When the Mississippi marchers trekked across the state chanting “Black Power,” they were addressing themselves to other Negroes, mostly sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and small-town residents who crowded the line of march as it passed their way. The slogan no doubt meant different things to the many demonstrators who shouted it in preference to last year's “Freedom Now,” just as it did to the commentators in the North who were subsequently disturbed by it. But in the context of the Mississippi march, the new slogan was clearly an appeal to Negroes to build political strength around the vote.
This effort to encourage Negroes to see themselves as a power bloc, and to act as one, is entirely in keeping with American minority politics, and yet an attempt is apparently being made by both the advocates and the opponents of “black power” to present it as something of a departure. Indeed, the slogan of the Mississippi march, followed by the belligerent tone of the CORE convention in Baltimore last June, called forth a response from liberals, both white and black, which seemed to suggest that Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick had just invented bloc politics and were converting this startling invention into a movement to take over America. To Martin Luther King, “black power” meant the substitution of “one tyranny for another.” To Vice President Humphrey, Roy Wilkins, and the New York Times, it meant black nationalism and “racism in reverse.” To others it meant nothing less than that the Negroes were out to achieve “black supremacy.” Everyone, of course, agreed on the right of Negroes to use the ballot to improve their lot, but conditions were often implicitly set on how they should behave collectively. Rarely, in the course of all the excitement over “black power,” did anyone seek to deal with the realities underlying the current thrust of Negro social action.
Of these realities, the primary one is the steady build-up of group feeling among Negroes during the past twenty years. That such feeling would express itself as color consciousness was to be expected, but “buy black,” “vote black,” and “hire black” hardly indicate that Negroes have embraced a mystique of color. On the contrary, what such slogans betoken is a new political realism based on the perception that group solidarity is the only road to Negro salvation.
In general, most Negro organizations—from the moderate NAACP, Urban League, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the militant CORE and SNCC, to say nothing of the aggressive nationalists and the anti-white Black Muslims—share this perception. Thus, while the NAACP has not excluded whites from positions of leadership in the organization, as SNCC has done, Jack Greenberg, the white head of the NAACP Defense Fund, was asked not to attend the very NAACP conference at which Roy Wilkins denounced “black power”: a less obvious and more typical concession to the rising feeling among Negroes that important posts in the civil-rights field should be filled by their own people. And while only SNCC of the major organizations withdrew from the recent White House Conference “To Fulfill These Rights,” the remaining Negro groups united to keep the conference centered exclusively on Negro interests, showing little inclination to put the problems of other minorities like the Puerto Ricans and the Mexicans on the agenda. The national leaderships of NAACP, CORE, SNCC, and the SCLC still include some whites, but they are so few as to suggest a reverse “tokenism.” The local branches of these organizations, which are rather more representative of majority sentiment than the national headquarters and less concerned with questions of public image, are by now primarily, if not entirely, Negro.
The call for group solidarity embodied in “black power”—like the many signs that Negroes are now determined to run their own organizations—is so far from anything which could legitimately be called racism that one is at first puzzled to account for all the excitement the new slogan has generated. Much of it, of course, can be put down to public relations and position-taking, but there does seem to be an undercurrent of real anxiety in the air as well. The white man's persistent fears of the black man—fears which stem from the not unreasonable idea that an oppressed minority may decide at any moment to retaliate against the majority—have spread from the South to the North, updated by Watts, mounting city crime and violence, Negro impatience with the ineffectiveness of poverty and civil-rights programs, and the swelling chorus among Negroes of anti-white rhetoric. “Black power,” with its separatist connotations, gives shape to these fears. The extent of the anxiety is suggested by the contrast between the universal white condemnation of the new slogan and the tolerant editorials that greeted the Watts riots a year ago. Are violent outbreaks such as Watts less frightening than the vision of a powerfully organized Negro bloc? If so, it may be because in the final analysis Watts stands for a kind of group delinquency that always ends in political impotence, while the term “black power” suggests an organized, disciplined group.
At any rate, if the liberals have been unable to put their fingers on the cause of their growing dissatisfaction with the civil-rights movement in the last few years, the Mississippi militants have given them a helping hand. When Roy Wilkins said that “black power” means “black death,” he was warning the Negroes against provoking an explosion of repressive white counter-power. Whether or not there is any substance to this warning, the picture of bitter conflict among contending blocs, each acting out of its own self-interest, is deeply disturbing to liberals: is this what they have been striving for in the name of the free and open society? And if the civil-rights movement is losing its idealism and becoming a movement “merely” to advance Negro interests, does it deserve liberal support?
