Black Power: Let’s Pick Up Guns And Protect Our Neighborhoods
America is essentially a dream. On one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy. On the other hand we have sadly practiced the very antithesis of principles — Martin Luther King, Jr.
A cold summer is nigh. And Blacks are fed up with racial violence dished out by police. The fiery frustration seen through protests in recent weeks is reminiscent of the passion exercised by civil rights activist, Stokley Carmichael, he later changed his name to Kwame Ture to honor both president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and the president of Guinea, Sékou Touré.
In 1966, Ture, with a loud, and intense voice asked an important question to a crowd of 600 supporters in Leflore, Mississippi. The ardent organizer asked demonstrators, “What do we want?” The protestors, who were in Leflore supporting James Meredith’s “March Against Fear,” yelled back: “Black Power.”
Ture, a then-24-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is often credited with coining the term, Black Power. The heavily built expression embedded the minds and hearts of Blacks across the world, and was centered in soul music, funk, R&B, hip-hop, film, streetwear, open-air preaching, and academia.
Later, Ture, along with Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power: Politics of Liberation defined Black Power as organizing independent political bases for African Americans. “It’s not enough to add more and more people to the voter rolls, and then send them into the old “do-nothing” compromise-oriented political parties. Those new voters will only become frustrated and alienated,” Carmichael and Hamilton, wrote.
Resisting White Supremacy in Louisiana
Two years prior to Ture’s call for Black Power, some World War II veterans in Jonesboro, La. were immured in the trenches of the civil rights movement with the creation of Deacons for Defense.
The Deacons, a grassroots self-defense organization, led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas, and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, was birthed after police escorted Klansmen through Black neighborhoods in Jonesboro as they passed out racist propaganda. Watching officers uphold hateful behavior moved Thomas, and Kirkpatrick to organize. They purchased guns, walkie-talkies, and commenced protecting their neighborhood against white supremacy. It proved to be successful, too. Word spread about Black men with guns protecting their space. Shortly thereafter, the Deacons were called on to provide security at the “March Against Fear,” the very march where Carmichael called for Black Power.
The following year, in Bogalusa, La., more than two dozen cars filled with members of the Ku Klux Klan drove into a predominantly Black neighborhood. Leaning out of their car windows, the white supremacists harassed Blacks by brandishing pistols, and yelling racial slurs. Intimidation like this was a frequent occurrence in Bogalusa. At times, KKK members would fire rounds into random homes of Blacks. This happened one July evening in 1965. But on this particular night, Klansmen found bullets returned in their direction. The Deacons for Defense had reached Bogalusa, too.
Charles Sims, president of the Bogalusa chapter, called his organization a “defense guard unit.’ Historian George Lipsitz said: “the Deacons made Bogalusa one of the places in the South where armed self-defense supplemented tactical nonviolent direct action in the civil rights movement.”
As their popularity grew, Deacons’ chapters spread to Mississippi, and Alabama. It’s alleged that more than 50 chapters unfurled in Louisiana. Thanks to a NRA discount, every member of the Deacons for Defense was given ammunition. In addition to protecting Black neighborhoods from violence and intimidation, Deacons for Defense also fought to desegregate Louisiana, gaining several wins along the way.
Black Panthers of Lowndes County, Alabama Fight Back
East of Bogalusa, the Selma to Montgomery March, part of a series of protests to register Black voters in the South, was taking shape. The 54-mile March landed Carmichael, and other SNCC workers in Lowndes County, Alabama. In 1965, 80 percent of Lowndes County was Black. But of course, Lowndes County political machine, real estate, and local businesses were controlled by whites. African Americans in Lowndes County either worked on plantations as tenant farmers, or commuted to Montgomery to work as domestics. Despite being tax paying citizens, Blacks were not allowed to vote.
Ture, SNCC organizers, and Lowndes County residents created the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), also known as the Black Panther Party. Because of high illiteracy rates, Alabama required political parties to have a logo. LCFO chose a Black Panther, which would later be adopted by Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. “The black panther is a vicious animal, as you know,” John Hulett, one of LCFO’s founders explained, “He never bothers anything, but when you start pushing him, he moves backward, backward, and backward, and then he comes out and destroys everything that’s in front of him.” The Alabama Democratic Party had the logo of a white rooster with the words, “White supremacy for the right.” That language was not removed until 1996.
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Citizens of Lowndes County didn’t just want to vote, they wanted to vote for candidates that represented their interests. Through grassroots organizing led by Hulett, LCFO developed political workshops, day-to-day conversations on front porches, inside living rooms, and inside kitchens. The new political party ran seven candidates, seeking election for sheriff, coroner, tax assessor as well as the board of education. All lost in the 1966 general election, and the LCFO subsequently merged with the Alabama Democratic Party.
