When did the “Civil Rights Movement” morph into the “Black Power Era” — or is that a false dichotomy. The best testimony on that question comes from those who participated in the process – people like Karen Spellman, an early activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and currently co-director of the Black Power Chronicles.
By Dr. Marsha Adebayo
“We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nuthin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”
Karen Spellman was present at the inception of the Black Power movement. Impacted by the ferocity of state violence in the South against Africans in America, she dedicated herself at a young age to fighting segregation and white supremacy. Born in San Antonio, Texas, Karen grew up on several HBCU campuses where her father taught sociology, including Delaware State College, Langston University Oklahoma and Bennett College in Greensboro, NC. While living in Greensboro, at the age of 13, she became involved in the civil rights movement and served as president of the Greensboro, N.C. NAACP Youth Chapter. As a youth activist in Greensboro, she attended mass meetings, participated in protest marches and sat-in at public accommodations. She had the opportunity to meet with Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King. Her father, Dr. Edwin Edmonds, was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In 1964, she received her BA from Howard University where she became active in NAG (Non-Violent Action Group,) the campus affiliate of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). After graduation, she worked in the DC poverty program, the United Planning Organization, during the day and in the evening volunteered for SNCC and was arrested for sitting in at the Justice Department with a group of SNCC organizers.
“Spellman developed the concept for the Black Power Chronicles for the SNCC Legacy Board of Directors.”
In 1966, she participated in the “Meredith March against Fear” in Mississippi. Later she moved to Atlanta, Ga. to work full-time with SNCC as the Research Director for the national office. In 1968 she left SNCC and became director of the Southern Education Program, a Ford Foundation-funded non-profit that recruited teachers for HBCUs. She is the author of “Where Have All the Farm Workers Gone?” The Statistical Animalization of the Farm Worker Population by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
- 1985, Karen formed her own special events production company in Washington, DC. 2010, Karen produced the SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference. Following the conference a group of SNCC Veterans founded the SNCC Legacy Project where she served as the Secretary of the Board until 2015.
In the spring of 2015 Spellman developed the concept for the Black Power Chronicles for the SNCC Legacy Board of Directors as a grassroots organizing effort. She and Courtland Cox, Chair of the SNCC Legacy Board, serve as the Co-Directors of the Black Power Chronicles.
Karen is currently organizing a national conference of Black power veterans in Atlanta, GA in 2018.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Does the Black Power Chronicles come out of the SNCC Legacy Project?
Karen Spellman: Yes, the Black Power Chronicles (BPC) is a new effort of the SNCC Legacy Project (SNP). The BPC commemorates the 50th anniversary of the call for Black Power by Mukasa Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael on June 16, 1966, during the James Meredith “March Against Fear” in Greenwood, Mississippi. It was conceived as a two-year, collaborative effort led by Black Power veterans and social justice activists that will take place in local communities around the country.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Why was there a need to develop the Black Power Chronicles?
Karen Spellman: We recognized a need to tell the accurate story of the impact of Black Power movement in communities of color in the US and internationally. There were a number of depictions of the Black Power movement that characterized it negatively. It was called by some critics the “bad part of the civil rights movement.” Some historians called the Black Power Movement the “post civil rights era” refusing to use the term Black Power Movement because for them, it held a negative connotation. However, many of the young social justice activists have drawn strength and inspiration from what they have heard about the Black Power Movement and have asked veterans to give them more insight into the Movement. We were motivated by the interest of social justice activists as well as the need to set the record straight by creating a project that would document the local history of Black Power in Black communities.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: SNCC Workers raised the call for Black Power on June 16, 1966. What were the material conditions that gave rise to this power expression?
Karen Spellman: The call came during the James Meredith’s March against Fear “in Mississippi. Meredith organized a march route from Memphis to Jackson to encourage Black communities to engage in greater voter registration and social justice actions. This demonstration came about after the murders of three civil rights activists, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. During the march, Meredith was ambushed along the Mississippi highway. Rather than submit to fear he called for the civil rights community to continue the march. Notables such as Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., members of CORE, SCLC, SNCC and the Urban League came to Mississippi. Eventually, SNCC and SCLC took up the leadership mantle. There was a national call for volunteers to join the March. I traveled from Washington with other volunteers and joined the March in Canton, Mississippi.
- March was, of course, never welcomed in the State of Mississippi and there was the constant threat of violence by the KKK and other white supremacist groups. state of Mississippi‘s law enforcement groups felt that the March was a disruption of their concept of law and order that meant continuing black oppression. y refused to provide protection and in fact were harassing the demonstrators..
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: SNCC eventually called for Black Power during the March.
Karen Spellman: When the March reached Greenwood, Mississippi, law enforcement decided to jail Stokey Carmichael (later called Kwame Ture) for no apparent reason except that he was providing leadership to the demonstration. This angered demonstrators who finally were able to gain his release within one day. Carmichael upon release from jail met demonstrators at a campsite for the March where he delivered his famous call for Black Power. Carmichael climbed upon the back of a flatbed truck where he said:
“This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested–and I ain’t going to jail no more!” “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nuthin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”
The crowd started chanting: “Black Power” in unison. At that point, the concept of Black Power became the leading cry for organizing in the Black community.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Thank you.
From her vantage point in SNCC, Karen Spellman saw the birth of the modern Black Power Movement. She says “most Black people equated the concept of Black power with Black pride, Black consciousness, self-determination, controlling our own destinies and an end to repression.” Whites and conservative Blacks generally viewed the movement negatively, “as a direct challenge to white authority and the status quo.”
