James Boggs’s essay on Martin Luther King’s assassination was published in the Italian collection Lotta di classe e razzismo (Laterza, 1968), and then appeared in Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook (Monthly Review, 1970), now out of print. The essay is reproduced here with the kind permission of Monthly Review Press. Boggs’s The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (co-authored with Grace Lee Boggs), are both available from Monthly Review.
A few days ago Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, where for the second time in less than two weeks he was getting ready to lead a united black community in a march to demonstrate support of the garbage workers. The garbage workers of Memphis, like those throughout the South, are predominantly black, and 40 percent of their number could qualify for welfare rolls on the basis of their pay.
For nearly two months the Memphis garbage workers had been on strike for union recognition and better pay and working conditions. The key issue was union recognition, which the city administration refused because that would mean recognizing the right of blacks to organize their power. The mayor, in fact, had been elected by whites, in a city that is about 40 percent black, on a program for keeping the blacks in their place (“law and order”). On February 25 he had created the official climate for crushing any struggles by black people by violence when he refused to negotiate with the garbage workers and had the police beat and spray with MACE the black citizens of Memphis, 1,000 strong, who had come to the city council chambers to demonstrate their support of the garbage workers.
During the first march some relatively minor violence had erupted when youngsters broke windows and hurled bricks, and the police had immediately over-reacted by clubbing and tear-gassing peaceful marchers. The excessive counter-violence and the subsequent bringing in of the National Guard gave further official encouragement to counter-revolutionary assassins.
King was murdered in the presence of over 150 policemen and other witnesses. The white man who was seen dropping a rifle and fleeing after the shooting has as of this date not been apprehended, or if he has been, the fact has not been made public. During the weekend following King’s brutal murder, blacks erupted in over 100 cities. Scores of these cities were set to the torch, and many of them were then put under military occupation and dusk-to-dawn curfews reminiscent of the blackouts of Britain and occupied Europe during World War II. National Guardsmen, state police, and federal troops patrolled the streets in caravans of police cars and tanks—even in a city like Detroit, where the number of fires had been less than that during routine periods. A national crisis existed.
Since the Watts rebellion of 1965 there has been more warfare between blacks and the authorities, spontaneously erupting over incidents of police brutality or cold-blooded killings, than during the two years preceding the first Civil War. Each and every eruption could be traced to some overt or covert form of brutality by some facet of U.S. authority or by some white fascist who knew he had white official support. King’s assassination, whether it came from those opposed to his support of a local black community or his stand on the Vietnam war (the difference being only one of national or international racism), has broken the last link of the chain binding whites and blacks. When or if some new link will be forged remains to. be decided by the historical development of the struggle.
In assessing the reason why King was murdered, it is not important that King was the leader of a non-violent movement. King is dead because he acted, and as every schoolboy knows Plato talked and no one cared, but Socrates acted and was driven to his death. Realizing that this brutal murder has broken the last link between blacks and whites, the white power structure from the President’s office down through governors, mayors, and liberals has co-opted King in order to emphasize his strategy of non-violence and belief in the legislative process and the fundamental redeemability of whites. They are trying to convince the black people that this is the only way to black liberation. The murder of King and of the scores of other blacks who adopted King’s approach is disproof of their every utterance.
On the other hand, the murder of Malcolm, who refused to restrict the movement to non-violence and had no illusions about the white man, demonstrates that it is not enough just to repeat Malcolm’s famous dictum of “by all means necessary,” as so many black nationalists do. The most important issue is not violence or non-violence. The black movement in this country will continue to pay the heavy price of assassination of its leaders until it has enough power to establish its own law and order in specific areas. The issue is whether and when the movement can build an organization strong enough to struggle by all means necessary to win this power, sometimes violently, sometimes non-violently, sometimes retreating, sometimes attacking, sometimes on the defensive, sometimes on the offensive, but always retaining sufficient initiative to maintain a momentum toward its objective of power, deciding what it can achieve at each stage of the struggle in terms of its goals and objectives just as any military general in war sizes up his opponents and elects when to fight and when not to fight.
