Black Lives Matter, Black Power, and the Role of White Allies

Black Lives Matter demonstration in London on July 8, 2016 (Photo: Alisdare Hickson, Flickr).

The Movement for Black Lives has revived many familiar debates, one of which revolves around the question of the role of white people in Black-led movements. One dominant theme is that whites should get their own house in order, so to speak. At Race Forward’s 2016 “Facing Race” conference, writer Roxane Gay told attendees, “I’m done with ally-ship. I’m done with people who allow themselves the distance of ally-ship.” A mere week after Trump had become president-elect, she warned that white people in the US needed to “get their sh*t together.”

The following year, BLM Nashville announced its refusal to take part in a counter-demonstration aimed at a “White Lives Matter” rally in nearby rural Shelbyville and Murfreesboro. This announcement came just two months after the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended with a white man plowing his car through counter protestors, killing one and injuring 19 others. BLM Nashville made clear that dealing with white supremacists in the streets was work for white citizens:

[W]e believe that these rallies are times for white people to step up… In reality, it is both the practice of overt and covert racism that makes these violent and hateful rallies of Klansmen and neo-Nazis possible. It is white America who invited them in, and it is white America who has the responsibility to see them out.”

In providing such direction, the BLM Nashville group offered both instruction and leadership. Their stance was consistent with activists in the BLM Philadelphia chapter, which defended their policy of limiting their meetings to only Black people. In a 2017 statement defending and explaining this policy, the group rejected the notion that “supporting Black liberation” should inherently involve “gain[ing] access” to all of the struggle’s spaces. Instead, they wrote, such support should entail “standing up against white supremacy and racism in all areas, not just in a meeting with Black folks in the hopes that you will get a medal for showing up and being required to do nothing more.” Supporters needed to use their access to privileged spaces to confront racism and xenophobia there: “When was the last time you demanded access for Black people in your corporate boardroom or on your leadership team?” the group posed.

Noting the white liberal backlash this decision gave rise to, Seattle-based journalist Marcus Harrison Green wrote, “It was a situation where black people were actually asking white people for support in the form of trust. Trust to organize and heal, free from prying oversight.” Green concluded that white folks should “start marching, then take further strides” beyond the streets and into their everyday, white lives: “The best way to reach white people, after all, is through other white people.”

Indeed, within left-wing social movement contexts, the notion that white people should organize against racism within white communities has become axiomatic; the idea that Black leadership should dictate where and how white supporters practiced their backing, a truism. How did such an organizing principle – what I refer to as a white-on-white strategy – arise? The answer lies in the history of the Black Power movement. Heterogeneous in ideology, strategy and goals, that movement nonetheless developed a broad consensus around the support of white progressives: it should follow Black leadership and it should be directed at white communities in the knowledge that they hold responsibility for racism.

The Atlanta project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), known for taking SNCC’s organizing tradition into an urban area and advocating Black community control, argued in the spring of 1966 that white activists in the Civil Rights Movement had hypocritically gone “into the black community and attempt[ed] to organize black people while neglecting the organization of their own people’s racist communities.” “How can one clean up someone else’s yard when one’s own yard is untidy?” they asked. “The white people should go into white communities where the whites have created power for the express purpose of denying blacks human dignity and self-determination.”

In their landmark 1967 book, Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton pushed the white-on-white idea further by offering “three different, yet interrelated” roles that white supporters should provide – “educative, organizational, [and] supportive.” They particularly emphasized the importance of White allies taking on a consciousness-raising role: “Across the country, smug white communities show a poverty of awareness, a poverty of humanity, indeed a poverty of ability to act in a civilized manner toward non-Anglo human beings. The white middle-class suburbs need ‘freedom schools’ as badly as the black communities.”

As Black Power groups proliferated in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, many of them reiterated this notion – that the most effective tasks for those whites who sought to support Black-led efforts was to organize other white people against racism. Groups as ideologically diverse as the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, SNCC, the Combahee River Collective and, later, the Committee for a Unified New-Ark all touted this notion. As historian Komozi Woodard has written, “The black awakening….sought progressive white cooperation but not white liberal permission in the fight for equality.” Thus, the white-on-white strategy was not a plea; it was a directive.

Black Power’s advocates weren’t, however, the first to hit upon the need for white Americans to take up the work and the responsibility of racial injustice. At the second convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in 1921, Marcus Garvey declared, “If a change must come, it must not come from Negroes; it must come from the white race, for they are the ones who have brought about this estrangement between the races.” In the early 1960s, veterans like Bayard Rustin and Anne Braden encouraged White individuals to concentrate their efforts in poor white communities in the South, which led to the creation of the Southern Student Organizing Committee, founded in 1964 to try to galvanize White Southern support for SNCC.

However, it was with the advent of Black Power that the strategy moved from peripheral to conventional within the Black freedom movement. The quickness with which such notions about white support took hold in progressive circles was evidenced by the Combahee River Collective, whose iconic 1977 statement made it plain: “Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do.”

So widely understood in some circles as to be axiomatic today, the white-on-white directive has been with us for decades – a legacy of the Black Power movement.

It would be simplistic to understand all of this as mere identity politics, as an insistence on retreating to one’s own corner and attending to one’s own issues. For the creation of a white-on-white imperative – before the CRM, cemented during Black Power, and taken as axiomatic currently – was as much about strategy as ideology.

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Say Burgin

Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the ​educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.​