(1966) Stokely Carmichael, “Black Power”

Stokely Carmichael speaking at Garfield High School, Seattle, 1967
Courtesy MOHAI (1986.5.21041)

Soon after he was named chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael began to tout the slogan and philosophy of Black Power.  In the speech below he explains  Black Power to an audience at the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the white intellectual ghetto of the West. This is a student conference, as it should be, held on a campus, and we’ll never be caught up in intellectual masturbation on the question of Black Power. That’s the function of the people who are advertisers but call themselves reporters. Incidentally, for my friends and members of the press, my self-appointed white critics, I was reading Mr. Bernard Shaw two days ago, and I came across a very important quote that I think is most apropos to you. He says, “All criticism is an autobiography.” Dig yourself. Ok.

The philosophers Camus and Sartre raise the question of whether or not a man can condemn himself. The black existentialist philosopher who is pragmatic, Frantz Fanon, answered the question. He said that man could not. Camus and Sartre don’t answer the question. We in SNCC tend to agree with Fanon–a man cannot condemn himself. If he did, he would then have to inflict punishment upon himself. An example is the Nazis. Any of the Nazi prisoners who, after he was caught and incarcerated, admitted that he committed crimes, that he killed all the many people he killed, had to commit suicide. The only ones able to stay alive were the ones who never admitted that they committed a crime against people–that is, the ones who rationalized that Jews were not human beings and deserved to be killed, or that they were only following orders. There’s another, more recent example provided by the officials and the population–the white population — of Neshoba County, Mississippi (that’s where Philadelphia is). They could not condemn Sheriff Rainey, his deputies, and the other fourteen men who killed three human beings. They could not because they elected Mr. Rainey to do precisely what he did; and condemning him would be condemning themselves.

In a much larger view, SNCC says that white America cannot condemn herself for her criminal acts against black America. So black people have done it–you stand condemned. The institutions that function in this country are clearly racist; they’re built upon racism. The questions to be dealt with then are: how can black people inside this country move? How can white people who say they’re not part of those institutions begin to move? And how then do we begin to clear away the obstacles that we have in this society, to make us live like human beings?

Several people have been upset because we’ve said that integration was irrelevant when initiated by blacks, and that in fact it was an insidious subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy. In the past six years or so, this country has been feeding us a “thalidomide drug of integration,” and some negroes have been walking down a dream street talking about sitting next to white people. That does not begin to solve the problem. We didn’t go to Mississippi to sit next to Ross Barnett (former governor of Mississippi), we did not go to sit next to Jim Clark (sheriff of Selma, Alabama), we went to get them out of our way. People ought to understand that; we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy. In order to understand white supremacy we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anybody his freedom. A man is born free. You may enslave a man after he is born free, and that is in fact what this country does. It enslaves blacks after they’re born. The only thing white people can do is stop denying black people their freedom.

I maintain that every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people. For example, I am black. I know that. I also know that while I am black I am a human being. Therefore I have the right to go into any public place. White people don’t know that. Every time I tried to go into a public place they stopped me. So some boys had to write a bill to tell that white man, “He’s a human being; don’t stop him.” That bill was for the white man, not for me. I knew I could vote all the time and that it wasn’t a privilege but my right. Every time I tried I was shot, killed or jailed, beaten or economically deprived. So somebody had to write a bill to tell white people, “When a black man comes to vote, don’t bother him.” That bill was for white people. I know I can live anyplace I want to live. It is white people across this country who are incapable of allowing me to live where I want. You need a civil rights bill, not me. The failure of the civil rights bill isn’t because of Black Power or because of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or because of the rebellions that are occurring in the major cities. That failure is due to the white’s incapacity to deal with their own problems inside their own communities. And so in a sense we must ask, How is it that black people move? And what do we do? But the question in a much greater sense is, How can white people who are the majority, and who are responsible for making democracy work, make it work? They have never made democracy work, be it inside the United States, Vietnam, South Africa, the Philippines, South America, Puerto Rico, or wherever America has been. We not only condemn the country for what it has done internally, but we must condemn it for what it does externally. We see this country trying to rule the world, and someone must stand up and start articulating that this country is not God, and that it cannot rule the world.

