Race for the ‘80s: Looking Ahead Through a Legacy of the Past

Black and white photo of three men speaking behind podium, one with arm raised and finger pointed up

Mary Anne Forehand

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 4, "Winter's Promise." Find more from that issue here.

Editor's Note: We asked some of our readers to comment on what the ’80s holds for us in the South and beyond. The three writers below each focus, in one way or another, on the enduring dividing and organizing factor in the South and the U.S.: race, racism and black power. We invite other readers to send their commons on the future your own or articles you feel are worthy of reprinting in our pages.  

Tom Dent 

In order for its potential for development to be truly realized, the South must still come to terms with race: the necessity of allowing for the full development of its non-white peoples. 

This truth is de-emphasized these days because we are still reeling from the impact of the immense social changes resulting from the civil-rights movement of the ’60s. The South is in somewhat of a congratulatory mood now with respect to “racial progress.” For instance, we can see dramatic visible evidence of a black presence in areas of our daily lives that was unthinkable 20, 30 years ago. 

If this pride in what has been achieved was accompanied by an equally strong thrust toward continuing change, continuing commitment to equal justice, we would truly have something to be proud of. But, alas, those of us who know the history of what happened know that the motion toward equal justice in the South was generated by pressure from black disenchantment and demonstrations, at painful cost to those who made sacrifices to protest forms of entrenched racial injustice. Now that there is little or no pressure for continuing change, no Movement, few sacrifices, the drive for equality has abated, lost momentum. Even talk about social justice, about the more subtle, more pervasive means by which oppression and racism manifest themselves, is considered unfashionable, passe, boring. But the problems of racism, oppression of the poor, black and white, will not go away by our looking away. 

It is the prime responsibility of black Southerners to keep us from “looking away,” to generate a new drive for equal justice in all its forms, to fight for the integrity of Afro-derivative cultures, to make the South not only a land of fulfillment, but of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic fulfillment. This, of course, will take a long time, for the Southern myth of cultural and religious homogeneity has been one of its most damning characteristics. 

It is also now — most importantly now — the responsibility of blacks to see to it that the drive for racial gains includes the people on the lowest economic levels, the poorest of the poor, the people of the projects. 

Gains for a few, a black elite, at the expense of those who are most underprivileged, will rob the Movement of its broader, more humanistic and socially beneficial goals, no matter in what language such gains are couched. Too often in the South the recent black economic and political progress it has come at the expense and neglect of the people on the bottom rung. To have a new generation of black sharers-of-power, or frontmen-for-power in the South, repeating age-old policies of oppression and exploitation, the very heart of racism, is to make a farce of the great ideals of the Movement for people’s progress. 

And finally, Southern whites must come to accept that an open society, an open multi-cultural society, is in their long-range interest, despite the temporary hardships placed on certain whites who feel threatened by black advances into areas once exclusively theirs (the source of the current revitalization of the Klan). Because the South has such a large percentage of non-white peoples it must confront the necessity of a multi-cultural society; other regions of the United States may be able to persist longer in their Euro-cultural cocoons. 

The progressive move toward a multi-racial, multi-cultural society must be accompanied by a re-examination of American and Southern history, a progressive and insistent recanting of Southern myths and lies passed off as history. This will be painful — so much societal emotional energy has been invested in these myths — but it must be done. 

The “romance” of the Old South is a romantic myth built on injustice, slavery, the historical exploitation of a people, at the cost of moral self-exploitation of the propagators and their descendants. 

Once these myths have been destroyed, once a truer, more multirooted sense of history gains recognition and currency, then the history of the South, as with the history of any person who has re-examined himself/ herself by forcing up painful, previously inadmissible truths, will free the South. The South freeing itself from its own acute, evil prisons of shackled minds to face, really, a strong future — maybe not even as American, but as a people in this ever-spinning world. 

Stetson Kennedy 

Some time after my book Southern Exposure was published by Doubleday in 1946, I swore I would never write another word about anything having to do with the South. 

