Preface: In July & August of 2010, Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement discussed and debated the first draft of this website's "History & Timeline" article on the violence that shook northern cities in the mid-1960s. For the final version see Impact of Northern Urban Rebellions on the Southern Freedom Movement.]
Chude Pam Parker Allen
Willie B. Wazir Peacock
"Rebellion" or "Riot?"
Relevance to Today
Watts & Compton
Effect on the Southern Freedom Movement
Effect on Fundraising
Effect on State Repression
Effect on SNCC & SCLC
Effect on a Freedom Summer Project
Effect on White Violence
Effect on Southern Black Students
Effect on the Media
Perceptions of Malcolm X
War on Poverty
How Come Those Folks Up North Can't Shoot?
North & South
If you were part of the Southern Freedom Movement and listed in the Veterans Roll Call, you are encouraged to add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to email@example.com. (If you are not already listed on the Veterans Roll Call, please add your name and information.)
Bruce: The draft article tries to address the question of how did the Harlem uprising and the subsequent urban rebellions — Detroit, Watts, Newark —
Don: — Buffalo and Rochester —
Bruce: — and a hundred other cities — How did they affect the Southern Freedom Movement? Note that the article does not attempt to describe or evaluate northern urban uprisings in general, because our website is focused on the Southern Freedom Movement.
Jean: Well, there is one thing I want to put on the tape. I did not then, and I do not now, call these riots. Everybody here is free to call them whatever they want, but there is another perspective on this in which language is very, very important. So I never did, and I still don't —
Chude: So what do you use?
Jean: Rebellion. Rebellion, or urban rebellion or street rebellion, but rebellion, not riot. Uprising, I've used that too.
Mike: I object to the characterization of the riots as uprisings, rebellions, revolts, whatever the language is. I think they were riots. And I [can] cite a number of citations of what I think were [real] uprisings — Nat Turner, the Paris Commune, the things in Africa, so on, and so on.
Don: You want to downgrade it?
Mike: Yeah, I do, actually.
Bruce: There's a part in the draft article that says: "The mass media call it the 'Harlem Riot,' but Freedom Movement activists refer to it as the Harlem Rebellion or Harlem Uprising." And throughout, the article refers to all of them as either uprisings or rebellions —
Mike: Well, the first thing you read is accurate. Freedom Movement Veterans —
Bruce: But are you saying, Mike, that in the article we should use riot rather than uprising or rebellion?
Mike: When we're giving the benefit of a 40-year later perspective, yeah.
Jean: Could you explain a little more why you're arguing for that?
Mike: Because I think we make a — we don't do either the education of readers or ourselves a service by repeating a romanticized view that we had at the time of what those were. There were 200 [real slave revolts]. [Herbert] Aptheker has 200 that he cites. Some were small; some were big, like Nat Turner. Those were uprisings. They were aimed at killing plantation owners who were brutalizing slaves. They were conscious; they were planned. It's very different.
Hardy: Well, I wasn't at the last meeting, but I did read the [draft] article, and I read [Mike's] comments [which] was an argument about definition. I covered the Watts Riot. I went to the Watts Riot, and covered it when I was working for the Movement newspaper, the Southern Courier. When I read the [draft] article, I was trying to think from my memories — because I spent almost 10 days in the middle of it, based out of 118th and Imperial Avenue. And for a lot of reasons, I thought riots were a better definition, given the fact that from what I saw going on, they were just uncontrolled rage.
And I had known the history of the 77th and Newton Street precincts because that's where I lived before I came to Northern California. And I know a lot of the people who were involved. Now I think it later got defined in the context of — some years later — in a larger context, it got defined as rebellions by people who were writing about the Movement.
I suppose one could interpret it as a rebellion, because it was a response to the kinds of domination and oppression that were occurring. But there were not the people around [at the time] who were giving it that kind of interpretation from their peers. Now afterwards, some years later, people looked back and defined all that as a rebellion or revolution. Literally, what we're arguing about here, is the interpretation historians are giving to it, or people are giving to it, not the actual participants themselves. My reaction to it was that this was a definition that people gave meaning to.
Bruce: I don't agree that [terms other than "riot"] only came years later. After the Harlem uprising, I was still in Los Angeles working with N-VAC, the Non-Violent Action Committee, and we held a press conference. It was a very well-attended press conference in terms of the media, and N-VAC leaders like Woody Coleman and F. Daniel Gray referred to Harlem as a rebellion, as an uprising — not a riot. In fact, they explicitly disagreed that it was a riot. And then a year later, immediately after Watts, when I heard from CORE and N-VAC friends in L.A, they never referred to it as a riot, but always as a revolt or rebellion. That was our position then, and while my politics have evolved a great deal over the decades, I haven't changed on that one.
Maybe the distinction is really between Movement activists who used terms like uprising, and the people in the street who probably just used the terms they were hearing from the media which was all riot, riot, riot. But I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that if someone had explained the differences between riot and rebellion, most of them would have said they were rebelling, not rioting.
Jean: I'm not going to agree to call it riot, I'm not agreeing to that. In terms of my own experience in the South, I was in the SNCC office — the [Atlanta] headquarters — sitting at my desk when word broke about Watts. I never heard the term riot used. Never. Not once. It was later when the news media, largely white, started calling it and the others riots that I heard the word riot. It was not used by SNCC people at the SNCC headquarters while it was happening and days later.
Words are really important, and language is really important. And I'm not moved by the fact that somebody half century away used a term differently from the way I may be using it now. I mean, it's interesting. I'm a lover of words, so I think it's interesting and fascinating, but that doesn't, in itself, lead me to use the language as they may be using it in an entirely different context from what I'm seeing and witnessing on my own.
So you know, I will not buy the word riot in the [history article], number one. And number two, I really think this discussion with today's additions ought to be [included on the website] as a group discussion. I would rather that this go in — if everybody's agreed — as a discussion, because [it's] a rich discussion, and people talked about where they were when this or that happened.
Don: I have been facing the same issue writing about Attica. In one of the better analyses, an unbiased and rather appropriate summary of that whole five days, they said that they're not going to call it a riot, because that's derogatory. They're not going to call it a rebellion, because that's over-stating it, and so they are going to call it an uprising.
"Attica" refers to the violent 1971 uprising by inmates of the state prison at Attica, NY. As a civil rights attorney, Don later defended many of the prisoners at their trials, and subsequently provided legal assistance to guards who had been held hostage. At the time of this discussion he was writing a book about the Attica rebellion.]
Don: At Attica, everybody used riot for the first 24 hours, including the prisoners. The guards have all forever called it a riot, all the hostages and their people all call it a riot. The prisoners called it a riot that turned into a revolt. Once the prisoners got organized, they called it a revolt or a rebellion or an uprising. At one point, you've got people rioting in that they're beating up people and brutalizing for no good reason. Prisoners doing this. And then a day later, you have the Black Muslims protecting [captured guards]. You have a structure. You have medical facilities and the like. And then they said it's a revolt because they had organized themselves.
