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We Don’t Need Bill Clinton’s History of Civil Rights

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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.

Clinton’s remarks were disappointing but not surprising. Soon after Carmichael called for Black Power, a chorus of left-leaning voices denounced him as the prophet of rage and the high priest of hate. This criticism has never abated. Instead, it has been bolstered by historians who take a dim view of activists who embraced racial solidarity and reinforced by cultural influencers who share the same negative perspective.

This mischaracterization of Carmichael serves a purpose. It allows people to dismiss his critique of America.

Carmichael believed that racial inequality was fundamentally a political and economic problem. Achieving racial equality, therefore, required a radical transformation of American politics and economics.

Moreover, this also goes straight to the fetishiziation of “nonviolence” among liberals. Like, this is the most important principle of protest, one that is a beloved concept. And while I have no problem with nonviolent protest, my main critique of the use of violence is that it is more often ineffective or counterproductive than for any moral reason. But this erases the very real history of guns in the civil rights movement. King often had a gun with him. When the northern advocates of nonviolence came to the rural South, people thought they were nuts. They knew the best way to stave off an attack from racists was to fire back and they were not about to listen to any theoretical hooey that said otherwise. Charles Cobb, who also worked with Lewis and Carmichael in SNCC, wrote an outstanding book on this issue called This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. I strongly recommend it.

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.

Bill Clinton’s history with African-Americans is pretty awful. He pushed forward the War on Crime, welfare reform, and all sorts of policies that were bad for the Black community. It’s no wonder that he needs to hold on to his vision of what John Lewis was. Because reckoning with Stokely’s critiques seriously could get very uncomfortable for him and his legacy.

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