Saying It Loud: 1966―The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement
At the July 2020 funeral of longtime congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, former president Bill Clinton struck a condescending and triumphalist note in his eulogy when he opined, “There were two or three years there where the movement went a little too far towards Stokely, but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”
For moderate white elites like Clinton to reduce the complex and turbulent post-Selma half-decade of the 1960s Freedom Movement to a Manichean struggle between integrationism and separatism is willfully myopic and nothing new. Moreover, the certainty and self-satisfaction in Clinton's phrasing and tone in aligning John Lewis with the "heroic" years of civil rights and Stokely Carmichael with the allegedly divisive Black Power era reflects the age-old presumption that whites are entitled to dictate the terms of African American struggle and self-assertion, to wag a scolding finger and warn them against demanding too much, too soon.
Clinton’s jab at Stokely Carmichael, who succeeded John Lewis as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1966, also aligns with the revisionist view that the Democratic establishment was as comfortable with John Lewis in his civil rights heyday as at his death in 2020, blithely ignoring John F. Kennedy’s September 1963 description of SNCC in general and Lewis in particular as “sons of bitches” with “an investment in violence.”
For better or worse, the Freedom Movement did change trajectory in the mid-1960s—as did the northern white reaction to it (though that reaction was never as warm or unconditional as we'd like to believe)—and Stokely Carmichael spent much of the latter half of the decade in the eye of the storm. Though Carmichael spent SNCC’s formative years of 1961–65 sitting in, freedom riding, organizing Black and white voter registration volunteers in the Deep South’s most hostile counties, and going to jail and taking racist beatings just like John Lewis, in the minds of Clinton and others, he’s more vividly identified as the firebrand who usurped Lewis’s job, advocated armed Black self-defense, and drove the whites out of an organization that had once been a beacon of interracial cooperation and shared struggle. This assessment distorts what Carmichael believed and did, and badly misreads the complex changes afoot in the Freedom Movement in the year he rose to prominence, 1966.
Mark Whitaker’s Saying It Loud: 1966—The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement aims to set the record straight. Though not the first book to chronicle SNCC’s later years, provide a critical examination of Carmichael’s successes and failures as a charismatic movement leader, detail Martin Luther King's contemporaneous struggle to bring nonviolent direct action to the north by taking on housing apartheid in Chicago, or portray the explosive March Against Fear in which raucous chants of “Black Power” first resounded, Whitaker’s soundly argued, richly detailed, and expertly paced narrative is the first book structured emphatically around that transformative year.
In Whitaker’s able telling, 1966 changed more than the personalities or rhetoric at the forefront of the Freedom Movement. It revealed deep doubts as to whether the goals of the movement’s early years were attainable, or even still worth pursuing. This shifting perspective in part reflected disappointment and frustration in how little change the visible fruits of the struggle like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had wrought, particularly outside the South, where the movement had largely been focused up to that point. It was also a year that found the generation then coming up beginning to see themselves in a new light. “For millions of young Blacks,” Whitaker writes, 1966 "was the point at which ‘Black Consciousness,’ as they referred to it, became both a state of mind and a badge of identity.”
Whitaker’s earlier masterwork Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance recounts the flowering of Black culture and achievement in 1920s–1950s Pittsburgh, beginning in the wake of first-wave Great Migration, proved especially astute in charting the rise of independent Black institutions like Negro Leagues baseball that promptly fell out of faded into obscurity as unhappy memories when integration began.
Saying It Loud brilliantly captures a moment when young Black activists who had lent their voices to the Freedom Movement’s unifying call for integration began to recognize this goal as one (like nonviolence itself) adopted more as a practical necessity than the be-all, end-all of the centuries-old struggle for liberation and justice. One thing Carmichael—born in Trinidad but raised in the Bronx—brought to the movement as a northern transplant to southern organizing, Whitaker writes, was a sense “that everyone in the neighborhood, including his own parents, cared more about protecting their property than about any lofty goal of racial integration.”
Whitaker breaks down the year chronologically, focusing each chapter on specific events as they unfolded, beginning with the death of Sammy Younge, Jr., on January 3, 1966, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the first Black college student to be murdered for his work in the civil rights movement.
The book then shifts its focus to Atlanta, where SNCC co-founder Julian Bond, just elected to the Georgia legislature in the first election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, had been barred from taking his seat because of predictably published-out-of-context remarks about Blacks resisting the Vietnam draft.
Whitaker then turns his attention to Chicago, and the early stages of Martin Luther King’s largely unsuccessful attempts to fight housing administration, before progressing chronologically but veering far westward geographically to Oakland, where he lays the groundwork for the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) there seven months later.
Arguably, the defining moment of 1966 and the moment at which—if such a clearly delineated transition can ever be said to have truly happened in a movement so broad and complex—the civil rights movement gave way to Black Power came in June with the March Against Fear, in which three of the major civil rights organizations (Martin Luther King’s SCLC, SNCC, and the northern-based Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE) joined forces to complete a march across Mississippi begun by James Meredith, a Black activist best known for integrating the University of Mississippi under federal protection, who started the march on his own but was shot by a sniper on the second day and couldn’t continue. It was on this march that Stokely Carmichael famously declared that he was done taking beatings and going to jail, abs he and other SNCC leaders introduced the Black Power chant at evening rallies to rapturous response, clashing with Martin Luther King’s preference for “Freedom Now!”
This apparent internal conflict drew white journalists like moths to a flame, all of them eager to trumpet any signs of division. Invariably interpreting the ambiguous phrase “Black Power” at its most separatist and violent extreme, little did these reporters care to acknowledge that as King and Carmichael walked side by side throughout the march, swapping jokes and stories and debating political philosophy and strategy, the two had never been closer.
