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For those who read the July 1966 N.Y. Times advertisement of the ad hoc National Council of Negro Churchmen entitled "Black Power," Nathan Wright's new book has a familiar ring.
Others have served up the subject matter before, but have always done so in small doses--diluting, as Claude Weaver '65 puts it, "the hundred-proof truth with large draughts of humanitarian appeal." Wright's sociological and philosophical monograph, Black Power and Urban Unrest, demonstrates a surprising measure of clarity as well as intuition, acute political savvy as well as a cultivated sense of outrage.
Wright and his colleagues are an interesting breed of minister--Negro or otherwise. Like the Catholic priests of Chicago who once engaged in labor-union organizing, these men have mulled over the position of the black poor and American power relations, the complexities of both, and have what can only be described as a "hard-nosed," or "bread-and-butter" approach.
They are not young men, nor are they yet men of note. They are worldly philosophers--quick to understand the classical implications of modern-day politics, and quick to dispose of classical rationalizations.
The violence of the riots is deplored by the press and decision-makers: "Ours is a nation of law. Lawbreaking cannot bon condoned," they say. Wright answers, in effect, that the law is of course to be respected. But peace cannot be maintained in the absence of justice; no society which fails to provide a peaceful mechanism for social change can long endure.
These are the kinds of contributions Black Power and Urban Unrest has to offer:
Negroes have been led to assume that their only right of appeal to white Americans as individuals or to America as a whole was through the agency of conscience... Other groups have sought, or been led to seek, not love but justice. Within the framework of justice, love may bring fulfillment to human relationships. Without justice, love can only be acquiescence.
And this is Wright's theme, as it was the theme of the July 1966 meeting of the National Council of Negro Churchmen from which the Times advertisement was generated. It points toward a new form of communication between the masses--these churchmen are members of the lower middle and working classes, not the middle class--and those portions of larger society which can appreciate a "protest" movement that utilizes hard-nosed logic (and methods) and proposes intelligent programmatic action. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that this does not always include the "liberal" community.
A passage from Wright's book may further illustrate this point. In his younger years, Wright felt the "inconsistencies between utterance and practice on the part of whites" to be merely the result of prejudice.
Experience has brought what may be a better judgment: it is simply not in the perceived self-interest of those in vested seats of power to think and act in terms that will alter their power relationships with those who do not have power... the whole weight of their perceived self-interest militates against basically creative thrusts of mind and will, however much the heart may reach out for those who are less fortunate in that they have no power.
Or, as Reinhold Neibuhr would have it, charity is in essence a display of power.
There is rage:
Hidden, smooth, and often smiling decisions of American leaders... pin the backs of the masses of Negroes against the steaming ghetto walls--without jobs in a booming economy; with dilapidated and segregated housing in the full view of unenforced laws against it... this is the real problem and not the anguished cry for "black power."
And there is a fundamental change in the function of religion. Wright's other-worldly predecessors, in southern churches and in storefronts in northern ghettoes, sought salvation in the God manufactured for the black slave by his master; He who promised "pie in the sky, after you die." Wright and his colleagues do not mince words: the God in which they seek redemption, He whom they rhetorically call upon to help them help themselves, is a God of "power, of majesty, of might."
The Greek word for power (bia) and life (bios) reflect the essential interrelationship of power and life... We must not apologize for the existence of (our) group power, for we have been oppressed as a group, not as individuals.
Wright furnishes some statistics, though it is not the point of his book; he also makes side comments about the salient aspects of the ghetto problem--attitudes of teachers and guidance counsellors, public housing, welfare, the gamut.
Wright makes a call to action as well. But it is addressed, if to anyone outside the ghetto, to foundations rather than to the Federal government. In the political realm, he does call for a national lobby, for better communications, for organization. Yet he never loses sight of the necessity for exploring both sides of any question. His statements are couched in terms comprehensible to blacks and whites alike.
The signs of unrest in our cities are unquestionably but the early warning signals of a growing division between the two Americas. A man taught to hate himself can do no less than grow in his hatred of others... on the other hand, it is reasonable to resent one's having to feed forever another man or other men who do not work, whose outrage gives rise to riots and whose resultant irresponsibility ruffles the wanted quiet and peaceableness of our communities throughout the land. Two nations, two Americas, are being built; and they are set on a deadly collision course.
Wright calls for "rehabilitation and not relief." He rejects the noblesse oblige of an aristocracy-whether of race or of class--that operates within a system of "semi-immutable power relationships." He calls instead for action to bring human life to its full development, regardless of changes in power relationships which this will involve. "Human relationships," says Wright, "are not to be conceived in static terms."
It raises the depressing question: How may a system which is concerned with keeping power relations rigid be transmuted to one which sets higher value on human development without power itself being utilized in the change; will not such a change involve conflict? Perhaps pain and suffering?
Wright's answer is a simple "yes." His book cannot outline a program which has not yet been conceived. But of all speeches and writings in this area, it comes closet to setting the tone and parameters within which such a program might be created. The most staid of the Black Power advocates. Floyd McKissick, and Wright are in some sense transitional men. They articulate grievances and point the way for change. They seek to mobilize the resources of the entire Negro community, impossible as it may seem, in a first plunge into group politics and economic activity--a plunge for which neither immediate success nor immediate failure is indicated.
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