Semantically, it's a problem that I'm still facing as I'm writing [the book]. I'm sure that everybody who is on the hostage, or right-wing, side is going to resent the term uprising. For my mind, I think a revolt is the better term, I don't think it's a question of comparing it to a major uprising, like Nat Turner, etc. Certainly in Attica it truly started as a riot. And then they organized in the yard, made demands, elected leadership, and so they revolted against the prison leadership. So I don't like riot, especially because I think it is derogatory. I think revolt and uprising are good terms. If I were writing [the article] for myself, I would use revolt. I think rebellion is a little too laudatory, as riot is too disparaging. Mike, what do you think about revolt?
Mike: It has the same problem. But I think Attica is more a revolt or uprising than the [urban] riots, but I don't know the history.
Don: Even though it started as purely spontaneous rage and then given the fact that there was no place to go, they ended up in the yard, and they formed a government. Then it became something else.
Mike: Well, that's very different than what happened in any of these other places. There were no mass meetings in Watts saying: "Lookit, maybe we shouldn't have started the way we did, but let's use the energy we've got going now and let's elect a leadership, and let's formulate demands, and let's negotiate with the mayor or whomever." That didn't happen anyplace.
Don: If Watts or Harlem would have been trapped inside walls, and they had nowhere to go home to, no place to run to, the same thing would've happened as Attica.
Mike: Well, if elephants had wings, they could fly.
Bruce: I think the crux of the discussion is around what Don said in that these words have emotional meaning, and the words imply how we feel about the events we're talking about.
After Mike's written comments, I looked up these words, and let me read
you from the Oxford dictionary. "
Riot: a violent disturbance of
the peace by a crowd. Uprising: an act of resistance or rebellion, a
revolt. Rebellion: an act of violent or open resistance to an
established government or ruler." And then they had a little
You can stage an uprising, which is a broad term
referring to a small and usually unsuccessful act of popular resistance.
An uprising is often the first sign of a general or widespread rebellion
which is an act of armed resistance against a government or authority.
This term is usually applied after the fact to describe an act of
resistance that has failed."
Now it seems to me that all of those definitions could fairly be applied to Harlem, Watts, Detroit, and all of the others. I prefer to use uprising or rebellion because of the connotation — because of the negative connotation that I feel is associated with the word riot, and the at least somewhat sympathetic connotation associated with words like uprising and rebellion.
Mike: I listened to you read those definitions, and I think it confirmed my view that it was a riot. You think it confirms your view that it's an insurrection or uprising. But I don't think so.
Jimmy: I don't see it being any of those things. When you riot, and you tear up your own community. That's not an insurrection. That's uncontrolled rage. Paying particular attention to the Harlem thing, people were running around, tearing up all the things in their own community.
There was a newspaper man there, and he walked to this club, and says: "They're going around tearing up all this stuff, but look at the place over there. It's so beautiful, you know? How come they don't go over there and tear up that?" He said: "They know better. If you go over there and tear up their stuff, they'll getcha." Now what he was referring to was the Nation of Islam. They had — their windows didn't have nothing blocking it. When people decided they were going to break a window, or do this, that, or the other thing to it, they went right on by there. They didn't even consider [doing it to the Mosque]. So I think it was all of those things. It was riot and insurrection and whatever you want to call it. They were just uncontrolled rage. It didn't do anything to help the people in the community, that's for sure.
Phil: Part of me thinks this is a tired argument. I mean, I was in Newark at the height of the rebellion, and also, we organized for the rebellion starting in '65, after the Watts rebellion, because we knew something was going to happen in Newark. And so people who were part of that organizing core, and its periphery called, it a rebellion, and that's what stuck with us, and that's what we call it.
We also understand that at the level of community organizing is that we only had — Newark was a large city. We only had influence in terms of certain spheres of it, though what was interesting historically was that [the outbreak] happened a block from where I lived, so we did have a lot of influence in the first two days of it. After the U.S. military came in with their tanks and it spread further to other parts of the city, there was less influence, so I'm not sure I would totally call it a rebellion in other parts of the city, though it clearly was in the Central Ward and the South Ward of Newark.
But, you know, that's my experience and also the experience, to some degree, of [other] people who were there. There were some people who were earlier in SNCC — anybody know XXXX XXXXXX? Remember him? He was in SNCC. I think he was in Alabama at one time, and he was in the rebellion, and he actually had rifles. And they were shooting at the military, at first the police and then the military. That's not quite a riot.
So, to me, at some level I would call it an upsurge or an uprising that happened around the country — plural. But I think in terms of the different specifics in cities or neighborhoods, it might have been who was organizing, what was the emotion. I mean, Ron Wilkins, who was in L.A. SNCC, he came out of the Slausons [gang], and so there is a direct relationship between a lot of that organizing, period.
Phil: [This] discussion is ripe as today. Talking to people who are active in the Oscar Grant Movement here in Oakland, the question is: "What are the limitations and the strengths of nonviolence?"
On New Year's eve, 2009, Oscar Grant, a young Black man, was apprehended by transit police and then fatally shot in the back while he was laying face-down on a BART station platform. His family and community activists organized a number of protests against his murder and police abuse and brutality in general. Violence, including some arson and looting, broke out at some of those protests despite efforts by organizers and the Grant family and to prevent it.
Phil: And in some ways, our movements of the early '60s, whether it was SNCC, CORE, and other groups, and of course King's group, were talking about the power of nonviolence to basically deal with social issues. And I think to some degree, to today, is what that later period of the '60s meant [in terms of] the strengths and the limitations of nonviolence and how we look at it now.
Because when I go and talk to people, it's: "Where do we go with people who are looting?" And probably some of them were looting at FootLocker just a few weeks ago. That's who the new audience is for trying to figure out how you do social struggle, and I think that's what we're trying to do, or what you're trying to do in terms of chronicling the Civil Rights Movement.
Bruce: Yes, right.
Phil: Because that's who the audience is, not just how we — I mean, certainly from our experiences we have our thoughts, and certainly 40 years later or 50 years later we may not think the same way exactly as we thought 50 years ago — but how has our experience around those questions [evolved]? And what are the key questions? I'm saying I think nonviolence is one key question for future struggle, and what does SNCC have to offer to that?
Don: But like [with the Oscar Grant protests], [the looters] weren't the movement — they weren't the protesters. They latched on.
Miriam: I'd like to mention an uprising that didn't happen, but I'm skipping ahead to after Dr. King got shot. There was no violence in Harlem, and the reason was that the Mayor, I think his name was —
Miriam: John Lindsey went out with his staff, and they went corner to corner, expressing how sorry they were, and that was enough.
Don: Without police protection.
Miriam: Well, I think we need to mention that in each of these uprisings, the people who died were mainly from the local Black community. And in big numbers, like 45 people dead [in just one city].
Chude: When I saw Eyes on the Prize the first time, and it got to Watts, I think that was the first time I grasped that a lot of local people lost their housing and a lot of people were hurt. And I think that has to be in the picture when you're writing this. I mean, how many people were made homeless? Because I understand the repression thing is partly also about containing and not allowing it to move out. The white folks were not necessarily scared about whether Black folks lost their homes. They were scared that it was going to grow and move. But in these uprisings a lot of local people did suffer. And I hadn't really grasped that until I saw it visually.
