In 1965, the Congress of Racial Equality chose as its convention theme "The Black Ghetto: An Awakening Giant." CORE was convinced that the black masses -- the lower-classes of the Negro community -- had been relatively unaffected by the civil rights movement. They had no power -- no control over their private and public lives -- and CORE believed they should have a program to get it.
This, essentially, is the concept of "black power" that created a national uproar after the Meredith March on Mississippi. Since the March, the civil rights leaders have taken varied, often conflicting stands as to what black power is, what it forecasts, and whether or not they will support it. In the confusion, the program CORE had meant to initiate was subordinated to defending the concept itself from attacks from other leaders, the national press, and a seemingly hysterical white community.
Stokely Carmichael, first to use the words, let it be known that SNCC was working to consolidate "black power" in Lowndes County, Alabama. Few other definitions or coherent programs seem to have come from Carmichael's general direction.
Martin Luther King, sensing a vague threat to his principles of non-violence and brotherly love, vacillated between exclusively defining his own position and letting it be known that he would have nothing to do with "black nationalism."
Roy Wilkins, alone, launched a full-scale attack against the concept of black power, going so far as to deplore the very use of the words. "Black power is racism in reverse," he said, reassuring the white liberals in the N.A.A.C.P. that they were needed, after all. Lillian Smith, author of Killers of the Dream and one of CORE's charter members, summarized the feelings of many white members of SNCC and CORE when she left the organization in a huff of epithets: "nihilists, old-fashioned haters, the new 'killers of the dream.'"
Floyd McKissick, CORE's new National Director, was left with the duty of explaining that the dream -- at least for lower-class Negroes -- had never existed.
He had to explain to Dr. King that non-violence is a tactic restricted to mass demonstrations. And that mass demonstrations generate no power that can be of tangible use to the lower-class black community, that brotherly love can be carried to an absurd extreme. For Roy Wilkins, he had angry words: "I think it is regrettable that Mr. Wilkins, a man whom I respect, has reached the point where he does not understand the (Negro) community, possibly because of lack of contact." Speaking to the white community, he maintained that those who left CORE were unjustified. "They were afraid. Many of them did not know what they were running from."
McKissick was compelled to take a negative stance: "Black power is not black supremacy, does not mean the exclusion of white Americans from the Negro revolution, does not advocate violence, and will not start riots."
But it was not clear just what black power would do. How was it different from the civil rights movement, if at all? What new orientation and techniques did it presage? These are the relevant questions, not the rather remote possibilities of some black overthrow of American society.
First, as we now know, black power addresses itself to the Negro lower-class, that "90% unaffected by civil rights," as McKissick puts it. Civil Rights has been, and remains, a middle-class movement whose purpose is to remove barriers to the advancement of "qualified" Negroes (in other words, those who are educated, upwardly mobile, and well-be-haved). Because the basic motif of equal opportunity is so strong in American society, the civil rights movement has been blessed with a set of easily identifiable enemies and simple issues: Jim Clark, "Freedom Now," and so forth.
To provide the benefits of modern society, the program of black power calls for the organization, economic and political, of the lower classes who now have no power. It calls for tactics that have been, up to now, outside the scope of the civil rights movement. It depends upon a realization that, when moving into the area of political and economic relationships, conscience is hardly an effective tool, much less a weapon. The shift is to the notions of power and self-interest.
In a speech this week at Rindge Tech, McKissick began to give specific examples of his program. Talking about political power, he said "We must begin to stop looking at politics upon such a high plane. We must stop thinking in terms of nominating the President and work for candidates for every conceivable office: sherriff, judge, dog-catcher."
Discussing economic power, he described relationships between "Farmer X and Farmer Y," in terms of acreage allotment and sweet potato co-operatives. In this country, he said, you have to organize just to get fertilizer.
Even more concrete, he explained CORE's program in the City of Baltimore this summer. After analyzing the political and economic structure of the city, CORE staff -- black and white -- made a catalog of the problems of the lower-class, urban community. After talking with them at considerable length, they established priorities as to grievances with which the organization would deal. A systematic program was formulated.
Housing came first. After a number of successes CORE -- or rather the residents of Baltimore's lower-class Negro community -- turned to the issue of public accommodations. Then to welfare policy. Then to cleaning up the neighborhood. They set up a union that is now a recognized collective bargaining agent for six groups of laborers in the community. CORE organized the union; the union organized the other six groups.
These achievements did not by any means comprise the bulk of McKissick's speech at Rindge. He was still preoccupied with the questions so characteristic of the old civil rights movement: "Do you believe in self-defense? Are conditions really that bad? Do you agree with what Stokely Carmichael said? (Or Martin Luther King, or Elijaah Muhammad, or my Negro room-mate?)
These questions seek not an answer but a reassurance; not truth, but comfort. McKissick answered in kind: "I was three years old, and pushed to the back of the bus. I wanted to watch the motorman like the other kids. Why couldn't I? I hadn't done anything. I wanted to know why."
"Why" is a question that was asked by the civil rights movement. It was expressed rhetorically; there was a hope that if people realized the basic contradictions in racial oppression, their consciences would be aroused, and something would be done.
The question now becomes, "How?" Or "Under what conditions? What meaures will be necessary for effective action?" These questions take into account the basic limitations of relying upon the conscience of large numbers of people, and of not being able to predict, and plan around, action taken by those whom we attempt to affect.
These are the questions of the new phase of the Negro movement with which Floyd McKissick, as director of CORE, is attempting to deal.