Remembering Richard Carlson’s Courageous Voice for Racial Righteousness

By Covenant Newswire

CHICAGO, IL (August 6, 2013) – Since his passing on July 27, friends and colleagues of Richard Carlson are remembering him as a wise pastor and professor who had a heart of encouragement. But Carlson also possessed a prophetic voice that for more than four decades called the Evangelical Covenant Church to pursue justice and racial righteousness. It was a voice that spoke without equivocation in a Covenant Companion article published in August 1968.

Richard W. Carlson, 1968

Richard W. Carlson, 1968

That year cities smoldered from fires that erupted across the United States following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 and Bobby Kennedy on June 6. Mistrust and fear between the races threatened to tear the country even further apart.

The African American community reeled from the loss of its most visible civil rights leaders. And words such as “Black Power,” popularized by militant activists, added to fear among whites. In his article, titled “Second Thoughts on Black Power,” Carlson argued that the words should not be feared but understood and even embraced by the “white church” as it pursued its call to justice and reconciliation.

Carlson wrote, “When the black man demands that he be respected as a living man and not as a child or an economic surplus, he challenges every American and especially the Christian to assert his authenticity. He challenges the church to be aware of her own heritage, to be aware that she is a living body and not an institution, to proclaim that walls of hostility and discrimination be broken down.”

He had seen the hostility up close. At the time, Carlson served as pastor of Douglas Park Covenant Church in Chicago, located less than two miles from the North Lawndale apartment Dr. King occupied in 1966 to protest housing segregation. During a march in the city that year, King was met by an angry white mob and hit in the head by a large rock.

The experience prompted King to declare, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

In his Companion essay two years later, Carlson confessed, “An article written by a white man on the phenomenon of Black Power must from the outset be qualified. For Black Power demands that the black man shall determine who he is and what he shall do.” But, with humility and candor, Carlson waded into those controversial waters anyway, “because Black Power is an issue which affects our whole nation and its future.”

His article, its dated references notwithstanding, feels just as relevant today as it did 45 years ago. It is reprinted below as it first appeared.

Second Thoughts on Black Power

By Richard W. Carlson

There was a time when black and white together could walk nonviolently down a street hand in hand singing “We Shall Overcome.” But some feel that the negro revolution in this country has definitely turned a corner to a side street too narrow for white presence.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in the “Black Power” salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. (Photo: Wikipedia)

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in the “Black Power” salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The change happened through a series of events. There seemed to be much progress in race relations beginning with the 1954 Supreme Court decision and continuing through the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, the 1964 civil rights law, and Selma ’65. But now Martin Luther King Jr. is dead. His work in Chicago in 1966 only demonstrated that white racism is vicious and bitter. His demands at the Chicago “summit meeting” were the same voiced by the Chicago commission on race relations in 1919. School integration has been agonizingly slow. Residential segregation has increased. The gap between the medium income of black and white families has widened, and may black people feel that there has been no real progress towards racial justice in America.

Out of the rubble of broken hopes and riot-torn ghettos has come the cry of “Black Power.” A cry that has been in the hearts of negro citizens throughout the history of slavery and segregation in America,” “Black Power” signifies shifts from accommodation to conflict, protest to political mobilization, and integration to self-assertion.

An article written by a white man on the phenomenon of Black Power must from the outset be qualified. For Black Power demands that the black man shall determine who he is and what he shall do. But, as some of the new negro leaders urge, the white man must address his own community because Black Power is an issue which affects our whole nation and its future.

The historical sources of Black Power are many. A context has been provided by a great migration of Negroes to urban areas beginning in the early 1900s and continuing today. Divorced from a subculture of slavery in the rural South, the urban Negro sought new roots in the city. But two world wars widened his vision. He saw Negroes in other nations treated as equals. He fought for a country which offered him second-class citizenship. He saw the rise of African nations. He read of a changing legal atmosphere and of scientific studies that showed racial inferiority to be a myth. He heard W.E.B. Du Bois reject the accommodation of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey call for a movement back to Africa. The Black Muslim movement glorified blackness and called for wrath against all white devils. The civil rights movement brought Negroes together in a show of non-violent force. Malcolm X was a man of the masses who spoke a language they could understand, calling for black pride and the rejection of white colonialism.

The words, “Black Power,” were finally articulated by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of New York City in a speech at Howard University in the spring of 1966. They were quickly taken up by Stokely Carmichael and chanted by negro militants into the television sets of all America. What they meant no one knew. But many, if not most, feared—and still fear.

What Black Power means now is still not clear. Generally it is an umbrella under which all black men can come out of the rain. And under the umbrella blacks espouse several varying ideas. Some see Black Power as a class revolution, a unity of the poor against the wealthy. For others Black Power means a cultural awakening, a psychological “yes” to blackness and distant African heritage. Others, equating Black Power with black nationalism, rebel against the unique colonialism, or institutional racism, that white American society has imposed on Negroes. Black Power may also mean green power, a demand that black money remain in the ghetto, that black business become strong, that Negroes cease being victims of a welfare system which encouraged dependency. Finally, others see Black Power as political, a power that enables the Negro to make his own decisions.

Underlying all the definitions of Black Power are some definite themes. First there is a recognition of Negroes that powerlessness breeds a race of beggars. No one can give someone else power; it has to be seized, won, or purchased at a price. Black Power is “black people taking care of business—the business of and for black people.” It is standing alone until one is able to stand next to another—with power, with force, with mutual respect. Black Power refuses to enter any coalitions until blacks can enter with power. Blacks now do not assume that what is good for White America is automatically good for blacks. The new Negroes want to elect their politicians apart from party machinery, without compromise, with proper representation and a share of the control of politics. Blacks are not happy simply with black visibility in important positions. They want to know that the positions mean something in terms of control of their own destiny.

