Monday, February 15, 2010

Living History

February is Black History Month. At work there is a big display in the entry hall. Very visual, lots of pictures of the luminaries and the popular; Fredrick Douglas, Jesse, Martin, Colin Powell, President Obama, and then across the bottom is a time line going from the 1700’s to the 1900’s. On that time line there is a notation that in 1967 Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase ‘Black Power’ in a speech in Seattle Washington.

Seeing this notation brought back memories I had not considered in years. So I did a little Google ‘research’, (amazing how easy that is these days) and the memories came flooding back, like newspaper tattered by 40 years of traveling on the wind. It didn’t just refresh my memory; I also discovered lots of things that I don’t even remember being part of that speech. It turns out that when something of significance happens (significant as defined by the conventional media any way) there is a considerable volume of information that gets ‘archived’. There were lots of links to the event, I sorted and sifted, read and remembered. It was energizing and nostalgic and inspiring and a little bit depressing, like a peek at your old high school annual. Stokely Carmichael gave that speech at James A Garfield High school. I was a senior at Garfield that year, and I was there when he gave that speech.

In that time most of the significant events in the struggle for civil rights were taking place in the south. It was not until the 70’s, after significant progress was made in the south that the civil rights movement looked north to places like Boston, and Chicago, and yes, even liberal Seattle to see that there was room for improvement in areas like equality in education, housing, and other social issues. So in 1967 Seattle was an unlikely place for a momentous event.  Here is a copy of the speech:

Apparently somewhere there is a slideshow of the speech, and an audio copy of the whole speech. I’d really like to see that, to see pictures of the people who were there that night, to hear the speech and the crowd responses. I did find this with audio clips, It gives you an idea of what it was like.

Just to set the context, the newspapers referred to Carmichael as a ‘militant negro activist’. This illustrates how different things were then. Carmichael in his speech championed black power, ‘black is beautiful’ and supported (later became the leader of) the black panther party. But these were all very new ideas and at that time there was no way a respected mainstream newspaper would refer to an African American as black. Less than a year earlier, referring to someone as black would have been an insult only exceeded by the “N” word. You could say ‘colored people’, you could say ‘negro’, but to refer to someone as black was just a huge insult. Our society was so incredibly different 40 years ago. It was a different world then, this was historic, and I was living it.

There was incredible energy in the atmosphere; nobody was really sure what would happen. He had spoken to a larger crowd out at the U of W earlier in the day but there was a big fuss about him speaking at the high school. The school board denied permission but the ACLU came to the rescue, and just in the nick of time: It was questionable right up to the hours before he spoke. Still, nobody knew what would happen: Would a race riot ensue? Would the police descend with clubs? That may sound overly dramatic, or perhaps even passé but in those times it felt as if the country was just one clash away from a revolution.

If you are of the generations that have come along after the 60’s, after us ‘boomers’, I can appreciate that you are probably sick up to your ears of hearing about the 60’s. I apologize for that, we were, and are
still pretty full of ourselves, and I hope this is not just a case of piling on. So you have a choice; bare with me, or move on to something else that might better suit your mood.

Here are a few of the things I remember:
Carmichael made a point to make that speech at the high school, in the heart of the ’Central Area’ of Seattle. The central area was a euphemism for that part of the city that was densely populated by blacks. Was it a ghetto? That’s hard to say. There were no walls, there was no concertina wire, but if you were black in the Seattle area in 1967 you would probably have a very difficult time buying a home in Bellevue, or Edmonds and you most certainly would not find a place available in Broadmoor.

He not only made a point to make that speech at Garfield, he made a point of explaining why Garfield high school was his preferred venue. First he pointed out that all of the media were white. He said that the stories in tomorrows ‘white’ papers would be dominated by the most inflammatory remarks they could gather from his speech. I remember he pressed home the point that these were ‘the papers of white people’. I (and I am sure most in that auditorium) had never thought of them in that way. Most of the people in that auditorium were black folks from the local community. I was there too, local but not black. And as he proceeded with his speech I felt more and more white, to the point of slight discomfort. I remember that he used the term Black Power, and it really resonated with people in the auditorium.  He was an incredible speaker. He was obviously well educated but he spoke in the vernacular of the people, there was no vibe of hate or violence, but it was clear he advocated the adoption of a new position for black people; one of pride, strength, and power.

This was a radical departure from the gospel of non-violence fostered by Martin Luther King that most people were aware of and many accepted as THE way that the civil rights movement would successfully proceed. In fact I think that Martin Luther King’s absolute adherence to the doctrine of nonviolence secured the acceptance of the notion of equal rights in a way that the more militant positions of Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam would not have. If it were the other way around, if the civil rights movement in the 60’s had precipitated from a strong position of militancy, and violent response to violence, I think it would have been put down hard. It seems very unlikely to me that the movement would have progressed to a position of non-violence. I don’t know that the way it played out was the perfect progression, but I think we can say that progress has been made.

The crowd that night was with him more solidly than the congregation attending a Sunday sermon at Mt Zion Baptist church. This I know because I had occasion to attended church at Mt Zion from time to time with my (all black but me) little league team. You could sense the coming together of people there. Not just his message but his delivery caused many people to come away from that speech seeing the world differently. There was a forging of common interests, but also a divide was created.

This divide was not immediately apparent to me, but in the days and weeks that followed it came into sharper focus and I think back now and see this as one of those few points in time that represent a demarcation, a change such that things will never again be the same, like December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, or September 11, 2001. Maybe not the same magnitude but when it is personal it takes on it‘s own significance. 

That night Stokely Carmichael referred to white people as honkies, and he did it over and over again in his speech. In doing so he put a brighter light on the divide between white and black people. This was something that Martin never did. Martin was for and about black people but his rhetoric implied a sense of inclusion, a sense that white people too could benefit from what he had to offer. Carmichael and the rhetoric of the black power movement offered very little of that and it was the thing that white people in power feared greatly.

The personal part of this business about honkies was that the next day, kids I had known and gone to school with since the third grade referred to me as a honkie. Not behind my back, and not threateningly, but certainly, and as a matter of fact. I was still a friend, still to some degree part of the community, but now there was a line between us. It was probably always there, Stokely Carmichael didn’t create it, he just made sure that everyone who heard him speak that night heard about it and didn’t forget it. History was made, something changed ever so slightly on the cosmic scale, forever, and I lived it.

That there is now an official black history month, and that a poster inside a federal government office building mentions Stokely Carmichael in any flattering light at all demonstrates how dramatically things have changed in 40 years. My God, how quickly 40 years has passed: I was a kid then and now I am an old man.

Here is a link to some of the factual data about that speech on that day. By the way, this history of Seattle is really very interesting. So fascinating to look over people, places and things related to Seattle and get at least some of what the current perspective was at that point in time.  Here's a link to a remembrance of that speech from another high school friend of mine, Elmer Dixon. I think this too demonstrates how dramatic the change was that Stokely Carmichael brought to us that night.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the memories!
    I had to share this with my 15 year old granddaughter.