LBJ on Black Power

2 Nov

Lyndon Johnson, from his memoirs (1971):

When asked about black power in 1966, I responded: “I am not interested in black power or white power. What I am concerned with is democratic power, with a small d.” As I look back now, that answer seems totally insufficient. It is easy for a white man to say he is “not interested in black power or white power.” Black power had a different meaning to the black man, who recently had had to seek the white world’s approval and for whom success had come largely on white people’s terms. To such a man, black power meant a great deal—in areas that mattered the most—dignity, pride, and self-awareness.

16 Responses to “LBJ on Black Power”

  1. Jonny Butter November 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    It’s just impossible to overstate what a monumental tragedy for everyone the American war in Vietnam was. LBJ was no saint, but just imagine his presidency, and American history and influence in the world, without Vietnam or some other war like it (not to mention the history of Vietnam itself). Counterfactuals like this are kind of silly, but…I can never get it out of my mind when the subject is LBJ.

  2. BillR November 3, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    yes, much more outspoken folks back then.

  3. E scott November 3, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    I’d say Johnson’s first response was more appropriate; his later qualification smacks of patronization; understanding blacks need of pride, dignity and self awareness. Ugh! And what terms of success are exclusively white? Double ugh!
    The best and only thing white people can do for black people is give respect, give them an equal break, as implied in Johnson’s invocation of democratic power. To this end white people need to look into their own psychic and not bother with “understanding” the black psychic.

    • Jonny Butter November 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

      No one who remembers that time and before would make the comment you made E scott (except for white prerogativists). The implication is that Stokley Charmichael was being patronizing – LBJ didn’t invent the phrase. He was asked to comment on it. The official (first) response is a standard politician’s dodge, both then and now (as Colbert would say, ‘I don’t see race’).

      And what terms of success are exclusively white? This is a mystery phrase.

      • ed scott November 5, 2013 at 10:02 am #

        Jonny, I think you misunderstand my comment.

        Stokley Charmichael and the Black Power movement had (correctly and necessarily, I think) a “no thanks” attitude towards well meaning white integrationists. They were willing to ruffle the feathers of white liberals who assumed the prerogative of defining and mending black character.

        I think my comment respects this.

      • Jonny Butter November 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

        Your comment may ‘respect’ what you say it does, but it doesn’t *say* it.

        Here’s the proposition we’re discussing. Either A or B:

        A: “I am not interested in black power or white power. What I am concerned with is democratic power, with a small d.”

        B: “Black power had a different meaning to the black man [than to the white]”.

        If you know any history of the time in question, you know that it is statement ‘A’ which is the boilerplate, well-meaning liberal-integrationist statement. This was a tack which avoided dealing with all the ‘icky’, difficult stuff – like institutionalized rape, murder, etc etc etc (only the ‘Negroes’ can understand that stuff) – and just focuses on enfranchisement. Statement ‘B’ is simply an acknowledgement of a fact. I don’t see any hand-wringing in it about black folk’s souls, etc.

        What’s remarkable to me about statement B is not that it’s a particularly deep insight, but that Johnson actually said/wrote it. Few white politicians would do so then, and few would today, unfortunately.

  4. Glenn November 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

    The call for “small d” democracy by LBJ culminated by 1969, as would have happened to any community organizer of any color, in the assassination of Fred Hampton.

    It just happened that a shot in the dark by Chicago’s finest hit someone dark.

  5. Chris November 4, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    I sympathize more with his earlier views, to be honest.

  6. Roquentin November 4, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    I thought about this a lot. As much as a sympathize with the struggles of those in the black power movement of the 60s, I have a hard time condoning racial nationalism in any form. The flipside is, much of what went on politically in the US in the early 20th century was just (white)racial nationalism under another name and this was the implicit understanding many of our so-called democratic institutions functioned according to. How could you fault black Americans for acknowledging this and actively opposing it? Is racial nationalism ever an acceptable ideology, under any circumstances? Grafting economic woes onto another race which needs to be attacked is playing with fire under the best of circumstances and it’s not far from there to riots and old fashioned pogroms. I don’t want to draw false equivalencies and I’m not naive enough to think we can just gloss over racial tensions as if they aren’t there. Still, it’s a troubling question.

    • Jonny Butter November 4, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

      Notice that LBJ (or his ghostwriter) said his previous answer was ‘totally insufficient’ – he didn’t say it was wrong. His previous answer isn’t false – it’s just close to meaningless. It’s almost like saying goodness is good.

      The flipside is, much of what went on politically in the US in the early 20th century was just (white)racial nationalism….Is racial nationalism ever an acceptable ideology, under any circumstances?

      Black people had no choice but to be defined as a ‘race’ for political (ideological) purposes. If you and everybody who looks like you are forcibly defined as a (black) nation, and are also, btw, disenfranchised, utterly marginalized, terrorized, and the subject of slow eradication in your own country – the country you had a large hand in building – what would you have people do? Consider abstract notions of nationalism, etc? I don’t think so. African American people didn’t define themselves as a nation – that was done for them.

      • Roquentin November 5, 2013 at 12:06 am #

        I don’t debate the need for radical action to be taken, given the circumstances it was entirely appropriate. I agree that their racial status was defined for them as well. I would even say that at the time such an ideological stance served a necessary purpose. I in no way intend to make some kind of argument that implies that change could have been brought about without active resistance. All of the above said, racial nationalism is still deeply problematic as an ideology. Past a certain point, making excuses for black people you would never dream of making for your own ethnic group is less a mark of supporting them than an indication that you don’t believe them capable of functioning on the same level you do. What is really being conveyed by reducing their agency to the point where any action is taken? That is certainly not the rhetoric you use when describing someone you believe to be on your level.

