The Context of Black Power
Remembrance of Cleveland Sellers
From Trinity College SNCC Reunion, April 1988

Originally published in A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

I think that I need to set Black Power into context. The reason for that is that Black Power has meant many things to many people. The other thing is that in the context of the civil rights movement in 1965-66, the repression and external forces working against SNCC were so massive that much of the information that was coming out of the organization was distorted. Subsequently many of those who reported on what was going on inside of the organization have a distorted point of view in terms of what was actually going on.

Let me begin by setting the tone. In 1965, America escalated the war in Vietnam with the bombing of North Vietnam. With that there began to come together the issue of Vietnam, the issue of fighting for democracy in Southeast Asia when, in fact, the right to vote in places like Mississippi and South Carolina, where I'm from, was not secured. It raised a major contradiction. As a matter of fact, if you follow the Vietnam scenario, what we find is that in 1966, after the murder of Sammy Younge, who was a SNCC worker in Tuskegee, Alabama, SNCC issued an anti-Vietnam statement and set the pace by which many of us, including myself, refused induction into the U.S. armed services. That was not a popular decision in this country. So that's one set of dynamics that we have to hold on to; it all comes together.

The next thing we look at is the urban areas. In 1964 you have urban rebellions in Harlem. In 1965 you have the Watts rebellion. The urban ghettos are thriving in terms of having a lot of agitation, a lot of energy that many of us are concerned may be misdirected and need some focus.

The third thing that we have to look at is after the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, there was a delegation from SNCC that had an opportunity to travel to Africa, to Guinea and to Ghana, and through that trip began to see independent African nations and people running institutions and organizations that were never even heard of in America. But there was something else that was attached to that delegation, including Miss Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis, [we] had an opportunity to come in contact with the person that many of us might have had an aversion to, and that was Malcolm X. So you begin to see the span in terms of our starting out with "One Man, One Vote." We're beginning to expand our horizon, beginning to talk about the similarities between the struggle for independence in Africa and the struggle for the right to vote in Mississippi.

Then we look at the summer of 1964 and we examine the fact that the failed challenge to the national Democratic Party left in many of us a level of frustration and torment over the fact that we had presented the most persuasive argument of any group that I know of during that time of the plight of poor blacks in Mississippi to enter into the political process. Even with the documentation on the murders, bombings, the car of the three civil rights workers that was burned, and the bell from the church that was burned which got Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney involved in Philadelphia on that particular occasion, we were rejected. Our moral concern and legitimacy and issues were turned down because of practical political considerations. So at that point in an organization like SNCC we are observing all these things that are happening around us. We're very conscious, we're very observant.

The other item that we have to look at is what happens inside the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after the summer of 1964. Up to 1964, SNCC was primarily a small organization. The summer of 1964 there was a large influx of new people. There was a large influx of monies, the organization began to expand, we even operated a sojourner motor fleet with thirty automobiles. The dynamics of the organization began to change. And many of us have difficulties understanding that particular dynamic. But that dynamic affected how we saw things and how we began to move after that point There was never at any particular time a consistent ideology in the organization; there were always competing ideologies inside the organization. There were always struggles around philosophy, around direction, around tactics, around strategy, continuously. It was a growth process. We're talking about a legitimate social movement that was legitimately concerned about bringing about social change.

At the end of 1964 with the change in the organization, we began to discover certain things inside of the organization. One was the question of the lack of an internal educational process so that we could keep our people informed and abreast of what was going on. There was also a certain fatigue. I don't know if you can imagine being in Mississippi for twelve months under constant, constant fear, oppression, not knowing whether or not you were going to live tomorrow, having to fend for yourself and fend off everything, not only the physical but the psychological and social. These things come together and what we do is we continue, we transcend the fear, we continue to try to have the discussions, the organization expands and we search and seek direction.

And in that seeking direction, we do several things. One is that we know we have a legitimate target area while organizing, and that's in the South. We also know that with the rejection by the Democratic Party of our effort to create Freedom Democratic parties, that we had to talk about independent political organizing. So we moved to Alabama. And when we go into Alabama, our effort was to set up an independent political organization made up of people who we worked with in our organizing efforts in Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and everywhere else, and that group was low-income peasant blacks. That's the reality.

Out of that we began to develop what we saw as a model, whereby we could begin to have an impact not only in Alabama but in other areas where you might be able to put together an independent political organization. When we began the process in Alabama, the press came in, saw the black panther, immediately went out and talked about the Black Panther Party and how anything all black was, in fact, negative. Anything that was not positive in terms of the Democratic Party was no good. That kind of propaganda was being disseminated all over the country.

We made the effort to continue that process of creating independent political structures and what we needed was a springboard, because we didn't want to just talk about the political concept of black independent party building and organization but we wanted to talk about a development of a black consciousness. We wanted to talk about using that model in other places to begin to empower black people. That's where the whole empowerment concept comes from. No longer were we just seeking the moral transformation of America; we had began to change, to talk about the empowerment of black people.

Now, all this comes prior to the actual articulation of Black Power. Then, if we look at it in the political context, we begin to understand the political nature of Black Power. There is some concern about how Black Power was projected by the press and how people received it. Once we began to do the organizing in Alabama, we had to do something inside of SNCC too, and that was, unfortunately, we had to go and find out what SNCC actually had in terms of assets, resources, and we had to look around and make some kind of analysis. Stokely and I disagreed vigorously on this issue because he said that I had become a bureaucrat because we had thirty cars and I wanted to know where they were, and he was of the impression that everybody would take good care of them. We had that kind of conflict. But we did have to make that kind of assessment. The organization, or the nature of the organization, had changed.

