Arts Sorry I Missed Your Birthday
I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t post last Friday, June 16 about Stokely Carmichael. On June 16, 1966 (exactly 40 years ago), Carmichael mounted a makeshift podium at a late-night rally in Greenwood, MI and gave an angry, history-making speech—probably the second-most famous speech of the civil rights era—in which he said: “We been sayin’ ‘Freedom Now’ for six years and we aint got nothin’. What we gonna start sayin’ now is ‘Black Power’!”
He then started a call and response chant:
“What do we want?”
He hit a nerve…or more accurately, captured the changed mood of the movement & more generally, the changed tone of the ’60s. The crowd went wild, the NYT picked up the phrase the next day. The Velvet Underground was in the studio. NOW was founded. The Beatles (a bubble gum pop group?) came out against the War!
For a decade that brought about one seismic shift after another, Black Power not only altered the very movement that was responsible for much of the decade’s penchant for change (the civil rights movement), but, for good and bad, it also J-pegged the spirit of the tumultuous decade into one moment.
The term had been circulating among the youth wing of the civil rights movement for a few months—and certainly, at least since ‘63, the civil rights movement’s internal divisions had been escalating.
“Black Power”—while a rich and philosophically nuanced concept—was also an emotionally charged, simple bumper sticker phrase that magically articulated the new POV. And Carmichael used it expertly (politically) to isolate MLK’s old-guard and alter the tenets, strategy, and face of the movement.
The term was born out of the history of the previous 6 years, of which Carmichael was a central player—he was a star Freedom Rider in ‘61…and an unparalleled organizer during Freedom Summer in Mississippi in ‘64. He also started the Lowndes County Freedom Party in Lowndes County, AL in 1966…their logo was a Black Panther.
A little dialectical materialism: The Freedom Movement turned into the Black Power movement. In a sense, it capped the Freedom movement. The question became: “Where would it go?” Sadly, like every other irrepressible tidal wave that roared up in that era, it landed with an unwieldy, destructive force. The following three years would be high-profile and dramatic, but at heart, they would be splintered, unproductive, and silly. And they would peter out in the most depressing, sickly, and lost few years in the history of this country…the real “Great Depression”: The early ’70s. (Have you ever watched a movie from then?)
It’s so weird. Stokely C., as a mad organizer during the early and mid-60s, was the heart of the civil rights movement. Working as a foot soldier in the background, he defined its principles for several years. And his Black Power sentiment was a sort of excellent crowning moment of ‘60-66… But, like all dialectics (am I using this term right, Charles?), it was not only an arrival…an ending point, it was also a start. And what it started was a mess.
When civil rights historian Taylor Branch spoke at Town Hall earlier this year, I asked him about Stokely. (Carmichael died in ‘98, I think.) “You had the privilege of interviewing Carmichael…what does he think today?” I asked.
Branch looked sad. He said: “You know, Stokely was frozen in 1966. He arrived at that moment. And he stayed there. He was still obsessed with his debates with King.”
Well, so am I, Stokely. So am I. Happy birthday, wherever you are.