      • Jonny Butter November 5, 2013 at 10:01 am #

        Past a certain point, making excuses for black people you would never dream of making for your own ethnic group is less a mark of supporting them than an indication that you don’t believe them capable of functioning on the same level you do. What is really being conveyed by reducing their agency to the point where any action is taken?

        Ah yes, civil rights leaders are the ‘real’ racists. I know you don’t mean to say that, but that’s what it boils down to.

        I wonder if you and those of your persuasion here have any idea what ‘race relations’ in the US were like in 1966. Should LBJ have been worried about ‘reverse discrimination’ like some of you (obviously) young people seem to be? It’s not a matter of ‘reducing agency’ for black people; again – I can’t understate this enough! – I don’t think that was Stokley Charmichael’s point! It’s a matter of understanding what your fellow humans have been put through. They are not theoretical and neither are you. Johnson, growing up both poor and in the South, had a pretty good understanding, I’d say.

        It’s hard for people to believe now, but in my lifetime (i’m 50s) a black person walking on a sidewalk in the south (and parts of the north and west) not only had to move off the sidewalk out of the way of a white person walking on the same sidewalk, but they had to look down, and had to look down in just the right way; if you did or were perceived to have done your look of deference and obedience the ‘wrong’ way, esp. if you were male, you (and your family) could get tortured and killed, and the people who did it would get away with it. That was DAILY LIFE. For generations. 1850s? – no, NINETEEN 40s and 50s (and probably sixties too).

        I am also not a fan of nationalism, Roq, and most definitely not racial nationalism. But it is two completely different situations to be a.) in a voluntary, potentially ‘in’ group, like in S Africa, or Israel, or in the Balkans (i.e. Serbia) and, b.) to be in an involuntary group assigned for decimation.

        The ‘reverse discrimination’ ‘I don’t see race’ argument is basically the SCOTUS one in the recent shredding of the Voting Rights Act: protections work so we should get rid of them. “We disenfranchise black people now because they’re *Democrats* and because they’re poor, not necessarily because they’re black.” Woopie!

        have a super day!

      • Roquentin November 5, 2013 at 10:45 am #

        I’m not making claims about reverse descrimination, nor do I have any desire to paint white people as the victims, then or now. They weren’t. I don’t support the shredding of the Voter Rights Act either, which is only the thinnest of disguises for purposefully reducing the numbers of non-white voters and shifting the electoral landscape in favor of conservative politicians.

        In spite of this, while the experience of African Americans in the US is particularly awful, what of other immigrant groups here and the struggles they had to endure (or are currently enduring)? Should they be treated differently simply because it is a different ethnic group involved? How do efforts to form a political movement strictly on the basis of race, even for the right reasons, impact this? Whose interests does dividing the working class based on race really serve?

        Last, as someone who is both young and white I do acknowledge that it is not really my place to determine what is and isn’t acceptable for black people to do politically. I come from a different historical and cultural background, that of German and Scandinavian immigrants in the upper Midwest. Perhaps this will also help to clarify why I find the concept of racial nationalism to be so troubling.

  7. Jonny Butter November 5, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    I like that you have the guts to say what’s on your mind, Roq., and to more or less think out loud. Other people are probably thinking some of the same things as you, so I think you do a service by laying it out. That said…

    other immigrant groups

    Er…are you sure ‘immigrant group’ is the right term for African Americans? I’m thinking that it’s not. The African American experience isn’t ‘particularly awful’ compared with other ‘immigrant groups’. That experience is *uniquely* bad because the first Africans didn’t exactly emigrate, at least in the sense we usually mean by that term (i.e. by choice). You are saying that it’s the same except worse, when it’s actually categorically different, for many reasons.

    just sayin’

    • Roquentin November 6, 2013 at 9:25 am #

      I agree, being forcibly taken across the ocean against one’s will, in a journey during which half those taken died, is not in any way the same as immigration and shouldn’t be described as such. It’s not even appropriate to be put in the same category as indentured servitude. I guess I was more thinking in terms of the 20th century, where while the legacy of slavery was still very much alive the discrimination African Americans faced was not completely different than that of other immigrant groups in the US.

      I’ve also wondered this: is it even a reasonable goal to hope for a set of racially neutral state institutions? Is such a thing even possible? Is a degree of racial bias always baked into the cake? Ultimately, should we even think that way or are our state institutions always a cover for the interests of a particular ethnic group?

  8. Jonny Butter November 6, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    is it even a reasonable goal to hope for a set of racially neutral state institutions? Is such a thing even possible?

    It absolutely is a reasonable goal. Why isn’t it? Why should we perhaps not even dare *think* about it, as you say? Is it ‘reasonable…to hope for’ Justice? I would say that it better be! Race is a construct in terms of how dispositive it is about anything other than a few genetic anomalies. The laws of the State are not the problem. Don’t know what you mean, precisely, by ‘institutions’….

    Say the proto-American east coastal in-group in the 1600s was Spanish instead of English, and they kidnapped and enslaved people exclusively with blue eyes, inventing all kinds of characteristics that ‘naturally’ go with the blue eyes – dishonesty, laziness, out of control sexual urges, out of control mayonnaise urges, etc. – every bit of crap about themselves the Spanish guys could project onto the Blue Eye’d Devils. Then after 350 years of strife and violent struggle, the Blue Eye’d Devils finally want some guarantees about the very hard-won rights so long denied them because of the color of their eyes. Do you, 350 years later, tell them that you are now uncomfortable with singling out anyone by virtue of something like their eye color?! “Sorry, changed our minds!” It’s almost comically unfair! YOU (the Spanish elite) invented their ‘race’ to justify what was really just a business proposition, and then stuffed them into the mold you invented for them. Then, when they – at long last – want out of that mold once and for all, you tell them there IS no mold!

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