Hardy: There was no understanding by the larger community — it seemed to me — of what had occurred. [Afterwards] people could not get the resources or things they needed — I mean, shit, they woke up one Monday morning and said: "Where the hell am I going to go shopping?"
Chude: I hadn't totally grasped [this issue] until more recently. We can even come to the riots that happened when Oscar Grant was shot on New Year's Eve. You know, a lot of local people lost a lot when that anger erupted. And so the question we've gotten to is: how did Southern people [in the mid-1960s], maybe even around the Movement, feel when they heard that their relatives in some of these cities had just lost their homes?
Don: What comes to my mind is the warden of Attica. While the negotiations were going on, he said: "What I have trouble with is, how could they do all this damage to their cells? That's their home. How could they destroy their own homes?"
To say he was out of touch doesn't do it justice. But it seemed like in Watts, Harlem, Buffalo, Rochester, people did go against their homes and businesses. And in part, it's sort of a rage and self-hatred that's absolutely out of control. It's almost like: "I don't want to live like this. I'd rather burn it down." That's what happened in the Bronx. You know, they burned down these apartment buildings.
Phil: So — I guess to be provocative — Don, do you know anybody who burned down their own house?
Phil: Anywhere. Any of those places, that burned down their houses. I don't know anybody who did that.
Jimmy: Me either.
Phil: Nobody did that in Newark.
Don: Well, based on newspaper readings.
Phil: Well, I mean, [there were] fires all over, particularly the Bronx. That's a perfect example, but the question is why? What were they burning?
Jean: It certainly wasn't their homes.
Don: They burned their possessions. I mean, it was just a moment of destruction because of how terrible life was, and [they] didn't want to continue — to continue with that life, and just wanted to burn it down.
Jean: It was rage against exploitation, by landlords, by supers. Those were no more "their" homes, than they were mine.
Phil: I would like to see some evidence of anybody who burned down the place where they had to sleep that night.
Jean: I've never heard of any.
Phil: I haven't either. Detroit, Newark, anywhere, Harlem. Even the Bronx. There were houses and whole sections of houses burned down, that's true. But they weren't necessarily where those [who did the burning] went back to sleep the next night.
Bruce: In many places there were stores that were set afire, and above those stores were people's apartments. But I think those who set the fires were intent on burning the stores — they weren't thinking about the people who might live above. It seems unlikely to me that anyone who lived above a store set fire to the one underneath where they lived. But the rage was so intense, so long-held, that people could loot and burn businesses that had been exploiting and abusing them without thinking about who might live above.
Phil: That's true.
Don: That's not what I read. I mean, I read people explaining why they burned down their own apartment buildings, because they weren't willing to live like that anymore.
Phil: That's true. But to say they burned down their own houses in a broad sense means that people were so totally irrational they didn't know what they were doing. They didn't care. They were totally out of control. That's the reading people get from that. That's why I'm challenging it.
Bruce: Watts was the one that I knew the best, and I don't recall — actually, I don't recall homes, as such, being burned at all in Watts. Remember that L.A. is not like an eastern city. In L.A. most people back then lived in detached homes, or duplexes, or those two-story, post-war apartment buildings that are separate from stores — I mean they're just apartments, they don't have stores on the ground level. It's not like the East where so many big apartment buildings have stores at the street level. During Watts, it was the commercial stores that were being looted and burned — and on some of the older streets like Central Avenue, maybe some of them had one floor of apartments above — but I don't recall hearing about anyone going up and down the residential streets torching homes or apartment buildings.
Hardy: The interesting thing about it, Watts was considered to be from 92nd and Hooper to 118th Street. After the riot, all of South Central L.A. became Watts. Watts was a neighborhood defined this way — if you lived in Watts, you were a Louisiana/Texas/rural Black who, in fact, was "country." In quotes. That's who you were. You didn't even want to be known as living nowhere near Watts. It ran between Alameda and Figueroa Street, between 92nd and Hooper and 118th Street. Compton was a middle class Black neighborhood in which major league baseball players like Charlie Neal and Roseboro, they lived. That's where I worked as a mailman. That was where I lived.
And incidentally, if you go back [to Watts], shit's a little bit better today only because the population that lived there [back then], keeps moving. There's a sector of people who keep moving, and as they move, they tear up shit. And the other sector that's left behind, [they] go back to like traditional Black families and stuff. If you go down 128th Street now, 120th Street, and 118th Street now, it's a fairly decent neighborhood. And they've gotten Latinos — a lot more Latinos are there now.
Let me give you a little bit more history. There's a film called "Bastards at the Party." I don't know if any of you have ever seen it. It's a fantastic film made by a young guy who was a gang leader in Southern California, and he was working with a guy, a white guy, by the name of Mike Davis who worked on a lot of stuff on the history of L.A.
Mike: [He wrote] City of Quartz.
Phil: And Benny King and Mike Davis had high school students volunteer in the New York SNCC office.
Jean: That's where that name —
Hardy: OK. Here's what they argue — and they've got some pretty good data. After World War II, after people got off the [Southern Pacific] Argonaut — which is the way I got to California, riding that train all the way from the South. The Black community of L.A., as it began to expand, came into collision with the Italian/Portuguese/white community. And [the filmmakers] actually found people in this film that they interviewed about what was the relationship between them and the white community. And these old Black guys, sitting in the park, they're talking about that experience, talked about how they started fighting with one ethnic group, Blacks versus whites. And they talked about the areas where they lived, where they had these conflicts on the border. Now what's significant about that is they then argue in the film that there was — out of that conflict grew gangs for protection, and these gangs of Blacks took on certain names such as the Slausons, the other —
Bruce: Gladiators, Businessmen, Del Vikings, Comptons ...
Hardy: Now the reality was, being a sociologist looking at this shit that I was observing, the reason the L.A. police could not control the Watts riot, insurrection, or whatever you want to call it, was because it was not just a wild thing really. It was done by gangs in particular communities. Slauson Street took care of theirs; 103rd Street took care of theirs. South Florence & Figuroa took care of theirs. And it was impossible for the police to stop all that stuff, because you didn't know exactly where the shit was going to break out. And it wasn't like somebody would get in the car — six of us get in the car, and we go across town and burn this. No, that wasn't what happened.
Because people were committing the crime where they lived. So to a certain extent, I believe that movie shows that there was a sense of disenchantment that would allow them to do it. That would allow us to say that to a certain extent, there was dissatisfaction about what was going on in L.A. Now, how you do tell if that was a revolt or a riot? I don't know? But that's the history.
See A White Mob Comes to Watts for more on the roll of the Slausons and other L.A. gangs.]
Hardy: I suppose if I was asked to respond to the notion of [the urban outbreaks] being part of a timeline, I suppose one could say that the impact that it had was that it made us more aware that we as the Southern Civil Rights Movement had no response to [northern] urban situations.
