revolution"--and SNCC was the tip of that arrow.

The great and admirable thing about SNCC was its willingness to go where action was needed and help ordinary black folk in places like Mississippi, Alabama and Cambridge, Maryland. Where King's SCLC emphasized moral suasion and hit-and-run demonstrations, SNCC--a cadre of organizers rooted in local communities working jointly with home-grown local leaders--preferred direct action to press for desegregation and voting rights. They were the "outside agitators" constantly denounced by unreconstructed Southerners who knew and understood "their" nigras better than any goddamn pointy-headed nigra intellectual. When one goes back and reads the chronicles of the civil rights era in such books as Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, David Garrow's Bearing the Cross, John Dittmer's Local People and Clayborne Carson's In Struggle, one is struck by the extent to which the South remained, more than a half-century after Reconstruction, a closed, virtually totalitarian society, especially in regard to the control and restriction of the black population in the region's "Black Belt" counties, notably those in Mississippi. Isolated and often miseducated into accepting white domination and violence as if it were the natural order of things, these communities were in desperate need of outside intervention.

The cry of Black Power, which Carmichael first used in 1966 at a Mississippi march that picked up from James Meredith's aborted "march" against fear after Meredith was wounded, put an issue on the table that neither whites nor "responsible" blacks wanted to address. People may have gotten upset that Black Power upended the etiquette of the civil rights movement, but Carmichael and SNCC had begun to question the efficacy of civil rights legislation and alliances when masses of blacks in the South and the Northern ghettos were still trapped in second-class citizenship and poverty. Carmichael and SNCC realized the upshot of what was transpiring: Blacks essentially had no ability to redress these grievances if they constantly appealed to white conscience and had to rely on the federal government. Hence they needed something that whites had, namely power, but a black version of it. However, the cry of Black Power was also a retreat from the kind of pivotal organizing work--voter registration, freedom schools, political mobilization--that SNCC had been carrying out in the bowels of the South. By encouraging a cult of the gun, which originally began as Malcolm X's legitimate call for black self-defense against racist violence, Black Power also opened the floodgates to undisciplined, even violent forms of protest that militant groups were unequipped to control. In cities like Watts, Newark and Detroit, urban blacks were showing what they meant by the slogan. In the parlance of soul music, a cultural contemporary of Black Power, "Papa had a brand new bag." Yet Black Power advocates like Carmichael were powerless to defend poor blacks against state repression, or channel black rage into a constructive political agenda. According to Carmichael, he had argued against the Panthers being characterized as a "revolutionary vanguard" because it would bring the heat of the state on black youths--and it did.

To a certain degree, opponents of Black Power, notably Bayard Rustin, were right in seeing Black Power as a cry of frustration, a throwing in of the towel, relinquishing programmatic endeavors that SNCC had been engaged in. Carmichael's 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (written with Columbia University political scientist Charles Hamilton), failed to articulate a plan or program beyond blacks banding together to get their own act together. Internally, SNCC was unable to control what it had started, since as an organization it had constantly vacillated between trying to be an organization with some structure and one with none and no leadership. As with most New Left organizations, the latter tendency won out.

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