A revolution is not just constant fighting. There are times when it is necessary to develop the cadre and the people by engaging them in certain political struggles to advance their knowledge and develop their talent for engaging the enemy as well as for leading not-as-yet-engaged sections of the community into the fray to strengthen its social force. In fact, the rhetoric of the black movement today is far beyond its leaders’ capacity to produce. This rhetoric not only exceeds the movement’s organizational strength and structure to implement. It also tends to disguise the lack of clarity as to the kind of Black Power which blacks are seeking. For this reason alone the movement has and will continue for some time to take the form of spontaneous eruptions.
To evaluate King one has to look back to where today’s struggle started, keeping in mind that all revolutions start with demands for reform by an oppressed group. If those demands are granted, the movement may stop and the period is called a “reformation.” However, if the demands of the reform movement are not granted or if they do not achieve what the people interpret them to mean, the people usually go on beyond and make a revolution, recognizing that only by taking power from those in power can they make the changes and achieve the rights that they have come to believe are theirs.
When Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in the front of the bus thirteen years ago in Montgomery, Alabama, she did what no black in the South had done since Reconstruction and what none of today’s black militants in the North would have done if they had been in the South at that time. For that, if nothing more, Mrs. Parks is the mother of the present-day struggle.
Martin Luther King was pushed into the leadership of the movement because he was young and because he had not antagonized any of the old Southern preachers who, like their Northern counterparts, were serving the white power structure by pacifying black workers and domestics on Sundays so that they could be ready to go back to work on Monday and endure another week of indignities and brutalities. The community thought he could work between the preachers and the people, never recognizing that he would go far beyond their wildest dreams.
In the weeks and months following his baptism to the wrath of the white racist—the bombing of his home, the police harassment, the efforts to sabotage the struggle by the courts—King caught the imagination of black people, both North and South. Up North there was not a single one of today’s black nationalist leaders and militants who did not feel a relation to King’s movement, if he was old enough at the time. Any militant old enough to attend a rally sang “We Shall Overcome” with as much fervor as any of King’s followers in the South. For in this period no Northerners were carrying on any serious struggle. The Muslims, who had been developing a philosophy of blackness, were only active internally. Other nationalists dreamed of going back to Africa “some day.” There were some blacks up North working in the Fair Employment Practices committees of the labor movement, but not one of these old labor activists had advanced even as far as King.
There can be no question that King’s movement was a reform movement and that it had as its intent the reformation of white people. His philosophy was one which could have been revolutionary in the sense of displacing those in power only if it had been developed in a country like India, where the oppressed were the overwhelming majority struggling against a small colonialist ruling minority. An oppressed minority, however, can win only by revolution. Actually, of course, all revolutions are started by minorities who in the course of the struggle either win over or divide the majority sufficiently even if they are all one ethnic grouping.
In the United States blacks are a minority. However, because four-fifths of the world is black and in a revolutionary or prerevolutionary stage of development, blacks in the United States are not a minority in the usual sense of the word. They are also one of the largest minorities that a country has ever had inside itself. And in the largest cities all over the country they are very close to a majority. Because of their strategic positions, both physically and socio-psychologically, they have the capacity, if organized, to create bases of power for themselves in various areas and at various points of division among the enemy.
King’s movement, based as it was on the reclamation of the white man, did not intend to be a revolution. It was revolutionary, nonetheless, in the sense that from its inception it went further in confronting whites and in creating conflict between black and white over issues than any blacks, North or South, had ever dreamed of trying to go before. And even though civil rights are only the normal common rights that a nation should grant to its citizens, the civil rights struggle in this country was a revolutionary struggle because blacks had been denied these normal rights.
Any movement, reformist or revolutionary, has to have concrete objectives, a general strategy to achieve these objectives, and a cadre organized around these. King’s movement fulfilled these needs. His objectives or demands consisted of legal guarantees of black people’s rights to equal access to public accommodations, to register and vote, and to other forms of civil rights. His offensive strategy was based on the method of confrontation. Blacks, convinced of the rightness of their demands, confronted whites who either had to yield to these just demands or expose themselves as defenders of the indefensible. His organizational structure was geared to achieve these objectives by this method. True, he also believed that whites could be redeemed through the heroic suffering of black people. Borrowing from Gandhi, his strategy included non-violence, but behind the rhetoric it can be seen that this served mainly as a means of discipline among the demonstrators. His cadres were effective because of this discipline, but they were also disciplined by the precision of his objectives, his method of offensive struggle for objectives, and an organization built around the objectives and offensive methods. His organization brought together clergymen, businessmen, professional men, and students. They raised money and planned the sit-ins, the campaigns for voter registration, and the innumerable demonstrations by which black communities hacked away at segregationist resistance and lowered the barriers against blacks in the political, economic, and social life of the nation.
