Power politics in the civil rights era was the message of Dr. Leslie Brown at the 41st annual Ewing Lecture at Lycoming College.
Brown, who is a professor of history at Williams College and received her doctorate from Duke University, compared the black power politics of the 19th century with the ideas and activism of civil rights icons such as Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party.
Speaking to a near capacity crowd, Brown defined the term "black power" as a two-pronged phrase that represented the conscience of power by black Americans and the desire for autonomy/black nationalism. The conscience of power Brown termed as blacks understanding of how power worked and the expectations of using power to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Dr. Leslie Brown, a professor of history at Williams College, speaks Wednesday night at Lycoming College on the history of black power.
The black autonomy brought about black nationalism and desire for black people during the civil rights era to pursue freedom to live as they saw fit.
Brown then launched into a historical recollection that saw the fledgling movements of black power back in the Civil War era when Gen. William T. Sherman met with 20 black ministers to determine, and report back to the president, on black fitness and autonomy in regard to their freedom.
The ministers' response to Sherman's questions was the emergence of black power, according to Brown, when they sought to separate themselves from anti-black south. Brown then quoted Fredrick Douglas and his demand from white interference.
"Douglas believed that liberty was a right, not a privilege and he demanded that right," Brown said.
She said the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments allowed blacks ultimately to seek assertiveness, which included testifying against the Klu Klux Klan.
Brown said the white response to black assertiveness was to pass the Jim Crow laws, which she said were a "tangle of laws designed to push blacks further down."
Brown also shared with the crowd examples of when black power was not entirely effective, such as the trolley boycott in Memphis, organized by Ida Wells. Three friends of Wells were lynched due to a shoot-out with police.
In response to the shooting, Wells encouraged black people to save their pennies, boycott the trolleys and ultimately move west to establish their own communities.
The movement later was categorized as ineffective because the boycott failed and "Memphis is still there," Brown joked.
The point she wanted to establish with Wells' boycott was that black Americans had banded together and wielded power in response to a social and racial injustice. It was an early benchmark of black power against racial inequality in the Jim Crow south.
Brown discussed the realization that members of the SNCC came to - that freedom ultimately meant nothing if they didn't have the power to make that freedom equal. She used the example of the lunch counter stool sits to illustrate her point.
SNCC members realized they could fight for equality at the lunch counters, Brown said, but it would be an empty victory if blacks had no money to pay for anything. Born from the realization was a movement towards politics, which would enable blacks to wield the power to fight for equality and make it effective as well.
Brown pointed out Malcolm X's speech "The Ballot or the Bullet" as an example of the movement of black power toward the political sphere.
"Malcolm X urged blacks to become more politically mature and evolved. He cautioned whites that if blacks were not allowed to vote the frustration level would grow until there is a need for violence," Brown said.
The driving factor behind the black power movement wasn't violence, Brown explained, but rather the struggle to gain equality. She used Stokely Carmichael's explanation for the choice of the word "black" instead of "negro" or "colored" power to explain that the choice was a psychological one.
"It was a word that made whites uncomfortable. Blacks were going to use the word that they wanted to use," Brown said.
The ultimate goal of SNCC in conjunction with black power and politics was equality for the masses, Brown said. They were prepared to use violence as a means of self-defense but did not solely depend on violence to accomplish their goal.
They sought victories on the political field because if they could get black Americans to vote they could elect someone, white or black, that would represent them and pursue equality for all, Brown said.
A reception was held following the lecture, sponsored by the presidential inauguration committee.