The First ‘Black Power’ Flyer?
Rider Joan Mulholland emailed me the exquisite document above recently:
Here’s a scan of a handbill (from Canton?) I came across in my “stuff” the other day — something I’d forgotten about over the years. I got it on the Meredith March, which I joined at Tougaloo for the last day. It had been folded to fit in the back of the little New Testament (along with a copy of my birth certificate — for identification purposes, living or dead) which I always had with me on demonstrations.
I’m thinking it must be one of the earliest “printed” (as in flyer, poster, etc.) references to Black Power.
It’s easy to see why it sure seems like the first.
The flyer was created just days after Stokely Carmichael unveiled his new phrase — “Black Power” — on June 16, 1966, in Greenwood, MS. Carmichael was speaking to the protesters walking in the March Against Fear (aka, the Meredith March). He was one of several movement leaders who had rushed in to save the march when its instigator, James Meredith, was gunned down just two days into a planned solo walk from Memphis to Jackson.
Earlier that Thursday, Carmichael had been arrested and charged with trespassing after arguing with police about where the marchers, now several hundred, could set up their tents for the night. Once released from jail he went straight to the customary evening rally and spoke:
This is the twenty-seventh time that I’ve been arrested. I ain’t going to jail no more. The only way to we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. What we’re going to start saying now is Black Power!
It was a contentious phrase within the movement, and a provocative one outside it. Its debut presaged a major evolutionary moment for the movement.
Eight days later — Friday, June 24 — the march reached Canton. Again there was a dispute about where the marchers could set camp for the night.
This time, however, in addition to a few arrests, authorities staged a tear-gas raid on the marchers’ evening rally, while Martin Luther King was speaking. David Garrow describes the scene in Bearing the Cross:
Suddenly, there was a loud noise and clouds billowed from a canister that had landed near the flatbed truck [on which the speakers stood]. “It’s tear gas. Everybody put a handkerchief over your face,” King bellowed. “Nobody leave. Nobody fight back. We’re going to stand our ground.” More canisters began to fall and as the tear gas welled up, King’s efforts to lead the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome” failed. Choking and gagging, scores of marchers fled. The patrolmen advanced across the fields, swing their billyclubs at those who had not yet left.
King called the attack “one of the best expressions of a police state I have ever seen.”
Harry Benson was there and made this amazing photo.
[Last year Benson told blogger Tim Nokes: “It was a very nasty night in Canton, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights protests.”
[The entire] march was traumatic. You didn’t know from one day to the next what the hell would happen. You would see young kids from all over America — this was where they spent their summer holidays. There was violence on every march, but the Meredith march was the biggest. It was the one that really began to galvanise the country.]
The next day the local leaders in Canton — the Madison County Movement — declared a boycott on white-owned city businesses and spread the word via the flyer above, making prominent use of the new slogan.
(1) Black Out for Black Power
(2) Work Stop for Black Power
(3) Register to Vote for Black Power
Joan Mulholland got her copy on Sunday, June 26, when the march ended with an eight-mile walk from the Tougaloo campus to the state capitol in downtown Jackson.
The March Against Fear was over, but the struggle between Carmichael’s and King’s competing visions, between “Black Power” and “Freedom Now,” had only begun.