Aunt Lizzie didn’t think I was qualified, having been born in Florida. When I persisted, she summed it all up to her own satisfaction by saying, “All I’ve got to say is: anybody who wants to be ruled by [blacks] ought to be ruled by [blacks].” 

“I do think you would rather be with them than with us,” my sister said at dinner on another occasion. 

“As a matter of fact, I would,” I replied, and left the family table for good. A lot happened during the 35 years or so between now and then. But essentially what happened was that the irresistible force of black militancy (with an appreciable amount of white support) came up against the immovable object of “white supremacy,” and overcame same. It was a long haul. 

Very many of the problems, with some notable exceptions, are with us yet. To be sure, “great progress has been made.” But this has always been the palliative offered by those who want to brake progress. In many respects, in short, we would do well today and tomorrow, in our search for basic solutions, to look ahead to the Populism of the 1890s and the New Deal of the 1930s. 

For just when you’re about to be carried away by Atlanta’s boast of being “the city too busy to hate,” you rub your cab driver the wrong way and discover he’s still a Kluxer under the skin. Or you turn off the expressway onto some by-road and find white folks out in the sticks acting like they never heard of any such thing as civil rights laws. There is still truth in what the old-time black said: “When you in Rome, Georgia, you got to act like it.” 

Seems like the South is always standing at some crossroads or other, with perdition awaiting in one direction and salvation in the other. 

A major component of any Southern Agenda must of course be a Black Agenda designed to progressively compensate for past injustices and make equality of opportunity more of a reality for the black masses. When I ran as an independent write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1952 against George Smathers on a platform of “Total Equality,” we were a long way from being there. And we still are. 

Not only must the forces of justice not retreat; we must push on. The agenda has not really changed very much; the principal difference is that the law is now for us, rather than against us. This is a very appreciable difference, and one which has great bearing upon strategy and tactics. Marching and confrontation always have and always will get results when more polite forms of persuasion prove of no avail. As for so-called TV riots, I feel they are counter-productive, though I have no difficulty whatever understanding a feeling that The Establishment, being based so largely upon exploitation and deprivation, owes its customers an occasional bonus. But the targets are often wrong, being establishment rather than The Establishment. That sort of effort invested in political action would bring far more positive results. 

Having sounded that conservative note, let me add a seemingly more radical one. It is my conviction that a Black Agenda ought to stress not just affirmative action, but also reparations. It does not take a student of black history to know that it was very largely black labor — blood, sweat and tears — that transformed the South from a howling wilderness into whatever it was when the bulldozers took over. If we could compel Germany to pay reparations for work performed by slave labor during World War II, I see no reason why the living descendants of slaves in America should not demand and get reparations for the rip-offs of the past. 

Any honest balance sheet on black progress is obliged to have as its bottom line the fact that, while countless doors have been opened and a substantial black middle class has emerged, the black masses, South and elsewhere, are almost as deprived as ever. Tokenism, which began as an individual dodge, has been expanded to encompass an entire black middle class, leaving the hard-core poor in the lurch. Comes the next depression and we shall see that blacks are still first in line under the old axiom, “Last hired, first fired.” 

But the greatest peril of all, it seems to me, is the drift back into de facto segregation, brought on by the combination of white flight, black separatism and the mutual distaste for school busing. When, shortly after the Civil War, the AME Church led its flock out into the railroad tracks in a desperate attempt to block the first Jim Crow coaches, it correctly foresaw that segregation would usher in another century of bondage. If we don’t watch out, we could be herded into another such century, and the fact that the segregation was de facto rather than de jure wouldn’t make that much difference. 

While it is all to the good to develop a Southern Agenda and a Black Agenda, we are apt to find as we go along that rather many of the things we long sought to deal with as regional or racial problems have become integrated into national or even universal problems. There remain, of course, some specifically Southern problems, such as kudzu; and some specifically racial problems, such as sickle-cell anemia. But we Southerners, black and white alike, have common interests not so much as Southerners anymore, but as a segment of humanity whose overriding concerns are common to all. Such issues as war or peace, energy depletion, pollution, human rights, population planning, production and distribution, inflation  and depression have us all by the throat, and it would be more appropriate for us to go into battle singing something like “We Shall Overcome” than “Dixie.” As one Southerner said back yonder when we first started trying to get whites and blacks into the same union, “If we ever going to get anywhere, we got to get there together.” 