As it happens, however, “black power” in various forms has been around for some time, and the issue which the slogan has raised is but the latest and—here is the main novelty—the most explicit in a long series of conflicts between the white liberal and the Negro. It all began with the adoption by the civil-rights movement of militant direct-action tactics like mass demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts—a phase which reflected and coincided with the growing involvement of Negroes themselves in the movement. Such tactics seemed suited to conditions in the South, but they made many liberals uncomfortable when they were exported to the North, particularly as the cry of “Freedom Now” that usually accompanied them was so perplexing to liberal ears. What specific injustice were the militants seeking to redress? What relevance did “Freedom Now” have to New York, Chicago, and Seattle? (As though to provide the general confusion with a symbol in the form of a caricature, there was the protestor who manacled himself to a railing outside Mayor Wagner's office and shouted “Freedom Now!” as he tried to prevent a baffled policeman from unchaining him.) Some white liberal groups—the unions and the churches, for example—had their own traditions of militancy, and could understand what the Negroes were doing, but black militancy was in general a new experience for the white man. In time, the issue of aggressive tactics more and more distinguished white from black within the civil-rights coalition and militant declarations became part of the rhetoric of Negro leadership.
The Negroes' demand for special consideration was another source of tension. While the liberal coalition thought it was correcting an injustice by repairing the New Deal's failure to take in the Negro, the Negro himself found that the problem of unemployment had grown so serious that it could no longer be dealt with by the normal processes of non-discrimination. But the new Negro demand for compensatory hiring and preferential treatment that was formulated to meet this situation turned out to be totally unacceptable to the liberals, for it conflicted with the traditional liberal ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits. Accordingly, these demands were condemned as “reverse discrimination” and rejected as public policy; nevertheless, an unofficial policy of deliberately seeking Negro applicants in a ratio relative to their numerical proportion in the community has been adopted wherever Negroes have been strong enough to apply group pressure. Recently, to take only one example of many, Secretary of Labor Wirtz announced that the government, in a complete reversal of its earlier practice, was requiring information as to race on all job applications. Thus, Negro group pressure for jobs has countermanded one of the early achievements of the liberal coalition in eliminating all reference to race and religion from the formal hiring procedure—an achievement which was once counted a great victory for the forces of “nondiscrimination.”
Disillusion with the liberal ideal of colorblindness and the adoption of a strategy of color-consciousness is characteristic of the Negro militants and is, indeed, at the heart of what “black power” is all about. But Negroes as such have been organizing on a color-conscious basis to seek their common interests in many areas without the blessing of the slogan of “black power.” Thus far, the signs are still undramatic—they include the formation of the Negro American Labor Council to look after Negro interests in the unions, and of associations like the Guardian Society to look after Negro interests in the New York Police Department, as well as the fact that Negro congressmen have been meeting as a bloc in the Democratic party—but the tendency is unmistakable: in the civil-rights movement, in the poverty program, and on both the local and national political scenes, the idea of unity based on color is taking a stronger and stronger hold among Negroes.
It is this growing Negro group solidarity—verbal as well as organizational, emotional as well as political—which, even more than the current lack of clarity over goals and the dissension over methods, accounts for the crisis within the civil-rights coalition that has come into sharp visibility since the cry of “black power” began to be heard in the land. The crisis has manifested itself most clearly in a growing crop of defectors, both Negro and white, from the movement. The white defectors include: (1) former civil-rights activists, some of many years' standing, who have had the ground cut out from under them by the Negro takeover of the field; (2) liberals like Lillian Smith who are willing to make excuses for the violence of Watts but not for anti-white slogans; (3) long-time Jewish supporters of civil rights, who are disturbed at sporadic outbursts of illiberalism and anti-Semitism in the movement; and (4) those whites who for some time have been losing interest as what they deem to be the proper goals of the movement are progressively attained through court decisions and legislation.
The Negro defectors are numerically small: they mostly include young militants who, having few roots in the past, take the achievements of the movement for granted. They tend to see the civil-rights program as the political patronage doled out to the upper-class Negroes mortgaged to the Johnson administration—an “opening to the Left” that balances Johnson's over-extended Right; and equality of opportunity they see as inapplicable to the ghetto Negro, in whom they are primarily interested. No one as yet knows to what extent the young militants derive their mandate from the real feelings of the masses of Negroes—unless it is Adam Clayton Powell, to whom they are a “new breed of cats” taking the place of the “fading aristocratic colonials of the civil-rights movement.”
