Some Tentative Thoughts On SNCC, Black Power & Black Nationalism
 — Mike Miller
April, 2007

I want to make some comments on SNCC, Black Power and Black Nationalism. I think there are so many meanings attached to these terms that each needs to be broken down into categories, and then terms defined in each. I think the terms of the debate got horribly confused in the mid-1960s, and the rhetoric surrounding the use of the slogan "black power" didn't help matters very much.

I gave a speech at a People's World banquet in either late 1963 or early 1964. It was later published in The Movement in July, 1966 with the title, "Is There A Change In SNCC?" There was a prefatory "Note from Stokely Carmichael, newly elected SNCC Chairman," which said in part, "The following speech by a white SNCC worker indicates that the so-called 'new direction' in SNCC is not so new after allAt a time when SNCC is being misinterpreted by the press and misunderstood by its friends, it is useful to look into the history of the organization and see that we are taking no great departure from our original direction — the direction of independent power for Negroes in AmericaIt is imperative for us to understand our own history."

From its first voter registration/community organizing days in 1962, I think SNCC was about black power. It was not simply interested in registering people to vote, however important that was. It was also interested in building locally-led community/political organizations. Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) illustrated that at a state- level; county-level organizations illustrated that in black belt counties across the Deep South; The Albany Movement represented that.

The steady emphasis on building local leadership was another way in which SNCC understood building black power, as was the rejection of the idea that blacks had to be "qualified" to register to vote. "Let the people decide" was more than a romantic slogan.

Jim Forman talked about the power of the Dixiecrats in the US Congress and how an organized black electorate could end, or certainly weaken, that power. This appeal was especially effective with northern politically-active liberals and radicals and most of the American labor movement.

I have a great deal of admiration for John Lewis. But I don't think he understood organizing — most people don't. In the Carmichael-Lewis debate and struggle within SNCC, "organizing" came to be connected with "black power," while "integration" came to be connected with "mobilizing." These connections confused rather than clarified things. John may have been procedurally wrong to co-lead the Selma-Montgomery March (he was the chairman, not "an individual" in the organizational sense). At the same time, I think SNCC was wrong not to support it — though I didn't think so at the time. And John's action may have been one of those rare historic moments when you have to act even when your organization tells you not to.

Black power was sometimes counterposed to integration. That's a mistake. Black power, in Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's book on the subject, was understood as an example of a people group (Jews, Italians and Irish being others) who organized around their common peoplehood so that they could sit at decision-making tables and negotiate with other power groups. This is nothing but standard "pluralism" as written about by such classic American political scientists as V.O. Key.

I think black power should be counterposed to black powerlessness, not to integration. A totally powerless people are atomized, able only to function as individuals who cannot form any kind of associational life. In fact, even in the most oppressive circumstances, perhaps with the exception of solitary confinement in a prison, such total atomization doesn't exist. Totalitarian regimes seek to impose it, but are unable to because they cannot function with totally atomized people; they thus bear within themselves the seeds of opposition. Opponents to serious black power tried to get people to think black power = anti-white, black violence or black separatism. SNCC's rhetoric around black power didn't help clarify things, but the rhetoric was different from the substance.

With power, a group can decide whether it wants to develop its own institutions or participate in institutions that already exist in society. The black community has a history of establishing its own institutions going back to the days of the most rigid segregation: churches, funeral societies, insurance companies, professional associations, educational institutions, a wide range of businesses, etc.

To the extent that "community control" was more than administering institutions that were actually controlled by someone else (the legislature, school districts, foundations, etc), it was another expression of black power. ("Community control" had elements of illusion to it, but that's another discussion.)

Black power was also used to force equal rights in employment, housing, education and other settings. With varying degrees of success, depending in large part on how much black power they had, organizations of the African-American community sought to negotiate with politicians, business executives, union leaders and public administrators to break down barriers against equal opportunity. One could call what they were seeking "integration," but I think we would be clearer if we called it equal rights. When the equal rights approach didn't work, black power was sometimes used to win affirmative action and, in some cases, quotas. But this was not because black people wanted to be like white people — which is what some nationalists said integration was all about.

In the context of the South and The Movement, black power was juxtaposed to moral witness. Martin Luther King's approach was to use nonviolent direct action to enlist the moral conscience of the country so that it would force the Federal government to end segregation and discrimination. SNCC reacted against appeals to white moral conscience because, at the time, they didn't seem to be working. But SNCC had another criticism of King which I think stands the test of time: King would come to town, bring the attention of the national media, "mobilize" local people, then leave with no organizational infrastructure left behind. While the black church was certainly left behind, the capacity to act politically was not. It is out of this disagreement that there emerged the distinction between "mobilizing" and "organizing." I think Charlie Cobb wrote a paper for a 1963 or 1964 SNCC staff meeting in which he made the case that organizations mobilize but mobilizations don't necessarily build organizations. That distinction is a useful one today.

