Clenched fist held in protest vector illustration. Panoramic

On the previous articles, we discussed the context in which the Black Panthers arose. We outlined the debates opened in 1965, when the group was founded, such as the questioning of racialism and pacifism, and the gradual (but always contradictory) movement’s approaches with class positions. In the last article, we also talked a little about the appearance of the Black Panther as a symbol of the movement and its relation with Stokely Carmichael’s thought.

By Wilson H. da Silva (National Education Secretariat) and Américo Gomes (National Leadership of PSTU).

 

In this article, the main subject is the main slogan of the movement: Black Power. Again, our goal is to discuss the polemics and different interpretations about the words, which echoed deeply within the hearts, minds, and actions of the Black youth of the time, which deeply marked not only the Panthers’ trajectory but also huge sectors of the Black movement since then.

The idea of what “Black Power” was and how it should be built has to be discussed since it was not a consensus, even in the 60’s or among the Black Panthers. It remains alive especially for those who interpret it as a revolutionary, radical stance on its own, or as completely antagonistic towards the defense of politics of struggle against racism. This includes the alliance with other oppressed and exploited sectors. That is, a race and class position.

Carmichael, Black Power And Racialism

As mentioned on the previous article, Stokely Carmichael was behind both the appearance of the Black Panther as the symbol of the movement and the popularization of the term “Black Power”. It was on June 1966, amidst a wave of protests which had their apex on the “March Against Fear”, on Mississippi, that Carmichael launched the war-cry that entered History: “This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain’t going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nuthin’. What we gonna start sayin’ now is Black Power!”

The words hit like a tsunami and the Black masses echoed in a choir: Black Power. The rest is History. Those two words acquired immense strength. They filled the Black people with such enormous pride that they overflowed in naturally curly, freed and voluminous hair which became synonymous with the movement. They fed dreams of freedom which made Black fists rise throughout the world, be it on the streets, on universities and slums, be it on the Olympic Games and prisons.

The Panthers ended up being the group most identified with the slogan, and it associated the slogan up until this day with their methods and politics. However, as a reflection on the debates which were happening and of the different political perspectives that were being adopted by the movements, there were also different and opposing interpretations of what “Black Power” would mean, exactly.

Generally but not exclusively, what was common between them was the idea that Black men and women shouldn’t only be the protagonists of the fight for their own liberation, but also they should develop their own forms of organization and methods of struggle.

As seen, however, there was a strong influence of Carmichael’s ideas, who also defended that the only allies in the struggle against racism should be Black men and women. He summed this up on the book “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America“, written with Charles Hamilton 1967[1] “is 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 begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support those organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this society. (…)”.

The fate of the Panthers and other movements of the time was marked exactly by the contradiction expressed in the midst of this sentence: on one hand, was the unquestionable need for uniting and organizing Black men and women, and to encourage them to rescue their history and the pride of their heritage. Also, the necessary defense that Black men and women should be the protagonists on the definition of the program and the forms of their struggles.

On the other hand, the racialism in Carmichael’s view placed in check the possibility of unity with other oppressed and exploited sectors, something that was evident on his thoughts of how the movement should organize: “Blacks should direct and lead their own organizations. Only Blacks can transmit the idea – and it is a revolutionary idea – that Blacks are capable of doing things for themselves. Only they can help in creating in the community a permanent Black consciousness, which will serve as the basis for the political force (…)”.

Carmichael’s stance had contradictions; however, it was emphatic and served as one of the pillars of the call for the construction of a Black Party.  Aware of the relations between racism and Imperialism, and influenced by the ideas of the physician, writer and Marxist militant Franz Fanon[2], by the Cuban Revolution and by the Vietnam War, the Black leader was not blind to the revolutionary actions of non-Black peoples and militants.

An example of this was the statement given when Che was murdered, in October 1967: “The death of Che Guevara places a responsibility on the shoulders of every revolutionary on the world to double our decision to fight until the final defeat of imperialism. This is why, in his essence, Che Guevara is not dead: his ideas are with us”.

However, beyond the ideas of its author, the term Black Power also acquired many other meanings at the time. All of them still echo nowadays.

How And With Whom To Build Black Power?