The life of Martin Luther King epitomizes this “nationalization” and “universalization” of what were once regarded as sectional issues. No sooner did he get the black foot securely in the door of the American mainstream than he turned his attention to the plight of the poor generally, and to such “distant” issues as the war in Vietnam. From race struggle to class struggle to self-determination for distant peoples — that was the road he traveled, and, like Andy Young, we can do no better than to follow in his footsteps. 

Ben Chavis 

I believe that we African people, black people, in America have come to the point in our history where we must declare our political independence from the forces that dominate us. I believe we’ve reached a point, my brothers and sisters, that we can no longer be inextricably involved and linked to political parties which do not have black liberation as their principle objective. The Democratic and Republican parties do not have the interest of black liberation in mind or in principle or in anything else. They want to use us. They live their lives at the expense of the suffering of black people; but around election time, they realize that they need us — our votes, that is — to make a difference to keep them in power. We go in cycles every four years, sometimes every two years, and some folk who are actually working in those parties go through it every week. 

I’m saying the time has come for us to create, if we’re serious about our liberation, an entity that we first of all control, that is accountable to our black people, to the grass roots brothers and sisters, a political entity that is moving in the direction of our own liberation. The time has therefore come for the establishment of an independent national black political party. I’m not saying that I’m against white people per se. I’m in an integrated church. I worship with white folk. I’m the co-director of a national organization that is integrated. Nothing wrong with that. The only thing I’m saying is that in some area of life, I as a black person have to put the liberation of black people as a priority. And that when it comes to politics, let your politics be in the direction of the liberation of your people and not in the direction of the maintenance of the status quo. 

We have had several conferences in the last years to discuss these issues. One was in Gary, Indiana, in 1972; another in Cincinnati and one in Little Rock. At the Fourth National Black Political Convention these issues were again debated. Some people wanted to procrastinate by saying this is not the right time. But I’m happy to say that a majority of the delegates voted in favor of the establishment of a national independent black political party. The convention will be held in Philadelphia on November 21,22 and 23. Now that is after the November election, and we know that regardless of who wins, we’ll still be faced with the reality that the socio-economic state of black Americans is worse than it’s ever been since Reconstruction. We’ll still be faced with the reality of a prison population on the dramatic increase. Of who? Us! We’ll still be faced with the reality of the black infant mortality rate on the increase. We’ll still be faced with the fact that in some parts of this country, almost half of all black young people don’t finish high school. 

No great white hope is going to go to the White House and free Black America. Be it Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or John Anderson. Whoever wins this November, the socio-economic status of black people is not going to markedly change. Presidential candidates may say, “Well you all vote for me and I’ll make some more appointments.” Appointments don’t change the system. If anything, they maintain the system. 

The struggle in the ’80s is not only to stop the suffering of our people or to win a few seats at the big table, but to raise some fundamental questions about the economic and political structure of this society. Racism and monopoly, exploitative capitalism are the two main forces that give rise to the statistics that I just made reference to, and we will remain in the worst shape that we’ve ever been until the very nature of this system is changed. I’m not saying that an independent black political party is going to do everything. But I am saying it will provide a viable alternative for 30 million people in this land that right now don’t have a viable alternative, people whose voice and power is lost and abused in the present system. 

Part of the present situation of our powerlessness is our fault. I can point the finger at the Man all day long — and the finger needs to be pointed at him. But we’ve got some homework to do within the black community, within the black family, within our own lives. We must look at ourselves and our world — which is what we did in New Orleans at that convention — and we must analyze the American context of our lives and make a decision about how we can empower ourselves in that context. That kind of analysis shows that our politics and our power can best be represented, articulated, and promulgated to the extent that we have our own political party. We are talking about black liberation as something we must struggle around everyday. Let me give you just one example of what we’re up against. 