Both King and SNCC were, in fact, seeking to use black power — King by using the base of the black church, SNCC by organizing grassroots groups. I think that's why King was finally able to adopt the term "black power" while at the same time trying to defuse the sometimes incendiary rhetoric that surrounded its use. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it was a "both/and" not an "either/or" situation. The Selma-Montgomery March, which many of us opposed when it took place, was responsible for the Voting Rights Act. Without the Voting Rights law and amendments that provided for Justice Department appointed registrars, it would have been impossible for local movements in black belt counties to take over local city councils, school boards and county boards of supervisors or to elect a significant number of state legislators.

In the North, Saul Alinsky shifted all the resources of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to the black community because he concluded that black people were in motion for their own liberation, and that this kind of motion was an opportunity to build black power. The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) had as its slogan "self-determination through community power." Minister Franklin Florence, who headed the IAF- supported FIGHT organization in Rochester, NY, was an associate of Malcolm X. In fact, before he agreed to participate in the IAF project in Rochester, he asked Malcolm what he thought about Alinsky. "Malcolm said," according to Florence, "Alinsky is the most effective organizer in the country." In the early 1960s, Muhammed Speaks reported favorably on Alinsky's work in Chicago. Alinsky told me that he was puzzled when blacks in Chicago who had been cool toward him now were friendly. When he asked them what changed, they told him, "if the Muslims think you're o.k. you must be o.k." Alinsky was building black power and he was for "integration." When the Chicago school boycott was organized by Al Raby and others, TWO finally became a reluctant participant. They were reluctant because they thought it was a mobilization without organization behind it — i.e. that the power to win didn't exist. They participated because they believed in integrating the schools and didn't think they could send their kids to school when the rest of Chicago's black community was not..

When Stokely went to Washington, DC he was trying to build the black power to make Congress give voting rights to DC. While I don't think it's explicit in his book with Thelwell, I think the internal divisions that emerged in that organizing effort finally led him to abandon it and shift his focus to pan-Africanism.

SNCC began as an almost all-black organization. When the question arose of whether Mississippi volunteers who remained in the south should be members of the SNCC staff, I don't think it took a nationalist position to oppose their inclusion. This was not a question of "integration," but of the character of SNCC. It was appropriate that SNCC be a black-led, and principally black-membership organization. Nor do I think the December, 1966 staff meeting question of excluding all whites from the SNCC staff was a reflection of nationalism versus integration. It was, in fact, one of the expressions of defeat that weakened and finally destroyed SNCC.

SNCC began as an almost all-black organization. When the question arose of whether Mississippi volunteers who remained in the south should be members of the SNCC staff, I don't think it took a nationalist position to oppose their inclusion. This was not a question of "integration," but of the character of SNCC. It was appropriate that SNCC be a black-led, and principally black-membership organization. Nor do I think the December, 1966 staff meeting question of excluding all whites from the SNCC staff was a reflection of nationalism versus integration. Some argued that it was the presence of whites that weakened SNCC, I disagree. I think there were two sources for SNCC's unraveling.

First, we did not anticipate the power of our opposition. We lacked a specific power analysis that could give us organizing handles to dismantle the racist structures against which we were fighting. Jack Minnis' Research Department sometimes provided those, but they were not sufficient to inform a town-by-town, county-by-county, state-by-state, national strategy. In particular, we were unperpared for defeat at Atlantic City's 1964 Democratic Party Convention.

Second, we lacked the internal processes to keep the organization united in the face of the hostile environment in which it worked. This includes adequate mechanisms to handle disagreements, support internal compromise and reach near-consensus over what to do next when we confronted major obstacles; organizer screening, recruitment, training, support and disciplining mechanisms; means to deal with exhaustion, burnout and post-traumatic stress; black-community fundraising so that SNCC wasn't so dependent on Northern, mostly-white, money. SNCC had two clearly distinct organizing approaches, embodied in the differences between Jim Forman and Bob Moses. I do not know whether these could have been reconciled even under the bests of circumstances, but they simmered and sometimes erupted during the critical years of 1962-1966.

Even in the cultural dimension the terms of the debate are tricky. Perhaps there were, and maybe still are, some black people who wanted to assimilate into the culture of the United States, who may even have wished they didn't have black pigmentation. But I don't think black pride was the sole province of black nationalists; black self-hate or loathing was criticized by people who weren't nationalists. Black cultural expression was created both by nationalists and people who weren't nationalists. Again the ambiguity of the word "integration" causes more confusion than clarity.

Where there is oppression, exploitation, marginalization and/or discrimination based on any category of peoplehood — gender, age, race, ethnicity, class, occupation, religion, geographic area, whatever — the people in that oppressed group need to organize themselves to defeat the sources of their oppression. The organization of that group is a necessary but not sufficient condition to its emancipation or liberation. It needs allies when it goes to the negotiating table. The deeper the source of its oppression in the social structure — i.e. the more powerful the oppressive structure and its decision-makers, the more likely a group is to need allies to bring about change. For all the political change in the South, the economics of exploitation for the most part remains.

"Black power" took on a rhetorical tone that was not intrinsic to the idea. The shrillness of the times was amplified by media exaggerations and distortions. I think people were so exhausted, battle-fatigued, in some cases victimized by post-traumatic stress syndrome, that they lost revolutionary patience — the recognition that there is no justice without struggle and that the struggle will be a long one.

Copyright © 2007, Mike Miller

Copyright ©
(Labor donated)