Black Perspectives on the Contested Use of Violence for Liberation

The use of violence in the struggle for civil freedoms has had a particularly polarizing effect on discourse within the black community of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s emphasis on non-violence is one of the defining features of his political platform. In a speech delivered at Stanford University in 1967, King, Jr. said,

I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve… But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. (emphasis mine)

Based on the quote above, King, Jr. rejected violence because of the negative consequences it brings about, not because of an inherent dislike of violence in and of itself. In another speech entitled “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement”, King, Jr. said,

Urban riots are a special form of violence…They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest.

He observed that repeat riots in cities were uncommon, and suggested that riots seemed to have a cathartic component for those communities. King saw violence as a legitimate response by blacks to the injustices of Jim Crow laws and white supremacy, but which did not further the goal of ending segregation. For a in-depth look at a particular instance, the Watts Riots of 1965, see Taylor Mark’s post in which she discusses how the critical poverty and oppression blacks faced were the root of the violence.  To further this point he quotes Victor Hugo,

‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’

King, Jr.’s point of view regarding the use of violence dominated social dialogue during the Civil Rights Era. After his assassination in 1968, the community was thrown into turmoil as riots broke out across the nation. King, Jr.’s death sparked a catalyst in the movement towards violence. Immediately following the assassination, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver penned an article, entitled “Requiem for Nonviolence”, in which he wrote,

That there is a holocaust coming I have no doubt at all. I have been talking to people around the country by telephone – people intimately involved in the black liberation struggle – and their reaction to Dr. King’s murder has been unanimous: the war has begun. The violent phase of black liberation struggle is here, and it will spread. From that shot, from that blood, America will be painted red.

Eldridge Cleaver with Wife and Child. Photo by William Klein. 1970
Eldridge Cleaver with Wife and Child. Photo by William Klein. 1970

There were proponents of violent action beforehand, however. Less than five months before the shooting, the Washington Post ran an article titled “Black Power Advocate Clashes with Senators”, in which former Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee chairman Frederick H. Brooks echoed King, Jr.’s sentiment of oppression by white supremacy as the cause of black violence. Brooks, however, did see violence as a legitimate means to and end. He stated,

I believe black people should gain their rights by whatever available means – and if that means violence that’s what I mean. That’s not for me to decide. It’s up to the white people what means will be used.

Untitled
Frederick H. Brooks. The Washington Post. 1967

It seems that there was a consensus in the black activist community that the causes of black violence, as a reaction to white oppression, were just and valid reasons for revolt. The differences emerge, however, in whether or not individuals see that violence as useful for obtaining social change. This rift proved to be a main fault line within the community. Cleaver notes in his article,

To black
 militants, Dr.
 King 
represented
 a 
stubborn 
and 
persistent
 stumbling
 block in 
the
 path 
of 
the
 methods
 that
 had
 to 
be 
implemented 
to
 bring 
about 
a 
revolution
 in 
the 
present
 situation. 
And
 so, therefore, 
much
 hatred, 
much 
venom
 and 
much 
criticism was
 focused 
upon 
Dr.
 King 
by 
the 
black 
militants/And 
the 
contradiction
 in 
which 
he
 was
 caught
 up 
cast 
him 
in 
the 
role 
of 
one 
who 
was 
hated 
and
 held 
in
contempt,
 both 
by 
the 
whites
 in
 America 
who 
did
 not 
want 
to 
free 
black 
people, 
and 
by 
black 
people 
who 
recognized 
the 
attitude 
of 
white 
America
 and
 who
 wanted 
to 
be 
rid
 of 
the 
self‐deceiving 
doctrine 
of
 nonviolence. 
Still, 
black 
militants 
were 
willing 
to 
sit 
back
 and 
watch,
 and 
allow
 Dr.
 King 
to 
play 
out 
his 
role. 
And
 his 
role 
has
 now
 been 
played 
out.

Cleaver did not speak for all Black Panthers, however. In mid-1968, author Lawrence Swaim wrote an article in the North American Review journal called “An Interview with a Black Panther”. The interviewee in the article remains unnamed, but his words are powerful.

A. A lot of people see the Black Panther party as a revolutionary party, and we have stated that we are a revolutionary party . . .