“We feel an imperative to document and interpret Black Power so that contemporary social justice activists and those of future generations can draw from its lessons.“
Part I of the Karen Spellman interview discussed the need for those involved in the Black Power Movement to tell their stories in their own voices. Not confident that corporate or white academic “experts” could provide the contextual and analytical framework for an analysis of the Black Power Movement, Karen is providing leadership through the SNCC Legacy Project and the Black Power Chronicles to archive, provide oral history and analysis of this important period of history.
The community is invited to provide pictures, artifacts, and share memories of their involvement in the Black Power Movement. Karen is currently organizing a national conference of Black power veterans scheduled for Atlanta, GA in 2018.
Karen Spellman was at the center of the Black Power Movement. Impacted by unrelenting white supremacist violence against Africans in America in the South, she dedicated herself at a young age to fighting segregation and white supremacy. While living in Greensboro, at the age of 13, she became involved in the civil rights movement and served as president of the Greensboro, N.C. NAACP Youth Chapter. As a youth activist in Greensboro, she attended mass meetings, participated in protest marches and sat- in at public accommodations and had the opportunity to meet Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King.
“The SNCC Legacy Project and the Black Power Chronicles archive, provide oral history and analysis of this important period of history.“
After graduating from Howard University, she worked in the DC poverty program, during the day and in the evening volunteered for SNCC. Karen was arrested for sitting in at the Justice Department with a group of SNCC organizers.
In 1966, she participated in the “Meredith March against Fear” in Mississippi. She moved to Atlanta, Ga. to work full-time with SNCC as the Research Director for the national office. In 1968, she left SNCC and became director of the Southern Education Program, a Ford Foundation-funded non-profit that recruited teachers for HBCUs. Karen is the author of: “Where Have All the Farm Workers Gone?” The Statistical Animalization of the Farm Worker Population by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: What was the national response to the call for Black Power?
Karen Spellman: There were two different ways that the nation interpreted that call for Black Power. White Americans and conservative blacks considered the call a direct challenge to white authority and the status quo. However, most Black people heard the Black Power slogan as a call to action to address the injustices and racism that existed within America and its institutions. The press immediately vilified Carmichael and the movement by defining the call as “anti-white” and “pro-violence” against white America. Black people internalized the call in an entirely different way. Most Black people equated the concept of Black power with Black pride, Black consciousness, self-determination, controlling our own destinies and an end to repression.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: After Meredith was shot, were you concerned about your personal safety?
Karen Spellman: Not at all! I was 22 years old and I was a veteran of the civil rights movement. I had been involved in picket lines and demonstrations since I was in Junior High School and I lived in Greensboro, NC where the community was fully engaged in desegregating public facilities in 1956. I was already a veteran of the civil rights movement by the time I was 22 years old.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Historians have noted the differences between Carmichael’s call for Black Power and King’s reluctance to actually embrace that call. What is your perspective on this issue?
Karen Spellman: It is important for readers to know that there was a close personal relationship between Carmichael and King. In fact, King, did not pull out when other organizations did. King continued to work on the Meredith March. The differences between Carmichael and King were not as wide as historians have tried to describe it. A personal story: Later, in Atlanta in the fall of 1966, after church one Sunday, King invited Stokely and other SNCC folks to his house for dinner to talk about the meaning of Black Power. The reality is that SNCC and SCLC workers had close personal and political relationships. We had mutual respect for each others’ work and frequently collaborated on demonstrations and other actions that challenged segregation.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: What is the ultimate goal of the Black Power Chronicles
Karen Spellman: Fifty years later, we understand that the story has not been told accurately. Fifty years later, we still live with the misinterpretation of the Black power movement. The SNCC legacy Project realized that if the history is to be told accurately, it must be told by those who made it. Our mission is to interpret our history for future generations. We feel an imperative to document and interpret Black Power so that contemporary social justice activists and those of future generations can draw from its lessons.
“The reality is that SNCC and SCLC workers had close personal and political relationships.”
In 2016 the SNCC Legacy Project launched the Black Power Chronicles as a grassroots community- based inter-generational, all -volunteer program , targeting six cities across the country, including Washington, DC, Atlanta GA, Jackson MS Oakland, CA and three cities in Texas: Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. All of these locations have rich histories of working within the civil rights and Black Power movement.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: After working for one year on the project, what are some of your accomplishments?
Karen Spellman: We have been able to galvanize interest in re-telling the Black Power story from the inside out. We have been able to build collaborations between important institutions in these local communities. For example, in Washington, DC, the DC Black Power Chronicles committee is working collaboratively with the Afro-American History Department at Howard University and with the student-led Kwame Ture Society at Howard. We also have a partnership with the University of the District of Columbia’s Office of Cable TV which has agreed to video tape up to 25 oral histories of Black Power activists.
In addition, the African-American Civil War Museum, under the leadership of former SNCC worker Dr. Frank Smith, has collaborated closely by providing meeting space and audio-visual production support.
We are not only documenting SNCC Black Power veterans but also Black Power activists from other movements, such as, the Black Panther Party, the Pan-Africanist Movement, the African Liberation Day Movement, CORE and the Student Organization for Black Unity (SOBU.) The products that we hope to produce include a Black Power repository and archive; a collection of oral histories; a Black Arts movement exhibit; a Black Power Chronology and an Internet-based educational platform that will feature all of the material created and collected. We are in the process of organizing a national conference of Black power veterans in Atlanta, GA in 2018.
We invite all Black Power veterans to join our effort and to create committees in their local communities.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Thank you.
Dr. Marsha Adebayo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha’s successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet and serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com. She was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2017.