In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, Nicole Franklin holds conversations on race that recall Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Summer has many expectations but for this year especially too many calendar events have the freedom fighter in some of us at a crossroads. This summer fails in terms of leisure time for many citizens of the United States. We have a race problem. A massacre occurred at a South Carolina church on June 17, preceding the June 19 celebration of the emancipation of slaves known as Juneteenth; a rash of suspected arsons involving Black churches transpired in advance of the July 4th holiday which already carries a stain on its flag (click here for Democracy Now’s recording of James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is 4th of July?” and the fasting and self-discipline decades ago by a number of incarcerated Californians in a movement known as Black August is now juxtaposed with the August 9 killing of Michael Brown whose death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer prevented him from ever making it to trial.
A generation of African Americans used to enjoy summer months of commemorative events, barbeques and family reunions. Now, a younger protest-ready population is shouting that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Coming up on a year of marching and same as it always brings a possible new agenda in the race conversation. An action plan for self-defense, as armed individuals within our second amendment rights, is being tossed around the Twittersphere. And when the hashtag #WeWillShootBack appears to tens of thousands on social media as a shareable course of action, the days of marching with hope for a solution may soon be over.
“I heard there was a shooting at a Church—a young white shooter 21 years old, with one of the victims being Rev. Pinckney,” said 28-year-old Taurean “Sankofa” Brown. “We’re fraternity brothers,” Brown says in addition to being “distraught” and “angry” it was exceptionally frustrating to hear others state, “I can’t believe this is happening in 2015.”
On that fateful night in June a murderer of nine worshipping parishioners of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC took innocence, refuge and peace of mind away from what many African Americans say is the last place they had to themselves: the Church.
The news spread quickly—especially on Twitter which now drives the news cycle. And upon hearing about the crime, Brown, a North Carolinian community organizer with more than 40,000 Twitter followers, launched the hashtag #WeWillShootBack.
Brown is a much sought-after speaker on Black masculinity, social justice, street violence and the relationship of Black masculinity to street violence. The man I talked to was not the “angry Black man” some would suspect from his #WeWillShootBack Twitter profile. Instead, he calls himself a student of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and cites a number of historical references from slave revolts to homesteaders surviving the Jim Crow South, that support the notion that for African Americans there has always been the right to self-defense. “#WeWillShootBack was not a call to kill all White people,” says Brown. He feels it is definitely time for a “By any means necessary” show of force. He told me after the tragic night in Charleston, “I knew what was coming next. Every time it plays out in the same way: Be forgiving. Calm down. Oh, Black people are complaining.”
Pan-African scholar and scholar of Malcolm X Patrick Delices observed, “The families [of the Charleston 9] are calling for forgiveness. They did lose loved ones. What’s interesting is with the sentencing of the Boston bomber, I have yet to hear many offers of forgiveness to him.” And, according to Prof. Delices, no one made an expectation for the Boston marathon victims to forgive. He makes a strong distinction here between Black and White. “We [African-Americans] tend to be too loving, even to our own detriment. Even though the Charleston families are calling for forgiveness, we have to go through hula hoops to have S. Carolina take care of Confederate Flag, and the American Flag is equally a sign of racism as well.”
After years of commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King in January, our comfort-ability with employing non-violence to stomp out racism seems now a part of the nation’s DNA. I wanted to make sure I understood all aspects of what “By Any Means Necessary” infers. I know not to caption the go-to photographic image of Malcolm X at the window with rifle-at-the-ready with the phrase. He is not documented as saying these words in this context. There are more to Malcolm’s speeches, his international travel and experiences, which both Brown and Delices agree.
I asked Delices what Malcolm would say about Black America’s current situation. “Our humanity is being compromised,” says Delices. “Malcolm would say that we’re dealing with a group of people in their system—the system that deems us inferior and non-human and non-beings. Black women and Black men being killed by the agency that’s directly supposed to protect us, but historically has been killing us.”
And in the case of taking up arms?
Delices says, “Marching does not protect us. And we keep marching as if marching alone is a solution and marching has yet to solve our problem.”
“We are too loving,” says Brown. “If the President got on TV and said the U.S. approach for ISIS is from a nonviolent perspective, people would think he lost his mind.”
Brown would rather we keep a clear focus when it comes to the “respectability politics” of Reverend King. “MLK kept armed security. And, in the case of Gandhi, India was not exclusively nonviolent. Very few oppressed populations have not responded with self-defense. Not one has provided a solution to keep Black people safe from domestic terrorism. I haven’t heard one yet.”
With #WeWillShootBack going viral, Brown says he is a responsible gun owner who believes “it’s not about the shooting part.” Educating people that they have both the American and human right to defend themselves is the conversation he wants to have. “I believe in the right to self-preservation. Armed patrols. That’s one way. But if you’re walking down the street and a random white person is terrorizing you with a gun, there’s training to go against that. We need to be armed, willing to defend ourselves. There’s an attempt to prey on Black people who are not able to respond with force, but forgiveness.”
Brown states that he has never believed in nonviolence as a principle to apply to all situations, but instead “I believe in it as a tactic.”
For more of an MLK perspective, I turned to Dr. M. William Howard, Jr., renown pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, NJ who acknowledges that members of the nine Charleston families have a certain experience of this tragedy the rest of us may not. “You and I and the people who care about the lot of African-American people in the U.S. have a certain grief, anger, threat and insecurity that grow out of these incidents—the same way we feel for our black sons and nephews on the street at night until they arrive safely back home.”