Maintaining a continuous offensive, King also had what few black leaders have exhibited up to this date, an instinct for the right time to attack, which is the test for any leader, revolutionary or not. This is reaffirmed by his last act, the move into Memphis to engage in a struggle which the labor movement had ignored because of its racism and because of its fear of antagonizing the political structure, and which the Black Power groups could not help because they have not yet devised a strategy for confrontation in order to create the conflict, and thus the gathering momentum, necessary to a movement.
King’s critics of today and yesterday point out that many of King’s actions did not achieve results, referring particularly to Albany, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; and Chicago, Illinois. This is true, but even in failure King’s movement achieved success in that it exposed the brutality of the white power structure and, like the Muslims, gave black people a sense of confidence in themselves and the courage to hack away at the long-held feelings of self-hate, complete frustration, and despair of ever being anything but just “another nigger.”
Although history will record King’s movement as the most vital in the period of reformation, there are certain things that the revolution owes him. His courage against odds, his sense of timing, and his readiness to assume the political risks that leadership imposes make him the father of the present-day movement. The movement today has gone beyond King and reformation. But in 1955 when others were only talking about leaving the South and boasting of how they would not live down South and how much better off they were up North, King acted by assuming leadership of a struggle which no other black man then dared to lead. For that, history not only will enshrine him but will absolve him of some of his failings. And even after black folks have forgotten what he did for them, they will still remember that he was violently killed by a white man and in the presence of at least 150 police officers.
Northern attempts to apply the strategy and tactics of King in the years after Birmingham had very little to show in the way of success. The miseries of slum life in the black ghetto could not be alleviated by civil rights legislation. Civil rights groups boycotted stores, picketed construction projects, etc., in an effort to get better jobs for blacks. They boycotted segregated schools in protest against inferior education. But the liberal regimes up North did not respond with the same kind of counter-violence which had helped the struggle in the South develop a momentum of its own. Thus the civil rights demonstrations and protests in the North only helped to expose the futility of such methods to achieve any significant progress, and helped to drive the leadership of the movement to the conclusion that blacks must acquire power if they are to change their lives.
This first period of struggle in the North culminated in the assassination of Malcolm in February 1965. Unlike King, Malcolm was killed by a black man, who, however, stated at the trial that he had been paid by someone to do the killing, a question which the prosecutor did not pursue. At Malcolm’s funeral, unlike at King’s, not one white leader had anything to say; nor were there any white leaders there, even though Malcolm had spoken to white audiences all over the country and many celebrities, particularly TV and radio celebrities, boasted that they were friends of Malcolm’s. But whites were not going to lend legitimacy to any of Malcolm’s ideas by attending his funeral.
Malcolm had not only come from the Muslim movement. In Detroit in 1963, when he made his famous Grassroots Leadership Conference speech, he had begun to deal with revolution and revolutionary struggles and to place the black revolution, as distinguished from the “Negro revolution” so beloved by whites, in the tradition of the great French and Russian revolutions. The organization to which he belonged, the Nation of Islam, had played a very important role in rehabilitating black people, both those inside the organization and, by its influence, those who did not actually join. But it had not evolved any strategy of struggle to achieve the power necessary for black people to rule themselves in a concrete political manner. To this day the Muslims have not seemed to understand that even the Muslim religion at one time required not only a religious revolution for men’s minds but also a tremendous power struggle by Muslim leaders and their followers, just as those dedicated to the Christian religion had to carry out great power struggles and crusades to institute Christianity in the areas where it now prevails.
Today, even more than in the religious era, the struggles for men’s minds require concrete struggles for the power to rule over land, goods, and the means by which goods are produced.