So as we were going around to the different projects trying to determine what was going on in those projects, trying to make people aware of what was taking place in Alabama in terms of the independent political organizing, is the point where Meredith is shot, in June of 1966. Meredith is shot walking down the highway in Mississippi; Meredith was marching against fear in Mississippi. No better place for us to then use that as a leaping-off point to introduce Black Power. We had talked about "Freedom Now," we had talked about anti-Vietnam, we had had different issues along the way. So when we talked about Black Power it was in a political context of building political institutions and social institutions in the black community, where we worked.

I had no idea, and I'm being honest, that Black Power was going to take off the way it did. The only other incident that I can think of that took off like Black Power was the emergence of Malcolm X. And so I was thinking that how Black Power was picked up and rushed out across America was, in fact, an effort to make it negative and create the climate whereby it became easier for forces who were becoming threatened by SNCC's talking about empowerment of poor people and black people across the South to check those efforts, and that began to happen. That's when COINTELPRO becomes alive and alert.

Let me do a personal analysis of COINTELPRO. In February of 1968, while organizing in South Carolina, I was among students on the campus of South Carolina State College when forty-seven students were shot, three were killed — the "Orangeburg Massacre." I was shot and imprisoned as a result of being involved in that incident. When I was taken to the state penitentiary in South Carolina, after I was arrested, I was placed on death row and remained there for three weeks while bond was set. After I got out of jail in 1968, shortly after that, I was brought to trial for refusing induction in Atlanta, Georgia. Shortly after I was found guilty, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was called back after the assassination of Martin Luther King and ended up being denied a bond. I went to the Atlanta City Penitentiary; Fulton County Jail, Newman, Georgia; Rome, Georgia; Tallahassee Federal Penitentiary; Atlanta Federal Penitentiary; Lexington; Louisville; Nashville; and ended up in Terre Haute, Indiana. I stayed out of communication for the period of the entire summer of 1968 and was eventually granted a bond by Justice Hugo Black. Came back to Atlanta, Georgia, by way of Nashville, Louisville, and Lexington, Kentucky. Was arraigned, a bond was set, and as I was being unshackled, I turned around and was rearrested by the sheriff in Louisiana. Now, this is all happening in a period of a year, and that's not theoretical, that's what happened.

If you look at SNCC, these kinds of incidents were going on with people inside of SNCC the whole way. I was drafted out of turn because of my participation in SNCC, and I was given the maximum sentence because I was in SNCC. The case was subsequently overturned. In the Orangeburg Massacre one of the persons who was killed had my same resemblance and build. So the assumption is that I was a target I was later tried for that. At first the charges were assault and intent to kill a police officer, breaking and entering. It was five charges. I was facing eighty-three years in the penitentiary. When I got to court there was absolutely no evidence. I was charged with being involved in a riot. The statute of the state of South Carolina says that in order for you to be charged with rioting, two people have to be involved. There was no other person involved. I was sentenced to a year in the penitentiary in South Carolina and did do that time in 1973.

So many of us were not outside of that; we were involved. And I think that might help put some perspective on what was happening. There was a conscious effort to undermine and destroy the black movement. I have been able to see a letter that was developed by the FBI to create an element of distrust between Stokely and Rap Brown. There was a conscientious effort on the part of the FBI to silence all black leaders. And I say that because I don't want to differentiate, it went all the way down to SCLC and all the way through RAM, the Revolutionary Action Movement

So, back to Black Power. The other notion that I want to put forth is that after 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had already been passed, which dealt with public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act had already been passed, which dealt with voting, and so we were moving on beyond that. We were grasping for where do we go and how do we assure that we bring about the kind of change that would in fact affect the destiny of those people who we were trying to organize.

One other point that I want to make, and I differ with my friend and colleague Brother [Michael] Thelwell, is when the whole idea of Black Power emerged, it did not emerge around the idea of putting anybody out of anything. That's a process. And as SNCC grew, SNCC dealt with issues as best it could as an organization. That was not the thinking when we were talking about Black Power. Our concern was to get the organization moving again, to begin to establish programs and begin to have the same kind of impact on the communities that we were involved in as we had prior to that particular time.

The other thing I'd like to say is that in terms of the influences inside of the organization, we began to shift away from the mood and thought and existentialist thinking and we began to move toward Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X in terms of our thinking, our orientation. And I'm talking about a transition and people have to understand this transition. Because the way I read Black Power now is all of a sudden everybody got mad with all the white folk, put 'em out, and that constitutes Black Power. It's really important for us to put it in a political context.

The other thing is the question of tying in the urban areas to the southern areas, which was a mammoth kind of question. Our concern was that we had people in these urban areas that were just begging for somebody to come in and assist with the organizing of those people. And if we could use the southern model in the northern urban areas, we might have something. We were not successful. They were two different kinds of communities. That's a part of the reality.

One last thing. Young people from McComb, high school students, went to Harlem in 1964, had an audience with Malcolm X. I think it had an impact on him; it certainly had an impact on them. The fact is that that dialogue and communication continued over a long period of time. And it was SNCC people who in 1965 invited Malcolm X to Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama. So there is a consistency here in terms of our growth and development. You take the assassination of Malcolm X, you take the Sammy Younge assassination, you take the persecution of people who said, "Hell no, I won't go," you take the COINTELPRO that disrupted many of our lives, distortions and lies, and you can begin to see the context in which Black Power emerged.

See Black Power for web links.

Copyright © Cleveland Sellers. 1988

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