Bill Clinton decided to use John Lewis’ funeral to take a shot at Stokely Carmichael. The last thing we need is whites to use such opportunities to tell histories of the civil rights movements that are used to make them feel comfortable. Both Lewis and Carmichael were important fighters for freedom and if Lewis was ultimately the more noble, it’s more about their respective personalities than about tactics. Hassan Jeffries, one of our leading historians of the Black freedom struggle, says what needs to be said.
Clinton’s attack was more subtle than savage. But it was still severe.
“There were two or three years there where the movement went a little too far toward Stokely,” he said, “but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”
For Clinton, the movement’s problematic drift was its turn toward Black Power. Black Power was an approach to change rooted in Black political independence, economic empowerment and cultural pride that gained popularity during the late 1960s.
Like many White liberals and progressives, Clinton doesn’t view Black Power as a logical extension of civil rights organizing. He doesn’t see it as a natural outgrowth of movement victories in the South that put the ballot in Black hands. And he doesn’t recognize it as a product of Black frustration with the slow pace of progress in the North.
He sees it instead as an unfortunate break from nonviolence and a regrettable rejection of integration.
What the white liberal deification of nonviolence has done is to allow us to dismiss Stokely and Fred Hampton and Angela Davis and other radical leaders of the Black freedom struggle as dangerous ideologues, when in fact what they were doing was saying that the movement had not gone nearly far enough and that the only real way to create Black equality was a radical transformation of all of America, not just where you could sit on a bus or whether you could vote, which as we know from recent years can be manipulated by racists in all sorts of ways.