In our recent story “The State vs. Reed and Clark: The accused speaks” (MSR, November 10), writer Isaac Peterson III reported that “The prosecution had planned to allege that Reed and Clark were acting on behalf of the Black Panthers,” but since “there is no record of there ever having been a Black Panther organization in the Twin Cities, fledgling or otherwise, the prosecution is therefore said to be planning instead to use the somewhat vague ‘catch-all’ allegation that Reed and Clark were pursuing some sort of ‘Black militant’ agenda.”
Just what is a ‘Black militant’? How might such terminology influence the perceptions of a jury in the forthcoming trial, or readers of accounts of the trial published by the mass media? Local lecturer, educator, writer and historian Mahmoud El-Kati considers that question in the following analysis.
The Frenchman is right: “Language is like God turned loose in the flesh.” The ability to seize words suggests the ability to seize images and the power behind them. Words, depending on how you use them, can be very curious things.
Wordsmiths, propagandists, and other wordy sorts understand better than the layman that with words you can create some things, that is to say images, visible or invisible, that have no existence in our reality. Consider, for instance, ghost, leprechaun, elfin, E.T., or “weapons of mass destruction.” It’s in this connection that I wish to revisit some words, slogans and phrases from those turbulent, creative, openly contradictory and sea-changing years of the 1960s in American life.
One cannot overstate the dynamism, clarity, and yet confusion of those years. They were years in which the power elite that controlled the social order was forced to confront its demons, beginning with the deepest, most intractable of them all — race — and the doctrine of “White supremacy.” Accordingly, the long dark trail of Black “unearned suffering” in the American republic finally saw a release from the dark dungeon of racial segregation.
Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” exploded in the unsuspecting face of White America. Finally, the discussion for a true, open and just, inclusive and small-d democratic society became an exclamatory note in the American narrative. The Black freedom struggle in America was at hand, as it had never quite been since the Civil War.
This struggle, without question, became the defining moral moment in American history. Blacks, by the impersonal forces of history, became the vanguard agents for social justice in America. This struggle portended greatly for other disaffected groups within the American republic.
Other oppressed or marginalized people got the message. Like a whirlwind came progressive White youths, and women (a dormant movement that had not been heard from since the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920), indigenous peoples, Mexicans, and a collage of ethnics in short order.
And it did not stop there. Others questioned their status in American life, which was not derived from skin color: gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and the physically and mentally handicapped. The Gray Panthers represented the White aging. There’s more — I hope that you get the idea by now.
Of all the fascinating eruptions, the questions and answers of that era, none was more arresting than the use of language: the rise of new expressions. All social movements create new vocabularies, i.e., new words, or old words used anew, but with different meanings. The Black social movement for democratic rights spawned or inspired new tactics and strategies for struggle. But nothing was more telling than language.
The word “Black” replaced the word “Negro,” and Black suddenly became “beautiful” and good. “To be young, gifted and Black” and “I am Black and I am proud” became words and phrases of affirmation. The slogan “Black power” represented a disturbing point of departure from the new lexicon.
At this point, certain people had other ideas about the meaning of the word “Black.” In the conventional White supremacy matrix, Black, especially when associated with power, is pejorative, that is, something negative, ominous, exceedingly bad. Thus, there were other words and terms associated with this movement that gained in some respects a greater notoriety than the word Black standing by itself.
Such a term is “Black militant.” It is largely a creation of the national American media. “Black militant” was a label set up to mean radical extremism, creating an aura of danger, threat, and even terrorism. For a Black political dissident to be singled out as a “Black militant” was to suggest someone who was dangerously crazy.
For a group such as the political party, that is to say the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the meaning takes on even sharper negative connotations. The public mind was fed a gaggle of propaganda by mass media, depicting the Panther Party as a collection of gangsters, and not a political party with a 10-point program that included feeding hungry children, the teaching of history and culture, education programs for prisons, and other social service efforts.
This party was broad-stroked with one critical word: “militant.” This tends to treat with simplicity the very complex question of struggling for freedom within American democracy. Seems like a contraction, and it is! The Black Panther Party, which incidentally never existed in the state of Minnesota, was imaged by mass media when it seized the word “militant.”
One is reminded of a conversation between Alice of Alice in Wonderland and Humpty Dumpty, who declared, “When I use a word, I can make it mean anything I want it to mean,” to which Alice asked quizzically, “But how can you make a word mean so many different things?” “Fairly easily,” said Humpty Dumpty, because “the question is, who is the master of the word?”
Hence, people who understand word power can make words mean whatever they want them to mean. End of discussion. This, as a community, we must come to understand. Despite the great awakening of the 1960s, the Black community remains a people victimized by words, or other people’s definitions of words, and the power behind them.
The tug of war between the African American community and its loyal enemies remains intact. It must forever be kept in mind that words convey images, and image can ultimately determine whether you live or die. Just as the Black freedom struggle fought for and, to a large extent, created a new and positive meaning for Blackness, the opposition fights to give words affecting African Americans a negative spin.
Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name remains the same, it smells just as sweet. Not quite, William. Not if you change the meaning of “rose.” In the hands of the wrong wordsmith, sweet can mean sour.
Words such as “militant,” “radical” and “extremism” can seem perfectly innocent, or at least non-threatening by dictionary definitions. Yet, placed in a given context all three can mean evil or good. A standard Oxford dictionary defines the word “militant” as positive and forceful in action, as resolute, having the courage of one’s convictions; like so many words, militant is neutral in the abstract.
The moral wisdom of Martin Luther King might help us here. It is a lesson that will do well for us to recall. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King expressed some uneasiness and disappointment about being categorized as an “extremist.” But as he thought deeper, he said, “I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.”
And he went on to say, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love… love your enemy, and Amos for justice, let justice roll down like waters, and Paul, for the Christian gospel, ‘I bear in my body the mark of the Lord,’ and Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’”
Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and others like them were all extremists for what they believed. Fast forward to the downside, we have Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964. Goldwater told his admiring conventioneers that “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue, and extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”
Dr. King went on to teach us, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” This is as clear as crystal to me.
There are words in the world that affect the fate of certain people in certain ways. “Extremist,” “radical” and “militant” were used as catchwords to distort and mischaracterize the meaning of the Black liberation struggle in the 1960s. “Black militant” was liberally used by the media to categorize the word “militant” as something distasteful, harmful, or even criminal.
No — the word “militant,” its use and application in the context of Black liberation, must always stand for freedom, for self-definition, for self-determination, for justice, for democracy — and even for love. Voltaire, a great Frenchman, said it best: “Let the word suit the action and the action suit the word.”