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The Negro Movement in Upheaval

Freedom When?

by James Farmer, Introduction by Jacob Cohen
Random House, 197 pp., $4.95

I have read Freedom When? by James Farmer three times, and I am now convinced that, in spite of a certain amount of fustian and poor organization, and the sketchy treatment, or unawareness, of certain issues, this book must hold an important place on the now packed shelf of books dealing with the Negro movement. For one thing, the book is important because Mr. Farmer himself has played a dramatic, valiant, and decisive part in the Negro Movement, and any views he holds come colored by the risks in blood of his experience.

James Farmer was born, according to the Introduction, on January 12, 1920, in Marshall, Texas, when his father, a remarkable man and the first Negro Ph.D. in the state, was a professor at Wiley College. Farmer grew up on the campus of one Negro college after another wherever his father was teaching, then became a student at Wiley College and Howard University, where he received the degree of Bachelor of Divinity, in 1941. In other words, Farmer, like almost all nationally prominent Negro leaders, has had a middle-class education. CORE itself was a middle-class creation, the result of a coalition between a pilot group set up in Chicago by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with Farmer as leader, and a group of students, who became, in fact, the nucleus of CORE. But that was in 1942, and a major theme of the book is the process by which the pressures of experience changed the philosophical, psychological, and social orientation of CORE, and of Farmer himself.

Originally CORE was a pacifist organization, not so much in the Tolstoyan sense of non-resistance, as under the influence of Gandhi, who thought in terms of action. Gandhi’s action was, however, directed toward the presentation of the “truth which cannot be denied,” and as Farmer points out, the early CORE “believed that truth alone, the transparent justice of our demands, would convert the segregationists.” What CORE aims for now is not change of heart but change of behavior: According to Farmer, CORE has slowly learned to accept the fact that in “the arena of political and social events, what men feel and believe matters much less than what, under various kinds of external pressures, they can be made to do“—and he might well have added that belief often follows doing.

THE RUB COMES, however, not in matters of aims but in matters of methods. With respect to violence, Farmer quotes with approval Gandhi’s statement that he would prefer to see a man resist evil with violence than fail to resist evil out of fear. He regards with excitement the impatience and intransigence of the young Negroes, the manly willingness to risk violence, and the all-or-nothing attitude of the “New Jacobins,” with their orientation toward the “struggle in the streets,” and their notion that nonviolence is merely a matter of tactics. It is easy to sense here something like the feeling that Martin Luther King confessed to about Malcolm X: “When he starts talking about all that’s been done to us, I get a twinge of hate, of identification with him”; and easy to sense a feeling of freedom and exultation in the potential capacity for violence. How could James Farmer—or any other Negro—be expected to feel otherwise? And why should any reasonable white man fail to recognize that fear is not a satisfactory basis for a society, and fail to rejoice in an increasing fearlessness among Negroes, even if such fearlessness increases the capacity for violence?

But here the distinction is crucial between the capacity for violence and violence itself, and if James Farmer can praise the capacity for violence as an index to fearlessness, he is keenly aware of the dangers of violence. Violence “would sever from the struggle all but a few of our allies,” would “justify” repressive measures, and would make many members of the Movement itself “turn away in disenchantment.” Meanwhile the chances for violence increase, not only with the change in the philosophy, but with the associated development of a mass base in the Movement, and in CORE; for a mass base involves the ignorant, the unemployed, the unemployable, and the alienated, who have no comprehension of a doctrine of nonviolence, only their “own fierce indignation.” Farmer sees the containment, or rather the fruitful canalization, of such violent impulses, as “one of the chief tactical dilemmas before the Freedom Movement.”

THE THEME of the potentiality of violence keeps recurring throughout the book. This is only natural, for behind any such situation of potential upheaval as the Negro Movement lies, willy-nilly and beyond all theory, the ultimate threat of violence or breakdown. Naturally, too, the discussion of demonstrations, to which he devotes a long chapter, involves the question of violence. Demonstrations will continue, Farmer asserts, taking issue with those leaders who feel that, by and large, demonstrations have outlived their usefulness; continue because they are effective in gaining ends, because they encourage mass participation, and because, most significantly, they engender in the individual a feeling that he can act for himself. Given the context of Harlem or Watts, demonstration is, too, the greatest safeguard against violence. For instance, in the summer of 1963, in Harlem, there were “hundreds of mass demonstrations” and no riots; but in 1964, when, for reasons that Farmer does not specify, there were few demonstrations, the big riot occurred; in Birmingham, at the time of the demonstrations, there was a marked decline in the incidence of crime. As the author puts it, rioting (and crime?) is, in “some rudimentary form,” a protest, and the same impulse that leads to rioting may be turned into orderly demonstration.