Aside from such political sniping, there is little inclination on the part of civil-rights leaders to take public stock of these ailments of the movement. At the last NAACP convention, the very significant rejection by the Mississippi Marchers of Roy Wilkins's request that the demonstration be used to marshal support for the 1966 civil-rights bill was merely mentioned in passing, and Vice President Humphrey's reference, in his speech at the convention, to Negroes and whites “marching with a common spirit” honored history more than it described the present. Humphrey's only allusion to the declining support of the movement was in the remark: “The time has come to broaden the base of the civil-rights movement. . . . to reach out into the community and enlist vital new sources of energy and strength.” Where one might look for these additional sources of energy and strength to compensate for the drying up of the old sources, the Vice President did not say. What he and others seem unwilling to face are the clear indications that the particular phase of the struggle for Negro rights in which many of the old civil-rights supporters were involved may have come to an end—that the civil-rights movement, which originated with whites and at its height became a nationwide coalition of whites and blacks, now faces the prospect of becoming an all-black movement.
For the truth is that there are great differences between the civil-rights movement and the “Negro Revolution,”1 and these differences, papered over for so long by certain historical exigencies, are now surfacing into full view. The civil-rights movement was and is essentially concerned with the structure of law and social justice: its goals were equality before the law and equality of individual opportunity. As a movement, it was begun by people whose aim was not to aid the Negro as such but to bring American society into closer conformity with constitutional principle. For the greatest part of its history, civil rights was the white liberals' cause. Liberals expounded the moral basis for human rights in religion and politics, developed the theory of human equality in the physical and social sciences, led the intellectual offensive against racism, and took the initiative in founding the civil-rights organizations. Not long ago, retiring President Arthur Spingarn told his NAACP audience that when he picketed for Negro rights in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1914, “not one Negro would join me.” What was true of the NAACP, with respect to the role of whites, was also true of most of the earlier philanthropic and educational institutions established to benefit Negroes, and it applied even more to the Urban League established some years later. From the time of the abolitionist movement to World War II, civil rights remained the cause of a small reformist group whose influence was more a matter of persuasive than of political power. What changed civil rights almost overnight from a peripheral moral issue to our major domestic movement was the emergence of the Negroes themselves as a nationwide bloc.
Perhaps the first clear indication of this shift came in 1941 with the March on Washington Movement, organized by A. Philip Randolph and later joined by Walter White and other Negro leaders. The single goal of the new movement was to muster Negro political power to force a reluctant President Roosevelt to establish a national FEPC. In threatening a protest demonstration unless its demand were met, the March on Washington Movement served notice that notwithstanding the snowballing patriotic war effort, the Negro had begun to regard his own needs as a priority. This threat of direct mass action by Negroes produced Executive Order 8802 of June 1941, the first major concession on the national level to the Negro bloc. It was soon to be followed by many more.
To be sure, the Negro bloc did not act alone. An alliance was forged with the forces of labor, humanism, religious radicalism, and political liberalism to fight for civil rights and to realize standards of social justice and civic morality that had previously been enshrined only in the rhetoric of American democracy. As time went on, the new movement caught the imagination of a significant part of the nation, filling the idealistic void left by the de-radicalization of labor and the waning of the New Deal. To the politically starved youth of the late 50's and early 60's, it offered excitement, a chance to break with the past, and a practical outlet for social idealism; to fairminded adults, it promised a long overdue correction of chronic injustice; and from the indifferent, the opportunists, and the hostile, it commanded political respect.
During the life of the coalition, four major civil-rights laws were passed, several executive orders eliminating segregation under federal jurisdiction were issued, and a number of epochal legal decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka were handed down; more than thirty-one states and a hundred cities legislated public responsibility for civil rights, some more effectively than others; and administrative agencies with varying degrees of powers were established on the national, state, and local levels to enforce compliance with the new laws. Many corporations, voluntary organizations, and institutions of all kinds hastened to make sure that at least their public images accorded with the new policy; many others set up and financed departments of civil rights to foster integration among their own constituencies and in the community at large. New civil-rights bodies came into being: the Southern Regional Council, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and SNCC were all products of the coalition, as were a number of coordinating agencies (the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Civil Liberties Clearing House, and the National Conference on Religion and Race) which took in hundreds of large national organizations. In all, the combined annual budgets of the public and voluntary agencies working to strengthen civil rights has been estimated at many millions of dollars, and their professional staffs number more than two-thousand.
