What insights can the study of history bring to the understanding and solution of the American racial situation? How can the knowledge of yesterday's events help us to face tomorrow's decisions? The fact is, whether we know it or not, that the past is always with us and clings tightly to us like a cloak. We have the choice of either recognizing it and dealing constructively with it or of ignoring it and remaining in bondage to it.
The heritage of the American slave system is still part of our lives. Racial attitudes of white superiority and black inferiority became an integral part of the American cultural climate, and it is still part of the air we all breathe. All Americans, black and white, inhale and assimilate more racism than we care to admit. Denying that we are still infected by prejudice, however, does not help us to deal creatively with it. The drive to create a black identity which can be worn with pride and the emergence of independent African nations already have made a significant impact in altering American racial stereotypes.
History is one of the disciplines concerned with understanding how social processes operate. On this point, the study of Afro-American history raises a particular question about the means of social change. There have been those who sought to achieve it through appeals to conscience and idealism, others have turned to the use of physical force, and there have also been those who worked for it through mobilizing economic and political power.
The black experience in the United States leaves one either disillusioned or cynical concerning the value of conscience and idealism in erasing American racism. These factors, however, have not been totally irrelevant. The American democratic creed has prevented the nation from building a permanent legal caste system based on color. As a legal structure, Jim Crow lasted less than a century and was limited to the Deep South. Idealism has made it impossible for America to rest comfortably while pursuing its racist policies.
Violence is a tempting technique for the frustrated and angry. In fact, it often has accompanied rapid social change, but it is usually a by-product of shifting power relationships in society rather than the cause of change itself. Trusting in violence is a form of revolutionary romanticism, a seductive shortcut to other more basic kinds of social power. The history of the Black Panthers would seem to be an example of this point. Their appeal to violence attracted angry youths who were eager for quick results. Although the party gained a lot of publicity, and, in some quarters, received a lot of applause, its desire for rapid success kept it from building a solid, mass base. Apparently its leaders believed that violence made this kind of mobilization unnecessary. Its publicity and quick successes were superficial and failed to achieve basic social transformation. On Wednesday, May 19, 1971, Huey Newton, the Black Panther Minister of Defense, declared that the Panthers had been wrong in confronting the police: "All we got was a war and a lot of bloodshed." He said that they had been mistaken in disregarding the church and in thinking that they could change things without the people's changing them:
"We'll be criticized by the revolutionary cultists for trying to effect change by stages, but to do all we want to do, we just have to go through all the stages of development. We cannot jump from A to Z as some thought."
Throughout history almost all social transformations have been the result of shifts in basic power relationships. The attempt to build political and economic power on a nationwide basis within the black community is a relatively new phenomenon. Reconstruction had attempted to do it earlier, but it was destroyed before it could be tested. Almost all other black economic and political involvement has been dependent on sizable white support. This was true both of the policies of Booker T. Washington and of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, this meant a reliance on white power and on white conscience. The new spirit of black pride and self-reliance along with the new voting rights has already created pockets of black political strength in many Northern cities and in parts of the rural South. It is also being reflected in the Congress with the election of more blacks and with their creation of the Black Caucus, presently consisting of thirteen black congressmen. After submitting a list of their demands to President Nixon, their spokesman, Representative William Clay, D-Mo., said:
"We are going to set the tone for the black liberation struggle in this country. . . . Black people in this country have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. . . . I think we've reached the point in black America where we've completely given up on the mass demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts. We've come to the basic conclusion that America has no conscience. Anybody who still appeals to what they think is a conscience is either stupid or frustrated. The only possible avenue for the achievement of equal rights for all in this country is through the exertion of political power. We have actual power, and even greater potential power, more than we've ever had in history."
As Representative Clay maintains, striving for racial change through an appeal to conscience has been found woefully inadequate. The resort to physical force has not been followed very often and, when it has, it has been used sporadically. To succeed, it obviously requires its own kind of mass power base to bring about lasting results. The creation of genuine black political power which was preached in 1966 is only being achieved now. It has already gained significant local results. In the Black Caucus, it promises broader national influence. Trusting to white consciences has been proven naive. Looking to terrorism for quick results has only led to publicity and bloodshed. Building genuine political power, however, is producing results now and promises to create more social transformation in the immediate future.