Black nationalism was mostly nonviolent. However, some African-American leaders were very angry. To these people, gradualism was anathema. It suggested that races could coexist together at the very time when many were suggesting that the races should remain separated. In The Fire Next Time (1962) James Baldwin wrote of the “rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape . . . fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone.” By 1970, many African-American thinkers, religious leaders, social workers, and politicians were outraged. In fact, hatred and unforgiveness ran so deeply in African-American culture that the struggle became the end itself–instead of a means to an end.
Five days after the great 1967 Newark race riots, the National Conference on Black Power, held an auspicious conference that marked a dramatic change in African-American resistance strategies. A seminal paper was presented by Adelaide Cromwell Hill entitled “What is Africa to us?” Hill asked this haunting question,”On this soil, the Negro has never been given an opportunity to name himself.” Black leaders vigorously called their people to resist white cultural encroachments. For the first time violence was openly sanctioned. The black nationalist movement was a black power movement.
In Pittsburgh an inflammatory pamphlet “The Black Mood in Pittsburgh” was widely read in the African-American community. “Black is anger, Tom,” it proclaims. This pamphlet called for a “Burn Day.” “Black Power cannot mean only a black sheriff in the sovereign state of Alabama. . . black power is the power to control our lives,” LeRoi Jones wrote in 1971. “We can have nothing without power.” Black power consciously tied its views to the historical reality of America prejudice. Part of the black power movement were trying to ameliorate its race through community-based interventions. But, from the beginning, black organizers saw themselves as soldiers in a war against white domination.
White American culture was a culture that for three hundred years dominated and controlled, not nurtured and comforted. Black nationalists now decided to wage war on that society. They felt that they had no choice.
What caused the black community to move from non-violent resistance to violent resistance? There were isolated instances of African-American violence before (e.g., Nat Turner Slave Revolt), but nothing like the violence manifested in the summer of 1968. The black community moved from non-violent resistance to violent resistance because African-Americans saw themselves in an intolerable state of shame. This violence was precipitated by the April assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but frustration had been brewing in the African-American heart for years. Violence was inevitably seen as a course of last resort–the black community understood that it was their community that was being destroyed not the predominately white community–but it became necessary because they felt they had no choice. To the African-American community, the 1968 riots were retributive justice. To most whites this violence was a wake-up call.
African-American violence increased even more with the assassination of Martin Luther King, jr. For many African-Americans King’s assassination seemed to seal the demise of nonviolent resistance as a viable means of achieving equality for black America. But, as early as 1962, with the murder of James Meredith, African-American leaders like Stokely Carmichael were calling for a more radical response to racism. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton had a powerful vision: Pan-African nationalism and Separatism. Carmichael’s vision was decidedly political.
A similar vision arose that emphasized the cultural uniqueness of African-American culture. From this perspective, in 1966, the Black Panthers were founded by African-American nationalists Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Sympathetic to this movement included radicals like H. Rap Brown. Brown spoke with great pain and anger: “Fuck attitudes. Fuck a muthatfucka who hates me, because if I ever get him on the wrong end of a gun he’s in trouble.” “Separate but equal is cool with me. What’s the big kick about going to school with white folks?” “We stand for the transformation of the decadent, reactionary, racist system that exists at this time . . . We don’t like the system. We want to negate the system.”
The Black Panther Party of Self Defense was an organized movement designed to spread a message of pride and empowerment to African-Americans. Their tactics were openly aggressive, and violent if necessary (as contrasted with the National Association of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). They wanted immediate results and were not willing to wait for legal and legislative processes. The Black Panthers wanted revolution not gradualism. The Black Panthers did not allow radical whites to belong to their organization–an uncharacteristic phenomenon for any Black Power movement. Black power advocates were calling for educational segregation.
But they were more than urban guerrillas. They set up community-based medical testing for sickle-cell anemia and lead poisoning, registered voters, and organized food giveaway. Now blacks did not have to rely on whites for anything. All their programs promoted an old tactic first suggested by white supremists: segregation. They urged the African-American community to form a separate nation in the United States. They excluded themselves from white America.
Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan began the controversial Nation of Islam or African-American Muslims. The idea of returning to Islam as the ancestral religion of African-Americans was not new. In the 1920’s Marcus Garvey suggested that Blacks reject white institutions–including its religions and form their own. But now, Farrakhan and Malcolm X connected Christianity to white hatred. “A White Man’s Heaven is a African-American Man’s Hell” is the national anthem of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan saw a vast white conspiracy seeking to conceal the glorious past of African-Americans and the Nation of Islam sought to set the record straight. Sharod Baker, a Columbia University student, and a member of the Nation of Islam, recently quoted, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying I hate them [whites]. They have caused me harm over and over, and I wish they are [were] dead.”
King called for reconciliation and nonviolence, assimilation and peaceful coexistence, not violence. Toward the end of his life, King shifted somewhat toward separatist tactics, but he never embraced violence. Martin Luther King, Jr., stressed the unity of society and wanted to gain those ends through non-violent means. “African-American Americans should have the same right to vote, the same access to education, and the same economic opportunities as every other American,” King argued. “They have the same goal as every other immigrant group–full assimilation into American life.” King gave both blacks and whites hope that the race problem in America could be solved. But when African-Americans saw that assimilation was not working, some embraced “tribalism”.
Another black power champion was Stokely Carmichael (mentioned above), chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The SNCC was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April, 1960, at the suggestion of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a student arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SNCC’s objective was defined as integration through non-violent protest all of which was incorporated into the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project launched in 1964. The SNCC formally adopted a black-consciousness philosophy and a separatist stance. African-American resistance was clearly defined as pro-black and anti-white. Northern white activists were expelled and the group broke with Martin Luther King, Jr. The organization faded from the public eye by 1969 but its causes were embraced by nationalistic groups. The Black Panthers, too, were disbanded by the middle of the 1970’s, but during this decade they captured the African-American social agenda and deeply impacted African-American society. Any racial discussion that speaks of “black power,” “black identity,” or “black self-determination” traces its genesis to the black nationalistic movement.
The 1960’s marked a shift in resistance: from non-violence to violence, from gradualism to immediatism, from desegregation to separatism. Clearly this shift, that exists today, marked a new challenge for racial reconciliation proponents. In the middle 1970’s fully 30% of black Americans felt that violence may be necessary to bring change and 8% were sure that it would be necessary. Very little has changed in twenty years. Similar studies and articles today confirm those fears among many African-Americans.
Today, the African-American community increasingly feels betrayed and short-changed by American culture. In fact, the General Baptist Convention of North Carolina is on record supporting African-American churches of all denominations establishing and operating separate Christian schools. In other words, the General Baptist Convention in North Carolina abandoned assimilation on “Christian” grounds rather than racial grounds exclusively.
The African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote in his poem “A Dream Deferred:”
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?