Howard has spent decades working with international humanitarian causes and has served as the Moderator of the Programme to Combat Racism of the World Council of Churches. He notes that there is both the personal and the public response to the confrontation that African Americans must consider.
“If somebody comes to your house, threatens your family and they have an Uzi, you shoot the crap out of them,” says Dr. Howard. “I’m going to take a risk and say Dr. King would’ve had the wherewithal to do so as well.” It is this private response that Howard says Dr. King took to an even larger scale. “Dr. King was on a mission to have us confront the sickness of America such as bigotry, sexism and homophobia….You’re going to have those diseases.”
Howard reflects on the #WeWillShootBack Twitter phenomenon and notes that as someone who grew up in southern Georgia, he is “hearing all of this through 69-year-old ears.” He agrees with Brown that even during the worst days of segregation “it is delusional to think Black people took abuse and wallowed. There were Black people in the rural south who shot back at white supremacists with shotguns.” But he finds such a social media outcry indicating taking up arms to be a bit “immature.” Howard says, “The image of Malcolm at the window is the personal response of a man protecting his home. But publicly you don’t tell the people ‘I’m waiting for you and I’m armed.’ You don’t publicize on Twitter that’s what you’re going to do. If you say, dress up in your three-piece suit, nobody knows you’re doing that.”
Brown is quick to reply to those who say his hashtag implies an “excuse to kill us more.” His response: “…as if we’re not being killed already. The marching and the protesting…Black youth are frustrated with the lack of response. Malcolm X used whatever means necessary to defend humanity to liberate ourselves by not specifying violence, but instead invoking a military solution as a necessary component and just as necessary as education and economics.”
Malcolm X expert Delices says, “He saw that the U.S. had a marshal plan for European countries, but not for Blacks in the U.S. who are suffering culturally as well.”
“Malcolm X was a plain talker,” says Dr. Howard. “But Dr. King inspired far more people to engage.” Yet, Howard feels if African Americans have set out to abolish bigotry there is still Malcolm X’s vision for African Americans investing in their own communities.
Malcolm X scholar Delices says African Americans implementing their own sovereign state of affairs is often brought up in these intellectual discussions, but little has been done to create sustainable institutions. “We need to solve our problems: Highest unemployment, black male and female incarceration, the highest rates of HIV/AIDS, highest rates of suicide, drug addiction, alcohol abuse….We need to look within and look at what systems we need to create.”
To this point Dr. Howard says future marches must have a critical theory in place. “We need to have a sober dialogue about what this is. What is this thing called America?” Dr. Howard indicates talk of solutions may be more romantic than realistic. “We must eat well, get our rest, and fill our minds with critical knowledge—a wholesome sense of who we are as a people. This is our legacy. We have to fight. We’re going to advance and retreat.”
Delices noted that even though people often point out the differences in Malcolm and Martin, both men were anti-poverty and took a global approach to nation building. All three men interviewed seemed to expressed these sentiments first and foremost. I spoke with each of the three men separately and each gave tremendous insight informed by a wealth of personal and professional experience. If I were to design a modern-day Malcolm vs. Martin pertaining to the summer of 2015, I would compile the intergenerational points of view crafted from my interviews with the impassioned activist Taurean “Sankofa” Brown and the senior man of the cloth who witnessed the civil rights movement first-hand, Dr. Bill Howard. Though out of context from real responses to my questions, their words may shape a conversation resembling something like this.
Taurean “Sankofa” Brown: Everybody’s role is not necessarily to pick up a gun and fight. But don’t discount nor validate those who are willing to do so.
Dr. M. William Howard, Jr.: As many guns as we may have, and the racist state in which we live, we would simply be outgunned and overwhelmed–giving the people who are inclined to assault us because we are utterly antagonistic to the state a license to come after us.
Brown: There’s the reform side of pushing issues to voting. I don’t think any of those things will free the world of racism or oppression. I just don’t see it happening.
Howard: Stop looking for the end of racism, it’s a waste of time. And this is not cynicism.
Brown: I don’t have any faith in American system whatsoever. The government is structured to produce structural systemic racism and sexism. We need a full-scale revolution to build a new society. I believe the revolution is our only solution for our condition as it now exists.
Howard: If you’re under assault, you don’t announce you’re going to do it, you just do it. When you announce you’re going to respond to a public event by shooting back you’re really inviting a certain kind of assault that you may not be able to withstand…these are wolf tickets. It’s not advancing the cause of Black people in America. How many times did Malcolm take up arms against White people? In the end, he wasn’t even armed enough to ward off his own people. We can’t take that rhetoric and make real change with it.
Brown: We went through every emotion we can go through. I’m an anti-Capitalist. We don’t have freedom of choice. Educating the people is what’s really going on. White supremacy is not just the KKK, nigger, and the confederate flag.
Howard: Problem of the Black man in America is we have nowhere to go. That is the existential and bitter pill we have to swallow.
Brown: Political education is the top priority. Economically empowered, resources to ourselves, organizing themselves….We have to start thinking about what we want society to look like. Dream about how we want future generations to live in the world.
Howard: If a deacon were armed in a Church and resorted to self-defense. I don’t think anyone would be inclined to attack the deacon. If you’re prepared to shoot back, the revolution would not be on Twitter.