Saturday, September 26, 2020

Was Rep. John Lewis Correct? Were Sixties Black Power Slogans “Empty Rhetoric?”.

August 4, 2020 by  
Filed under News, Opinion, Politics, Weekly Columns

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( My initial exposure to John Lewis occurred while researching Black Panther Party for Self-Defense co-founder Huey P. Newton’s calamitous attempt to surrender control of his organization to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). By the late-sixties, Huey P. Newton believed that his cadre had been infiltrated and driven into unprecedented chaos by internal and external factors. In the wake of the killing of Lil’ Bobby Hutton and the lack of uniformity from Panther chapters throughout the nation, it became obvious that the Black Panther Party’s teenagers and twenty-something lumpen proletariats did not possess the bourgeoisie skills needed to effectively guide the organization. Hence, Huey P. Newton’s decision to give control of the organization to SNCC’s collegians.

Newton’s decision, a decision that every Panther that I interviewed disagreed with, forced me to study the history of SNCC. It is this research that exposed me to Marion Berry, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). If you need your faith in the future restored, engagement with the story of SNCC members following an Ella Baker-centric decentralized leadership model will accomplish that lofty goal. John Lewis is a central figure in this narrative.

Rep. John Lewis - Black Panther Party


SNCC, officially formed at Shaw College, Ella Baker’s alma mater, exceeded the expectations of old-guard Civil Rights leaders by becoming much-grander than an auxiliary group to adult Civil Rights groups like Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Make no mistake about it, SNCC activists, unlike the adults of SCLC, were on the frontline of hand-to-hand combat with white bigots.

Whether it was the Sit-In Movement or the continuation of CORE’s Freedom Rides, John Lewis was central to this on-going battle of good vs. evil. As expected, SNCC activists grew increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of integration as governed by white bigots. The alluded to frustrations facilitated a segment of SNCC activists to begin publicly questioning “Who wants to integrate into a burning house.” Increasing doubt regarding the wisdom of integrating with a hostile white community were most publicly articulated via angry not fully defined Black Power slogans.

It was the ascension of Black Power slogans within SNCC that facilitated John Lewis’ exit from SNCC. According to the SNCC leader, Black Power slogans were little more than “empty rhetoric” that threatened to dismantle hard-fought gains in the struggle for racial equality.

Since John Lewis’ death was announced, I have been thinking about what I could say about this man that has not already been stated in the voluminous coverage that he has received. I finally settled on an examination of Lewis’ criticism of Black Power slogans as being nothing more than “empty rhetoric.”

Of all the riveting moments in the struggle for African-American liberation, there may be no more exhilarating one for Black America than the Black Power Era. At the center of the adoration for this historical period is the polarizing slogan of “Black Power” whose debut most attribute to the courage of SNCC worker Willie “Mukasa” Ricks in Greenwood, Mississippi.

As with most slogans, its power is found in its flexibility to address a host of situations; a pliability that flows from its lack of specificity. To the present moment, the meaning of undefined “Black Power” slogans are determined on a person-by-person basis. It is this lack of definition that led Congressman John Lewis to render it as little more than empty rhetoric. Lewis was not alone in his summation.

In response to SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael’s insistence that “Power is the only thing respected in this world, and we must get it any cost” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., responded

We must use every constructive means to amass economic and political power. This is the kind of legitimated power we need. We must work to build racial pride and refute the notion black is evil and ugly. But this must come through a program, not merely through a slogan…The words ‘black’ and ‘power’ together give the impression that we are talking about black domination rather than black equality.

MLK’s rebuttal to Carmichael buttresses John Lewis’ assertion that the mid-sixties call for “Black Power” was empty rhetoric that threatened hard-fought gains. I am certain that the future Congressman feared that the undefined slogan threatened to destroy the tenuous relationship between black and non-black activists.

When one considers that the man who earned the moniker of “the conscience of Congress” stood against insurgent Black Powerites for their use of undefined language during the mid-sixties and never moved off of his square of doing what he considered correct in the pursuit of racial equality, there is little negativity that one can attach to Lewis’ legacy. The historical record has been kind to Lewis’ belief that Black Power slogans were little more than “empty rhetoric” that was an unwise choice of words that threatened to do more damage than most could imagine. In many ways, Lewis’ warnings regarding the use of empty rhetoric should be heeded in this present moment filled with the proliferation of phrase-mongering and undefined slogans that are wielded by individuals to advance personal interests. Unfortunately for us all, few paid attention to Lewis’ warnings during the sixties and even fewer will heed them as we travel into an uncertain future.

Staff Writer; Dr. James Thomas Jones III

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One may also connect with this brother via TwitterDrJamestJones.


One Response to “Was Rep. John Lewis Correct? Were Sixties Black Power Slogans “Empty Rhetoric?”.”
  1. Pelvo White, Jr. says:

    This work is some kind of a strange apology for all of the good work and accomplishments by those who were openly advocating ” black power ” in the face of blatant racism put forth by many, if not all of the privileged white racist in America at that time.The sixties black power slogans were certainly not empty rhetoric. These slogans helped change the mindsets of numerous cultures globally. It was easy to find signs and symbols of black power throughout the world. All races of people publicly identified with the black power music and aesthetics.If congressman Lewis was accurately quoted, his appraisal of the political and social influences of the black power movement were inaccurate if he determined the black power movement to be ” empty rhetoric. “We are now witnessing the political and social behaviors of President Donald Trump who has openly criticized the political and social activities of Congressman Lewis, and also refused to participate in Lewis’ funeral activities thereby signalling to his political base a complete dismissal of congressman Lewis’s political and social ideologies. We should be wearing more Afros, and waving more fists in the air while shouting ” BLACK POWER .” BLACK LIVES MATTER .”

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