Because I remember people booing King. I remember people booing some of the church leaders. I remember [Los Angeles] Mayor Yorty called for the Black community to produce these leaders, and they brought them, and they [the people in the streets] didn't give a damn about that. The strongest people I saw that could control and deal with it was the bookies. And the people who owned those shops, [though] a lot of them got burned out too. They put "soul brother" on, and it didn't matter shit. The people burned them out too. But I think that for the first time it showed that King had no counter-program, nor did we [SNCC]. We didn't have a counter program for what we were seeing in urban Los Angeles. That's my interpretation from being inside of the shit.
Mike: Wait, before you go on, I mean that's a major point Hardy just made that I'm not sure is in the present text [of the draft article]. We concluded we didn't really know how to respond to urban —
Hardy: King didn't have a response to it. He didn't have a response. Nobody had a response to it. And the local Black ministers didn't have no response to it, because the real leadership of the community at that time, as I saw it — and the insight that I had, I had lived on 103rd and Beach. I had lived on 118th. I had lived in Compton. I had lived in all that shit, so I knew — My mother-in-law — my ex-mother- in-law — was one of the biggest leaders in the community. She ran the bookie joint. She ran the gambling syndicators. She still runs that shit down there.
Phil: In terms of my own experience, I would say — and what I think Bruce is trying to do with this narrative — is to say that there was a new type of protest that came out of the Black community starting in Harlem in '64, the Cleveland Huff area in '65, '66, and other places around the country, and the importance is not so much what it was called; it was clearly something that was very different than what we had known in the Southern Movement.
People who come after [us] will read what happened during the period that we were [active in] SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement — and it's like what are the things that are important from that [experience]? I think in terms of this discussion, that something new came out of the urban ghettos of the North, and that was something beyond the capacity of the Southern nonviolent Civil Rights Movement — which was not just SNCC but also King and other folks. I mean, there was something new that was happening that we weren't prepared to do.
It was also something that, as Hardy said, we had very little ability to control or organize. Not totally, but in the main. I mean, it was out of our organizing experience from the South. And so that, in some ways, it was an upsurge of Black anger that happened during that time period which took different forms, some of which could, as Jimmy said, maybe [be characterized as] a riot. Some of it was more organized; some of it less. As Hardy was talking about it, a different phase.
Mike: I have no problem with upsurge of outrage. I don't know what's the matter with bringing in new language when the language that people are familiar with — people used to be familiar with all kinds of words that we don't like and use now. I think upsurge of outrage — I think that's a terrific term.
Bruce: I was working with CORE in Los Angeles at the time of the Harlem uprising, and I sensed from the people who had been supporters of CORE and the Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) — not activists, not people who would go on a protest, but people who gave money, people who attended big fundraising events like a concert or something — it seemed to me that there started to be a significant shift away from supporting the Movement among those people. Looking back at it now, I think they were coming from a kind of a paternalistic, "We're going to help the poor downtrodden Negroes about something far away from us." After Harlem — and certainly after Watts — there began to be a shift towards fear of Blacks rather than this paternalism towards Blacks. A fear of Black militants, of Black anger. Not necessarily Blacks physically attacking them, but fear of anger directed at whites — anger directed at them.
I think that was the beginning of a really significant shift that negatively affected the Freedom Movement's income, it's funding base — at least in L.A, I don't know about other places. But some of the people who used to put on or participate in fundraising events or concerts at the Hollywood Bowl to raise money for the Movement seemed less willing to do so after Watts. And the number of people who would write checks began to decline. And part of that was a feeling by some supporters that now this was no longer about helping hapless people way off in some distant corner of the universe. Now they were thinking, "Well, wait a minute; something could happen here to my business or to me in my car."
So in that sense, I think [the revolts] had a funding impact on Southern Movement organizations like SNCC, CORE and SCLC. The funding crisis for those organizations, I think, really began in the Fall of '64 after the Harlem uprising and the Atlantic City challenge to LBJ and the Democratic Party. I know when I was in SCLC, people told me: "Every time there was a big rebellion, it affected the income stream." If you look generally, there had been a steady increase from '60, '61, '62, '63, but then after Harlem, my understanding is that it started go down. Yes, there was a big spike around Selma in the early months of '65, but that was just a spike, the general trend was down.
Bruce: After Harlem and Watts was when the FBI's COINTELPRO program really began to ramp up, and they particularly targeted CORE, SNCC, SCLC, the Deacons for Defense, and the Nation of Islam. Of course, Hoover had always been hysterical about the Movement. But once the urban uprisings began, the Department of Justice — Robert Kennedy and later Katzenbach — started to get behind the COINTELPRO program which allowed Hoover to get more — he was better able to implement his racism and his hysteria, and his viciousness, against the Movement. He (and others) used the uprisings as the fear weapon within the Johnson administration to greatly expand Federal spying, covert sabotage, disinformation, and so on. And, of course, once Nixon came in, Hoover had all the political support he wanted.
That had a big impact on the Freedom Movement. At just the time that the repression from the local and state level was beginning to — I wouldn't say weaken, but we were able to begin to confront it more effectively — the repression from the federal government began to ramp up.
And there was a militarization aspect in that the Army and the National Guard was called out to suppress some of these uprisings. Previously, in the South, the National Guard or the Army had, on a few occasions such as Little Rock the Freedom Rides, and Meredith at 'Ole Miss, been called out to protect the Black community and Movement people from racist mobs. But now the focus of the military in terms of its domestic security responsibilities begins to shift towards occupation and suppression of urban ghettos. And I bet if somebody was able to get access to the classified documents you would see a really marked change in their intelligence-gathering activities, the kinds of situations they were training for, their logistics and equipment, their whole mind-set. I mean, from the military perspective, think of the difference between holding back a mob of furious whites trying to attack a Black school girl, and patrolling the Black ghetto with loaded rifles and "shoot to kill" orders.
Jean: Because it's urban warfare. And it's in their cities.
Bruce: And it's in their cities. And it's not to protect — Well, it's to protect property, and to protect order, but —
Don: But that's what the Guard is for, among other things, to be called out if there's anything like an insurrection going on in the area. I don't think there's anything improper about that. I mean, it's like a flood or a forest fire. If something like that is going on, you call out the state troopers, the state police, or in this case the National Guard. I don't see that one as anything wrong.
Bruce: Yes, but there's a racial and political aspect to the urban uprisings that doesn't exist for a flood or fire. It's one thing to suppress a forest fire, it's quite another thing to suppress a rebellion against intolerable conditions when you — that is the power-structure, the government — have no intention of doing anything to redress the underlying grievances.
Jean: I really think that the northern rebellions put enormous pressure on SNCC to move to the North. I saw no evidence that there would be a [plan] to leave the South and move North, but there was tremendous pressure to start doing things, organizing, opening up, in the cities in the North. And I know that the calls were coming in constantly: "When are you guys coming here?" So it was an enormous organizational pressure. SCLC may have had the same kind.
Bruce: Absolutely. Dr. King — they were driving him crazy about somehow miraculously solving the problems of the urban ghettos.
Jean: Right. You had to begin to think about spreading across the country, particularly in the larger cities, because people were really demanding. It got beyond requesting and waiting; they were demanding. You know: "Show up!"