To inhibit mass demonstrations is madness,” Farmer writes, but at the same time, “every responsible leader”* agrees that to sponsor a demonstration “whose only possible immediate consequence is mob violence,” is also madness. He knows that there are certain white people, sometimes the police themselves, who would want to turn any orderly demonstration into a scene of mob violence. How do “responsible” leaders, then, assess their “responsibility”? Negroes, he answers, will not “take the blame for the hatred our efforts reveal in the hearts of sheriffs and police commissioners”—or of the hoodlums baiting the demonstrators. So here we have the question of setting. The police and the sidewalk gang provide the setting in exactly the same way as society in general provides the setting in which largescale rioting, such as that of Harlem or Watts, may develop. This for Farmer would presumably mean that society (i.e., white society) must take the ultimate blame and responsibility for, say, Watts, and that rioting in one perspective may serve a useful purpose in warning of the gravity of a situation. But paradoxically, Farmer, as we have seen, accepts the obligation of the Negro leadership to contain violence. He is willing to accept the complexity of human nature as it appears in situations of social upheaval and in the Negro himself: “We stand astride fierce and ambiguous energies, some noble, some not, and will seek to channel them.”

JAMES FARMER has clearly moved more and more toward a willingness to take bigger risks for bigger stakes, and, unless I misread him, believes now, as he apparently did not a few years ago, that a considerable degree of “polarization,” of the mutual recognition by both black and white of the depth and violence of the emotions involved, may be essential for social regeneration. The truth will make you free—but it may be a fairly awful truth to look at. The account he gives of Plaquemine, Louisiana, is an example. Associated with this attitude toward “polarization” would seem to be a new attitude toward blackness. Farmer remembers the days when he, as the son of a man who would qualify as one of those Dubois called the “talented tenth,” was cut off from his own people without knowing it, was committed to working for equality but had come “to this commitment theoretically.” Now a number of factors have conspired to change his old view, and some of the most interesting pages of the book concern this change.

For one thing, there is the ironic fact that “each achievement of the civil rights movement aimed at making color irrelevant counted to us as a Negro achievement, earned by Negro effort, and indicative of a long rebel tradition in Negro history,” and the civil rights movement thus “inspired a renewed search for black identity,” the quickening of a desire, not for invisibility, but for a “valid” visibility. For another thing, as the Movement in general, and CORE in particular, broadened the base, the emphasis on integration, which had been largely rooted in the Negro middle class, was shifted to an emphasis on race and nationalism, which had been the traditional appeal to the Negro masses. Farmer admits to the considerable influence on his own thinking of the Black Muslims and Malcolm X, with their assertion that the great need of the Negro is to get rid of his selfhate and accept his blackness; this led from an early simplistic idea of integration to the idea of a fluid, pluralistic society with the maximum range for individual choices. And one such choice might be to be black—and to be separate. Farmer regrets that CORE had not known sooner that “some form of nationalism, or group-ism or ethnocentrism” (he says that he cannot quite define the “mood”) could be incorporated into CORE’S inner life without fatally compromising its ideals. “CORE,” he says, “no longer serves Negroes, it is a Negro organization.” At the same time he rejoices in this fact, he is aware of the dangers of race chauvinism. He sees this paradox, but he does not see—or at least does not comment on—another, that in the new orientation toward the masses and toward blackness certain other issues appear. What about the “Negro” who is biologically half white? Or fifteen-sixteenths white? How black do you have to be to be a Negro? How poor? How illiterate? What about the very black man who happens to have gone to Harvard and happens to have a million dollars? Is he a Negro? What about the whole matter of the Negro Movement and class in general? How does this last question relate to political action? Or to matters of foreign policy?