So far as actual achievement is concerned, the coalition can point to some radical changes in the formal structure of American society: (1) the reconstruction of the legal basis of civil rights; (2) the fixing of federal responsibility to intervene where possible to enforce civil rights; (3) the establishment of equality before the law as the public policy of the nation. With these accomplishments—which will, no doubt, be strengthened by further legislation as the federal government makes good on its commitment to the civil-rights agencies—the climax of the coalition program seems to have been reached. For virtually everything that was envisaged by the liberal as legal “civil rights” has either already been done, or been accepted (at least in principle) by the federal government as its responsibility, and while much remains to be done, it does not command the wholehearted support of the coalition. That this fact has not yet been widely recognized has not prevented it from making itself felt in action. It was, after all, only three years ago that an estimated three-hundred thousand persons converged on Washington in response to the call from religious, labor, and civil-rights agencies. This massive demonstration of white and black contrasts sharply with the recent, almost all-Negro Mississippi March, a fraction of its size. And in the short period between the two marches, coalition bodies like the Conference on Religion and Race and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights have atrophied or all but vanished from the scene along with their once prominent white civil-rights leaders. We have, indeed, reached a point where even the well-informed could hardly name a nationally-known civil-rights leader who is white—unless it happened to be Lyndon Johnson or Hubert Humphrey.
What all this adds up to is that the civil-rights coalition is being phased out, and that its place is being taken by a new force in American life, the Negro movement. The difference between the two can be summed up in the contrast between the coalition's belief that what is good for democracy is good for the Negro, and the Negro movement's belief that what is good for the Negro, is good for democracy. The goal of the liberals has been to change the formal social order—not their personal human relations or those of their children—and they support civil rights as a necessary part of a moral democratic order. The Negro movement, on the other hand, is a self-interest movement which is for civil rights because it serves Negro welfare. Not that Negroes are not also liberals; but Negroes when acting collectively as a group are, like all other groups, motivated predominantly by self-interest. Thus motivated, Negroes might, for example, mount a campaign to elect a Negro as mayor of Newark (where there is a Negro majority), and while such a campaign might be a good thing, it would by no stretch of the imagination fall within the domain of civil rights—or even the moral equivalent thereof.
Though one cannot speak of the Negro movement as though it were monolithic and had clearly defined priorities and goals, one might perhaps describe its broad aspirations as directed toward “the good life.” The “good life” not only includes an end to second-class citizenship but it also envisages an equitable share of the abundance of the “great society.” But if the Negro movement can be said to be centered on material welfare, it has a redemptive side as well: it seeks a rediscovery of pride and confidence and it couples communal self-assertion with individual self-respect.
“Black power,” the first slogan to emphasize this idea of communal self-assertion, originally jolted white ears in the South, but it is essentially a Northern product, having as it does a particularly pointed meaning on the home ground of the liberal coalition. In the cities, where expectations have been escalated by reassuring civil-rights bills while little else has been forthcoming, “black power” is an attack upon the civil-rights agencies whose solution to the race problem presupposes the disappearance of the ghetto but prescribes for this herculean task nothing more than “equality of opportunity” and the one-by-one absorption of “deserving” Negroes into white society.
It should hardly be necessary to detail the dismal deprivations that continue to dog the lives of most Negroes. To the great majority, and their number continues to increase, the ghetto sets the boundaries of their world and conditions the most intimate and essential acts of their daily existence. Those who live close to its vital center find their lives quite unaffected by the social reforms of the last two decades. They are daily witnesses to the capacity of the ghetto to replenish itself at its core more rapidly than it can be skimmed off at the periphery by the escape of those few Negroes who fight their way to its outer edge. The rest have come to look upon “equal opportunity” as the password of those who wish to flee “black destiny” through integration with whites. “Black power” is the slogan for those Negroes who know that their destiny as individuals will be ruled by the fate of their group as a whole.
The outlook behind “black power” accepts the ghetto as its starting point; in this view, the ghetto, built by two centuries of organized inequality, stands as a monumental social institution that will not “wither away” through mere cessation of the policies that created it. Thus, the “black-power” outlook calls for an attack on the Negro liberals of the civil-rights agencies who, like their white counterparts, offer only a philosophy of integration with whites and a program of “opportunity” which can have relevance only for the few. It is to be expected that the Negro “rights” agencies should return this attack, but to accuse those who wish to organize the ghetto of being racist is to betray a dismal ignorance of the way American society actually works.