Bruce: Exactly. And these demands on SCLC and SNCC to spread out into the rest of the country were coming at the same time that funding resources were declining.
Jean: Were dwindling, right.
Chude: And infiltration and repression and suppression nationally was increasing.
Bruce: And national infiltration, surveillance, and dirty tricks. Just at the time they're demanding: "Come north, come to Chicago." I mean, the whole Chicago project for SCLC, King was forced to do it because of the pressure on him. He didn't succeed either.
Chude: Well, I can talk about Holly Springs, because that was a defining moment for me that summer. Because after [Harlem] happened, the project polarized with many of the Northern whites saying it was wrong. And many of the Black activists saying: "It's about time." Now this wasn't everybody, but it was enough for it to cause a real rupture in the project, because the whole question of nonviolence was — On the one hand "everybody should be nonviolent," was being raised by many of the Northern whites. But a number of Northern Blacks were saying: "It's about time that people recognize that there are problems in the North, and there is anger and there is poverty, and there are real issues up here."
How I experienced it as a relatively naive idealistic young woman who had been brought into the Movement via the kind of pacifist strain — but having been at Spelman, I was completely torn, because I'd been in the South long enough to know that the Black workers most of the time had a better read on things. They understood things better and certainly more than the Northern whites who had just come down [for Freedom Summer]. But at the same time, I had been trained as a pacifist, so I was completely confused about what it meant.
What I learned in the experience I had was that you can't — in those kinds of situations, there's no such thing as being neutral. There's no such thing as not having a position, because you're assumed then — in something that especially breaks down Black/white — you're assumed to be thinking the same way the other whites are — even if you're not.
And so it was a subjective moment for me. And I remember writing Stauton Lynd, because he'd been the professor at Spelman who'd introduced me to pacifism, who recruited me to the Mississippi Summer Project. He was head of the Freedom Schools. I wrote him and asked for help. Help! And again, this is subjective and personal, and one of the moments of reckoning, of growing up, is that this older person who was one of my mentors didn't have an answer for me, because he was caught in the same dilemma, right? He was a pacifist, but he understood that there were real reasons the riot had happened, and it wasn't about just saying that they shouldn't have done it and that it was bad. You couldn't just break it down that way. And as a young not quite 21-year-old, I was just furious with him that he didn't have an answer for me. And it was, as I say, one of my moments of growing up, when I got it that the adults didn't necessarily know any more than any of us.
So that was my introduction, and then when I came out of the South and met Robert Allen, I started learning about Malcolm X, because he was already attending Malcolm's meetings. So I started learning more about the Northern situation and a different way of looking at political struggle, none of which answers specifically the Harlem uprisings, because I didn't understand rebellions at that point. And I still have issues with destroying property that usually belongs to — it's not the real people you're angry at, but sometimes it is. But it was, I think, an important moment. I think that's what I want to say. I think that for the Southern Freedom Movement, for the whole issue of nonviolent direct action, the Harlem Uprising heralds that things are starting to happen in the North, and they're going to happen differently.
And just to go back to my own first experience, what was blowing up on my project was all these contradictory things that were happening, and people had lots of feelings, and all of a sudden they didn't trust each other anymore. I mean, all of that stuff was happening right there. And in a small way, not in a huge way, it was manifesting some of these questions.
Don: On one hand, I was forever teased by the [white] judges. They're saying: "Why don't you go back home since they seem to have a need for lawyers there, given the problems going on in your place." But the major thing that happened is a certain fear developed among — it was kind of a Nat Turner slave revolt reaction, and Stokely with Black Power was just the finale of these fears that were developing. And the Deacons [for Defense & Justice] were just the icing on the cake. It was a fear that not everything [could continue to be done] with impunity. I found that as people started talking more and more, particularly in '65 when it spread, that at that point, many of the communities — obviously not Selma — but many of the [white] communities started pulling back on the violence. And Dr. King commented to that, that his work got slightly easier after.
Even in a place like Holly Springs, it didn't matter how many Blacks you had [in the Movement], all the power was [still] with the whites. But suddenly, there was a fear [on the part of whites] that there could be retribution [for abuses inflicted on Blacks]. It wasn't open season [anymore]. Not everybody felt that way, and not everybody acted on it, but as a I traveled around, I heard it more and more. People talking about it, in both races, I should say — local Blacks, whites, Civil Rights workers. The white power structure would talk about it, and they would even ask questions about it, as opposed to just snorting about it. So I think it had a protective aspect, like the Deacons provided. It was the [end of] impunity. And once again, as at Attica — since that day, no prison guard assumes that he's necessarily safe no matter how he abuses a prisoner.
Jean: I remember thinking two things. One was the reaction [to Harlem] in my Tuskegee students. Who — remember these are college students, and they're Southern. Many of them come down because their families had attended Tuskegee, or had gone to the VA Hospital, or been a doctor at the VA Hospital. For my Southern students, particularly, there was this total bewilderment. Because every student at Tuskegee wanted to go North. I mean, they knew that once they got their degree, they were heading North. There was no way they were staying, and I think that was true of most of the Black campuses in the Deep South. They were heading North.
And [then] to see the horrendous and dramatic events out of Harlem, and how wrong things were in Harlem, which they knew of as the seat of the Harlem Renaissance and the Apollo Theater and stuff like that. It threatened to dismantle or shatter every dream they'd had about getting out of the shit in the Deep South and freeing themselves. It had a dramatic effect on them. It was visible. It was palpable. They talked about it a lot. There was a real sense of hopelessness and dismay. I was struck by: "What am I doing here?" This is what they were trying to say to me. And what am I going to tell these students?
The other thing was, I thought about the men in my family, who, when they realized I was serious about going to the Deep South, kept saying: "Look around you. Why do you have to go down there? When there's Baltimore" — which was where we were — "and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. I mean, why do you need to pick a totally ridiculous place in order to work on these kinds of questions? I mean, there's something wrong here." And it never did connect for them. There was something out of kilter.
Don: In answer to your family, it could have been that I was going to the belly of the beast.
Jean: But they already knew that.
Don: But therefore, to crush the beast, it would start to free other parts of the country.
Jean: That wasn't working for them. I mean, first of all, the belly of the beast, as far as my family saw it, was Cambridge [MD]. [Laughter] It was! There was no difference between Cambridge and Selma.
Jimmy: The thing I wanted to talk about is Tuskegee, I've been thinking about what Jean said. And she actually told my story, in a way, because every time I would call my folks back home in New York, they would say: "If you want to do that, why don't you come back here and do it? You're gonna get yourself hurt down there!" And I had some relatives in Baltimore; they told me the same thing. We need you up here, or you should go to New York to do that. Not Alabama.
Don: My parents were more neutral. They said: "Stay away from colored people all together." [Laughter]
Bruce: After Harlem and then Watts, I think a shift began to appear in the national mass media. Suddenly we began to get all of these articles about angry Black nationalists. And how the Nation of Islam was secretly collecting machine guns in the mosques, and Black militants are building a guerrilla army. And this is in the L.A. Times and on CBS. Harry Reasoner was one of the worst ones. The whole tenor of the media began to shift from generally positive stories about the Movement in the South to these fear stories. By '67, '68, it seemed to me that the overwhelmingly dominant Black story had become, "White folks be scared of Black folks." And whatever you're scared of, you come to oppose and to hate. I thought it was a very significant shift that had a serious, negative, effect on the Southern Freedom Movement.