Black Power also means that every black man is a man. He does not question his worth as a human being, he does not submit to the white pressure to become like whites, he does not see himself as the child in an adult white society. He is a man, and he throws the hair straightener into the garbage of an emasculated past.

The black man wants to control his segregated black ghetto schools. He wants to be his own landlord and have done with slumlords. He forms tenant unions, cooperatives. He seeks to patronize black business. He wants jobs without discrimination and loans at a fair rate of interest. He is a man.

Therefore, he is opposed to integration. He does not want to be assimilated. Communities are integrated, not individuals. He will wait until the black community has power before he will talk integration. As a member of a group that has been oppressed, he seeks group power. He knows now that Negroes do not need the presence of white people either to give them worth or to learn. He feels that the white middle class itself is almost bankrupt of human values, and he knows that most talk of integration has blindly assumed that there is nothing of value in the negro community.

The new Negro, the man of Black Power, seeks a new pluralism in our country. He is demanding that he be allowed to develop on his own without either outside “help” or outside interference. He is valuable in and of himself. And he is at one with his people and his heritage. He is proud of his color and is seeking all the power he can get.

There are, however, in the midst of the strong appeals of Black Power to Negroes, some disturbing questions. How much of the language is only the language of romantic anarchism shared with the New Left? How many concrete programs are proposed in the violent speeches of Black Power advocates? If Black Power is to last, there must be a focus on clarity and planning rather than on revolutionary purity. Some white cooperation or money will still be needed, especially if the territorial base for Black Power will be, as it must be, the urban ghetto. And can the emotional fervor, the cultural discovery, be maintained if style is more emphasized than substance, if the new Afro-American culture is carried mainly by young males? Must not this therapeutic progress be matched by comparable political achievements?

Black Power faces the danger of self-isolation, the dilemma of trying to compete politically with some white and cooperating with others. Also uncertain are the possibilities of obtaining total negro support and maintaining an effective leadership in such a restless context of the ghetto.

The disturbing white question is, “Where will it end?” as the vision of racial war looms over suburbia. And it is a white question, because the white response to Black Power will much determine its answer.

In spite of the questions raised above about the effectiveness of Black Power for the betterment of black life, the new Negro in his search for a just and free America is championing the cause of white America no less than his own. Or as the black man cries out against injustice and exploitation, as the black man demands that one’s life ought to make sense in this world, he presents to American society a vision of a nation that should be, and can be, great.

When the black man demands that ghetto education fit the needs of the people, he challenges the whole conservative educational system and makes possible creative changes in urban learning procedure.

When the black man demands a representatively powerful share in political decision-making and seeks to unite his community behind that demand, he calls for all Americans to be participants in the political process.

When the black man rejects the welfare system of relief and amelioration and demands instead rehabilitation and re-creation, he calls on all Americans to be dissatisfied with stop-gap measures and to seek a radical meeting of social problems.

When the black man demands that he be respected as a living man and not as a child or an economic surplus, he challenges every American and especially the Christian to assert his authenticity. He challenges the church to be aware of her own heritage, to be aware that she is a living body and not an institution, to proclaim that walls of hostility and discrimination be broken down.

Potentially Black Power may thus be the most hopeful instrument to be used against ultimate racial segregation. But much depends on white response, particularly the response of the white church.

Shook by a conscious or unconscious guilt, we, the white church, might simply be frightened into inactivity or we might repent and act. If we do act, the worst approach for us is to continue to ask how we can help the Negro and what we can do for him. To do so would indicate that we still see black men as children, as unfortunates, as welfare cases, as guilt-relieving objects. We should not even personally seek out blacks to help us “understand how they feel.” If such encounters are to occur, let them be on black initiative.

If we do want to encourage Black Power directly, we can provide financial backing to black capitalism but with no strings attached and with no expectation of great thanks.

However, our central responsibility is to the white community. Blacks have little access to it. There our call as Christians is to exercise “church power” under Jesus Christ as lord. We are to insist that the church be involved politically in the process of civilizing the white community. Testifying that Christ reigns over culture, we are to seek to change the white power structures and institutions whenever they threaten the integrity of any human being.

We are further to discard our attachment to active affability and “pop koinonia” and deal directly and honestly with conflict in our midst and in our whole society. While the Kerner Commission identified white racism as the primary cause of civil disorders, the report gave no suggestion for dealing with it. Surely the church has the resources and opportunities to meet the racist on his own ground, which he usually believes is either biblical, scientific, natural, democratic, or expedient. To confront a white Christian racist with the Word of God in Jesus Christ is possibly not as glorious or exciting as it is to provide canned goods for negro riot victims, but it is more dangerous—and crucial.

If the church does not respond affirmatively, responsibly, and actively to the phenomenon of Black Power, the consequences for our nation will be grave. If the black man is continually frustrated by the white world around him, he may fall into complete hopelessness, cynicism, and despair. If the racist continues by personal or institutional pressure to debase black men, he will fall into the hell of ultimately debasing himself. Walls between men will become so imposing, hatreds of men so intense, and frustrations of men so feverish, that violence will rule the land. And this “government of the people” may well perish from the earth.

Reprinted from The Covenant Companion, Aug. 1, 1968

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