“The man whom Stokley Carmichael replaced as head of SNCC told Yale students yesterday the ‘black power’ concept doesn’t appeal to the great majority of civil rights workers.
John Lewis, here as the guest of Ezra Stiles College, spoke at an informal discussion in St. Anthony Hall.
‘If a poll were taken today, the great majority of the people in the civil rights movement would not identify themselves with the people who are crying ‘black power!” he said.
Mr. Lewis called Mr. Carmichael’s slogan ‘a chant, a cry.’
”Black power’ is not a program, and SNCC is an organization which in the past has put a great deal of emphasis on programs,’ he said.
He cited the organization of the 1964 civil rights drive as such a program.
‘I haven’t used the chant of ‘black power.’ There are some good things about the concept of ‘black power’ if that means that Negro people must participate in the democratic process and have a part in shaping their own destiny,’ he continued.
‘However, it is leading a wing of the movement to self-destruction,’ he added. He said this was because the slogan had discouraged many white liberals from associating themselves with the movement.
‘The movement must become more than just a movement of the concerns of the Negro people,’ Mr. Lewis said. “I think it’s tragic that in Mississippi the movement still only thinks in terms of the Negro’s rights’ and not the whites as well.
One student asked Mr. Lewis if the ‘black power’ slogan had contributed to white backlash effects. ‘I think there’s no question about it,’ he said. ‘There is a cause-and-effect relationship. Some of the people who have recently been elected, such as Lester Maddox in Georgia, show this relationship.
‘These people do not understand ‘black power’ or what it means. If there is ‘black power,’ then these people are going to have white power, and ‘white power’ candidates.
Mr. Lewis was asked what his alternative to ‘black power’ was. ‘I think the movement must accept the non-violent approach as one of the most practical methods there are, forgetting all moral and philosophical considerations,’ he said.
He said that the recent rise of the ‘black power’ approach was partly the result of the inability so far of the movement to explore all its organizing possibilities.
Whites Can Help
He said there was room for the white man to help through this approach. ‘I think white people who are committed to human rights support it — through financial support, lobbying, non-violent demonstrations, and pressure on Congressional representatives.’
‘I think there’s a need to try to get a real understanding of the feelings of the Negroes at this stage — the feelings of frustration and bitterness that people have, especially in the large cities.’
The need for change was pressing, he said. ‘All across the country, the people are very restless, very desperate. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 created a great sense of hope and a great sense of expectation. But people do not see any change in their lives.’
Leadership From Soldiers
He suggested that the movement might be given new leadership when the Vietnamese war was ended. The Negroes who fought in the war would ‘come back with a sense of frustration and of pride. I think they’re going to be very impatient.’
How long will it take for the Negro to achieve his rights? ‘I think it’s going to take many, many years,’ said Mr. Lewis. ‘We have laws — they have to be implemented and enforced.’
‘But some of these problems are not going to be solved by the passage of laws. Somehow we’ve got to make the laws not just directed at civil rights but all aspects of social problems — poverty, medical care, and so on.’
Mr. Lewis, who is a minister, is now working as an intern for the Marshall Field Foundation, which is active in education and civil rights. He said that he has no plans to return to the leadership of any civil rights organization.”
-Excerpt and images courtesy of Yale University, The Yale Daily News, Yale Daily News Historic Archive, October 7, 1966