Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The introduction of the slogan "Black Power" has caused substantial confusion and alarm. It arouses apprehension because some of its advocates approve the use of violence to force social change and with it, Negro separatism. Confusion arises because others use the same slogan to urge acquisition of political power in areas where Negroes are a majority. They limit violence to use in self-defense. I think the following points should be considered:
One-The slogan was an unwise choice at the outset. With the violent connotations that now attach to the words it has become dangerous and injurious. I have made it clear that for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and myself adherence to nonviolence and Negro-white unity is an imperative. Our method is related to our objective. We have never sought the moral goal of freedom and equality by immoral means. Black supremacy or aggressive black violence is as invested with evil as white supremacy or white violence.
Two-The slogan "Black Power" in its extremist's sense is supported by only a tiny minority of Negroes. During recent months I have marched with more than 30,000 Negroes in Mississippi and another 60,000 in Chicago. It can safely be said that despite passionate and emotional appeals for
"Black Power" more than ninety per cent of these dedicated activists remained adherents of the time-tested principles of nonviolence and interracial unity.
Yet it is not enough to condemn a new concept nor to be complacent because its appeal is narrow. The new mood has arisen from real, not imaginary causes. The mood expresses an angry frustration which is not limited to the few who use it to justify violence. Millions of Negroes are frustrated and angered because extravagant promises made less than a year ago are a shattered mockery today. When the 1965 voting rights law was signed it was proclaimed as the dawn of freedom and the open door to opportunity. What was minimally required under the law was the appointment of hundreds of registrars and thousands of Federal marshals to inhibit Southern terror. Instead, fewer than forty registrars were appointed and not a single Federal law officer capable of making an arrest was sent into the South. As a consequence the old way of life--economic coercion, terrorism, murder, and inhuman contempt--continued unabated.
In the Northern ghettos, unemployment, housing discrimination, and slum schools constituted a towering torture chamber to mock the Negro who tries to hope. There have been accomplishments and some material gain. But these beginnings have revealed how far we have yet to go. The inconsistencies, resistance, and faintheartedness of those in power give desperate Negroes the feeling that a real solution is hopelessly distant. Many Negroes have given up faith in the white majority because "white power," with its total control, has left them empty-handed.
Surrounded by an historic prosperity in the white society, taunted by empty promises, humiliated and deprived by the filth and decay of his ghetto home, some Negroes find violence alluring. They have convinced themselves that it is the only method to shock and pressure the white majority to come to terms with an evil of staggering proportions.
I cannot question that these brutal facts of Negro life exist. I differ with the extremist solution. SCLC was the first Negro organization to offer mass nonviolent direct action as an effective alternative to violence. Our demonstrations, boycotts, civil disobedience, and political action in Negro-white unity won significant victories. In our judgment it remains the method that can succeed. In this conviction the vast majority of Negroes are still with us.
Even more than this, I confidently believe that the call for "Black Power" will rapidly diminish. Many of those who seek relief through its emotional catharsis will return to the disciplined ranks of nonviolent direct action. The "Black Power" slogan comes not from a sense of strength. but from a feeling of weakness and desperation. It will vanish when Negroes are effectively organized and supported by self-confidence.
Some established Negro leaders are bitterly denouncing the "Black Power" advocates and urge that they be treated as untouchables. I think this will tend to increase extremist behavior as it convinces extremists that the more privileged Negro is joining the white oppressor to perpetuate poverty and discrimination. Some of the Negroes advocating violence argue that whenever one of their number is murdered or brutalized, the white power structure appoints another middle-class Negro to a highly paid position. They then move to a. equally fallacious position urging that the poor Negro turn against the "middle class" Negro. This mutual fostering of disunity is the road to disaster for all.
There may be no means of obviating all riots everywhere. SCLC has, however, offered a constructive lesson in its recent actions. We, with others, were daring enough to march through Mississippi to give disciplined expression to burning indignation. In the face of cries of "Black Power" we helped to summon 60,000 Negroes in the sweltering slums of Chicago to assemble nonviolently for protest--and they responded magnificently. The burden now shifts to the municipal, state, and Federal authorities and all men in seats of power. If they continue to use our nonviolence as a cushion for complacency, the wrath of those suffering a long train of abuses will rise. The consequence can well be unmanageable and persisting social disorder and moral disaster. How ironic it is that in Chicago, four days of rioting were precipitated by the shutting of water hydrants; the authorities then found $10,000 for portable pools but meanwhile the state was spending $100,000 per day for the National Guard. America will have to see that the opulent life of so many of its people cannot exist in tranquility if other millions still languish in bitter poverty and hopelessness.
Negroes can still march down the path of nonviolence and interracial amity if white America will meet them with honest determination to rid society of its inequality and inhumanity. Negroes have to acquire a share of power so that they can act in their own interests as an independent social force--so that they can develop in responsibility by learning the proper uses of power. The majority of Negroes want to share power to bring about a community in which neither power nor dignity will be colored black or white. They seek a community of justice and security so that their children will be able to identify with the American dream as equals and not through the bars of a grim slum prison. SCLC and I will continue this principled quest to make these goals a reality.