On Black Political Naivete, Optimism, and Why We Can’t Afford Another Civil Rights Movement

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“I must confess that that dream that I had that day, has at many points turned into a nightmare.  Now I’m not one to lose hope.  I keep on hoping.  I still have faith in the future.  But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years, and I would say over the last few months.  I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments, and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a solid realism.”

That was a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. one year before he died, in an interview with NBC in 1967. Its purpose was to correct what he diagnosed as immaturity on his part with regards to the reality of the Black condition in America. We must be clear that he was referring to the Civil Rights Movement and when he mentions the “old optimism,” he was referring to the belief that in operating through the system to solve the problems caused by the system, we would achieve substantial gains. What he discovered however was that this was unrealistic and not a possibility in these United States of America and that the nation he foresaw his 4 little children growing up in was not this one. This is the political naivete [definition: 1) lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment. 2) Innocence or unsophistication] that characterized the Civil Rights Movement and is to this day glorified in mainstream primary, secondary, and higher education. As he continues in the interview, Dr. King provides his realistic assessment of the so-called “gains” of the Movement:

“I think the biggest problem now is that we got our gains over the last twelve years at bargain rates so to speak. It didn’t cost the nation anything; in fact it helped the economic side of the nation to integrate lunch counters and public accommodations. It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote established. But now we are confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation billions of dollars; now I think this is where we’re getting our greatest resistance.”

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Essentially, we are stressing that we as a people must take a critical look at the storied era we call the Civil Rights Movement and acknowledge its shortcomings so that we can avoid making the same mistakes as before. One such shortcoming is the fact that it excluded a vast majority of Blacks who were not in a position to reap the “gains” of the Movement (i.e. the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964). What this brought to fruition, rather than the dream of integration, was the nightmare of assimilation and conditional acceptance into the society that was lynching, oppressing, and colonizing us. Acceptance was based upon our ability to conform to a predefined cultural mold that had been set by popular American society, therefore leaving our former culture behind. To defend this claim I quote a section of Paul M. A. Linebarger’s 1948 book, Psychological Warfare. Linebarger was 2nd Lieutenant of the US Army during World War II when he helped create the Office of War Information and Operation Planning and Intelligence Board. He also organized the Army’s first psychological warfare section, performed undocumented work for the CIA and as a member of the Foreign Policy Association, was called upon to advise President John F. Kennedy. In his book, he describes how a nation should impose its will and culture on a conquered people:

“The conquered people are left in the private, humble enjoyment of their old beliefs and folkways; but all participation in public life, whether political, cultural or economic, is conditioned on acceptance of the new faith. In this manner, all up-rising members of the society will move in a few generations over to the new faith in the process of becoming rich, powerful, or learned; what is left of the old faith will be a gutter superstition, possessing neither power nor majesty.”

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If we take this out of a war context, look at it through the lens of colonization and see the Blacks of North America as the “conquered people,” we see great parallels with our present society. How many of us have walked on eggshells at work or a function with predominantly non-Black attendees in order to not come off as “too-Black.” We dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and do anything we can to conform and fit into a social culture in which Blackness doesn’t fit. Those of us who have made it into Hollywood or any of the various mainstream industries do our best to separate ourselves from the perception of being one of “those Black people.” Out of this struggle comes this concept of the so-called “New Black” or “colorless-American” as good sister Raven Simone irresponsibly proclaimed. What this attitude does is play right into the psychological warfare processes that the US has been practicing since Linebarger introduced them. It creates a caste structure or classism within our community that produces the equal yet opposite concept of an “old Black”; one that will possess neither power nor majesty. What occurs next is a sort of cultural genocide as described by Linebarger as the book continues:

“If Christians, or democrats, or progressives [or Black People in our case] are put in a position of underprivilege and shame for their beliefs [or culture], and the door is left open to voluntary conversion, so that anyone who wants to can come over to the winning side, the winning side will sooner or later convert almost everyone who is capable of making trouble… in the language of practical politics, it means “cut in the smart boys from the opposition, so that they can’t set up a racket of their own.”