The white supremacist attitude, which you have either consciously or subconsciously, is running rampant through society today. For example, missionaries were sent to Africa with the attitude that blacks were automatically inferior. As a matter of fact, the first act the missionaries did when they got to Africa was to make us cover up our bodies, because they said it got them excited. We couldn’t go bare-breasted any more because they got excited! When the missionaries came to civilize us because we were uncivilized, to educate us because we were uneducated, and to give us some literate studies because we were illiterate, they charged a price. The missionaries came with the Bible, and we had the land: When they left, they had the land, and we still have the Bible. That’s been the rationalization for Western civilization as it moves across the world–stealing, plundering, and raping everybody in its path. Their one rationalization is that the rest of the world is uncivilized and they are in fact civilized.

But the West is un-civ-i-lized. And that still runs on today, you see, because now we have “modern-day missionaries,” and they come into our ghettos–they Head Start, Upward Lift, Bootstrap, and Upward Bound us into white society. They don’t want to face the real problem. A man is poor for one reason and one reason only–he does not have money. If you want to get rid of poverty, you give people money. And you ought not tell me about people who don’t work, and that you can’t give people money if they don’t work, because if that were true, you’d have to start stopping Rockefeller, Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, the whole of Standard Oil, the Gulf Corporation, all of them, including probably a large number of the board of trustees of this university. The question, then, is not whether or not one can work; it’s Who has power to make his or her acts legitimate? That is all. In his country that power is invested in the hands of white people, and it makes their acts legitimate.

We are now engaged in a psychological struggle in this country about whether or not black people have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction. We maintain the use of the words Black Power — let them address themselves to that. We are not going to wait for white people to sanction Black Power. We’re tired of waiting; every time black people try to move in this country, they’re forced to defend their position beforehand. It’s time that white people do that. They ought to start defending themselves as to why they have oppressed and exploited us. A man was picked as a slave for one reason–the color of his skin. Black was automatically inferior, inhuman,. And therefore fit for slavery, so the question of whether or not we are individually suppressed is nonsensical, and it’s a downright lie. We are oppressed as a group because we are black, not because we are lazy or apathetic, not because we’re stupid or we stink, not because we eat watermelon or have good rhythm. We are oppressed because we are black.

In order to escape that oppression we must wield the group power we have, not the individual power that this country sets as the criterion under which a man may come into it. That’s what is called integration. “You do what I tell you to do and we’ll let you sit at the table with us.” Well, if you believe in integration, you can come live in Watts, send your children to the ghetto schools. Let’s talk about that. If you believe in integration, then we’re going to start adopting us some white people to live in our neighborhoods.

So it is clear that this question is not one off integration or segregation. We cannot afford to be concerned about the 6 percent black children in this country whom you allow to enter white schools. We are going to be concerned about the 94 percent. You ought to be concerned about them too. But are we willing to be concerned about the black people who will never get to Berkeley, never get to Harvard, and cannot get an education, the ones you’ll never get a chance to rub shoulders with and say, “Why, he’s almost as good as we are; he’s not like the others”? The question is, How can white society begin to move to see black people as human beings? I am black, therefore I am. Not I am black and I must go to college to prove myself. I am black, therefore I am. And don’t deprive me of anything and say to me that you must go to college before you gain access to X, Y, and Z. That’s only a rationalization for suppression.

The political parties of this country do not meet the needs of the people on a day-to-day basis. How can we build new political institutions that will become the political expressions of people? How can you build political institutions that will begin to meet the needs of Oakland, California? The need of Oakland, California, is not 1,000 policemen with submachine guns. They need that least of all. How can we build institutions that will allow those people to function on a day-to-day basis, so that they can get decent jobs and have decent houses, and they can begin to participate in the policy and make the decisions that affect their lives? That’s what they need, not Gestapo troops, because this is no 1942, and if you play like Nazis, we’re not going to play Jew this time around.

Get hip to that. Can white people move inside their own community and start tearing down racism where in fact it exists? It is you who live in Cicero and stopped us from living there. White people stopped us from moving into Grenada, Miss. White people make sure that we live in the ghettos of this country. White institutions do that. They must change. In order for America to really live on a basic principle of human relationships, a new society must be born. Racism must die. The economic exploitation by this country of non-white people around the world must also die.

