the pull of nationalism and the drift from king

I just spent the last six weeks teaching the Telluride Association Sophomore Seminar. The topic was “The Black Struggle for Freedom: an Interdisciplinary Approach.” Along with my co-teacher, Maria Hamilton Abegunde, we spent a month and a half reviewing abolitionism, civil rights, black power and “post-racial” America from a number of perspectives. In this post, I want to summarize a few thoughts I had on on how people perceive black power and civil rights today.

So here is what we did. We had students work with various written, visual, and audio materials. For civil rights, we spent time reading famous court decisions (e.g., Plessy or Brown), read historical summaries, and watch videos. For Black power, we did the same. Read the Panther’s 10 point program,  watch videos on Black power activism, and read academic treatments of various Black power initiatives, such as Scot Brown’s book on the Us Organization or my book on Black studies.

We then had a discussion and got to the issue of what people took away from the readings. A few things jumped out at me. First, while most students clearly understood the importance of civil rights, the highly legalistic approach to social change meant that people didn’t appreciate much of what the movement was about. For example, a constant theme in civil rights activism is enforcement, which came up in Plessy, in Thurgood Marshall’s speech to the NAACP, in Brown and its aftermath, and in the text of the 1964 civil rights act. “Racism is bad” is something everyone can appreciate but “we are trying to create state and civil mechanisms for rights enforcement” is something that does not grab the attention of people. It is easily lost in collective memory.

Second, the SCLC/Kingian approach to social change is easily misinterpreted by modern readers, much as it was back then. Basically, a lot of people equate non-violence with passivity. This is clearly not the case as King’s actions were highly disruptive and extraordinarily confrontational. There is also the mistaken view that King did not believe in self-defense. Rather, King is very clear that non-violence is a tactic that makes sense in a specific context. Like most non-violence proponents of his era, he supported use of violence against exterminationist regimes such as the Third Reich.

Third, there is an aesthetic and interactional aspect of nationalism that has more appeal than civil rights activism. For starters, there is something sensational and breath taking about the best images from the Panthers. It’s really inspiring and uplifting to see people stand up for themselves. Second, as one student put it, King talks at you “from above” while Stokley talks “with you.” This isn’t to say that the Panthers, or other Black Power figures weren’t theoretical. Indeed, they could be, as the careers of Angela Davis and Huey Newton show, but the *average* person is more likely to be affected by the rhetoric and iconology of the Black power when it was direct.

So, to summarize, here are three reasons  that Black Power has an edge when appealing to people in the present:

  • Civil rights was articulated as legalistic and process oriented form of social change, instead of direct intervention. Civil rights is presented as a fairly abstract argument about law, equality, and segregation. Black power is remembered as a dynamic movement that empowered people directly.
  • Civil rights and non-violence is seen as passive strategies that do nothing when applied to instances of violence, such as police shooting.
  • Black power is more enjoyable in that it depicts direct action, not non-violence. Black power writings are more direct and speak to experience.

In the coming weeks, I’ll use my teaching experience to delve more into Black social movement politics, American history, and teaching.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

August 1, 2016 at 12:17 am

5 Responses

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  1. Today’s politics give us lots of examples of perceptions of confrontation and “violence.” Whites perceived the confrontations of direct action protest as “violent” and certainly “disruptive,” both in the 1960s and recently. They attributed to the protesters the violence directed against them by police and counter-protesters. Black protesters in my city (and I assume everywhere else) are constantly asked whether they will eschew violence, even though they have never committed a single act of violence, only disruptive disorderly protest. When they refuse to disavow the possibility of violence and claim the right to resist oppression, they are treated as violent.

    When I’ve read things written in the 1960s, I don’t form and impression that people at the time viewed the CRM in legalistic terms, on either side. NAACP was the legalistic organization and even it was viewed as radical in its time. I know how the CRM has been sanitized over time, but you are having students read documents from the time. Do you also have them read popular discussions from the time?



    August 1, 2016 at 1:49 pm

  2. OW: Your sensible response raises a number of issues. I think your word – “sanitize” – gets to the crux of the issue. In the seminar, we did actually cover, in some detail, the surrounding context of the CR and abolitionism. We talked about how rioters burned the homes of abolitionists and how there was a lot of violence surrounding the implementation of de-esegragation. We watched an hour long video about the violence surrounding the entry of Black students to White schools. There was even one point when we read King’s ethical writings, which lead to a heated discussion. His unconditional non-violence was something a lot of people could not accept.

    Still, despite all this, the CRM comes off as a very sanitized kind of movement. I think this is where we need to more deeply consider the aesthetic and interactional aspects of movements and how they play into collective memory processes. Much of the presentation of the self that the CRM built was designed to appeal to Northern whites. It was not designed to compete with the Black Power aestethic that arose later.



    August 1, 2016 at 4:26 pm

  3. Fascinating! The sanitized version of the CRM that I learned in high school is one of tactics (indeed, this was even true of how I learned the Du Bois/Booker T. debate), but there were also profound disagreements about strategy. For King, non-violence was a strategy, not a tactic. When I teach students, even at the very cursory level that I do, they miss this distinction. It seems from OW’s comments, that the media do, too.



    August 1, 2016 at 6:58 pm

  4. Well, my memory (and what I teach) is that King himself actually was nonviolent on principle, but he was an exception, that for most of the people in the movement, nonviolence was strategic and contingent. And nonviolence (as Fabio already said) is a strategy for social change; Gandhi was seeking revolution through nonviolence. Strict pacifism isn’t the same thing as nonviolence, as I understand it. I teach from a 2×2 typology: degree of militancy down the side (with categories ranging from accommodation to reform to radial/militant to revolutionary) and the separatist/integration dimension across the top. I locate King as a radical integrationist. This is always one of the big “surprise” moments for the class. King a radical?



    August 1, 2016 at 7:19 pm

  5. OW: What you say about pacificism/non-violence is clear if you read Ghandi and King. Ghandi, for example, approved of the war against Nazism and Fascism. King often said that violent self defense was justified. What is radical about them is the degree to which they were willing to push non-violence and the overall philosophy. For King, it is very clear that he strongly believes in a universal fraternal love for other human beings. If you buy that, then it makes sense that non-violence should be your “go to” tactic.

    This is in stark contrast with what most people think.Most people approve of police and incarceration as solutions to problems. Most people will loudly cheer when they see their nation use military force against others.

    Returning to the issue of collective memory,my sense is that this sort of subtle approach to non-violence is lost on most people. During the classic CRM era, it barely had a following among activists and now it is probably not something that people really contemplate.



    August 1, 2016 at 7:36 pm

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