What is Black Power? The answer to this question is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1967. Racial tension in America and the fight for basic civil liberties of not just blacks, but an array of diverse groups is again on the rise. Black Power activists are often considered reverse racists, militant, violent and anarchist. In truth black militants are unafraid to hold accountable the current unbalanced power system in our country that oppresses anyone who is not white. As James Baldwin so eloquently put it in the Raoul Peck film I'm Not Your Negro, "white is synonymous with power."
Civil rights icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers are a few of the many black leaders who gave their lives to pave the way to socio-economic empowerment and freedom from racism. The black American has paid a million times over for the economic prosperity of America and should not have to ask for it — it's our right.
John B. Smith, Vietnam veteran, co-founder and key organizer of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike and black community empowerment organization The Invaders, will be in our community beginning Wednesday, April 5, to talk about his 50-plus years of service to obtain black civil liberties, community empowerment and economic justice reform.
In the late '60s, The Invaders (John B. Smith, Charles "Cab" Cabbage, Colby Smith and Edwina Hartwell) formed the Black Organizing Project (BOP) whose mission was to galvanize the black community by creating a coalition of business owners, workers, students, Vietnam vets, and college grads to empower the working poor. The plight of Memphis' sanitation workers caught national attention when two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed on the job. Their working conditions were unfair and unsafe and, as Smith puts it, for "reasons no one can explain," their deaths raptured Memphis up in a whirlwind of controversy when the workers decided to strike.
Eventually Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called in to Memphis to settle things down. However, after speaking with young radicals, Dr. King understood this appointment was destined and the burden of Memphis' sanitation workers would help him launch The Poor People's Campaign — the fight for economic justice in America. On March 28, 1968, Dr. King marched with The Invaders in a protest that was brutally disbanded by the police. On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, Dr. King met with The Invaders to strategize The Poor People's Campaign, which ended up being the last time Smith saw Dr. King alive. "I went back to my room, and turned on my TV, and watched the headline roll across the screen. Dr. King had been killed. Numbness completely took over me, there was nothing to say. The loss of the greatest black leader left the people stranded," says Smith. Although he realized the likelihood of Dr. King's assassination was imminent, Smith says, "we just didn't believe it would happen."
Today Smith, along with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, is focused on laying to rest victims of lynching in 13 Southern states, though the whole U.S. is stained with the blood and ashes of blacks who were lynched. Participants in this project (on their own dime, mind you) will arrive at EJI headquarters, pick up jars labeled with the victim's name and receive an address to one of 400 sites where a lifeless body hung or lay. Participants will then gather soil from that place. A cement wall made from the soil will be used to erect a memorial to commemorate the lives of those whose stories have often been concealed. 2019 will mark the 400th year after African-Americans began arriving in North America as slaves, hence the title: The 400 project.
Smith also travels the country, encouraging young people to be responsible activists of their future, saying: "I have so much faith in young people. They are smarter than we were, they also have more technology than we have. They have the gift and power of social media to mobilize, to get the same message out to 300-400 people (which now takes minutes) would take us months. I ask them what kind of world do you want to see? You have to care enough about it to get involved. "
I hope to see you at one of his events, Colorado Springs. How many more opportunities will we have to sit with iconic leaders who fought during the Civil Rights Movement?