Again, Carmichael drew on his experience growing up Black in a northern city to advance a vision of Black Power that had little to do with violence or separatism, but rather the limited utility of integration as an ultimate goal. As Whitaker writes, Carmichael described “a phenomenon that he had experienced firsthand when his family moved from the South Bronx to Morris's Park: ‘Integration never speaks to the problem of what happens to the black school or the black community. After two or three people move out ‘to integrate.’” That’s the problem that we must force America to speak to; that's the problem Black Power speaks to.’”
Other recent works, such as Aram Goudsouian’s Down to the Crossroads, have explored the march in depth, but Whitaker does a particularly effective job of presenting the march in the context of Carmichael’s emerging leadership style, his evolving relationship with King, and his irreconcilable differences with older and comparatively intransigent civil rights leaders Whitney Young of the Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. Focusing on a more concentrated period in Carmichael’s work in SNCC and the Lowndes County and Oakland-based Black Panther parties, Saying It Loud nicely complements Peniel Joseph’s definitive Stokely: A Life as a critical evaluation of his remarkable strengths and undeniable flaws as a movement leader.
Carmichael gets the most ink in Saying It Loud, much as he did in contemporary press coverage, but it's arguably Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, a longtime staffer who succeeded James Forman as executive secretary in 1966, whose steady and unwavering leadership best transcended the organization's growing factionalization. Smith-Robinson recognized early on what a tough sell nonviolence would be to Black sharecroppers in Mississippi who kept shotguns close at hand to fight off Klan attacks, yet she also saw the futility of Carmichael descending on Atlanta's Summerhill neighborhood when it erupted in a 1966 uprising, preaching armed self-defense but offering no plan. And when Bill Ware and his Vine City separatist faction began demanding that SNCC purge all whites, Smith-Robinson, who "knew better than anyone how dependent SNCC was on white donations . . . was instinctively allergic to Ware’s impractical rhetoric." She knew all too well how toxic "folks who preferred to ‘sit around talking about white people’ than do real work" were in an organization with so much real work on its plate.
Though Saying It Loud deftly manages a number of parallel and converging storylines to portray a Freedom Movement progressing boldly but often painfully to a new era in 1966, the book is largely the story of the drawn-out dissolution of SNCC, which epitomized so much of the hope and uneasy contradictions of the movement’s integrationist fervor and possibility in the early 1960s and struggled mightily confront those contradictions in subsequent years. Arguably the two high points of the movement's early sixties phase were the March on Washington in 1963 and the Freedom Summer of 1964, both of which embodied the most glorious possibilities of Black and white united in struggle, locking arms and singing freedom songs with the promise to redeem a nation’s soul.
But SNCC also bore the brunt of those events’ underlying compromises, beginning with John Lewis’s censored speech at the March on Washington, and continuing with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s crushing defeat at the Democratic National Convention in August 1964, and its sellout at the hands of the older civil rights organizations that left much of SNCC’s leadership alienated and embittered. As Whitaker writes, changes were coming at SNCC and in the movement at large; “Like [SNCC voter registration leader Bob] Moses’s denim overalls, humility and patience were about to go out of style.”
In some ways the convention debacle proved a precursor to a series of SNCC gatherings over the next two years that exposed deep rifts within the organization that Freedom Summer had set in motion. The fall 1964 retreat at Waveland, Mississippi found SNCC struggling with the aftermath of Freedom Summer, and the ongoing presence of an unwieldy number of northern white volunteers who wanted permanent staff jobs.
But it was the two 1966 SNCC leadership gatherings chronicled in Saying It Loud that made that year a no-turning-back moment, and paradoxically underscore why SNCC could not move forward as a fully integrated organization that it never really was. The first 1966 meeting, described in the chapter “A Coup in Kingston Springs,” ushered in Carmichael’s chairmanship in a controversial series of votes; the second, during which SNCC leaders convened in the only all-Black resort in New York’s Catskills Mountains, ended with the expulsion of the last few remaining whites (including stalwarts Dottie and Bob Zellner) from the organization.
Opinions vary on what really happened there, and at this point as at several others Whitaker proves adept at managing his sources. While drawing on revealing memoirs from Lewis, Carmichael (as Kwame Turé), James Forman, and SNCC’s first white field secretary Bob Zellner (to whom Carmichael quipped, upon his expulsion, that like most whites, Zellner was first hired, last fired), Whitaker acknowledges the many contradictions in these accounts and trusts these narratives only on points on which they agree, or that he could independently confirm.
Another memoir that Whitaker says played an essential role in the movement’s 1966 sea change was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was issued in a $1.25 paperback edition that year and only then began to transform Black consciousness as it would in the coming years. In Saying It Loud’s concluding chapters, Whitaker discusses how the Autobiography shaped the thinking and the cultural and political identities of BPP leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. He also discusses the Autobiography's profound influence on San Francisco State student Jimmy Garrett, who co-founded the student advocacy group that conceived and built the country’s first Black Studies department in 1966–67, overcoming the staunch opposition of California governor Ronald Reagan, and culminating in a prolonged student hunger strike.
This too represented an undeniable point of demarcation from civil rights past, as it paved the way for hundreds of Black Studies departments, and thousands of Black faculty hirings at traditionally white institutions across the country: “In the wake of the example set by San Francisco State," Whitaker explains, "the Black Power generation would also now have a laboratory for the creation of this new Black culture. Instead of the church, it was the campus.”
Nearly 60 years later, when left alone to do their essential work, Black and Africana Studies programs retain their singular power to inform, transform, inspire, and hold the country accountable for its white supremacist past and present. This is precisely the reason the discipline remains under attack from racist governors and imperiled by the craven complicity of moderate white elites. African American Studies will require more John Lewis and more Stokely Carmichael if it is to survive and prevail.