1964: The Fallout

Charles Marsh: How did you articulate your anger?

Cleveland Sellers: I think we began to talk about it in terms of political terms; but I think that the fall out was to become more curious about the Democratic Party and some of the liberal elements.

CM: So you had to develop an alternative strategy?

CS: That's correct. That's when we began to deal with political reality. We were under the impression that the Dem party was the party that was liberal; party of change; party committed to doing the right thing. It did not happen. We began to work differently.

CM: Did it change your thinking about the interracial element?

CS: That interracial question comes up in so many different directions in so many different ways. We had problems in Oxford; about the first suggestion about white volunteers. The question is: is my life not worth somebody who comes from Harvard and has a father who's a congressman. To what point does the African-American life have value in Mississippi? Very fundamental. It's not: I'm mad at you whitey. What happens is that we live in society in which your life is more valuable than mine, and the only difference is the complexion of my skin.

CM: When you say, I need to work with white people and blacks need to work with blacks; that often gets interpreted as reverse racism?

CS: That really pricked my mind for a long time. Buck Power generated that kind of response.

CM: Can you date that?

CS: Comes about summer of 1966 on the Meredith March in terms of public articulation; but after Atlantic City, some of the organizers began to move to develop new strategies; we didn't feel comfortable with making the MFDP [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] an appendage to the National Democratic Party; since the Democratic Party had kicked them in the butt. And so our researcher Jack Minnis found a little known piece in the statute in Ala, that said you could organize an independent party in a county election; and so Stoke and others go to Lowndes County and organize. So this is not a coalition building organization; now we are fighting for power. Independent power; if we find that there're some groups who agree; then we can coalesce. We started out with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization as opposed to the MFDP; supposed to be an independent political party that dealt with all of the issues. Candidate; offices, registering to vote and the like. Our symbol was the black panther; Bobby and those guys pretend like they don't know the origin of that direction.

King gets in the whole process of trying to get the whole delegation to accept the compromise. SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people really apply a lot of pressure to Dr. King; that wasn't an appropriate decision to make; we had all the moral evidence he could have wanted; the regular delegation; we've got the church bell; the registration; don't talk about no compromise. Everybody now is beginning to talk about power. Because that's what we have to talk about. We didn't have enough power to get our rightful position in the Democratic Party; we knew there was no place in the Republican party. The only chance we had was either that or independent. And so the press found our about the Lowndes County organization and began to talk about it as an anti-Democratic organization; then we got the whole liberal Democratic scene coming down on our heads.

If you listen to some of the initial speeches Dr. King made during the initial stages of the Mississippi Freedom march, he was talking about politics; we need to get some sheriffs; that was the catechism; Ricks and a number of SNCC people said that we need "Freedom Now." But we said we've got one we want to drop; and that was "Black Power." Let's put it out there; we dropped it out in Greenwood, which was where Stokely hung out in the summer of 1964. See Stokely got arrested; and we knew who Stokely was. Ricks dropped it; Stokely just kind of backed it up. Then it caught on. Everybody started running around to get a definition; see that's the name of the game. Talking about schools. Initially we talk about separate but unequal schools, we were talking about having equal resources. We weren't talking about making people sit together necessarily in the same classroom in the same space. When you operate a white school and it has a $1,000 dollar a year budget per student and a black school has $50, something ain't right there. So the definition; we didn't want to desegregate the schools; we wanted to integrate them. We're going to intentionally not givea definition; and everybody went ape over that. [comments]

We thought it was important to begin to understand definitions. We couldn't define by ourselves anything; internally things begin to build.

CM: Is any of that move to Black Power foreshadowed in the floaters-hardliners conflict?

CS: The floaters were existentialists; whatever they did was sufficient to move the struggle forward. The hardliners were more pragmatic; more political; in the sense that practical politicians had to come up strategies. We cannot sit around and talk about the beloved community.

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