Chude: So Bruce, when you were still with CORE in '64, with the Harlem uprising, did CORE make a statement? Did it have a position?
Bruce: Oh yeah, sure. I don't remember it in detail, but it was awkward for them. At that time CORE was still — the CORE leadership was still philosophically pacifist, nonviolent. But CORE was actually more active in the North than they were in the South — so they knew all about the northern urban issues and the real causes of the rage and the anger. So they tried to balance their commitment to nonviolence while at the same time focusing on the real issues that justified the rage of the people in the streets.
The other group I was active with, the Non-Violent Action Committee, we were less pacifist and more tactical so it wasn't so awkward for us. Right after Harlem, N-VAC held a press conference — See, people today active on the left don't understand this, but when a small group like N-VAC, which had maybe 18 people, when we called a press conference, every TV station in town, every major newspaper showed up, because at that time the Freedom Movement had respect, and people knew we could deliver shit. There was this whole bank of TV cameras, glaring lights, photographers, reporters, the whole bit. Woody Coleman, Danny Gray, and other N-VAC leaders laid it all out, laid on the line. They said: "A Harlem-type uprising is going to happen in Los Angeles, and it's going to happen in the next two years." This was summer of 1964, exactly one year before Watts blew. They laid out why it was going to happen, they talked about Chief Parker and the cops. But despite all the cameras and reporters, the press didn't run the story, or if they did, it didn't make any impression on me.
I'm sure that CORE in every city no doubt had a similar press conference. But the tenor of those conferences was that if you don't start dealing with the issues, if you don't start solving the problems, this is what's going to happen. Nobody listened. Even with the Kerner Commission —
Jean: Oh yes. Yes.
Appointed by President Johnson in 1967 after Watts, the Kerner Commission investigated the causes of the urban uprisings and made recommendations on how to prevent future outbreaks. They concluded that the rebellions were caused by institutional white racism, police brutality against nonwhites, and discrimination and failed policies in regards to housing, jobs, education, and social-services. They summed up their conclusion in the famous line: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal." The Commission made specific recommendations that in many ways echoed what Movement activists had been calling for. Over 2,000,000 copies of there report were sold to the public. Except for their recommendations to increase police powers, surveillance, and training, all of the other Commission conclusions and recommendations were ignored by the power-structure and the media. Thirty years later, a study by the Eisenhower Foundation written by a former member of the Kerner Commission concluded that: "Today, thirty years after the Kerner Report, there is more poverty in America, it is deeper, blacker and browner than before, and it is more concentrated in the cities, which have become America's poorhouses."]
Bruce: The media reported the Kerner conclusions and recommendations, but their scare stories — particularly the TV stories — about violence in the streets, angry Black militants, hate-whitey, and so on, rarely incorporated those conclusions to provide any kind of context or balance.
Jean: Bruce mentioned the press, the shift in the way things were being covered and reported, and it occurred to me that before Harlem, Malcolm X was treated as some kind of aberration.
That he was this lone man with maybe a couple of people behind him, but nothing to worry about. He was clearly a nut. He was good at frightening people, but nothing really to worry about. Then Harlem blows up, and part of that shift that I think you're talking about, and I'm talking about, is the shift saying: "Oh shit, he's not a lone loose cannon," you know? That people need to be worried, so why don't we get them worried if they haven't figured it out already? So it continues to shift, pretty subtly. But by spring of '65, Malcolm was dead. Because in the killing of Malcolm, they thought they'd killed all of the — what are they called?
Bruce: Fruit of Islam?
Jean: Yeah. And then the press started going down rapidly [in its coverage of the Movement and issues related to racial injustice]. For me, you mentioned Reasoner, but for me, I saw it most in Jack Nelson of the L.A. Times. That's where I saw the coverage rapidly going down about what things were like in the Movement, long before Watts blew up — and then of course, you know, it all fell apart.
Jimmy: What I want to say is if you saw the film on Malcolm X that Spike Lee did, there was a situation in there where one of the Muslims got shot, Malcolm X walked down to the police station with all the Nation of Islam behind him —
Wazir: FOI, yeah. [Laughter]
Jimmy: And there were about a thousand other people behind them, and they marched right on down to the police station, and this police chief looked at somebody, and he said: "He has too much power for one man." And he told him what he wanted them to do, and if it didn't happen, there was going to be a problem. And everything he said that he wanted, he got.
Bruce: I think that along with the organized Freedom Movement (North & South), the rebellions were one of the main reasons the so-called "War on Poverty" passed Congress. But even after the Kerner Report came out, they still didn't address the real issues. They just used it to try to buy some people off as individuals, rather than addressing the systemic causes of poverty across the board. Of course, most of the money went to the North, not to the South. And wherever the money went, it did coopt some people out of the Movement and into the system. But the effect of the War on Poverty on the Freedom Movement is really a whole nother discussion.
Bruce: Speaking of the media, during Watts, I was in Crenshaw County, Alabama, which is about as rural as it's possible to get. I think most of the local folk didn't really talk to me very much about how they were feeling about Watts except for one thing — I'm talking about Blacks, of course, because we had no contact except violence from the whites. I'm pretty sure there were a lot of conversations about Watts that I was not part of because I was white, and I understood that.
But if you remember, during and immediately after the Watts uprising, the media was filled with stories about Black snipers shooting at innocent police. And there must have been four or five or six Black guys in Crenshaw who came up to me and said: "Well, I don't understand why they're missing so often." You know, there's 30 or 40 Black folk dead [in Watts], and only two or three cops, and most of them were hit by bricks or something. What's going on? And it was the beginning, in some ways, of a disillusionment with the media, because they kept saying: "Look, you know, my cousin went [out to California]. He wouldn't miss."
Up until that point, there had been this sense that the media was kind of a friend — I'm talking about the national media, obviously not the Montgomery Advertiser, but there was —
Wazir: Somebody's lying. [Laughter]
Chude: Yeah, somebody's lying, right!
Don: You know, if you were going to have a title to this [section], that would be it. "How come these folks up north can't shoot?"
Chude: It seems to me that it has to have had — along with these other ways in which the uprisings in the North impacted the South in relatively positive ways — if it made the white violence recede a little bit, and if it made people question in the community the media. I mean, that's always a positive thing when people start to question the media, because if you've never had any reason to know that they've falsified information, it's a good thing to all of a sudden to be asking the question: "Well, how come all these folks up north can't shoot?" I mean, that's interesting.
Don: Those years in Buffalo and Rochester, in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Blacks in Rochester wanted more. They wanted to know where are the goodies that everyone keeps saying are going to come now from all this activity? And they had a major riot for a small community, and they brought out the National Guard and the Army and the police and all, and then it calmed down. But it was clear it was only calming down for people to catch their breath, and that's when the community, mostly the white liberal community originally, brought in Saul Alinsky. And Alinsky organized the Black leadership on how to put pressure on. And then the Black community not only invited him in formally, but even paid for some of his time, which was one of his rules.
