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“Black Boy in a White Land”
Where do we go from here?
That was the question on everyone’s mind, and Floyd McKissick was certain he knew the answer.
It was May 1968, one month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. For thirteen years, ever since the Montgomery bus boycott, King had been the moral conscience and public face of the civil rights movement. He had taken on Bull Connor and his dogs in the Birmingham campaign, inspired the nation with his soaring rhetoric in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and led the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. His demand for freedom and integration had given the movement its sense of purpose, while his gospel of love and nonviolence had provided its strategic framework. The recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, King had been the most influential Black man in America—perhaps the world. And although that influence had waned in recent years as a younger generation of activists embraced more militant and separatist agendas, King was still the closest thing to a unifying Black leader.
Now he was gone, gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis motel, and the civil rights movement confronted an existential question: What next? The immediate response to King’s death had been grief and violence, with protests and riots breaking out in cities across the country. Already there had been nearly as many riots in 1968 as in any other year of the decade, itself the most tumultuous of the century. But the unrest was largely destructive, a way to release anger and frustration, not to chart a course forward. And as the fires burned out and the dust settled, the major civil rights organizations were debating which road to take and vying to show the way. Ralph Abernathy, who had assumed the reins of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, pledged to continue the Poor People’s Campaign begun earlier that year. Leading a group of three thousand demonstrators, he set up a tent city on the National Mall and demanded $30 billion in poverty relief and an economic bill of rights that would give every American a guaranteed income. Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, called for a “White People’s March” on the capital as a sign of interracial solidarity, while Roy Wilkins, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), pushed for new jobs legislation and an “Adopt a Cop” program to improve relations between Black people and the police. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, more radical than its counterparts, deleted the word “nonviolent” from its name, urged Blacks to take up arms in self-defense, and contemplated a merger with the revolutionary Black Panthers.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) rounded out the “Big Five” civil rights groups, and it, too, was trying to determine the next step in the struggle for Black freedom. For McKissick, who had been elected national director two years earlier, the answer was clear, and in the second week of May he called a meeting of CORE’s National Action Council to share his vision.
They gathered in east Baltimore, which just weeks earlier had witnessed one of the worst riots in the country. For eight days, the city’s Black neighborhoods had resembled a war zone, with residents smashing windows, looting stores, burning buildings, and throwing rocks and bottles at police and firemen. Cops in riot gear had marched through the streets, firing tear gas, exchanging shots with snipers, and rounding up lawbreakers and onlookers by the hundreds. When local officers proved unable to quell the violence, Governor Spiro Agnew declared a state of emergency and called up five thousand National Guardsmen, and when they, too, proved inadequate, President Lyndon Johnson dispatched five thousand soldiers to the area. It took more than a week and the arrest of six thousand people to restore order, and the final toll was devastating: six people dead, seven hundred wounded, and $12 million in property damage. Even now, as council members filed into the meeting, evidence of the riots was all around them: in boarded-up windows, burned-out storefronts, and the suspicious stares of newly armed shopkeepers.
Inside, McKissick quickly got down to business. He began with a report he had drafted with the help of his assistant director, Roy Innis. Titled “A Nation Within a Nation,” the report argued that America was divided into two societies, one prosperous and white, the other impoverished and Black. A dam separated these two societies, and like all dams it held energy that could either create or destroy. The challenge was to channel that energy into a constructive program for the liberation of Black society. The prevailing approach had been to rely on government welfare, the report declared. But “handouts” were not the answer. Taxpayers disliked them because the recipients seemed ungrateful, while the recipients resented them because they offered no hope of permanent escape. Instead, the poor had to be given the same things everyone else wanted: jobs, opportunity, and control over their own destiny.
To achieve these goals, McKissick called for a sweeping program of economic development and urban reconstruction. At its heart would be a network of community corporations—nonprofit entities owned and managed by local residents. Funded by government-backed loans, these corporations would finance the creation of local businesses and provide job training for the unemployed. They would also use tax incentives to entice white companies to build plants in minority neighborhoods, train residents to operate the plants, and then sell them to the community after recovering their costs. The community corporations would use the revenue generated by the plants to invest in local businesses and pay for social services, thus creating a self-sustaining economic model. It was an ambitious and innovative plan that combined elements of free enterprise and socialism. And with an estimated price tag of $1 billion, it was far more politically palatable than the $30 billion sought as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.
copyright © 1967 by Arna Bontemps and George Houston Bass, Executors of the Estate of Langston Hughes
copyright © 1962 Schroder Music Co. (ASCAP), renewed 1990