The U.S. government, the right-wing and the “moderate” Black movements did not linger in placing the absurd label of “reverse racism” on the Black Power movement, something we do not think is necessary to ponder about. However, this was far from being the only debate generated by Carmichael’s proposal. As remembered by Ahmed Shawki, on his book “Black Liberation and Socialism“, “Four interconnected interpretations of Black Power emerged: (i) as Black capitalism, (ii) as Black electoral power, (iii) as cultural nationalism, and (iv) as radical Black nationalism”.[3]

We cannot approach in this article examples of each one of these understandings, but we want to observe a few things about the first two. Despite being a minority on the mid 60’s, the defense of a “Black capitalism” had (and still has) direct echoes (and the most regrettable ones) on the Black movements and population as a whole (bombarded and numbed by the bourgeois ideologies of social ascension, status, privileges, meritocracy, etc.).

In this regard, to rescue its origins we quote Nathan Wright Jr., one of the organizers and presidents of the Black Power Conference held in 1967. In addition to having supported the election, on the 70’s, of the disgusting, corrupt Richard Nixon (one of the leaders of the dirty war against the Panthers) and, years after, of the equally loathsome Reagan, Wright defended that the essence was to conquer “a fair share of the pie” (that is, of the capital). An absurd idea which led to even greater nonsense.

Black Power Conference, in 1967.
Black Power Conference, in 1967.

Thanks to Nathan’s influence, the Black Power Conference was co-sponsored by a company led solely by whites, the Clairol Company, whose president defined Black Power as “Black ownership of apartments, ownership of houses, ownership of business, as well as equitable treatment of all people”.[4]

As we know, the capitalist perspective was never on the horizon of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Nevertheless, it must be outlined that in the past or in the present the defencs of “Black Capitalism”, or the ‘institutional way’, was unfurled within the movements. It was done through organizations that have, as their horizon, the defense of various forms of “individual” or “within the system” empowerment; reformist or directly pro-bourgeois stances. This manifests as the defense of the illusion of social ascent, of the so called “market citizenship”, of “liberation through consumption”, or pure and simple integration with the system.

Faced with them, like many of the Black Panthers before us, our answer is simple and has already been turned into verse by Solano Trindade: “Blacks who are friends with Capital are not my brothers”.

The Illusion Of “Power Through The Vote”

Even though we will debate the specific subject of the Black Panthers on the conclusion of these articles, it is worthwhile to comment a bit on the idea of Black Power as electoral power. Always submissive to the bourgeois logic, and its control over the means of production and ideological mechanisms, the electoral perspective, when taken as the centre of political action or separated from a revolutionary perspective, leads inevitably to tortuous paths and irreversible deviations.

The organization founded by Carmichael himself, the LCFO, became a disconcerting example of this. In 1970, the group reconciled with the Democrat Party and elected a series of candidates to public seats of the city. The fact that Hulett became sheriff of Lowndes needs no further comment.

At the time of the appearance of the Panthers, one of the most relevant cases, among other reasons due to the impact it had on the history of the U.S. Black movement, is the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which, as we saw, was quite present in the struggles for civil rights in the beginning of the 60’s. One of its main leaders on the city of Cleveland (Ohio) was Floyd McKissick, who made enthusiastic statements of support to Carmichael’s ideas, defining himself as a “Black Nationalist”.

However, in 1967, he accepted US$175,000 from the Ford Foundation to “support voter registration efforts, exploration of economic development programs, youth and adult community worker training, and attempts to improve program planning among civil rights groups”.[5]

As outlined by Ahmed Shawki, McKissick was one of many who underestimated a permanent policy of the bourgeoisie: “The Ford Foundation’s seeming generosity was an indication that one section of the ruling class was eager to see the incorporation of middle-class Blacks [to the U.S. society] in order to isolate and reduce the influence of the militant wing of the movement”.[6]

Something that the representatives of the Foundation made no effort to hide. A campaign for voter registrations in Cleveland was“especially important for Ford Foundation because it hoped to channel Black anger into an electoral campaign”, particularly when, in the beginning of 66, protests swept the city: an intention openly defended by the director of Ford, McGeorge Bundy: “It was predictions of new violence in the city that led to our first staff visits there in March”.[7]

CORE’s version of how and with whom Black Power should be built, sadly, made history when in November 1967 the city of Cleveland elected Carl Stokes, of the Democratic Party, as the first Black mayor elected in a large city on the U.S.