Chude: So did you say that for Rochester and Buffalo, the result was the building of a disciplined cadre of activists? Is that what you just said?
Don: Yes. I mean, it was done to stop a second riot. Nobody dreamed the kind of power Alinsky could wield. In Rochester, he just went right after Kodak. And Kodak ran the whole city, and [the movement people obtained] proxy ballots for [Kodak's] convention, and [Kodak] just surrendered. And they not only had the power to provide jobs and training, they had the power to control the whole city. And the city started providing money and whatnot. But all of this came from the Civil Rights Movement creating a sense among local people of where are these benefits that we're supposed to be getting now that we're equal? And from then on, Rochester was never the same. Within two months, [violence] burst in Buffalo right next door, and they called for Alinsky again, and Alinsky went to Buffalo with the same results. So at least to that extent it spread.
Five or six years later, Attica burst, and present in these two communities that adjoined Attica were these same Alinsky organizers who had done the work during the original — the '64 riots. And I got to know the leaders of the Rochester/Buffalo group, because they became the foot troops in the Attica Movement. They were right there in Buffalo and Rochester. And these were well-trained, highly disciplined and just the kind of people we would have loved to have in the South.
Mike I think Don has the essence right, but the details wrong. I went to Rochester in December, 1966, to be briefed by Ed Chambers, Saul Alinsky's Associate Director of Industrial Areas Foundation and staff director in Rochester for FIGHT (Freedom, Integration (later became "Integrity"), God, Honor Today). I was about to begin the job as staff director for Saul Alinsky's organizing project in Kansas City. I was discussing the Rochester project with Alinsky on his visits to the Bay Area, and continued discussing it with Chambers when I was in Kansas City.
One response to the violence (riot/rebellion/uprising) in Rochester, the conditions in the Black community, and the racism of the power structure, was for the mostly-white Board of Urban Ministry to approve, and raise the funds for, an organizing project in the Black community to be implemented by Saul Alinsky and his Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Alinsky told them that he wouldn't come without a "broadly-based invitation" from the Black community. In IAF's pattern of organizing at the time, such invitations were to include both the passage of invitational resolutions by organizations — especially, but not only, Black churches — and signatures on petitions by thousands of individual residents of the targeted area.
One of the key people the Board of Urban Ministry hoped to involve in the invitational process was Rev. Franklin Delano Florence, a respected Church of God in Christ (COGIC) pastor there. But Florence was uninterested in having an outsider who was a white man do this job. His opinion began to change when there was a relentless attack on Alinsky by the city's white media. "If they hate him so much, maybe there's something there for us after all," was basically how Florence described his reaction. Florence was an associate of Malcolm X's, and asked Malcolm what he thought of Alinsky. In the film, Democratic Promise: The Legacy of Saul Alinsky, Florence says, "Malcolm told me Alinsky is the best organizer in the country."
Florence became involved in the invitation process, and was subsequently elected President of FIGHT which soon became the Black Power organization of Rochester. (Florence said, "In Rochester, 'black power' is spelled FIGHT.") At least in Rochester, the energy released by the riot/revolt/rebellion lead to a Black Power organization.
FIGHT quickly grew to be a broadly-based organization, and undertook a campaign to win jobs from KODAK Corporation, which was headquartered in Rochester. A major campaign, that became nationally known, soon followed. At a FIGHT mass meeting, Stokely Carmichael pledged SNCC assistance to FIGHT, and said, "From now on, when FIGHT say 'jump' to KODAK, KODAK will ask, 'how high?'" After the lengthy campaign (a year-or-so), compromise was arrived at in he jobs struggle, with FIGHT and KODAK both claiming victory, and Alinsky calling it a victory for both sides."
Wazir: I was kind of hotheaded, but my eyes were open enough to see the value of having had the experience of the slow grind of door-to-door, knocking on doors. That this was the way to go, to build something that was substantial. You can stand on it and keep building on it. And for me, I saw the uprisings around the country in Detroit and Harlem and Watts and other places, I saw it as an awakening, and it was an opportunity. It was according to how it was taken advantage of. It was an opportune time to do some real, real positive stuff. That's the way I saw it. Because to keep on rioting and uprising was not the answer; I was well aware of that. But if you don't have a base or structure for people to fall back on once the dust settled, you got to get busy building one. And from what I saw from all of those Northern cities and everywhere, that's what it seemed many of the activists got busy doing, regardless if they were Panthers or whatever they were. They got busy trying to build some kind of infrastructure.
I remember the effect Watts had on me. I was a student at Tuskegee and in that spring of '65, we had already gone — the Tuskegee students and a bunch of us had already gone to Mississippi to help Mrs. Hamer to get about 500 people to Indianola, the capital of Sunflower County, where the federal judges had ordered 500 people to be put on the voter registration list. And we went over to help with that process.
And while there, there was a shift. I guess I didn't feel the need — I [felt] that I could add something else, and that was a community cultural revival. I saw that that piece needed to be brought in too. Because I had experienced in the Black church in Mississippi how those preachers would get up and talk against the culture, which is the jazz and blues and everything that Black people had created. They were in the pulpit talking against it. And I knew that if people didn't embrace their own history and culture, that they weren't going too far. And they were kind of a part of taking the culture out, whereas Amzie Moore and Steptoe and all them guys had taken the political route. I wanted to add that piece to the structure, to the basic infrastructure.
And that sort of took me out of — I was so busy with that it took me out of focusing so much on the riots, uprisings that were going on. Because I figured that once the Negro had something of their own to embrace, then they knew what they had to protect, and want to protect it when it was threatened, and then they would not have to get so involved in just frustration that causes this outrage and just jumping up doing something without any direction.
And this is how I felt when the Watts riots took place, I felt that it was frustration, anger, needing to do something to show that we are not taking this kind of thing lying down. White cops just riding into the community and shooting at people at random — we're not taking that anymore. I figured if there could have been more of a structure that they were coming from — not that the riots or uprisings, wouldn't take place — but afterwards they had to go back and try to build a space and a structure for action, for what the community needed and that kind of thing.
And the Poverty money did come. They did build some kind of a medical center in Watts that was very, very good actually up until a few years ago. That got wiped away. They trained a lot of paramedics and physicians. And that's because we had some very — you got the Ron Karengas and all that kind of people who were very, very well versed in what the community needed and were very active about it and had been active about it, and knew what to ask for and what to organize around.
And the powers that be, I don't think it was ever their intention — if they didn't have to — to make things better in the Black community, nowhere in the country. At the same time that that medical center and outreach was being done in the Watts area, it was also being done by the same Dr. Shirley and that group of physicians that he was able to get together in Mississippi to form that kind of thing. And they were doing the same kind of work and outreach.
Jean: Well, first of all, I think this has been a rich conversation, and we may want to go back to it again, because one thing it brings out is that things happened differently in different locations. You know, Watts may not have looked like Newark, which didn't look like Baltimore, which didn't — so, that's important to keep in mind.
