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There was a lot of feeling erupting at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids Wednesday night, May 17, but whenever Stokely Carmichael hit upon a surprisingly stark truth, there was an odd silence among both Negroes and whites in his audience.
A capacity crowd swelled the old church as Carmichael, former SNCC chairman and champion of Black Power, expounded his concepts of the racial problem in the U.S. A forceful and dynamic speaker, Carmichael repeatedly exhibited his ability to arouse and dominate the emotions of his audience. His complete control was demonstrated by the vocal agreements, amens, and you'd-better-believe-its which continually issued from the crowd.
Viet Nam, Black Power, American education, and violence were the hot topics. Somehow, in less than an hour and a half, Carmichael managed to turn everything in American into a question of white supremacy. His logic, geared to the emotion other than to the intellect, holds for the listener only as long as he is under the former SNCC chairman's trance. Once he is away from the speaker's influence, the logic begins to crumble and a vague feeling of frustration results. Finally the white listener realizes that his frustration is due to the fact that the very things in the U.S. which Carmichael condemns are the same things he is employing for their eradication.
This not true for the Negro listener, who quickly identifies with Carmichael and who feels the emotional impact of the speech more strongly and lastingly than the white listener. This difference is the key to the value of the speech and the only thing which gives it a positive worth. Beneath Carmichael's obnoxious statements and conflicting logic lies his concerns for the Negroes and his sincere solutions for their problems.
Carmichael's speech was structured around several concepts (his own) which he believes to be the main principles involved in the struggle for Black Power, which he defines to be the coming together of black people to fight for their liberation by any means necessary. The first concept concerns his idea of self-condemnation and boils down to this: it is impossible for someone to condemn himself because he would have to punish himself. The same reasoning applies to a nation. The U.S. Carmichael rates, is the world oppressor of black people, yet if the U.S. were to condemn itself, she would have to commit suicide and that might not be a bad idea, he hastens to add! Therefore, the only alternative is for the U.S. to fail to recognize her racism.
A second concept revolves around freedom. No man can give any other man his freedom, Carmichael says, because all men are born free, but men can enslave other men and this has been happening since time began. Furthermore, the whites have always been the oppressors; the whites are uncivilized. Here he chalked up one of his blunt points: "The Civil Rights Law was for the whites, not for us; because it civilized them. We know we could live where we wanted and work where we wanted, it was them that didn't know it!"
Carmichael spent considerable time with his idea of the power of definition. He reasons that white Western society defines everyone and everything and therefore can dictate the behavior of others. For example, in America's earliest history of white success over the Indians was termed a "victory," while an Indian defeat of the whites was termed a massacre." The same labelling can be applied today in Viet Nam. Carmichael stated that in the past the whites could make the Negroes react to such definitions, always managing to put the Negroes in the wrong. Now it's time for the Negroes to get their own definitions to protect themselves from future blackmail, shame, and exploitation.
One of the most arousing and to-the point portions the speech concerned "the lies them whites have told us." Carmichael shouted, "The biggest lie that the whites ever told us is that we are lazy. We're lazy? Look at them. They went to Africa to get us to do their work! And another lie: "If you work hard, you will succeed . . . . If that were true," he went on, "we'd own the U.S. lock, stock and barrel! Who are the garbage men, the street cleaners, the chambermaids, the janitors? We are! We are the hardest working and lowest-paid people in the U.S.!"
Success, Carmichael feels, is -- not a question of education but of who is in control. U.S. education is slanted against the Negro anyway, he says, pointing out examples for Dick, Jane, and Sally to the history of Africa as his proof. "They lie about our history." He claimed. "They've cut off our ties with Africa -- won't recognize our beginning. And you know as well as I do that a people with a history is like a tree with roots. What do you read about in school? Rome -- Greece -- what about Africa? Hannibal was an African and he bombed the Romans to pieces." White education, he finished does not recognize any Negroes beyond George Washington Carver and Brooker T. Washington.
"The whites move with the assumption that they're superior," he went on. "The whites are still uncivilized but they think they're God's gift to humanity, trying to civilize everybody else. They call us savages. Look up the definition of savage and then check the U.S. out in Viet Nam!"
Carmichael then proceeded to outline a plan for Negro retaliation. First, the Negro must recognize his own culture and background and feel he has a right to be proud of it. This is essential, Carmichael feels, to any people. Second, the Negro must increase his self-identity and self-pride. "They've tried to make us ashamed of ourselves and you know something? They've succeeded. We've tried to imitate them and be as white as we can. . . What is beauty? You see it on the television -- white skin and stringy hair. They won't believe we can be beautiful . . . But we are black and beautiful. The wind and rain can't do nothing to our curls!"
Finally, whites must be made to realize that the Negroes are united -- that there is a real black organization -- that when a white touches one black, he touches all. "This is our only salvation . . . we've got to hustle as a group." The Negro must fight back now with all his strength. Carmichael quoted Frederick Douglas to drive home his point: "If a slave wants to remain a slave, he must listen to his master." Then he quoted Christ: "Where there is injustice there shall be no peace."
The solution to the Negro oppression is therefore three-fold: 1. De-whitewash the Negroes by giving them self-pride. 2. Resurrect the Negro culture. 3. Establish a strong group organization.
Carmichael concluded his speech by promising one helluva summer for everybody.