Black Power and its impact topic of Avery Center conference
The popular view of the civil rights movement holds that it began, more or less, in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation, and that it ended, more or less, in 1965, as the enfranchisement campaigns in the South were winding down and the separatist black power movement was gaining strength.
This common view suggests that “black power,” with its militant rhetoric, racial animosity and emphasis on self-sufficiency and black pride, harmed the integrationist cause of civil rights and ushered in the era of urban violence.
On Friday afternoon, the film “Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre of 1968” will be screened at the Avery Research Center and introduced by one of the filmmakers, Judy Richardson, a former activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
It will be followed by a plenary session featuring Cleveland Sellers, Herman Blake, Millicent Brown, James Campbell and Osei Chandler.
Saturday morning, discussions of Orangeburg continue with a roundtable that includes Richardson; Sellers; Jack Shuler, author of the recently published book on Orangeburg called “Blood and Bone”; and Jack Bass, co-author with Jack Nelson of “The Orangeburg Massacre” about the S.C. State College shootings in February 1968.
It’s essential for conferences like this one to raise the subject of the 1968 campus shootings, said Robert Chase, public historian at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Other events such as the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967, and the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, obscured the Orangeburg event, which few people outside South Carolina know about.
“The Orangeburg story has been lost,” said Chase, who is determined to correct the oversight.
But scholars today are debunking this conception of history, arguing that black power was not a disruption of the civil rights movement but rather served as the foundation for a century’s worth of political and social agitation.
In the streets
Black power found its most nuanced expression at the neighborhood level, where revolutionary rhetoric blen-ded with political pragmatism, writes Tufts University historian Peniel Joseph in his book on the subject called “Dark Days, Bright Nights.”
Malcolm X is a prime example.
In Nation of Islam mosques and in the streets of black neighborhoods, Malcolm X usually glorified Elijah Muhammad, vilified the white oppressors and admonished complacent blacks to stand up and claim what was rightfully theirs.
But merely parroting the party line was impossible for Malcolm, according to Manning Marable’s new biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.”
He was too smart for that. Questions and doubts began to seep into his thinking, and by the early 1960s, he was eager to engage with other civil rights activists and struggled to reconcile (unsuccessfully) his loyalty to the Nation with his interest in authentic Islam and pragmatic political solutions, Marable writes.
Because of its historical sweep and continued relevance, black power in all its dimensions and expressions is the topic of a two-day conference organized by the Avery Center. Historians from universities far and wide will discuss issues such as education, grass-roots activism, black nationalism, mass incarceration, public policy, the Orangeburg Massacre and its legacy, pan-Africanism, film representations of black power, and the global reach of the movement’s tenets and concepts.
The goal is to re-frame black power and demonstrate its sweeping reach, according to Robert Chase, public historian at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture and conference co-organizer. For a direct line can be draw between Booker T. Washington, who advocated self-sufficiency, and President Barack Obama, who personifies the achievement of blacks in the U.S.
When Stokely Carmichael, tired of being jailed repeatedly on what he viewed as trumped-up charges, cried “black power!” during the 1966 James Meredith March in Mississippi, he was not signaling a strategic departure; he was announcing a return to the fundamental ideas that had energized the freedom movement since Reconstruction.
He was hardly the first to utter that phrase. Adam Clayton Powell, who represented Harlem in the U.S. House, used it a month before the march in a speech at Howard University, and referred to a version of black power in earlier writings. North Carolina NAACP leader Robert Williams used the phrase during the 1950s. Novelist Richard Wright published a book in 1954 titled “Black Power,” referring to Africa’s anti-colonial efforts.
The 1950s saw the rise of the Nation of Islam, a separatist movement informed by the teachings of Marcus Garvey that beseeched blacks to wake up and unshackle themselves from the influence and corruption of the “white devils.”
What Garvey, Powell, Malcolm X, Carmichael and Obama each have said, in their own way, is: “We have to have a political voice of our own,” Chase said. “So what we want the conference to do is broaden the periodization of black power and rescue it from negativity.”
There will be a lot to talk about, said Avery director and conference co-organizer Patricia Williams Lessane.
Lessane, who grew up in Chicago in the 1970s, was always interested in black power, she said. She had posters with fists raised to the sky hanging in her room; she was a James Brown fan; she was a believer in the phrase “Black is beautiful.” And she has been fascinated by how black power had extended key ideas to nonblacks, widening political discourse and helping to forge a more inclusive society.
In the past four decades, black power concepts have influenced American culture and politics in profound ways.
But some of the advances of the freedom movement have been turned back, Chase and other scholars argue. The so-called war on drugs has decimated poor urban centers and caused incarceration rates in the U.S. to skyrocket. For every 1,000 blacks, 25 are in prison, most for nonviolent crimes, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. This compares to a little under four whites per 1,000.
In her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration statistics are evidence of a form of “racialized social control” that has resulted in a caste system in which blacks and other minorities fall victim to legalized discrimination.
“Black power remains the most misunderstood social movement of the postwar era,” writes Peniel E. Joseph in the introduction to his 2010 book, “Dark Days, Bright Nights.” “It was demonized as the civil rights movement’s ‘evil twin’ and stereotyped as a politics of rage practiced by gun-toting Black Panthers. Because of this, the movement’s supple intellectual provocations, pragmatic local character, and domestic- and foreign-policy critiques remain on the fringes of America’s memory of the 1960s.”
The fullest iteration of the black power movement came in the late 1960s and had Southern origins, noted Chase. Carmichael’s 1965-66 campaign for political enfranchisement in Mississippi and Alabama led to the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which would become the Black Panther Party, as well as the reinvigoration of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The logic was that for blacks to share power, they had to form black-led organizations that could challenge white hegemony.
The conference aims to examine these issues, contextualize black power and understand how the movement continues to find expression in the 21st century.
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