An election that, as outlined by the editor of the International Socialist Review, established a pattern that became the rule in other elections of Black men and women: “Black Clevelanders soon found out that the new mayor was more interested in making deals with the Democratic machine than in the progress of the movement”. Besides placing only two Blacks on his cabinet and naming a right-wing white man as Police Chief, “Stokes’ commitment to “law and order” won him the renewed backing of local business, the media and national Democrats for his reelection campaign of 1969″.[8]

As History is full of ironies, the importance and contradictions of the notion of Black Power incarnated by Carl Stokes in the 60s has very curious (and tragic) parallels with nowadays. One of the most important Black politicians in Baltimore currently has been named in homage to the mayor elected in 1967. The present-day Carol Stokes is vice-president of the city’s Education committee and member of a few others, in areas such as Health, Planning, Economy and Taxes.

However, he is not the only “empowered” Black on Baltimore’s institutions. There, Black men and women are in the main positions of “power”. Aside from mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Police Commissar, the majority and the president of the City Council, the Public Schools Superintendent and all of councilors of the Housing Committee.

However, Baltimore is also the city where Freddy Gray, a young Black man aged 25, was murdered by six cops while being “detained”. And the huge presence of Black “empowered authorities” meant absolutely nothing. After a lot of judicial maneuvers, the six uniformed murderers were completely absolved.

A situation that led writer and Black and popular movement activist Keeanga-Yamahta Taylor to a conclusion which we think is rather adequate. In an article published in “In These Times” magazine (called “In Baltimore and Across the Country, Black Faces in High Places Haven’t Helped Average Black People“), Taylor reminds us: “Today, we have more Black elected officials in the United States than at any point in American history. Yet for the vast majority of Black people, life has changed very little. Black elected officials have largely governed in the same way as their white counterparts, reflecting all of the racism, corruption and policies favoring the wealthy seen throughout mainstream politics”.

Power Only With Race And Class

The history of the Panthers was deeply marked by the many times contradictory ways the group dealt with its notion of Black Power. It expressed through different policies, like self-organization of the Black community (in schools, restaurants, kindergartens, clinics and other services); a radical policy of self-defense; parliamentary pressure and participation with the party’s own candidates in electoral processes, and other tactics that became (and still are) essential to the struggle against racism.

The oscillations, deviations, victories and defeats of the group are related to how these tactics and policies were linked with a more general notion of struggle or power. Something which could only be outlined with the use of the idea of race and class.

This debate was always alive among the ranks, as Bobby Seale shows in the book, published in 1971, where he tells the story of Panthers and of Huey P. Newton: “We, the Black Panther Party, see ourselves as a nation within a nation, but not for any racist reasons. We see it as a necessity for us to progress as human beings and live on the face of this earth along with other people. We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism. These principles are very functional for the Party. They’re very practical, humanistic, and necessary. They should be understood by the masses of the people”.[9]

A perspective that also extended to the more “controversial” method of action of the Panthers, self-defense, a matter we will cover on the next texts: “(…) we have never used our guns to go into the white community to shoot up white people. We only defend ourselves against anybody, be they black, blue, green, or red, who attacks us unjustly and tries to murder us and kill us for implementing our programs. (…)  I think people can see from our past practice, that ours is not a racist organization but a very progressive revolutionary party“.[10]

**

Translation: Gabriel Tolstoy.

Notes:

[1] Carmichael, Stokely; Hamilton, Charles V. (1967). Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House: 1967. pp. 44–56.

[2] Frantz Fanon (1925-61) was born (with French and African ancestors) on Martinica, a country of the Caribbean. He was a psychiatrist and took part in the revoluctionary struggle in Algeria. He produced essential works about the fight against colonialism and racism, such as “Black Skins, White Masks” (1952), “Year Five of the Algerian Revolution” (1959), “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) e “Towards the African Revolution” (published after his death, in 1964).

[3] The term “Black nationalism” is, in the U.S, used to define sectors of the movement that defended from territorial self-determination of the Black people up to different forms of racialism. Shawki, Ahmed. Black Liberation and Socialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books: 2006. p. 193.

[4] Idem, p. 194.

[5] Idem, p. 195.

[6] Idem, p. 195.

[7] Idem, p. 195.

[8] Lee Sustar, “Carving out a niche in the system”. Socialist Worker. March of 1988.

[9] Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. Black Classical Press, 1996. p. 21.

[10] Idem, p. 71