Black Power and King’s World House

By Brandon Do.

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here

Our lives reflect the instability of a nation whose culture celebrates violence and social isolation. The deep faith in humanity and the hope exemplified by the anti colonial struggles of Asia, Africa, and the Black Freedom Movement in America have been replaced with the cynicism of the West. Shaped by the standards of America, it seems as if we’ve become incapable of loving one another. But the world needs our undying commitment to change ourselves in order to change the world into a more peaceful one — a world where people have the freedom to stretch the bounds of their humanness through selflessness rather than the freedom to perpetuate degradation. 

Today, the Black Power movement is portrayed by the media and scholarly think tanks as the “radical” alternative to the Civil Rights Movement. The marketable slogan has become a part of political discussions in recent years, thus amplifying its perceived impact on history. But to become the creators of a new world rather than passive onlookers, and to redefine ourselves in the image of love and understand the sacrifices needed to make the world better, we can look to Martin Luther King Jr. for guidance. In particular, it is King’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? which challenges the foundations of the West and gives us the option to redefine who we are and ultimately choose peace over self-destruction. Where Do We Go From Here gives a principled critique of Black Power, in that it disarms people in the struggle against war and poverty, and offers us a reimagination of ourselves for a future that depends on the moral choices we make today. 

Where Do We Go From Here, written in 1967, reflected on the Civil Rights Movement, the progress made, and the challenges that lay ahead of its moment. The Civil Rights Movement took influence from Mahatma Gandhi’s movement to free India from British rule. King writes, “What was new about Mahatma Gandhi’s movement in India was that he mounted a revolution on hope and love, hope and nonviolence.” And it was the same emphasis on hope and love that King and the activists of the civil rights movement held within them from the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 to the Selma movement of 1965. 

The Nashville Student Movement which included Diane Nash, James Lawson, and Bernard Lafayette serves as a prime example of the type of movement King was referring to. Many whites and blacks left their homes in the North to join the movement in Nashville and sacrificed their lives in the fight against segregation. They were trained to understand the suffering of black people in the South and of white people who were opposed to integration. They were trained to overcome their hate toward racist whites, understand the conditions that created racism, and establish common values that brought them together. Through disciplined practice, they used hope and love as a form of transformational power and learned what it meant to commit to living a life of deep meaning, a life beyond themselves for the betterment of the future.

In the chapter titled “Black Power,” King recounts the shift that occurred among the young black people who were enthralled by the attractive slogan of Black Power, first introduced in 1966 in Greenwood, Mississippi by Stokely Carmichael, the new chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a leader in the civil rights movement. Carmichael defined Black Power as:

It [Black Power] is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support those organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this society. The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. 

The growing poverty in the North and South, the violence of the state, the assassinations, and overall the humiliation that black people faced on a daily basis primed them for Black Power and its emphasis on separatism. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement whites and blacks had struggled alongside one another in the battle against segregation with white activists such as Bob Zellner and Anne and Carl Braden, sacrificed their privilege and safety for justice. However, with the rise of Black Power came the demand for organizational separation, racially divided marches, and disunity when a principled unity was crucial to building a united front against the triple evils of war, racism, and poverty in the United States.

Stokely Carmichael writes in Black Power: Politics of Liberation that black people must first redefine themselves through cultural awakening and organizing among blacks only in order to be ready to participate in politics. Carmichael writes, “Our point is that no matter how “liberal” a white person might be, he cannot ultimately escape the overpowering influence—on himself and on black people—of his whiteness in a racist society.” In short, white people have no place in the narrow world that Black Power envisions, and they are incapable of becoming human.

 However, to be white, that is, to imbibe the values of a civilization sustained primarily on the exploitation of black people and non-Western nations, is not an inescapable condition, but a choice. There were white people who made the moral choice: they aided slave rebellions, gave their lives for the Civil Rights Movement, and they gave up their whiteness. Carmichael accepts whiteness as the inevitable fate of white people leaving them without an option to discover their human potential.

While giving credit to Black Power for its attempt to redeem the spirit of a people who have experienced great despair, King also addressed the problems of Black Power in its failure to push people beyond themselves. He writes:

Beneath all the satisfaction of a gratifying slogan, Black Power is a nihilistic philosophy born out of the conviction that the Negro can’t win. It is, at bottom, the view that American society is so hopelessly corrupt and enmeshed in evil that there is no possibility of salvation from within. Although this thinking is understandable as a response to a white power structure that never completely committed itself to true equality for the Negro, and a die-hard mentality that sought to shut all windows and doors against the winds of change, it nonetheless carries the seeds of its own doom.