Malcolm X’s speech to the Grassroots Leadership Conference revealed that it was essentially on this issue of struggle for power that Malcolm was beginning to find life inside the Muslims increasingly difficult. An organizer and revolutionist by temperament, increasingly exposed to political ideas about past and present revolutions in other countries, Malcolm’s mind and skills could longer be contained within the apocalyptic vision of black ascendancy and white dénouement of the Black Muslim religion.
Malcolm’s political life, though brief, left an ineradicable impact on the black movement and the black masses, because he led the movement out of the stage of civil rights into the stage of struggle for Black Power. Although he was surrounded by intellectuals, he began to arouse the deepest layer of the black mass which, up North in particular, had not seemed interested in participating in the struggle at all. The method he used was that of chiding and even berating them for, their self-hate, their acceptance of the white man in the America as their superior, and their efforts to make themselves acceptable to him and to integrate with the white enemy—when all the time they were being systematically segregated and degraded by this enemy.
The phrase “Malcolm said” became the by-word of the black movement soon after Malcolm was ousted from the Muslims for stating publicly that the “chickens have come to roost” in reference to President Kennedy’s assassination. In this statement he summed up unforgettably what many blacks were vaguely aware of but had not been able to or had been afraid to articulate. Black people knew, even as they mourned Kennedy, that the Kennedy government had talked about civil rights but had not prosecuted one white person for the killings, beatings, and brutalizations of the blacks engaged in the civil rights struggle But blacks didn’t want to face this fact. Malcolm stated it so that it had to be faced. This is what he was always doing.
Malcolm was fearless in his recognition that the black revolution in the U.S.A. must be linked to the world revolutionary struggle, a fact which civil rights leaders would gingerly approach and then shy away from.
Malcolm recognized that it was necessary for the movement to go beyond civil rights to a revolutionary struggle against the enemy forces which possessed and ruled. He saw that the struggle of black people in the USA—dispossessed, despised, uprooted from their past culture and robbed of identification with Africa and the rest of the black world—would have to be linked up with the other revolutionary forces in the world and particularly those of Africa. Thus, after his split with Mr. Muhammad, Malcolm made two trips to Africa in order to establish the necessary relations between the national and the international movements. In his efforts to pull together the national and international forces of the black revolution, Malcolm spent much of his time during this period traveling from city to city in the U.S.A. speaking to the national forces, and traveling to Africa speaking to the international forces. Because this period was so short, it is impossible to determine who Malcolm’s constituents really were, except that they were the black masses in general. Trying to bridge the gap between the civil rights struggle, which was carrying out action after action in the South and was led primarily by King and SNCC, and the world black revolution, Malcolm did not and could not develop any serious cadre of people to begin to project a strategy for the philosophy and concepts which he was developing.
His now-famous statement, “ballots or bullets,” came not from any projected experience or action but as a reflection on what was happening with the voter registration drive being carried on by King and SNCC in the South and with attempts being made in the North, through the Freedom Now Party in Michigan in particular, to get black people to pool their political power by voting black.
Black people up North identified themselves with what Malcolm was saying as he was saying it, in a way that they have identified with no other black leader. But they did not identify with him in any actions. In the period following the split, Malcolm himself insisted that he was an evangelist rather than an organizer. It cannot be said that Malcolm was incapable of organizing. Organizing was one of his great contributions to the Muslims in the years when he was right-hand man to Mr. Muhammad. But his political life outside the Muslims was too brief to enable him to undertake organizational work. He was suspended in November 1963, shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination. He began to develop independently early in 1964, and he was slain in February 1965 following his organization of the Organization for Afro-American Unity. In that period, actually lasting less than a year, his contribution was enormous.