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This is where we return to Dr. King and the evolution of thought that occurred toward the later years of his life. He began to face the harsh reality that Malcolm X had emphasized years prior in his speech in Los Angeles on May 5, 1962 during which he asked his audience, “who taught you to hate yourself?” King, as you’ll see if you watch our video below, began to speak directly on the topic of his Blackness and the necessity for us as a people to value, embrace, and express our pride in being Black. In other words, he was speaking in direct opposition to the practice of cultural conversion to the “winning side” aka the group that we were and still are attempting to conform ourselves to fit in with. Economically speaking, his outspoken ideology again shifted to something resembling the likes of Malcolm X as well as Marcus Garvey before him and Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) after him. In his final speech, given on April 3, 1968, Dr. King outlined the development of the exact thing that Linebarger stated the conquering nation must avoid; he discussed Black people developing a national economic base or, in other words, a racket of our own. This, in addition to his concurrent opposition to the Vietnam War, would lead him to face the same fate that Malcolm X did three years before him in the Audobon Ballroom on February 1965.

This is where we skip some 46 years ahead and find ourselves faced with the present day realization of Dr. King and every Black man and woman’s nightmare. The events in Ferguson and around the nation sparked by Ferguson bear striking resemblance to this 60’s era. The question we face now is whether we will fall victim to our historical political naivete and optimism or if we will finally be tempered with the harsh realism necessary. The realistic fact here is that the system is not broken, it is functioning the way it was always intended to. A man representing the “winning side” getting off without indictment for the murder of a youth representing the “conquered people” is not a failure of this nation’s justice system; it is a success. So as King realized later in life after a great deal of “soul-searching and agonizing moments,” protesting to demand action from the various political and law enforcement institutions is not the solution. Our only solution is to turn our attention and energy inward to our communities and begin building. We must stop looking for greener pastures elsewhere and collectively work to make our own grass greener. We must learn skills, build institutions, develop our own educational curricula in schools that we build, fund, and control independently of this government; a government which has never shown sincere interest in our basic needs. We must produce goods and services in order to keep our money and resources at home where it can work to improve our condition, not add to someone else’s comfort and privilege.

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The recent effort to boycott Black Friday and subsequent sale events in the nation’s stores is one of the most effective plans to emanate from the current social/political uproar. The problem here, however, is that concurrently there must be an emphasis on production and manufacturing in order to replace those things which we abstain from buying. For example, we may stress the need to boycott Colgate toothpaste for some political reason, however if we do not offer an equal or greater substitute, it will be hard to get people in mass to participate. But if an organization or group were to go to a elementary or middle school, for example, and teach them to make their own toothpaste; they could package that and distribute it household-to-household with flyers explaining the purpose and plan for the boycott and subsequent action. This is how we must move forward if we are to correct the mistakes of the past. We can NOT afford another Civil Rights Movement because time is money, our time is limited and people are suffering. H. Rap Brown, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), stated in a 1970’s interview on the show Like It Is with Gil Noble, “Anything you don’t control is used as a weapon against you.” Since the time of the Dred Scott case in 1853 Blacks have tried to use the system that created our problems in order to then solve them and have learned this the hard way. It’s like asking a tornado to repair the damage it caused to a neighborhood that it recently ripped through; simply put, a waste of time and energy. This assumes the tornado has a conscience, however like this nation, it has none. As Dred Scott was informed by the Supreme Court’s decision in his case, “Persons of African descent cannot be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens under the U.S. Constitution.”  These are words directly from the system itself, yet our optimism and naivete continues to blind us to the harsh reality that 161 years later, they are still proven true. We have been given another chance; let’s do something with it. With that, we close with a quote from a speech given by Kwame Ture in the early 1960’s:

“We have to stop reacting and we have to become aggressive. We can no longer stand up and beg anybody for a victory or a concession. Because I’m here to tell you that if you beg a man for a victory and he gives it to you, it’s his victory not yours…”

Stay wise my peoples.

-Be Wise,
Member, Wisdom From The Field (WFTF)

 

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About Be Wise

Member of Wisdom From The Field, wearer of the Afro, descendant of the Garveyite blood-line, all around cool cat.
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