King further makes the point that “the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice. To stay murder is not the same thing as to ordain brotherhood”. It is not adequate or sufficient to be defiant in the face of injustice; it is necessary to commit oneself to a revolution of values by standing against the cynical values of white supremacy and embodying hope and love as a way forward. This is what it means to take responsibility for creating the foundations of a new society, which Black Power is incapable of moving people toward. Where Do We Go From Here teaches us that movements cannot be sustained by despair and built on a nihilistic foundation. In dismissing the participation of white people in the movement, Black Power rejects the most important thing to sustain a movement, “the ever-present flame of hope”.

The inevitable truth is that Americans must struggle together if the fight against racism and war is to be won. King writes that “no great victories are won in a war for the transformation of a whole people without total participation” and that any “less than this will not create a new society.” He emphasizes while Black Power was significant in its assertion of the manhood of a beaten-down generation, it wasn’t enough to move people to embrace the possibility of social and spiritual change. He contends:

The American Negro will be living tomorrow with the very people against whom he is struggling today. The American Negro is not in a Congo where the Belgians will go back to Belgium after the battle is over, or in India where the British will go back to England after independence is won. In the struggle for national independence one can talk about liberation now and integration later, but in the struggle for racial justice in a multiracial society where the oppressor and the oppressed are both “at home,” liberation must come through integration. Are we seeking power for power’s sake? Or are we seeking to make the world and our nation better places to live?

This examination of Black Power brings salient questions related to how we live our lives to the forefront of our minds. Who we choose to become, and the outcome of our lives and the lives of future generations solely depends on the motives we embrace and the choices we make today. And in this decadent and miserable society, can we afford any less than to make the great leap of faith to believe in and love everyone into who they have the possibility to become?

Yet, there is something undeniably attractive about Black Power for young Black and non-black people alike. To hate those who have hurt you requires no commitment to look beyond yourself to understand the system of values that produces people who oppress and hate. To hate someone doesn’t involve taking up the responsibility to create a more just future.

The major philosophical flaw of Black Power is that it succumbs to the standards of America, which seeks to separate white and black people in the interests of the ruling elite. Working in the interests of racism, and exacerbating differences rather than finding commonalities, Black Power undermines the Black Freedom Movement by limiting the self-conception of African Americans as separate from the human struggle, incapable of redefining themselves as a people exemplifying a force toward new values that can unravel the lies of white supremacy — it believes that people are the way they are, simply because, and will always remain that way.

Stokely Carmichael would continue implementing the political and philosophical worldviews of Black Power, alienating many of the significant leaders and organizations of the Black Freedom Movement. Expelling white people from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee caused many of its members including Diane Nash (one of its founders) to ultimately leave the organization due to the abandonment of its original principles, which sought to form a common basis between blacks and whites against segregation. The politics of Black Power stood against establishing a principled unity between black and white people. Despite once being named the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party, the split was significant: Black Power was later denounced by Huey P. Newton, the chairman of the Black Panther Party, as nothing more than a form of black capitalism.

The vague implications of Black Power can be used today to garner support for Black celebrity culture and warmongers such as Barack Obama because it requires no coming to a point of truth with Western civilization and its historically produced attitudes and morals. Was Black Power truly more radical than the Civil Rights Movement if it didn’t hold us to a higher standard of being? King asserts that the only way to move forward is to reimagine ourselves, not as victims, but as people with a great responsibility to mankind, using our creative force of love to establish justice. He describes love as a force of change in itself that supersedes all differences between tribe, race, class, and nation and is all-embracing.

In the final chapter of Where Do We Go From Here, titled “The World House,” King implores us to abandon the way of the West and to set ourselves upon a new path. He connects the struggle against racism in America to humanity’s struggle for peace in order to eradicate war and poverty from earth. Humanity must find a way to either coexist peacefully or perish altogether. He presents the Beloved Community as the alternative to war and the complete destruction of humanity. He writes:

We have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve. But unless we abdicate our humanity altogether and succumb to fear and impotence in the presence of the weapons we have ourselves created, it is as possible and as urgent to put an end to war and violence between nations as it is to put an end to poverty and racial injustice… 

Like life, racial understanding is not something that we find but something that we must create. What we find when we enter these mortal plains is existence; but existence is the raw material out of which all life must be created. A productive and happy life is not something that you find; it is something that you make. And so the ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready-made; it must be created by the fact of contact. 

King asserts that there is no deficit of intelligent people that can produce new, sophisticated technology; the true deficit of Western civilization lies in its lack of human will. He gives us the agency to imagine the world as a place where all people must realize their common responsibility to strive to make justice a reality for all people. King makes the moral choice visible for us who are incapacitated in the darkness of ignorance. The urgency of King’s call for the brotherhood of all mankind remains pivotal to bring purpose to our lives which are confined by the bitterness of today, blinding us to the possibility of a new tomorrow. With King’s guidance, we can rise above victimhood and resentment to bring humanity closer to peace and universal brotherhood.

Further Readings

  • Where Do We Go From Here, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Strength To Love, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Black Power: Politics of Liberation, Charles V. Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)
  • Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan Africanism, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)
  • To Die for the People, Huey P. Newton

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