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  • From Stokely Carmichael to Kwame Ture*
  • Charles E. Cobb Jr. (bio)

The young black boy—maybe sixteen years old if his smooth young face is a measure—stands handcuffed in a corner of the store while two policemen—one white and one black—take down particulars; the black policeman talking to him while scribbling into a small notebook. "I told these boys," the woman behind the counter—a black woman—tells the white policeman who is entering notes into his pad too, "that if they keep coming in here trying to steal I was going to call the cops." She was scooping up cigarettes, gum, candy, and other counter items, handing them to a helper who was putting them beneath the counter. The store wasn't closing; it's just that the neighborhood wasn't changing either.

Black power in Greenwood, Mississippi, helped make possible the black-owned gas station and convenience store where this arrest took place. In the 1950s, Amzie Moore, head of the NAACP in neighboring Bolivar County, had the only black-owned gas station in the Mississippi Delta. He refused to put up "white" and "colored" signs and seated in his home's bay window with a rifle, floodlights pouring over the backyard, at least when we were there, he kept watch to protect himself, us, and his house from the attack he was certain would be coming from outraged whites one night. Black power has desegregated Greenwood's police force, elected blacks to the city's Board of Aldermen, and made it possible for a black man like me to enter the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood and have a white clerk politely ask, "May I help you, sir?" The questions surrounding young boys like the one I saw being arrested at the convenience store remain unanswered.

Black Power. Although Richard Wright wrote a book with that title, history will always associate the words with Stokely Carmichael, who on June 16, 1966, while continuing a protest march begun by James Meredith, spoke them in a Greenwood park not far from the gas station where years later I was witnessing that young boy's arrest. Earlier that June day in 1966, Stokely too had been arrested. "This is the 27th time . . ." he told the crowd of 1,000. "I ain't going to jail no more. . . . We been saying freedom for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!" he roared to amens, clapping, and stomping feet. He stood, eyes blazing, fist clenched with one finger pointing, like a wrathful prophet stepped straight from the pages of the Old Testament as Willie Ricks, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer, leapt to the platform. "BLACK POWER!" Ricks shouted out, "BLACK POWER! What do you want?" "BLACK POWER!" the crowd responded with a force that startled a press corps expecting to hear the tones of we shall overcome. And Stokely Carmichael exploded onto the national stage and into the national consciousness as yet another unexpected black leader whose anger and dissatisfaction seemed to come out of nowhere. [End Page 89]

No one blinks an eye at the phrase today. But then, "We are all Mississippians," the Saturday Evening Post warned, and the magazine did not mean Mississippi sharecroppers. "An unfortunate choice of words," said Rev. Martin Luther King. "The ranging of race against race," fumed the NAACP's Roy Wilkins.

Thirty years later Stokely Carmichael chuckles mischievously recalling arguments during planning to continue a march begun by James Meredith who had been shot while walking from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, on a solitary "March Against Fear." When Martin Luther King joined SNCC and CORE in approval of participation by Louisiana's black self-defense group the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Roy Wilkins and Urban League head Whitney Young stormed out of the first meeting in Memphis. They had also infuriated Wilkins and Young by deciding against issuing a national call to resume the march. "We didn't want the militancy taken out," says Stokely, who also argued against having any national white leaders in the march. While agreeing that participants should come from the Southern movement, King...


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