Because Malcolm represented and led the transition from civil rights to revolution, his following since his death is ten times greater than it was at any time during his life. Today many old and young, but particularly the young, quote Malcolm in the same way that people in Europe quote Marx and Lenin and people in China quote Mao. Malcolm had put forward a historical concept of revolution in his Grass Roots speech back in 1963 in Detroit. However, after his split the mass media took him over and portrayed him as a pure advocate of violence vs. non‑violence. This has made it difficult to make a true evaluation of Malcolm. Take, for example, the statement “ballots or bullets.” The phrase contains the concept of alternatives and the concept of escalation. That is to say, if ballots do not work, then there is no alternative but for the masses to take the road of bullets. The mass media, however, for reasons of its own, represented Malcolm as calling only for violence. What Malcolm was in fact explaining was that a revolutionary movement makes demands which meet the needs of the masses for fundamental changes. If these demands are not granted by peaceful means, the revolution must have a strategy for taking them. Thus, having demanded the right to vote, the struggle would have to escalate to the point of seizing power to vote—first by the threat of violence, and then, if that does not work, by actual violence.
The same is true of another of Malcolm’s famous statements, “by all means necessary.” The phrase has been interpreted to mean only the advocacy of violence. Yet Malcolm was advocating what every great revolutionist has advocated, that the strategy of revolution requires the escalation of demands and actions, stage by stage, in conflict with the enemy, utilizing the whip of the counter-revolution to deepen the conflict and to drive the revolution forward, without stopping at the most extreme actions required to win.
Malcolm never had the opportunity to develop a cadre to carry out or attempt to carry out a strategy. This is what he left for the emerging nationalist movement to do and that is what up to now the nationalists have not done.
Today from coast to coast black nationalists meet in reverence to Malcolm at services memorializing both his death and his birth. They leave these meetings as loose and incoherent as when they came in. They are no clearer than they were at the time of Malcolm’s death.
Malcolm’s death exposed the one fundamental weakness of the movement; that no serious black cadre-type organization exists, disciplined by a political perspective and capable of developing and carrying out strategy and tactics necessary to implement this perspective. In his brief independent political existence Malcolm sought to create a unity of blacks. But unity in general is abstract or defensive and only an organization made up of those who are conscious of the positive objectives for which unity is necessary can shape unity into united action and give it meaningful offensive form.
When Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC from 1966 to 1967, shouted “Black Power” on a dusty road in Mississippi in June 1966, he did so in a march which had been organized for civil rights. That the words were uttered in such a context does not detract from their significance nor from the significance of Stokely, whose contribution to the movement is already historic. But what does Black Power mean in political and not just psychological terms? The failure to apply itself to this question remains the chief reason why the rapidly growing nationalist tendency has not been able to launch any offensives. Instead, it has been forced to depend upon the spontaneous outbursts of the masses, rebelling against outrages perpetrated by the oppressor. The movement therefore remains fragmented into little groups, locally and nationally, which are more interested in coming together to “rap” (talk) with each other over what Malcolm said or what the “cat on the corner” is doing or might do than they are in developing a strategy to give direction and meaningful confrontation to what the “cat on the corner” is ready to do. Exhibiting more anti-organizational feeling than organization, they refuse to recognize that the prime need of any revolution is a serious disciplined cadre which can give leadership and structure to the needs of the masses through demands that force them into the arena of struggle. Without such a cadre, a leadership is not leading but is always waiting on the masses to react. With such a structure, a leadership is in a position to place before the masses issues and demands and propose strategy and tactics to realize those demands as well as parallel hierarchies to implement them. The refusal of the leadership to recognize this as its specific task leads to a misconception of the role of the masses in revolution and in turn to a strengthening of the anarchistic tendencies that exist in any revolutionary movement.
What the present and potential leadership of the black revolutionary movement needs to recognize is that, as all past historical experience shows, the masses are not always in a state of revolutionary consciousness. Some days they are just going their way trying to eke out an existence; at other times they are passive and cannot be aroused. Usually they are stimulated to erupt as the result of the whip of the counter-revolution. If the masses were a continuing conscious mass, then the revolution would have already been over! The spontaneous eruption is decisive for any revolution in that no successful revolution is possible without it, but the revolutionary leadership and the cadre must be constantly giving leadership, using propaganda and agitation to organize the struggle and to create the momentum of a continuous offensive toward revolutionary objectives. Across the U.S.A. spontaneous eruptions are taking place and will continue to take place, while the counter-revolution is developing its method of containment and repression. Essentially, the method will be constant states of occupation similar to that of Europe under Hitler or of the French army in Algeria before the Algerians won control.