There are several programs in the South where whites are trying to organize poor whites so they can begin to move around the question of economic exploitation and political disfranchisement. We’ve all heard the theory several times. But few people are willing to go into it. The question is, Can the white activist stop trying to be a Pepsi generation who comes alive in the black community, and be a man who’s willing to move into the white community and start organizing where the organization is needed? Can he do that? Can the white activist disassociate himself from the clowns who waste time parrying with each other and start talking about the problems that are facing people in this state? You must start inside the white community.

Our political position is that we don’t think the Democratic Party represents the needs of black people. We know that it does not. If, in fact, white people believe that they’re going to move inside that structure, how are they going to organize around a concept of whiteness based on true brotherhood and on stopping economic exploitation in order to form a coalition base for black people to hook up with? You cannot build a coalition based on national sentiment. If you want a coalition to address itself to real changes in this country, white people must start building those institutions inside the white community. And that’s the real question faction the white activists today. Can they tear down the institutions that have put us all in the trick bag we’ve been into for the last hundreds of years?

Frederick Douglass said that the youth should fight to be leaders today. God knows we need to be leaders today, because the men who run this country are sick. We must begin to start building those institutions and to fight to articulate our position, to fight to be able to control our universities (we need to be able to do that), to fight to control the basic institutions that perpetuate racism by destroying them and building new ones. That’s the real question that faces us today, and it is a dilemma because most of us don’t know how to work.

Most white activists run into the black community as an excuse. We cannot have white people working in the black community — on psychological grounds. The fact is that all black people question whether or not they are equal to whites, since every time they start to do something, white people are around showing them how to do it. If we are going to eliminate that for the generation that comes after us, then black people must be in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves. That’s not reverse racism; it is moving onto healthy ground; it is becoming what the philosopher Sartre says, an “antiracist racist.” And this country can’t understand that. If everybody who’s white sees himself as racist and sees us against him, he’s speaking from his own guilt.

We do not have the power in our hands to change the institution of war in this country–to begin to recreate it so that they can learn to leave the Vietnamese people alone. The only power we have is the power to say, “Hell, no!” to the draft.

The war in Vietnam is illegal and immoral. The question is, What can we do to stop that war? What can we do to stop the people who, in the name of America, are killing babies, women, and children? We have to say to ourselves that there’s a higher law than the law of a fool named Rusk; there’s a higher law than the law of a buffoon named Johnson. It’s the law of each of us. We will not murder anybody who they say kill, and if we decide to kill, ‘were’ going to decide who it shall be. This country will only stop the war in Vietnam when the young men who are made to fight it begin to say, “Hell, no, we aren’t going.”

The peace movement has been a failure because it hasn’t gotten off the college campuses where everybody has a 2S and is not afraid of being drafted anyway. The problem is how you can move out of that into the white ghettos of this country and articulate a position for those white youth who do not want to go. You cannot do that. It is sometimes ironic that many of the peace groups have begun to call SNCC violent and they say they can no longer support us, when we are in fact the most militant organization for peace or civil rights or human rights against the war in Vietnam in this country today.

There isn’t one organization that has begun to meet our stand on the war in Vietnam. We not only say we are against the war in Vietnam; we are against the draft. No man has the right to take a man for two years and train him to be a killer. Any black man fighting in the war in Vietnam is nothing but a black mercenary. Any time a black man leaves the country where he can’t vote to supposedly deliver the vote to somebody else, he’s a black mercenary. Any time a black man leaves this country, gets shot in Vietnam on foreign ground, and returns home and you won’t give him a burial place in his own homeland, he’s a black mercenary.

Even if I believed the lies of Johnson, that we’re fighting to give democracy to the people of Vietnam, as a black man living in this country I wouldn’t fight to give this to anybody. We have to use our bodies and our minds in the only way that we see fit. We must begin, as the philosopher Camus says, to come alive by saying “no.” This country is a nation of thieves. It stole everything it has, beginning with black people. The U.S. cannot justify its existence as the policeman of the world any longer. The marines are at ready disposal to bring democracy, and if the Vietnamese don’t want democracy, well then, “We’ll just wipe them out, because they don’t deserve to live if they won’t have our way of life.”

There is a more immediate question: What do you do on your campus? Do you raise questions about the hundred black students who were kicked off campus a couple of weeks ago? Eight hundred? And how does that question begin to move? Do you begin to relate to people outside the ivory tower and university walls? Do you think you’re capable of building those human relationships based on humanity when the country is the way it is, when the institutions are clearly against us.