In setting off on the road to political power through group loyalty, the Negro is naturally being criticized by those who deplore pluralism, but the same charge was leveled in an earlier period against the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, and others—to, it might be added, no avail. Then as now, the critics, ignoring the role of group power in our social structure, blandly assumed that the so-called majority Americans were a mass of disinterested individuals acting only for the welfare of the entire community. The truth, of course, is that American society is organized along religio-ethnic lines, not only in politics (where the influence of “blocs” is commonly recognized) but in many other areas as well—social, professional, and to some extent economic.
To the American Negro, who throughout his history has confronted white society as a homogeneous, monolithic “power structure,” the pluralism of the Northern cities is a fairly recent experience. His first concrete encounters with the reality of American ethnic groups must have contained a great shock for the Negro—the shock of discovering that what stood in the way of integration was not laws or the policies of institutions, but people, many of whom had been his allies in the grand coalition which passed the national laws that were supposed to lead him to a new place in the world. The Negro discovered, moreover, that those who dominated the neighborhoods in which he had sought to send his children to school were not simply whites: in Gary, Indiana, they were Poles; in Cleveland, they were Italians; in Jackson Heights and White Plains, they were Jews; and in Boston and Philadelphia, they were Irish. Nor were these the only encounters the Negro had with the various ethnic establishments. Negroes moving into the Lower East Side of New York found their way blocked into the Italian-and Jewish-controlled political clubs; and in the powerful building-trades unions, the Irish leadership was not about to dilute its strength with new and untrusted members. It is not that these ethnic groups are more prejudiced than others; it is simply that—in contrast to the case in the upper middle class and among the very wealthy—their color prejudice coincides with ethnic solidarity and self-interest.
The lesson for the Negro in all this was clear: to make his way in a pluralistic society, he too needed organized strength. But judging from the horror with which his announcement of this discovery has been greeted, white America has yet to learn what its own successful experience with minorities demonstrates: that minority solidarity is in great part a defensive stance toward a hostile society, not a conspiracy to take over the country. Indeed, it is probably only through collective action that aggrieved minorities can behave responsibly toward themselves and society in general. It is not the organized Negroes who represent a threat to white society, but rather the disorganized, the disenfranchised, and the hopeless—who, it should be emphasized, are still very much with us even though the program of the civil-rights coalition has made such progress.
It is, to be sure, a long step from the recognition of the need for power to the building and strengthening of indigenous social and political institutions within the ghetto from which power can be drawn. The Negro as yet has few such institutions. Unlike most of the other religio-ethnic minorities, he lacks a network of unifying social traditions, and this is why he must depend on political action through color consciousness as his main instrument of solidarity. That solidarity entails a certain degree of “separatism” goes without saying, but the separatism of a strengthened and enriched Negro community need be no more absolute than that, say, of the Jewish community. There is no reason, after all, why the Negro should not be able to live, as most Americans do, in two worlds at once—one of them largely integrated and the other primarily separated.
In short, to the extent that “black power” expresses a determination to build a Negro community which would be something more than a euphemism for the ghetto, it is a valid and necessary cry; to the extent that it expresses a despair of the one-by-one absorption of “deserving” Negroes into the general society and puts its faith instead in collective action aimed at dealing with a collective fate, it is an intelligent response to the realities of American life.
On the other side, however, “black power” is not by itself an adequate substitute for the coalition which provided the now obsolescent civil-rights movement with its constituency, if only because the Negroes as a minority will continue to need allies. A Negro movement based primarily on self-interest is a necessity, but a Negro movement based exclusively on self-interest is doomed to failure. The dilemma is real and cannot be escaped by blaming the Negro militants for alienating white supporters by their anti-white rhetoric: even if every Negro in America daily professed his great love for the whites, the coalition would still be breaking up for having fulfilled so much of the civil-rights program which brought it together, and for having no program on which it can agree to deal with the economic plight of the Negro masses.
The answer may lie in a new coalition program, organized around the cities as that of the old coalition was organized around the federal government. In claiming—as other self-interest groups have done in the past and with a like measure of truth—that what is good for the Negro is good for America, the new Negro movement will be asked, as others have been asked, to make the claim stick. This it could do if, while building itself up as a political bloc, it also threw its weight behind an alliance of all the urban blocs whose purpose would be to press for a genuine assault on the problems of the American city. The American liberal has needed the Negro as victim to activate his idealism on the national level in the past. Paradoxically enough, he now needs the Negro as a seeker for power to activate his idealism on the local scene—that newest frontier of social injustice and unrest.
1 This distinction was aptly drawn by James Meredith in “Big Changes are Coming,” in the Saturday Evening Post, August 13, 1966.