I’ve just seen a screening of Black Panther, the first blockbuster action film written by, directed by and starring African-Americans, and what I thought about as I watched was the first time I heard the expression “Black Power.” It was, actually, the first time that phrase was publicly used.
It was in the summer of 1966, and I had just completed my sophomore year at UCLA and flown back to my home in Jericho, New York, where my parents were planning on spending those early summer weeks doing something together as a family. But on the day I got home, my friend Johnny, a student at Columbia University, called and welcomed me home with this news: “James Meredith has just been shot in Mississippi. There’s going to be a march. We’ve got to go. It’s history.”
Johnny and I had driven through Mississippi the summer before and had a Kafkaesque encounter with the police, where we were pulled over for driving in Mississippi with a New York license plate and forced to pay a fine or spend the night in jail. After that, we had a terrifying encounter with three rednecks who blocked our car in Hernando and threatened to kill us if we had any Civil Rights memorabilia with us.
We managed to get out of Mississippi unscathed and vowed to never return, and then, the following year, James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962, was shot on the second day of a solo Civil Rights protest march which began in Memphis and was to end in Jackson, Mississippi. Suddenly thousands of Civil Rights protestors, black and white, joined Martin Luther King, Hosea Williams, CORE’s Floyd McKissick and SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael to finish the walk Meredith had begun. My parents tried to talk me out of joining the march—it was too dangerous, they said. I had just returned home. They had made other plans. “You can’t fight other people’s battles,” my father said. But they couldn’t dissuade me or Johnny. The next day, we flew the next day to Memphis and joined the march, singing “We shall overcome” and other protest songs as TV cameras recorded our progress as we approached different towns along the way.
It wasn’t an easy march. The temperature reached triple digits during the day and we were given salt pills to keep us from dehydrating. The nights were cold, and we slept in giant tents along the way and, on several occasions, we heard gunfire and bullets ripping through those tents. When we hit a town and tried to eat at a diner, the proprietor would stick a “Closed” sign on the door, even though we could see people eating inside. At gas stations, we refused to drink from fountains that were “For Whites Only.”
I was proud to be in a march led by Dr. King, but confused when Stokely Carmichael, the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, challenged King and the older black leadership when he voiced the cry of his generation, asking “What do we want?” Instead of responding “Freedom,” as we had for much of the march, he, along with hundreds of others, shouted “Black Power!” I remember looking at my friend Johnny and shrugging. Was that what we wanted? Is that why we flew halfway across the country to join this march? What we wanted, we white college kids, was racial equality, the right for everyone to be able to register to vote, the end of segregated schools and “white” and “colored” drinking fountains and bathrooms. “Black Power,” was something new in the summer of 1966. It certainly made an impression, but it created a division in the Movement.
But a half century later, what I remember most, and what I thought about as I watched Black Panther, was the 12-year-old girl I walked next to on one of those grueling marching days. We were instructed that when we approached a town, with the TV cameras waiting for us, we were to take the hand of the person next to us and sing out how we would overcome the racial hatred that consumed so much of the American South. When I reached out to take her hand, she froze. Her fingers became stiff and her eyes wide. “What’s the matter?” I asked her. “We’re in this together.”
“I ain’t never touched a white man before,” she said.
I looked at her and smiled. I was nineteen years old and no one had ever called me a “man” before, I said. That made her laugh. I squeezed her hand and she smiled and we both did our best to make ourselves heard. We weren’t shouting “Black Power,” when that chant came up, but we were loud and clear when we promised to overcome someday.
I wonder what she will think about when she sees Black Panther.