We have found all the myths of the country to be nothing but downright lies. We were told that if we worked hard we would succeed, and if that were true we would own this country lock, stock, and barrel. We have picked the cotton for nothing; we are the maids in the kitchens of liberal white people; we are the janitors, the porters, the elevator men; we sweep up your college floors. We are the hardest workers and the lowest paid. It is nonsensical for people to talk about human relationships until they are willing to build new institutions. Black people are economically insecure. White liberals are economically secure. Can you begin to build an economic coalition? Are the liberals willing to share their salaries with the economically insecure black people they so much love? Then if you’re not, are you willing to start building new institutions that will provide economic security for black people? That’s the question we want to deal with!

American students are perhaps the most politically unsophisticated students in the world.

Across every country of the world, while we were growing up, students were leading the major revolutions of their countries. We have not been able to do that. They have been politically aware of their existence. In South America our neighbors have one every 24 hours just to remind us that they are politically aware. But we have been unable to grasp it because we’ve always moved in the field of morality and love while people have been politically jiving with our lives. You can’t move morally against men like Brown and Reagan. You can’t move morally against Lyndon Baines Johnson because he is an immoral man. He doesn’t know what it’s all about. So you’ve got to move politically. We have to develop a political sophistication that doesn’t parrot (“The two-party system is the best system in the world”). We have to raise questions about whether we need new types of political institutions in this country, and we in SNCC maintain that we need them now. Any time Lyndon Baines Johnson can head a party that has in it Bobby Kennedy, Wayne Morse, Eastland, Wallace, and all those other supposed-to-be-liberal cats, there’s something wrong with that party. They’re moving politically, not morally. If that party refuses to seat black people from Mississippi and goes ahead and seats racists like Eastland and his clique, it’s clear to me that they’re moving politically, and that one cannot begin to talk morality to people like that.

We must question the values of this society, and I maintain that black people are the best people to do that since we have been excluded from that society. we ought to think whether or not we want to become a part of that society. That’s precisely what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is doing. We are raising questions about this country. I do not want to be a part of the American pie. The American pie means raping South Africa, beating Vietnam, beating South America, raping the Philippines, raping every country you’ve been in. I don’t want any of your blood money. I don’t want to be part of that system. We are the generation who has found this country to be a world power and the wealthiest country in the world. We must question whether or not we want this country to continue being the wealthiest country in the world at the price of raping everybody else. And because black people are saying we do not now want to become a part of you, we are called reverse racists. Ain’t that a gas?

White society has caused the failure of nonviolence. I was always surprised at Quakers who came to Alabama and counseled me to be nonviolent, but didn’t have the guts to tell James Clark to be nonviolent. That’s where nonviolence needs to be preached — to Jim Clark, not to black people. White people should conduct their nonviolent schools in Cicero where they are needed, not among black people in Mississippi. Six-foot-two men kick little black children in Grenada — can you conduct nonviolent schools there? Can you name on black man today who has killed anybody white and is still alive? Even after a rebellion, when some black brothers throw bricks and bottles, ten thousand of them have to pay the price. When the white policeman comes in, anybody who’s black is arrested because we all look alike.

The youth of this country must being to raise those questions. We are going to have to change the foreign policy of this country. One of the problems with the peace movement is that it is too caught up in Vietnam, and if America pulled out the troops from Vietnam this week, next week you’d have to get another peace movement for Santo Domingo. We have to hook up with black people around the world; and that hookup must not only be psychological, but real. If South America were to rebel today, and black people were to shoot the hell out of all the white people there, as they should, Standard Oil would crumble tomorrow. If South Africa were to go today, Chase Manhattan Bank would crumble tomorrow. If Zimbabwe, which is called Rhodesia by white people, were to go tomorrow, General Electric would cave in on the East Coast.

How do we stop those institutions that are so willing to fight against “Communist aggression” but close their eyes against racist oppression? We’re not talking about a policy of aid or sending Peace Corps people in to teach people how to read and write and build houses while we steal their raw materials from them. Because that’s all this country does. What underdeveloped countries need is information about how to become industrialized, so they can keep their raw materials where they have them, produce goods, sell them to this country for the price it’s supposed to pay. instead, America keeps selling goods back to them for a profit and keeps sending our modern day missionaries there, calling them the sons of Kennedy. And if the youth are going to participate in that program, how do you begin to control the Peace Corps.