The Negro Movement, and CORE in particular, is shot through with paradoxical issues. If the author has not mentioned some of them, he has still made clear his approach to them. In relation to the split in CORE itself between black nationalism and integration, he speaks of “creative tension,” and over and over again, in dealing with such paradoxical situations, he talks in this vein. If I understand his way of thinking, he would quite deliberately seek out the line of fission in a given situation, and would exploit the tension there for a new dialectic. This would often be more than debate, for he apparently conceives of such a dialectic as directed toward action, experiment, the process of feeling out toward situations (and ideas) that will absorb tensions at a new level. How could the debates he reports in CORE about the nature and desirability of integration ever be settled except by putting theory, and feelings, to the test of experience? The most crucial example of this dialectic appears, of course, in relation to his attitude toward “polarization” (an attitude toward which, as government and the public seem to fail to realize the gravity of the situation, I reluctantly find myself more and more in sympathy). The leadership of the Movement, he says, is “standing astride fierce and ambiguous energies”—energies that might make for total and destructive “polarization.” By his process of thinking, he would, however, recognize and fully identify with the “fierce indignation” of the alienated and dispossessed and with their inevitable impulse toward aggression, and at the same time would undertake to illustrate that nonviolence can embody rage and courage and use them in the terms most effective in a “civilized order.”

IN OTHER WORDS, this book seems to sum up better than anything I have seen (except the history of the Movement itself) what I would consider the healthy and generally thoughtful pragmatism of the Negro Movement, a practical openness to experience, a recognition of the paradoxical qualities in experience itself, a willingness to probe for new values and possibilities in a situation, and the courage to scrutinize convictions and revise formulations—in short, the capacity for growth—and in James Farmer’s case, the willingness to develop the tensions that make leadership so difficult and at the same time to take the responsibility of leadership, to try to “channel” the “fierce and ambiguous energies.”

At the same time that Farmer recognizes this responsibility of leadership, he is totally convinced that freedom is not something that can be bestowed, least of all by a leader, and that men “must achieve freedom for themselves.” Achieving freedom means achieving identity, not merely racial or group identity but individual identity. He is completely against the social service and welfare approach to the problem as futile and, worse, emasculating. In the practical political sense—and this is the most important new emphasis as far as program is concerned—this means grass-roots activity, organization at a door-to-door and block-to-block level, locating the specific needs and desire of a community no matter how small, a recognition of the importance of the small and immediate—and consequently the developing of a sense of a role for the individual in making decisions that affect him. Farmer sees this, not merely as a matter of tactics for the Negro Movement, the central fact of the new phase in seeking a political fulcrum, but as one of several points at which the Negro Movement intersects with general problems of society—one of the points, infact, where the Negro Movement may lead “to a rediscovery of the individual in American society,” by allowing him, in the sense of significant and dignified action, to become a man. How many Americans, black or white, are that?

Events since Farmer’s resignation last March to become director of a national literacy drive have given a new urgency to the questions his book raises. In early July, CORE, under the leadership of Floyd B. McKissick, met in convention and endorsed the policy of “black power” previously affirmed by SNCC. Among those attending the convention was a considerable contingent of Black Muslims, including Fruit of Islam guards; Lonnie X was one of the speakers, his theme the Black Muslim theme of identity; another was Jesse Gray, who, at the time of the Harlem riots in 1964, had called for “one hundred trained revolutionists not afraid to die.”

How, if at all, does the slogan, impulse, or movement of “black power” differ from Farmer’s position? Farmer accepts the idea that power is the key: He says that a sense of powerlessness is, for black and white, one of the corrosives of modern life, and that, specifically, for the Negro the sense of being “handled,” even with the best intentions, of not being able to make key decisions about his own fate, is the most bitterly resented factor in Negro experience. As we have seen, Farmer accepts the “mood” of blackness. And he explicitly asserts the Negro’s right to act in self-defense.

BUT WHAT DOES BLACK POWER mean? According to Stokely Carmichael, the recently elected chairman of SNCC and a popularizer of the phrase, it “just means black people coming together and getting people to represent their needs and to stop that oppression because of race.” He adds that he doesn’t “see why the rallying cry of black power” would mean anti-white. Floyd McKissick describes it “as a movement dedicated to the exercise of American democracy in its highest tradition; it is a drive to mobilize the black communities…to remove the basic cause of alienation, frustration, despair, low self-esteem, and hopelessness.” Such readings would be unexceptionable, and nothing new. But to Martin Luther King the whole thing means a call for “black supremacy,” and Roy Wilkins says: “No matter how endlessly they try to explain it, the term ‘black power’ means anti-white power…reverse Ku Klux Klan.” Further, Wilkins points out the association between the theme of black power at the CORE convention and an aura of violence (a “strident and threatening challenge to…non-violence”), an association recognized by King, and by Lillian Smith, who has resigned from the advisory committee of CORE as a protest against what she terms the “dangerous and unwise position…on the use of violence.” Earlier, John Lewis, a founder of SNCC and national chairman until he was succeeded, last May, by Stokely Carmichael, resigned his membership in that organization, because he refused to give up his “personal commitment to non-violence.”