Just this week I was in the home of the ambassador of Grenada, a small African country in the Caribbean, which has fought for its independence. There is now a big smear campaign going on in Washington to discredit this legitimate black government. Black folks down in the Caribbean are running their own affairs. They have thrown off the British, thrown off the Americans, and even though they are a small country with few natural resources, the U.S. wants to jump on them and squash them, because if anywhere in this hemisphere black folk stand up and run their own affairs, it destroys the myth. You see we have been duped and fooled and misled to believe that we cannot free ourselves, that we cannot have a politics that is independent of our oppressor. I’m saying that is not true, that we can do it . . . with the help of God. 

We need to organize our people and have a revitalization of the sense of struggle and movement in our community. What do I mean by that? All of the national black organizations that work in some consistent way with the black community have to work together. The clergy and the political leadership that we have must especially have as a principle and the goal underlying their very existence the organization of all our people. What do I mean by organize? The first level of organization is communication. Just knowing who you are. Do you know there’s no such thing as a black mailing list. Black folks don’t even know who they are. If you wanted to communicate with all black people in your state, you couldn’t do it. And beyond just knowing their addresses, we ought to really know them. I’ve been in cities where folk no longer even know who their next door neighbor is, don’t even know their names, because we have lost the sense of community. We’ve lost the sense of extended families. 

Ron Karenga says that one of the things we need to have is our own value system, and that our value system has to be geared toward our liberation with such principles as umoja or unity at the center. That’s very important, but I think we have to organize around those principles every day. If we believe that we need black unity, then we ought to go out and organize black unity. 

I’ve been out of prison now for 10 months, and I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many black communities around the country. One of the phenomena that I have seen is that so many of our brothers and sisters are ducking for cover, backing away from the imperative to organize and struggle for black liberation. Black professionals are even ducking for cover. The report that the National Urban League issued at the beginning of 1980 entitled “The State of Black America” showed that the black so-called middle class is on the decline. Folks are saying things are so bad that we have to wait until these white folks get the economy straight before we can start our struggle again. But I say we should celebrate inflation because it gives us time to organize our people while white folks are looking elsewhere. While they are trying to rebuild their economy, they can’t keep an eye on us too. They’re in a real quandary. The Third World has risen up and said no longer are you going to get our oil for nothing. No longer are you going to get our gold or diamonds for nothing. In fact, you might not get it at all. The imperialistic octopus which emanates from the U.S. is looking for somewhere else to bloodsuck. Malcolm X says, “You show me a capitalist in its purest form and I’ll show you a bloodsucker.” And that’s right! This vampire’s done turned on itself! White folks are sucking themselves to death, economically. The multinational corporations don’t care anything about national inflation. 

This confusion and conflict is a sign of the time. But it’s a good sign. The Book of Revelation is about the end. But it’s not about the end of the world. Nobody knows when the world is going to end. God is going to take care  of that. And so we ought to stop ducking for cover, like the world is going to end tomorrow morning. The Book of Revelation is not about the end of time; it’s about the time of the end. The end of injustice. The end of oppression. The end of human misery. The issuing of a new order. There is a new order issuing in, and black Americans ought to celebrate that with our brothers and sisters in Grenada, in the Caribbean, in Latin America and Africa, because the world is taking care of business. 

During this reapportionment that the U.S. is going through, we have to make sure that we have as our priority our own liberation. Inflation is not the number one problem facing black America. It’s the number one problem facing those who would oppose us. Our problem is that they’re the ones in power. And that they’re just itching for an excuse to start a war somewhere. As the Third World transforms the face of the world community, there is a constant threat of war from those now in power. That is a problem for all of us to confront and struggle against in the coming decade. 

The 1980s are going to be filled with trials and tribulations. We have to go through them, over and around them. And I’m saying to you that we need faith and new political entities to do this now. We need a renewed sense of our struggle and a renewed faith in our community. We need to build a political force that is accountable to that community and that is honest to that struggle for black liberation. And most of all, we need a renewed faith. We need to believe together! We need to believe together that God is with us in this struggle. If you believe that, then you step out there and you can take the risks that will be necessary in these times. You step out on faith and act together.