This country assumes that if someone is poor, they are poor because of their own individual blight, or because they weren’t born on the right side of town, or they had too many children, or went in the army too early, or because their father was a drunk, or they didn’t care about school–they made a mistake. That’s a lot of nonsense. Poverty is well calculated in this country, and the reason why the poverty program won’t work is because the calculators of poverty are administering it.

How can you, as the youth in this country, move to start carrying those things out? Move into the white community. We have developed a movement in the black community. The white activist has miserably failed to develop the movement inside of his community. Will white people have the courage to go into the white communities and start organizing them? That’s the question for the white activist. We won’t get caught up in questions about power. This country knows what power is. It knows what Black Power is because it deprived black people of it for over four hundred years. White people associate Black Power with violence because of their own inability to deal with blackness. If we had said “Negro power” nobody would get scared. Everybody would support it. If we said power for colored people, everybody’d be for that, but it is the word “black” that bothers people in this country, and that’s their problem, not mine. That’s the lie that says anything black is bad.

You’re all a college and university crowd. You’ve taken your basic logic course. You know about major premise, minor premise. People have been telling you anything all black is bad. Let’s make that our major premise.

Major premise: Anything all black is bad.

Minor premise or particular premise: I am all black.

Therefore…I’m never going to be put in that bag; I’m all black and I’m all good. Anything all black is not necessarily bad. Anything all black is only bad when you use force to keep whites out. Now that’s what white people have done in this country, and they’re projecting their same fears and guilt on us, and we won’t have it. Let them handle their own affairs and their own guilt. Let them find their own psychologists. We refuse to be the therapy for white society any longer. We have gone stark, raving mad trying to do it.

I look at Dr. King on television every single day, and I say to myself: “Now there is a man who’s desperately needed in this country. There is a man full of love. There is a man full of mercy. There is a man full of compassion.” But every time I see Lyndon on television, I say, “Martin, baby, you got a long way to go.”

If we were to be real and honest, we would have to admit that most people in this country see things black and white. We live in a country that’s geared that way. White people would have to admit that they are afraid to go into a black ghetto at night. They’re afraid because they’d be “beat up,” “lynched,” “looted,” “cut up,” etc. It happens to black people inside the ghetto every day, incidentally. Since white people are afraid of that, they get a man to do it for them — a policeman. Figure his mentality. The first time a black man jumps, that white man’s going to shoot him. Police brutality is going to exist on that level. The only time I hear people talk about nonviolence is when black people move to defend themselves against white people. Black people cut themselves every night in the ghetto — nobody talks about nonviolence. White people beat up black people every day — nobody talks about nonviolence. But as soon as black people start to move, the double standard comes into being. You can’t defend yourself. You show me a black man who advocates aggressive violence who would be able to live in this country. Show him to me. Isn’t it hypocritical for Lyndon to talk about how you can’t accomplish anything by looting and you must accomplish it by the legal ways? What does he know about legality? Ask Ho Chi Minh.

We must wage a psychological battle on the right for black people to define themselves as they see fit, and organize themselves as they see fit. we don’t know whether the white community will allow for that organizing, because once they do they must also allow for the organizing inside their own community. It doesn’t make a difference, though — we’re going to organize our way. The question is how we’re going to organize our way. The question is how we’re going to facilitate those matters, whether it’s going to be done with a thousand policemen with submachine guns, or whether it’s going to be done in a context where it’s allowed by white people warding off those policemen. Are white people who call themselves activists ready to move into the white communities on two counts, on building new political institutions to destroy the old ones that we have, and to move around the concept of white youth refusing to go into the army? If so, then we can start to build a new world. We must urge you to fight now to be the leaders of today, not tomorrow. This country is a nation of thieves. It stands on the brink of becoming a nation of murderers. We must stop it. We must stop it.

We are on the move for our liberation. we’re tired of trying to prove things to white people. We are tired of trying to explain to white people that we’re not going to hurt them. We are concerned with getting the things we want, the things we have to have to be able to function. The question is, Will white people overcome their racism and allow for that to happen in this country? If not, we have no choice but to say very clearly, “Move on over, or we’re going to move over you.”