A glance at these statements makes one meaning clear. It is “Whitey” who has allowed the phrase—and the impulse it describes—to achieve its present status. It comes at a time when the victories of the Negro Movement, in the slums of New York and on backroads of Mississippi, seem more and more to be paper victories. Farmer’s own literacy program, which had appeared certain of support by Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity, has been dropped because of political pressure (pressure, if one is to believe Joseph Loftus in The New York Times, applied, ironically enough, by another Negro, Adam Clayton Powell). Hope deferred and promises broken are apt to do more than make sick the heart—they may lead to blank withdrawal, refuge in delusion, or blind rage. (“What we need is a few more riots,” Cecil Moore is reported to have said in attacking the Wilkins line in the NACCP.) How much of withdrawal, delusion, and range, and how much of a political program, a calculated tactic of threat to “scare Whitey,” or even of a mere poetry of violence which bleeds off the drive to action, are in the notion of black power, no one can now well know—probably not even the popularizers of the slogan.

But clearly the slogan does represent a reality—albeit one yet veiled. For one thing, it represents an attempt, an attempt more dramatically exemplified in CORE than elsewhere because of its bi-racial nature, to transfer to a national scale the “polarization” that had previously occurred in more restricted settings, a town like Cambridge, Maryland, or Plaquemine, Louisiana, or to a degree in a state like Mississippi. It is conceivable that a more general sense of “polarization” might force, in responsible quarters, even in the context of the war in Vietnam, some new thinking and some action on old pledges. For another thing, the “creative tension” which Farmer applauds in the inner structure of CORE (at least as it existed before the convention) on the issues of race, integregation, and non-violence is now transferred to a larger stage. But the question is, can his principle be made to work on such a scale, in the glare of polemical publicity, this especially when the fracturing among the Negro organizations seems, for the moment, almost definitive, and the movement toward a closer unity, which Malcolm X, as we may now ironically recall, had urged, is ended.

FOR “POLARIZATION,” on any scale, to be fruitful, there must be a concept of community, however shadowy and remote, behind it. For tension to be creative there must be communication. The problem of the concept of community and means of communication promises to become more acute, not merely for white and Negro face to face, but for Negro face to face with Negro. We shall see, in the grind of events, what role James Farmer can play in keeping alive a concept of community and keeping open communication. It could be a considerable one. He would seem to occupy a position of strategic importance.

Meanwhile, on other points crucially related to these, Farmer is clear. He sees that identity for the Negro is to be thought of as individual self-respect, and as racial awareness, but not as chauvinistic delusion. He knows, though he does not use these words, that a revolution, to succeed, must carry within itself the seeds of an order, and that if it does not carry such seeds it liquidates itself. He has stated quite clearly the possibility of such a liquidation if violence cannot be contained, the possibility that the Negro Movement would become not a revolution but a random revolt. Furthermore, and most importantly, he knows the difference between the conditions for freedom and the nature of freedom. It may be unfair to fix on a word, but I cannot well imagine Farmer saying what McKissick has said: “The black masses have not been elevated” by the war on poverty program. He would know that such a program can never “elevate” men; it can only make it possible for men to elevate themselves. He would be among the last to deny that “Whitey” is on the Negro’s back, but he would know that the mere absence of Whitey from his back would be, in the end, only a condition for freedom. That once achieved, the long haul begins; the Negro will then find himself not only confronting the complex special liabilities determined by his history, liabilities that limit freedom, but also the equally complex and even more subtle liabilities which all Americans, of all complexions, must confront and which must be dealt with if they are to achieve freedom. For the Negro American is doomed to be American. So is the white American. Both are doomed to explore, together, the meaning of that fact.

  1. *

    Not long ago, he said that it is “an accusation—to tell a Negro that he is responsible, because this means that he is alienated…It becomes a kiss of death! I don’t want any reporter to call me ‘responsible’…I’m as militant as the next!” This is not to try to catch Mr. Farmer out in a contradiction: it is merely to give background.

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