LCFO may have lost at the polls, but their efforts were not futile. The world was paying attention to the happenings in Alabama. LCFO especially inspired some college students in Oakland, Calif.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Murder of Denzil Dowell
While enrolled at Merritt Community College, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale, co-founders of the Black Panther Party (BPP) were reading, strategizing, theorizing and getting active on campus,and in their community. While working at North Oakland Community Center, Newton and Seale canvassed the neighborhood, duly noting complaints of the residents. One of the most concerning grievances was police violence. With this, Seale and Newton set out combat police brutality, among other issues. The Black Panther Party was officially created in October 1966, just six months before 22-year-old construction worker Denzil Dowell was murdered by police in Richmond, Calif.
Police officers claimed Dowell burglarized a liquor store. In an all-too familiar script, Police fired six gunshots into the back and head of Dowell, and maintained that he was shot after refusing to follow police orders. The coroner’s report revealed that Dowell was shot with his hands raised in the air. Echoing the Black mothers before and after her, Ms. Dowell said: “I believe the police murdered my son.” An all-white jury found the police not guilty.
Taking a note from the Deacons of Defense, the Panthers not only policed police by brandishing guns, and law code books, as well as overseeing arrests, but they, along with other community members, helped seek justice for the killing of Dowell. The Panthers conducted their own investigation, and confronted police when they attempted to intimidate the Dowells’. Also, The Party’s first issue of The Panther newspaper, at its peak The Panther circulated 100,000 copies, was a response to the police for the killing of Dowell.
Mr. George Floyd and Ms. Breonna Taylor
What we’re seeing today in the form of protests, resulting from the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is a decades-old recurring theme. After the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, activists demanded an immediate demise to white supremacy. There were boycotts, and marches across the U.S., which fueled the next phase of the civil rights movement. In 1964, an off-duty police officer fatally shot 15-year-old James Powell in Harlem. Two days of peaceful protests were thwarted by discontentment, causing Harlemites to riot. After George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter started as a hashtag, sparking more demands from activists.
Currently, corporations, celebrities, and record labels are speaking out about racial injustice. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan to defund police departments. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a measure to criminalize police choke holds, a technique used by Daniel Pantaleo to kill Eric Garner in 2014. Entertainers are donating money to organizations. NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell apologized for not listening to the concerns of Blacks sooner. Congressional Democrats dressed in Kente before taking a knee during a moment of silence for Floyd. Also, companies are removing controversial shows, movies, and titles.
All of this sounds good, looks great in media publications, and may even make one feel good, but the former will not uproot the current oppressive system that’s in place. It must be noted that Lee Atwater explained to the Reagan Administration how to use abstract racist language without sounding racist to the public. These types of conversations continue behind closed doors. Removing titles, films, and defunding police departments will not remove hate from the hearts of men.
How can America legislate the disdain for Black skin? It can’t. Legislators have been passing laws since 1865. As we see, laws didn’t protect Mr. Floyd and Ms. Taylor being murdered by police. Even if the U.S. could legislate good morals into hateful hearts, there is very little, if any at all, representation of Black lives in Congress.
When Blacks move as a unit, we have proved to be powerful. Forced to exercise radical imagination, Blacks have created schools like John Churchville’s Philadelphia Freedom Library Day School, Chicago’s New Concept Development Center, and North Carolina’s Malcolm X Liberation University, among several others. The creation of alternative schooling for Blacks was an effort to create freedom from social constraints.
Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a Black nationalist, and former member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, created the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME) in the back of a Chicago restaurant. Dr. Keisha N. Blain, award-winning historian, and author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, described Gordon as one of Chicago’s leading “street scholars,” and advocate for the working poor of color. Gordon’s PME was the largest Black nationalist organization created by a woman.
In one of the most inspiring moments in American history, Blacks sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For an entire year, Black organizers in Montgomery ensured that every man and woman without transportation made to and from work until public transportation was segregated.
Freedom thinkers, and activists such as Henry McNeal Turner, Max Stanford, and Toni Cade Bambara, Queen Mother Moore, among others, labored aggressively to create spaces where Blacks could free from oppression in the U.S.
Lessons can be gleaned from organizations like LCFO, Deacons for Defense, and the Black Panther Party. History has shown us that Blacks have the courage to protect our own communities against police violence. Blacks posses the wits to create political parties that speak to our needs. Blacks have enough resources to sustain Black owned institutions. Racial separatism, which should not to be confused with racial segregation, has been beneficial to African Americans in many cases. As Robin D.G. Kelley has noted, Blacks creating space where we can be free is not apolitical. Until the current suppressive system in place is deracinated, racial separatism may not be a bad idea.