But one thing that I noted is that at some point the draft article [refers to] Black Power and I made a note. Because sometimes we say it as though [Black Power] happened. And in fact it never happened. There was the desire. There was the language. There was the effort, looking very differently in this place or another, but at some point, you kind of have to come to terms with the fact that in almost no place, North or South, did any power emerge from what we're saying Black Power is. And we need to talk about that a little so that a future audience might get it.
Don: Are you saying that you don't think that Black Power came to pass anywhere?
Jean: Not the power that I understood we were talking about. Not that kind of power.
Don: Blacks controlling counties in the South? That's not Black Power?
Jean: Not the kind that we were talking about, no. It was an advance, and an important advance, toward power. But first, it quickly got couched into political electoral terms, both in Mississippi as well as Alabama. You know, people say Mississippi has the most Black elected officials of anywhere in the country — [but is that the] power people were risking their lives for? No, no, of course not.
Don: But in Greene County, Alabama, you truly had the representatives of the community now in charge of the community.
Jean: And some would say that that might have been true in Lowndes County as well, and maybe a couple of other counties.
Phil: It's also true in parts of Mississippi too, later.
Jean: Yes, and parts of Mississippi, but you don't see it happening and sustaining itself. I think it doesn't sustain itself because it all gets connected with electoral politics, and the Democratic Party. But you don't see [Black Power] on the economic level to the extent that everybody expected to. You don't see it on the ownership level of land and property. [Black-owned] land gets lost faster. Do you see what I mean? So no, nothing to the extent that when people were saying "Black Power" they envisioned when they were saying that.
Don: I'll tell you, I'm just proud that I know of two or three counties where, in my opinion, it actually happened. And what was our expectation? The expectation was that Blacks would control their lives and their communities, and they have their own elected officials who were honest and fair to them and controlled the law enforcement. I mean, that's the kind of Black Power that I was thinking of.
Phil: I think part of the problem is that we never had a clear definition [of Black Power], even within SNCC. I mean, at one level — and I think I feel what you're saying, Jean — is what it really would have meant was overturning capitalist society. Because you couldn't have the kind of power we envisioned in SNCC within capitalist relations.
Jean: And not everybody knew that. I didn't. I'm one of those who didn't.
Phil: The other piece is that — I mean, part of it is Stokely and Charles Hamilton, when they wrote their book, Black Power, where they tried to do their definition, [they] did it in terms of ethnic pluralism. And basically kind of what Don just said, that that was Black Power. There could be an argument whether we got either one, but all I'm saying is [that] even within SNCC, it wasn't very clearly defined. There were different definitions going. And this is not even talking about people like Bill Ware and the more nationalist element of SNCC in '65, '66, '67.
Don: From the horse's mouth, within a week after the words were used during the Meredith March, I was driving with Stokely, and I [told him]: I want to read a passage from a letter my mother just wrote me. She said: "If you ever get a chance to talk to that person, whoever that is, ask him what Black Power means. I don't know what it means." And so I read it to Stokely, and he says: "Write your mother back: When I find out what it means, I'll write her a letter." And that's what was happening in that time period. I don't think anybody knew what it meant, even what meant to —
Phil: But also, there's different stages of the struggle too. For example, again, I'm thinking of Newark. We had a very clear idea of what Black Power meant. It was basically having a Black mayor and Black control of the political structure, and as much of the access and control of the economic structure — which was clearly a much bigger issue — that we could. There was some success in that, getting the first Black mayor.
But I guess what I'm saying in terms of organizing, you really can't tell people about this thing called Black Power or even socialism if they haven't had some view of it in their own lives or their life experiences. I remember talking to Bob Moses about this. I think it's one of the reasons why he left Mississippi and the country at a certain point, because he knew that there was a stage that was going to happen where — which is what happens when the element that we had empowered would get basically — I don't want to say corrupted, but assimilated into the lower echelons of the ruling society of their particular geographic entities — state, county and so on. And there was nothing we could do with it at that particular time.
It's like, as I said, you can't talk to people, Black people, about the system if they've never seen a Black policeman. Their main demand is for a Black policeman. If they've never seen Black people in power, they want a Black mayor. And so there was that whole period of the '70s and '80s where we elected Black congressmen, Black mayors. And the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson, and the folks that came a little after that pushed it. But that was where people's minds were at.
The idea is to keep moving the struggle farther, because once people understand that Black people in power can do the same fucked up stuff, like Black police, that the white policemen do, then they can talk about the nature of what are police powers. But a lot of our role in the early '60s was basically to give Blacks access to that power, I mean the power of access to be in those positions. And a lot of people made bad decisions. I mean, people like Hatcher in Gary, or even later, Harold Washington in Chicago, were better than some of the other folks, but it's a relationship with what was possible given where people were at and where the Movement was at that time period.
Don: You know, I had the pleasure of being in Tuskegee at the time that Stokely — again, this is all within two weeks [of the emergence of the "Black Power" concept], where Stokely is addressing the Black student body, and he says: "I know you think I've come here to beat down on the Man, but it's you I want to criticize. You girls, why are you dressing like Jackie Kennedy? You're not fooling anybody with your hair, with your lipstick, with your clothing. You boys, looking like John Kennedy? You're not fooling anybody. They know you're a ... You should be proud of your good looks, and you shouldn't be embarrassed that your mother is doing the wash for the white person. Your mother is a magnificent woman who has helped you get here."
I mean, he took Black Power and affected a whole generation of young Black people who developed a pride that they had never had before. He criss-crossed the country making those speeches.
Phil: I think Stokely had an idea of what he was talking about. I don't think even at the time when he was Chairman of SNCC though that [his view] was necessarily the predominant position within SNCC. People had different ideas. They were fooling around with different ideas of Black Power, and that was part of the problem. And by the very fact that the media picked up Stokely and so on, we got put into a whole different political position nationally. So all these people in the Black Movement started talking about Black Power. Then the Urban League said: "No, Black Power is Green Power." Floyd McKissick [of CORE] had his definition of Black Power. And then somebody else had their definition of Black Power. The point is that we got put into a whole thing where we couldn't — we lost control of the concept we had thrown out, that's what I'm saying.
Don: Well, I know one thing. Stokely said: "If I had said we need power for Black people, nobody ever would have even heard of the speech, and nothing — no commotion would have been caused. That there's just something magical about combining the words in that order that brought about a sense of Nat Turner. And that's why people don't really know what it means, because it wasn't intended to be something that specific. What was intended was to say it was power for Black people, which is a very unthreatening statement."
Phil: Don, I think also the other piece was that the context became relevant. I mean, people may remember that Richard Wright wrote a book called Black Power before this and didn't — it had no [impact] outside of a small intellectual cadre. Most people didn't know about the book. So, it's not just the words; it's the particular words at a certain time when what was happening in the South and the country — it's early '66, because this was after Watts.
Don: When [Wright] wrote the words, there was no threat behind it.
Jean: Yes. He didn't intend it as a threat.
Phil: Right. That's what I'm saying. That's exactly what I'm saying.
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