Q. … you are a revolutionary party? . . .

A. … yes, that we are a revolutionary party. But the Black Panther party as a whole has absolutely no intention of taking up arms to overthrow the government. Our main goal is to use the threat of violence, because this is a violent society, and violence is all that this society understands. And we would never take up arms unless we were forced to . . . but, just taking up arms to overthrow the government, this is not our purpose. Our main purpose is to educate the community, so that . . . how shall I put it . . . there would be a non violent revolution, because the United States is the only country in the world that’s in the position to give Black people, and any oppressed people, their freedom without the use of arms. But in order to educate the white community it would take a long period of time which I myself, personally, would not be willing to wait… (emphasis mine).

He continues,

The Black community is the only community in America that is non-violent in its relations with other communities, and the reason that I never adopted the philosophy of non-violence is that non-violence has to work two ways. I would never practice non-violence, I would never turn the other cheek . . . unless the white community was non-violent, especially the police department and the National Guard. The police department is the cause of all the major riots. If there is anybody in the society that needs to be taught what non-violence is all about, it is the white community. Like I said: this is a violent society and violence is the only thing it understands. It doesn’t know anything but violence, that’s how it came into being . . . through violence.

Post-MLK assassination riot in Chicago. April 1968. Chicago Tribune.
“Madison Street Ruins. Smoke still rising from fire-ravaged buildings along 3300 block of Madison street yesterday.” Post-MLK assassination riot in Chicago. April 1968. Chicago Tribune.

Here again we see the shared emphasis on black violence as reactionary to white supremacy, while ultimately opinions on whether or not violence is a legitimate valid means of protest differ. What is being contested in this discourse about violence is the presentation of blackness to a largely antagonistic white public. King, Jr. feared that violence would push whites deeper into segregation, while others like Cleaver and the unnamed Black Panther believe that there is no other way to get whites to listen.

Contemporary black protest groups, such as Black Lives Matter, keep alive the perspective of violence is the impetus of white reactions to black liberation movements. As Megan Tan notes in her post, BLM uses sites of memory such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge as places to center their current protests. The historical event that took place here, Bloody Sunday, was the result of white aggression against a peaceful black protest. This reiterates the sense of non-violence that King strove for.

This nuanced view of how violence was viewed by the black community and the Black Panthers is often lost in today’s memory of the group. The Black Panther Party is commonly remembered as being extremely violent, militant, and a direct threat to American democracy (in this case, democracy = white people and white people only, apparently). In a 2016 article, UK conversative newspaper The Sun criticized Beyonce for using her Superbowl performance to gesture towards the party because of their violence,

Despite starting out to protect blacks from police brutality and to set up community programmes, the group were soon famed for lawlessness, ruthlessness and links to extortion, drug dealing and even the murders of women.

In 2006, conservative media pundit Debbie Schlussel wrote a scathing blog post on her personal website in which she compared the Black Panther Party to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and extremists like Hitler.

40 years of Black Panther violence, murder, and mayhem was more than enough. Here’s hoping there won’t be another 40. These domestic terrorists never represented Black America. The only good thing for Black Panthers in America to do is fade to black.

This is the modern memory that many Americans have of the controversial party. It completely erases the Party’s complexity into a single deviant group who resisted authority. While the black community unanimously agreed that the violence had a legitimate causation rooted in white supremacy, there is no mention of the causes of violence in current memory of the Party. Conservative discourse about the Black Panthers conflate the memory until it is usable to further their own political agenda, that of maintaining the status quo. They can do this because they are only partially remembering the Black Panthers, instead refusing to acknowledge any other narrative or perspective on the group. The politics of the Black Panther memory are deeply rooted in today’s current race relations, and the image of who the Panthers were lies in the hands of those powerful enough to shape the memory. Those in power prune away the nuance within the group until we are left thinking of the Panthers as the American Hezbollah, rather than as a complex group of individuals with unique viewpoints.

Another example of how the Black Panther Party is distorted in modern memory is the lack of recognition for their interracial justice efforts. As Garrett talks about in his post, the BPP worked with both the Young Lords and the Young Patriots in a tri-racial group called the Rainbow Coalition. However, today this connection is all but lost and the Panthers are remembered almost exclusively as a black and black-only anti-white terrorist group.

This blog post serves as a site of memory by participating in the negotiation of how violence during this era is defined. It is my goal with this site to remember the nuance of the use of violence within the civil rights community.