The United States, however, is neither France nor Algeria—where the occupied were the numerical majority. This factor alone requires the Black Power movement to develop a strategy that will build a movement around escalating demands and escalating struggles so that the movement of escalation assumes a momentum of its own. Such a strategy cannot be devised or implemented except by a leadership certain of its political objectives and with a highly disciplined organization to achieve these objectives.
When Black Power took over the center of the stage of the revolution, it was not just a new stage of development. It also required new insights into the positive objectives of the movement different from those defined by King, and a concrete organization to achieve these objectives which Malcolm did not have the time to organize. Black Power now has the responsibility to structure and state its demands and organize its struggles just as King did for his stage of the movement. When a movement moves from a reform stage to a revolutionary stage, it requires not only people who have developed out of the past but a clear concept of the further development of goals and struggles to achieve these goals.
The black movement today must surmount certain political attitudes which have taken root during the period of transition from reform to revolution.
- First and foremost is the complete emotional rejection of all past strategies and tactics.
- The failure to develop and clarify the objectives to be struggled for.
- Anti-organizational attitudes and rigid beliefs in unorganized spontaneous mass eruptions.
- Failure to analyze scientifically the stage of development of the country so that it will know what objectives are appropriate at this stage in productive, scientific, political, and social institutions, and the kinds of power it must have in order to make the changes necessary in these institutions.
- Letting their emotions and feelings control and dictate their actions and reactions which in essence means that the leaders have no belief in or perspective for final victory and therefore are unable to instill such a perspective in the masses.
In his Grassroots speech Malcolm cited the French and Russian revolutions, emphasizing the role of land in these revolutions and its key role in any revolution, with specific reference to the black (as distinguished from Negro) revolution in the United States. The concept of land remained general. It was possible to take it to mean land in the sense of farmlands to be cultivated, or the land of three or five states, or the land which black people presently occupy in the cities and which is commonly referred to as their “turf.” Today the tendencies within the Black Power movement can be classified according to their interpretation of this central concept of land. The separatists or secessionists have adapted Garvey’s “back to Africa” concept to mean setting up a separate black nation in certain states, which will be conferred or surrendered by the U.S. government under pressure and to avoid anarchy in the cities. Another tendency stresses self-determination by the black community but leaves loose just where this black community actually is, referring usually to the “almost mystical concept of a nation within a nation.” Then there are those who insist that those cities and counties where blacks constitute 25 percent and upward of the population are the “black man’s land” in the specifically American tradition of ethnic groups successively taking over power in the cities.
In addition to these tendencies, which at least begin to give Black Power a habitation, a name, and the perspective of rule or government over specific areas or political units, there are also those who think of Black Power purely in psychological terms—i.e., as black pride and black consciousness—and who see no possibility of blacks as a group ever achieving any rule. This tendency in turn can be divided into two: 1) Middle-class blacks for whom black pride and black consciousness are now fashionable and who think of this pride and consciousness as giving greater motivation to blacks to succeed in American life; and 2) black youth in whose heads black pride and black consciousness have exploded but who, without any perspective of blacks ever ruling, think only in terms of dying in the streets to prove their manhood. For these youth, now completely alienated from white society, aware that they have become expendable in terms of the labor process, despairing of any future, the only prospect is getting rid of as many whiteys as possible before whitey gets rid of them.
Fundamentally, the political perspective and objective around which the Black Power movement must now mobilize the masses and organize itself is the concept of Black Political Power in the cities and in those counties where blacks are a near or an actual majority. This perspective has both the urgency and legitimacy necessary to a successful struggle for power. The crisis in the cities is universally recognized as unresolvable by the existing power structure. Black Political Power has the legitimacy that comes from the concept of majority rule and from the specifically American tradition of successive ethnic groupings ruling in American cities. It has the additional legitimacy that comes from the fact that the whites have abandoned the cities to the blacks for the most flagrant racist reasons.
