What a title, how could any book live up to it? And this doesn’t quite, but it is still full of some righteous humour and anger. Full of history, the fights between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, words of James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Dubois, asides that are tales told by SNCC organisers from the deep South and the people there with all the wisdom of age and the survival of oppression. Not as full of facts, not as conventionally argued as Ture and Hamilton’s Black Power, so perhaps it hits you harder.
It starts with the civil rights movement, the non-violent movement of marches and sit-ins: ‘It was thought then that segregation was a moral issue, therefore a moral weapon – nonviolence, love, satyagraha – would bring the walls of the prison tumbling down’ (4). But it didn’t. I’ve always hated the use of the word ‘backlash’ but not as much as Lester does:
The ‘white backlash’ was nothing new to the black community. They knew all about the backlash, the frontlash, the sidelash and all them other lashes…it simply meant that white folks were a little tired of picking up the papers and seeing niggers all over the front page… The average white person didn’t know what niggers wanted and didn’t much care. By now they should have gotten whatever the hell it was they said they didn’t have, and if they hadn’t gotten it, they either didn’t deserve it or didn’t need it.(16)
And some things never change, like the relationship between law and anyone poor or trying to make any kind of change, but especially peoples of colour, and especially black people:
‘Law and order must prevail’ has become the cliche of the 1960’s and the biggest lie, because the American black man has never known law and order except as an instrument of oppression, and it has prevailed upside his head at every available opportunity. It exists for that purpose. The law has been written by white men and their property, to be enforced by white men against blacks in particular and poor folks in general (23)
It has a great quote from The Saturday Evening Post ‘We Are All Mississipians’:
We are all, let us face it, Mississippians. We all fervently wish that the Negro problem did not exist, or that, if it must exist, it could be ignored. Confronted with the howling need for decent school, jobs, housing, and all the minimum rights of the American system, we will do our best, in a half-hearted way, to correct old wrongs. The hand may be extended grudgingly and patronizingly, but anyone who rejects that hand rejects his own best interests. For minimum rights are the only rights that we are willing to guarantee, and above those minimum rights there is and will continue to be a vast area of discrimination and inequity and unfairness, the areas in which we claim the most basic right of all — the right to be stupid and prejudiced, the right to make mistakes, the right to be less and worse than we pretend, the right to be ourselves. When this majority right is threatened, the majority will react accoridngly — with results that could be disastrous to all of us.
That’s quoted in Black Power by Ture and Hamilton as well, and you can see why. I almost feel that it has to be made up, so sparkling is its honesty in the way it explains almost everything. It’s also exactly everything that whites must most actively abjure. As he writes later:
Black Power is not anti-white people, but it is anti anything and everything that serves to oppress. If whites align themselves on the side of oppression, then Black Power must be antiwhite. That, however, is not the decision of Black Power. (140)
At the end he gets down to economics: ‘The essence of power in America is fantastically simple: money’ (125). Yes it is, Mr. Lester. And this chapter will just fuel that anger that’s been building, but the good, purposeful, in-good-company kind of anger. He quotes Malcom X:
You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic; you have to have someone else’s blood to suck to be a capitalist. You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker… (131)
And then a familiar philosophy from my organizing days
One of the saving graces of SNCC, in particular, has been its unwillingness to dogmatically align itself with any doctrine… However there is agreement with Malcolm that justice, equality, and freedom are inconsistent with the principles of this country. Capitalism is congenitally unable to allow black men to be free. (132)
That he leaves black women out of this sentence is my principal critique…