Power for the Powerless
by Dr. Martin Luther King, SCLC
August 10, 1966)

Excerpted from Dr. King's Report to the 10th Annual SCLC Convention in Jackson, MS.

[Dr. King's report to the SCLC convention in Jackson MS took place during the height of the Chicago Freedom Movement's campaign for an end to slums and housing segregation in that city — a brutal (and unsuccessful) confrontation with the raw power of vested real estate interests, the financial industry, "White Backlash" politics, and Mayor Daley's political machine. It also occurred just two months after the cry for "Black Power" was raised by SNCC in nearby Greenwood MS. At the time he gave this speech, controversy and media hysteria over Black Power was still raging. In these remarks, Dr. King foreshadows the road he would travel in the last year and a half of his Movement ministry — his Poor Peoples Campaign effort to build a multi-racial coalition of the disempowered, and his support of the "I Am a Man" garbage strike in Memphis TN.]

As we prepare to move into this second decade of accomplishment we must stop to examine the question of power. ... Honesty impels us to face the harsh realities of the movement's progress thus far. First, we were dealing with areas of clear denial of Constitutional rights, and secondly, we were dealing with the areas where there was no significant alteration of the existing alignments of power and existing authority.

While this was indeed promised by the 1965 Voting Rights bill, the fact is that right gave way to might and Senator Eastland prevented all but a token application of the federal stature in Mississippi, while Senators Russell and Talmadge were able to avoid any application of the Voting Rights [Act] in Georgia.

What we have been dealing with is potential power, and our ability to rally support from other pockets of potential power through our conscience-searing action. But now, as we confront the giants of vested interest in our nation, a more serious assessment of power, and in fact an actualization of power, becomes necessary.

In a recent speech in Chicago, Walter Reuther defined power as, "The ability to make the largest corporation in the world, General Motors, say "yes" when they wanted to say "no." This is actual power. It is graphically demonstrated in the present airlines strike. The Machinists Union possessed a tremendous amount of potential power, simply by virtue of their organization, but it remained necessary for them to strike and virtually paralyze air travel in this nation before the airline companies would even begin to hear their demands.

So it may well be with the Civil Rights Movement in the years to come.

Influence and moral suasion may continue to prepare the climate for change, but there must be present an actual power for change if we are to achieve our purpose.

For the past 10 years we have spoken largely in terms of freedom. Our movement was the "Freedom Struggle." Implied in the concept of freedom, however, is the right to self-determination; and self-determination for an oppressed people requires power. When we think of power, we must see it in he context of our freedom. It has been made plain to us in these past 10 years that we cannot have the freedom to determine our own destiny unless we have the power to wrest the right to decide from those who now make the decisions which determine our destiny. In America, freedom and power are inextricably bound. One cannot be free without power, and there can be no power without freedom to decide for oneself.

But even a cursory analysis of power will reveal to us that Negroes are not the only ones who are deprived of the right to decide on our society. We have experienced in this century an ever narrowing center of decision-making in our society. The whole study of power structures and the Power Elite of C. Wright Mills and others pointed out long ago that democracy was being seriously compromised by the centralization of power in the hands of an "economic, political and military power elite," where decisions are determined by immediate profit and the retention of control regardless of the values of the community, regardless of the wisdom of our intellectuals, and regardless of the needs of the people."

This is the crises which afflicts our democracy: the fact that the majority of the people in our society are now powerless, and in no way able to participate in decision making.

The continuing struggle for civil rights now shifts into a new phase — a struggle for power. It is ironic that this call for power is sounded forth most clearly form the community of the poor and the community of Black men, but our experience in Chicago has taught us also that the intellectuals at the University of Chicago and Illinois Institute of Technology are also powerless, and continually find their recommendations in regards to everything from the education of young people to rapid transit and public health continually ignored in favor of the demands of political patronage and economic opportunism or military necessity. The same thing can be said for the religious community, and that wing of the Labor Movement which refuses to sell its soul totally to the interests of the party in power.

The cry therefore of the Movement at this time need not be simply a cry for Black Power, for that in fact becomes a limitation upon the power which is potential for change. Rather the rallying cry for our generation must be power for people in the face of generations of domination by a decadent southern oligarchy, corrupted big city machines, and a conscienceless Pentagon. [A cry for] the actualization of power for people to participate in the decisions which govern their lives.

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