Sources

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “The Other America” Speech (transcript), Stanford University, Stanford, CA, April 14, 1967. The King Center. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/other-america

________________. “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement.” Speech (transcript), Washington, D.C., September 1 1967. The American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/monitor/features/king-challenge.aspx

Gilea, Calin. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Stanford – “The other America” 1967”. Youtube video. 47:54. Posted Jun 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3H978KlR20

Cleaver, Eldridge. “Requiem for Nonviolence.” Ramparts Magazine, May 1968, 48-49. PDF from Arkansas Tech University. http://faculty.atu.edu/cbrucker/Amst2003/Texts/Requiem.pdf

“Black Power Advocate Clashes with Senators.” November 23, 1967. The Washington Post. PDF. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/143049987?accountid=14244.

Swaim, Lawrence and Black Panther. “An Interview with a Black Panther.” The North American Review 253, no. 4 (1968):  27-34.

Iggulden, Carolina. “Murder, drugs, extortion… Why the hell is Beyonce saluting the criminal Black Panthers?” The Sun, February 10, 2016. Online. https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/103141/murder-drugs-extortion-why-the-hell-is-beyonce-saluting-the-criminal-black-panthers/

Schlussel, Debbie. “40 Years of Violence & Murder: UnHappy Anniversary, Black Panthers”. Personal blog, October 13, 2006. Online. http://www.debbieschlussel.com/2510/40-years-of-violence-murder-unhappy-anniversary-black-panthers/

Image Sources

Klein, William. “Eldridge Cleaver with Wife and Child.” 1970. Taken from Walkerart.org http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2016/eldridge-cleaver-black-panther

“Frederick H. Brooks.” The Washington Post, 1967. Screencap taken from newspaper article cited above.

Mendicino, Luigi. “Madison Street Ruins”. The Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1968.

5 thoughts on “Black Perspectives on the Contested Use of Violence for Liberation”

  1. Dr. King Jr.’s views of moving forward without violence are still being carried out today. The conference I wrote about, “Black Power, Black Lives, and Pan-Africanism” centered around identifying specific issues within our societal and economic structure that has led to the oppression of African Americans. The entire conference was dedicated to discussing these issues, and developing realistic solutions that could be implemented to work towards a better future. Here’s the link to view the points that were discussed: http://www.cooperationjackson.org/black-power-conference/2016/6/15/black-power-isnt-black-power-is-basic-points-of-unitydistinction

  2. Megan, your essay was extremely informative and analyzed the difference between the Black Panthers’ and other organizations (ie the SCLC’s) views of violent tactics very well. I wrote my essay on street protests, and on the peaceful march/street protest that included Bloody Sunday, which you can read here: https://blackpower.web.unc.edu/2017/04/black-power-in-bloody-sunday/. You make a good point on how public memory has distorted the Party’s memory and how it has reduced the Party to a needlessly violent and militant group, and linked its legacy to how society views modern-day associations with the party, like in Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance. Well done.

  3. I think it was really interesting to read about how memory has distorted how the Black Panther Party is viewed. I think that the violence that was used by some Civil Rights protesters also distorted the movement’s aims overall, and has taken attention away from the fact that institutional racism diminishes everyone. Violence has become such a prevalent part of the narrative of the Civil Rights movement that people seem to focus more on whether or not protesters should have used violence rather than the problems causing the protests in the first place.

  4. This is a very thorough post that covers many of the important aspects of racial violence in the US. I found the interview with a Black Panther Party member to be very powerful, especially the part where he points out that the BPP is only violent in a reactionary form to white supremacy. Collective memory in the US seems to believe that the BPP and other groups were violent just for the sake of being violent, but I think it is important that we recognize that violence was not their preferred method of protest and that violence was only used in a reactionary form.

  5. Your thorough analysis on the nuances of violence for black liberation is a rich piece to employ the concepts of memory we have studied in this course. One that I’ll try to employ here is Michael Schudson’s idea of cognitivization as form of distortion, in this case distortion of black violence during this period. It’s simple and cliché to reduce the BPP and others as a violent organization to decry, much less further debase it as a terrorist organization. As you revealed, the case for violent resistance is much more compelling and palatable when popular circulation of “known” history gives way to vernacular memory. All of the sudden common myths in public memory are disrupted.

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