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.
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