From the legitimacy of this perspective flows a very important fact in any power struggle, namely that the enemy (i.e., the white population which opposes Black Political Power) is put on the moral defensive. It then becomes clear that until white people in this country are ready to accept black power in the cities and in rural counties where blacks are a majority with the same flexibility as they accepted Irish and Italian power in the past, they are infected with racism. But the concept does not have moral power alone. The alternative to Black Political Power is not an inter-racial society, however much it is or is not desired. Such a society exists only in dreams. Nor is it realistic to think that blacks will eventually get tired of struggling and drift back into their “place.” No, the only real alternative to Black Political Power in the sense demanded is unending crises in the cities, crime in the streets, long hot summers, naked military occupation and curfews, all of which not only affect the black community but also the white, creating a dangerous society, repressing civil liberties, crippling the economy, destroying any possibility of normal life. All these are no longer just threats. They are a reality which has already been experienced.
Thus the perspective of Black Political Power in the cities and rural areas confronts blacks and whites today with real alternatives in the same fundamental sense as the civil rights movement under King’s leadership confronted blacks and whites with real alternatives. True, it was easier for whites in the South and North to accept desegregation in public accommodation than it is for them to accept Black Political Power. But it is also true that the alternative to Black Political Power is much more catastrophic.
Based on this perspective, the Black Power movement can mobilize the masses through concrete struggles for facets of municipal and rural power: black control of schools to reverse the dangerously low achievement levels of black children, black control of the police to stop police brutality, black school superintendents or police commissioners and sheriffs, black mayors, black judges. The achievement of any of these not only whets the appetite of blacks for more, but creates the “white backlash” which is creative conflict in the sense that it forces the black movement to escalate sights to the conquest of power in order to defend its gains. In the course of these struggles, the movement is also forced to create the parallel hierarchies which are necessary for any new ruling group. It is also forced to explore what changes black rule will have to initiate in order to solve the problems of the cities in every sphere, including education, social services, relations to regions, state and federal government, housing, health, etc.
As the definition and goals of Black Power become more concrete, so also does the definition of the role of whites. In the period of Black Power as “black nationalism” or “black pride’ and “black consciousness,” there was no necessity to think about whites. Not only were they in the way physically, but just asking blacks to think about their role seemed an imposition and a form of white self-centeredness. However, as we move into the stage of black revolutionary nationalism, or the serious struggle for power, it is obvious that the revolutionary government can and must use any forces which it has available to weaken, divide, or immobilize the enemy. Up to now the black movement has not addressed itself to this question primarily because it has not resolved the question of what it is concretely struggling for.
In the white community there are various tendencies, just as there are in the black community. The overwhelming majority of whites, of course, just wish that the black problem or blacks themselves would disappear. But most whites now know that this is impossible without a kind of genocidal offensive for which white America is not ready. The power structure hopes that the pouring of funds into the black community, in the form of antipoverty programs, swimming pools, etc., will contain or pacify the blacks. If these do not succeed, then it is ready to resort to military measures to maintain “law and order.”
In one sense the average white worker or middle-class person does not care how much the power structure does for the black community. The rub, however, is that he feels the pinch in his pocketbook in the form of taxes and therefore becomes increasingly susceptible to the agitation of the out-and-out fascist who holds up before him the threat of blacks invading the white community, raping white women, etc. For these out-and-out fascists Hitler’s “final solution” is not unacceptable. Meanwhile, they lead other whites toward that goal by their nightly meetings, their gun drills, their insistence that the black movement is being led by Communists, etc.
Finally, there is a very small percentage of whites who recognize that this society is bankrupt and look to the black revolution as their only salvation, both for their own survival in the face of the world black revolution, and for the salvaging of old values and the creation of new ones. In the struggle for Black Political Power in the cities and in rural areas where blacks are a near or actual majority, these whites can play an important role. They can confront other whites with the legitimacy of Black Political Power, dividing and immobilizing their opposition to it. In the many areas where there are no blacks or only an infinitesimal number of blacks, they can confront other whites in a struggle for power over issues that are vital to them and thereby overcome the sympathizer’s position of struggling only out of concern for blacks and not in terms of their own needs and their own survival. Only after revolutionary whites have taken some power from other whites now in power can they sit down with revolutionary blacks who have also wrested some power from some whites and as equals with power lay the basis for the future relationship of the new social forces in United States society.